This is a cautionary tale about how a little bad luck and a few less than optimal decisions can make for a very interesting day. In this blog we tend to focus on the joys of a life afloat, but it’s important that you know that it’s not all fun and games.
We had a wonderful time at the Jimmy Buffett concert in Orange Beach, Alabama, and I’ll write something about that soon. But it was now the day after, and the topic of discussion over breakfast was when to return home. We had paid for three days at The Wharf Marina, and we had the slip for another night. But we had a brisk west wind, which would make for a fine sail home, and there was a 40% chance of isolated thunderstorms forecast, while Sunday (the next day) called for an 80% chance of more widespread storms. Living as we do at the base of a 62 foot tall lightning rod, we’re not big fans of sailing anywhere where lightning hangs out. Since a 40% chance of storms sounded better than an 80% chance, we made the decision to go.
Bad luck (or bad decision, we could go either way on this one)—we trusted the weather report.
With some thought and discussion, we worked out a plan to clear the slip while broadside to a stiff west breeze, bring the bow into the wind without drifting down onto nearby boats (the marina was packed for the concert) and gain enough speed in the restricted basin to get steerage to make the quick turn to enter the channel and head east. With the help of some dockhands and a few extra lines, we executed the plan flawlessly and probably earned a few boat karma points that we would cash in later in the day.
Once headed east, we rolled out the jib and shut off the engine and settled in for a comfortable sail home. With the wind dead on our stern, we decided not to roll out the main, because the trip along the intracoastal called for a lot of course deviations north and south of east, and having to gybe the boom every few minutes didn’t sound very relaxing. We were making from four to six knots under jib alone, a beneficial current was pushing our Speed Over Ground (SOG) to seven knots at times, and we had no reason to be in a hurry. The skies were partly cloudy, with what appeared to be the normal afternoon coastal front building 10 miles inland. With a Buffett mix playing on the cockpit Bluetooth speaker, we were reminiscing about the concert the night before and totally enjoying the day.
Our first indication that something was wrong was when we were overtaken about two hours into our trip home by Sunset Raider, an Elite 32 from our old marina at the Naval Air Station where we used to keep our boat. We knew the crew. They’re racers. They had been tied across the pier from us at The Wharf, as they had also sailed from Pensacola for the concert. But they were motoring, all sails furled and covered. A racing crew that was motoring on a delightful day for a brisk downwind sail. “I wonder why they’re not sailing?” I said to Rhonda. We shrugged and watched them pull ahead of us. After a few moments, Rhonda turned to me and said, “I wonder if they’re running from weather?” We looked over our shoulders back to the west. The frontal boundary we saw building inland, the one we assumed was the usual line generated by afternoon onshore flow, did look a bit darker than when we last looked.
Mistake #1: We always have our VHF on when underway, monitoring channel 16. But since buying Eagle Too last year, I’ve yet to sit down and give the radio manual more than a cursory glance. I know there’s probably a way to program the radio so that it will scan for NOAA weather alerts automatically without having to change to a weather channel, but I haven’t taken the time to do it yet.
Mistake #2: Both our cell phones were down below. When I went below to retrieve one, I saw that we had received a Severe Thunderstorm Warning alert on our weather apps. But we hadn’t heard them over the sound of the music we had playing in the cockpit. Now aware of the situation, we checked the radar (on the phone app, we haven’t yet installed our onboard radar) and saw an ominous line of severe storms to our northwest headed our way.
We immediately started the engine, rolled up our jib, and made a dash for home. At that time, we were about an hour and a half to two hours out. Leaving the jib up and motorsailing might have given us another half knot, but I thought it best to roll it up in case we were hit by a sudden gust.
For a few minutes we thought all was well and we might make it home before the storm hit. But then the air temperature suddenly dropped as we began getting outflow from the approaching storm, and we knew we didn’t have the time to make it back to our marina. We conferred on our options and decided riding it out at anchor would be safer than trying to push on through a potentially severe storm. We were in Big Lagoon at this point, an area we are very familiar with, and which we know has very good holding in sand and soft mud. Having much faith in our Manson Supreme and all chain rode, we worked in toward the south shore, well clear of the intracoastal channel with its steady stream of barges and commercial traffic, and dropped anchor. It left us more exposed to the wind than tucking into the north shore would have, but I feared that if we anchored on the north shore and dragged during the storm, it could leave us dragging right through the channel.
By the time I had 80 feet of chain paid out in 11 feet of depth and set the snubber, we could see rain moving across the lagoon and the wind started to build. We took a quick picture, buttoned up the boat and went below to ride it out. While waiting, we set an anchor alarm on my phone and dashed off a quick update on Facebook to let our friends and family know where we were and what we were doing.
