How nasty can the weather get out there?

August 2003

By Jim Andersen
For Points East

In late August of 2001 I was invited to help deliver a boat from New Jersey to Maine. The plan was to make short hops up the coast, spending each night in a marina. Since this was the middle of the hurricane season, we checked the forecasts and made sure that nothing was churning in the Caribbean.

The boat was an older 44-foot sportfisher that had recently been purchased by a friend. It had twin diesel engines and a reported cruising speed in the low 20-knot range.

At the end of the first day of perfect weather, we motored into New York harbor and tied up at Lincoln Harbor Marine on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. After dinner we sat on the flybridge and looked across the river at the skyline of Lower Manhattan including the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

By the second day we had discovered a malfunction in the cooling system of the port engine – at cruising speed the engine would quickly overheat. A night spent in the marina with the floorboards up and tools spread around the deck left our onboard mechanic scratching his head and saying, “It could be this or that.”

The solution, which would have to hold us until we reached our homeport in Maine, was to run the boat at 12 to 14 knots. Since I’m a sailor, this did not seem like an unreasonable speed to me. After all, I’m used to making only 6 to 8 knots.

The third afternoon found us north of Cape Cod making our way into the Gulf Of Maine. The seas were flat, with a 5-knot southwest breeze under a clear sky, but the marine weather forecast called for a chance of showers and thundershowers.

As we cruised 15 miles off shore, the sky started to darken in the west over the land. The sailor reaction was to shorten sail and prepare to ride out the storm. The powerboat reaction was to run for shelter. Unfortunately, at 14 knots we were not going to be able to outrun the weather.

At first we were hit with just a few gusts of wind and a sprinkling of rain as the sky darkened into an early nightfall and a chop built up on the water.

Suddenly an explosion rocked the boat, accompanied by a bright light and a crackling noise. My first reaction was that we had blown up. The truth was almost as scary. Lightning had struck about 100 feet off the port side of the boat. A 50-foot circle of sizzling, boiling white water expanded from the spot of the strike and dissipated into the surrounding water. We all stared in disbelief. It could have just as easily hit us.

I had been through a knockdown outside of Casco Bay, when the whole racing fleet had been caught by an approaching squall line with our spinnakers up. I had surfed down the front of 15-foot seas on a delivery back from Bermuda. But this was different – lightning was a new factor in the weather equation.

Since I spend a lot of time on sailboats, I have always feared being struck by lightning as I sailed along with a 50-foot aluminum lightning rod connected to the boat with braided wire shrouds.

Since the only steering station on this boat was on the flybridge, we sat encased in a framework of inch-and-a-half stainless steel tubing that held up the canvas roof over our heads. I felt like I was riding on top of a fiberglass bomb with a half-full diesel tank. If the electrical shock did not get us, the explosion and fire would.

There were no side curtains on the bridge, and the wind blew the rain horizontal as the lightning continued to flash around us, though none as close as the first strike. I sat warm and dry in my foul-weather gear while the rest of the crew quickly soaked to the skin in their powerboat jackets.

For the next 45 minutes, we made our way through the storm with 100 yards of visibility as the seas tossed us around like a toy and the lightning ripped through the darkened sky. Looking around the bridge, I saw pale, tense faces. I am sure that mine showed the same concern.

Then, with a flurry of wind and buckets full of water, the storm ended as quickly as it began. The sun broke through as it made its way down toward the western horizon.

Several weeks later, on Sept. 11, another storm struck several hundred miles south. This storm did not only change our view of the New York skyline; it changed the view of the world that a lot of us enjoyed and took for granted.