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The sea, the man, and the ship: Weather 101

by Daria Blackwell

Somewhere off the Northeast coast

Among the myriad skills that we as sailors need to acquire is a keen understanding of weather patterns and their significance to our comfort and safety at sea. Now as coastal cruisers, we don't usually think of ourselves as being significantly at risk because we are usually within easy reach of safe harbor before the really nasty stuff arrives. But as many offshore sailors have said, "it's not the ocean I'm concerned about, it's the landfall," and as you may have noticed, coastal cruisers are always dealing with land masses, whether leaving a harbor, or navigating a stretch of coast, or entering an unknown bay. Add to that the opportunity for an overlay of "interesting weather" and things can get "interestinger and interestinger" mighty fast.

Take the time we were on our way for a short sail across the Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay. Piece of cake, we'd done it many times, could do it in our sleep. But this time, a squall worthy of the worst accounts came out of nowhere - even NOAA was caught off guard. We saw the sky turn dark on the horizon then acquire a greenish tinge. I had always heard that "greenish tinge" is bad from people in the midwest who are used to tornados appearing with some frequency. This was not looking good.

I ran below to get our lifejackets, tethers, and jacklines, as well as foul weather gear. We got everything deployed in record time, Alex stayed at the helm, started the engine, and furled the genoa. I went forward to drop the main. Just as I clipped in and released the halyard the squall hit. Giant raindrops started and by the time I got the sail down and got a sail tie on, we were hit with a maelstrom that I've never seen before or since. The seas were whipped into giant swaths of flying foam, the rain was blowing sideways and with such force that it felt like metal pellets on my face - luckily, the only exposed area. Then it started to hail. Small pellets, but ouch! I could not see Alex at the helm nor could he see me at the mast. We had to believe that the other was still there. The boat was pounding in the surf like a bucking bronco and visibility was nil around us. I remember thinking, "At least there were no boats around us and we were well clear of the harbor entrance when it hit." I was hanging onto the mast with both arms trying not to go overboard.

Then it was gone. As if the power washer had been shut off by a master hand in the sky. It couldn't have lasted more than 10 minutes, but it all seemed to happen in slow motion - that is until it stopped, which was instantaneous. In the instant it cleared, we crashed down a wave within a couple of feet of another boat. Luckily, our boat was nimble and Alex steered clear, but the guy on the other boat was having serious problems. He had been out single handing and never prepared. His sails were tattered and flailing uncontrollably, he was desperately hanging onto the helm, with no life jacket on, no foul weather gear, soaked to the bone and shaking. And there were other boats all around us, like this storm had scooped us all up to play together in one little area. Miraculously, we didn't find each other out there.

Being a trained weather spotter, I called the National Weather Service as soon as I collected myself. About 5 minutes after we had called it in to weather station at Upton NY, we heard the first NOAA warning on the radio. They had seen it form on Doppler radar but had not known its intensity. We had clocked 50+ MPH winds, driving rain, and some hail. There were mayday calls coming in on the radio now from ports down the Sound. We were counting our blessings.

Afterwards, we examined everything we did in detail to see what we could have done differently to increase our safety margin. We concluded that we did just the right things. We prepared quickly; we cared first for our lives, then for our boat. We did not panic, and we did not overreact. We thought about the sequence and asked ourselves if we should have dropped the sails before getting the safety gear, but we are still confident of our decision. If the storm had hit while I was dropping the main without life jacket and harness, I may have gone overboard and drowned.

So here was a test of our courage, our stamina and our skills. Was I glad we had taken the safety at sea course? You bet. Was I glad I had taken the time to learn a little about weather prediction. You bet and I will learn more. I was also glad to have called in the warning so that others might be spared. Were we glad to have trusted our instincts and to learn we do not panic under trying conditions? You bet. Were we glad our sturdy vessel performed well under these conditions? You bet. That's all part of acquiring seamanship skills. After all, it's about the sea, the 'man, and the ship.

I know there will always be more to learn. I am grateful for every lesson!

See you on the water.

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