In a matter of moments, the wind rapidly clocked from WSW to NW. We watched as our display showed the wind climbing through the 30’s, 40’s and into the 50’s. Our boat started violently sailing in large arcs, jerking up short and rolling 45 degrees each time it reached the end of the rode and reversed direction. The wind howled through the rigging, and we held on for dear life. Then the anchor alarm went off. It showed the distance to our anchor point steadily and rapidly increasing. Not only had we broken free, but the anchor wasn’t resetting. We were rapidly dragging down on a four foot shallow a quarter mile to our stern. Grabbing the engine key, I threw open the companionway, dashed to the wheel, started the engine, and began driving the boat into the storm. It took constant wheel and throttle work to stay nose to the wind, because the boat wanted to fall off and come broadside to the gale. But I also had to ensure we didn’t ride up over our rode, because wrapping the chain around the prop would have resulted in us being driven ashore.
54.1 Knots Max Apparent Wind Speed
The wind reached 54 knots, or 62 mph, and the rain was blinding. But at least motoring into the storm stopped the violent rolling. Then, the bimini started coming apart above me, steel tubes and fabric flailing about the cockpit. Rhonda bounded up from below and grabbed the loose frame, holding it tightly with both hands to stop it from flying apart. And for the next 20 minutes, we each fought our separate battles with the storm, unable to offer assistance to each other. I couldn’t stop driving, or we’d be blown ashore, and she couldn’t let go of the bimini frame, or it would rip itself apart.
Eventually, the storm passed. It probably lasted about 45 minutes from beginning to end. As the winds dropped back into the 30’s and then settled at about 20 knots, the boat finally stopped dragging. We were able to secure the engine, tie down the bimini, and lay below. The radar showed nothing else headed our way, so I made a couple of Thank-God-We’re-Alive celebratory adult beverages and we talked through what had just happened while it was still fresh. An After Action report if you will. It was during this discussion that Rhonda pointed out another error we had made.
Mistake #3: We had focused entirely on saving the boat, and completely forgot to save ourselves. While we have an excellent pair of offshore inflatable life jackets onboard, in our haste to deal with the conditions at hand neither of us had thought to don them.
After another 30 minutes passed, conditions had improved enough to let us resume our trip home. Weighing anchor, it was immediately obvious what our problem had been. When the Manson broke the surface, I could see that it was completely encased in a ball of gooey clay, studded with bits of shells. I think what must have happened is that our violent sailing at anchor had jerked the anchor so hard that it had dug through the sandy bottom of the lagoon and embedded itself into an underlying clay layer. It had then popped loose a big ball of clay, which clogged the anchor and prevented it from resetting. It was effectively a great big weight rather than an anchor, which is why we kept dragging until the wind abated. Normally I’m a big fan of modern spade-style anchors like a Manson, Rocna or Mantus, but in this case, I have to wonder if a good old plow style might not have performed better.
As we completed our trip, we could hear constant radio traffic from sailing vessels calling the Coast Guard or declaring emergencies. We passed what looked like a Catalina 30 with several people onboard that had been driven aground off the Fort Pickens pier. SeaTow was already on the scene attempting to refloat them. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and by the time we made it to our slip, the clouds were clearing and a rainbow appeared.
An hour later the storm felt like a distant memory of another time and place. But I guess that’s all part of the experience of this Life On The Hook™. One minute you’re fighting fear and struggling to save your boat, and two hours later you’re sipping a cocktail and contemplating where to go for dinner. As we looked back at our day, we took comfort in the fact that while our boat had been rolled on its beam multiple times, very little had moved down below. A few small items had been thrown about the cabin, but our thoughtful use of Velcro and bungee cords had kept everything in its place. Even the 28” TV on its bulkhead mounted swing arm stayed put. Apparently I had sufficiently tightened the swivel screws on the arm joints. And it was with a deep sense of satisfaction that we realized we had been thrown a serious challenge, and we had responded calmly and rationally and worked as a team to protect our home. But next time, I guarantee we’ll each be telling the other “Put on your lifejacket!”
Vindication and Loss
A followup. Since we experienced the storm as an intensely personal event, we didn’t really comprehend its true scale. While watching the news reports the next day, the magnitude of the event was revealed. First, we felt our decision to head home on Saturday was vindicated. The Fairhope Yacht Club had looked at the same weather report as us, and elected to conduct their annual Dauphin Island Regatta in Mobile Bay, believing that the bad weather would arrive on Sunday. Over 100 boats competed, and the surprise storm devastated the fleet. Sailors interviewed by the local TV news said they had sailed the bay for 10, 20, even 30 years, and no one could remember a storm appearing from nowhere so rapidly. They all held the yacht club blameless, saying that the weather forecast supported their decision to hold the regatta. But much sadder than the boats that were lost was the loss of life. As of the moment that I am writing this, almost two days later, the bodies of two sailors who competed in the regatta have been recovered from Mobile Bay, and the Coast Guard is still searching for an additional five missing sailors. Please pray for them.