How nasty can the weather get out there?

August 2003

By Bob Sawyer
For Points East

Let me set the scene for this little drama.

Sawyer’s Sailing School

The boat: A 24 foot Quickstep sailboat

The students: Susan, the mother from Georgia

Kevin, her son from Georgia

Marvin, the surgeon from Boston

Roger, a gentleman from New Hampshire

Captain Bob, the old guy from Maine

Setting: Aboard the boat, “Mary Mary” at the Dolphin Marina, Harpswell, Maine

Date: July 22, 2002

Time: 0915

The 4 students are taking the 15-minute “What Do You Know?” quiz that Capt. Bob uses to find out the students’ sailing experience. The results this morning show that one was able to answer 10 of the 50 questions, getting only five of them right, the others fewer still. Obviously this crew was going to need training from the keel up.

Then two hours of preaching by Capt. Bob on the material that will be on the next day’s American Sailing Association’s certification exam.

Finally, they hoist the sails to go out and practice what he was preaching. The winds are 17 to 22 knots, so we leave the reef in the mainsail that was already there from a previous class. The boat likes about 15 knots of wind to sail comfortably with full sail.

All afternoon the students practice tacking, jibing, different points of sail, man overboard drills and the other activities required to sail a 24 foot sailboat in good weather.

Day 2: Another great day weather wise. The students are studiously working on their 103-question exams. At about 1100 they have all completed their exams with three 95% grades and one 88% grade. And to think 24 hours ago, they couldn’t even answer five similar questions.

After finishing a few exercises not completed the day before, they are to be rewarded with an afternoon sail. Still with reefed main and jib we take off across Broad Sound in 18 to 22 knot winds. In the sound, with the wind against the current, we swallowed a couple of wave tops but the waves were more gentle behind the islands. We continued on a close-hauled course by Bangs Island, Stave Island, Sand Island and half way by Hope Island. A great day and great sailing.

Then we noticed black, real black, ominous clouds building up on the western horizon. Having managed to get through the Power Squadron Weather Course, I knew this could mean trouble. As the wind shifted to the west, I had the crew reverse the course, head towards Potts Harbor, take down the mainsail and start rigging a tarp over the main boom. It started to rain, but before we could get the tarp rigged it stopped and the sun came out. They hoisted the reefed main again and we were on our way back to the barn. No, this had not been the imperfect storm. Be patient.

More black, real black, really black clouds on the western horizon. This time the wind was building up stronger so I had the crew roll up the jib and just leave the reefed mainsail on. Then came the rain. We left nun 8 off Stave Island headed across Broad Sound on a course of 90 degrees, a run I had made many times. I had never had a problem in picking up bell 6 off little Birch Island on the other side of the sound.

In the middle of the sound, and the rain is coming down in torrents. The thunder and lightning are simultaneous. No sense trying to count the seconds to see how far off the storm is – it’s here! You could feel the pressure on your eardrums from the thunder and wonder how long before the lightning found the mast.

I had assigned the surgeon to the tiller and told him to hold the 90-degree course, although he had a hard job seeing the compass through the rain from the tiller. I set the 16-year-old up as lookout for the bell buoy and put the man from New Hampshire on the mainsheet with instructions to let it go if we received any dangerous gusts of wind. I was very thankful it was the second day of the course. At least they understood my instructions. The mother was in the cabin passing out life jackets. I never thought to put one on, which was probably kind of dumb, but I didn’t want to make the crew think that we were in a dangerous situation, although they had already concluded that.

They said they obtained some confidence because I looked so calm. Good thing they couldn’t read my thoughts: “If this lightning hits us, Sawyer’s Sailing School is going to have one big liability suit,” for example. Then I thought if it does hit us, I probably won’t be around to worry about it. Then I thought about turning the 8 h.p. outboard on instead of using the sail and figured it wouldn’t have enough power to overcome the present storm conditions, and if it wound up a lobster trap warp in the screw we would really be screwed. I thought about heaving to as the ocean sailors do in heavy weather. But there was no way that I was going to add more sail to obtain a back-winded jib along with the reefed main.

Anchoring was out of the question in 80 feet of water. With a scope of 10 to 1 that would require an 800-foot anchor rode and I only carry 300 feet, plus 200 for the second anchor.

The crew was a picture of drowned rats. I had on foul-weather gear and Kevin had on my extra set. Although I always request that the students bring foulies with them, they only brought windbreakers. It didn’t make much difference since I was soaked through, even to my billfold in my back pocket.

By now the bell should have shown up. I decided that maybe I ought to turn on the GPS to see if I could find the bell. The rain and thunder were such that we had little chance of hearing it. Of course when I swung the GPS out in the cockpit I couldn’t read it because of the rain. I could have read it in the cabin but I wasn’t about to leave the cockpit and go below in these conditions.

Kevin was getting worried. “Captain Bob, shouldn’t we call someone?” he asked. I said, “There isn’t anything anyone else can do at this point except the guy up there who is causing all of our problems, and we’ll be OK as soon as you spot that bell.”

Shortly thereafter Kevin said, “I see land.” It looked to me as though the current had pushed us west of Little Birch Island and bell 6, so I gave the order to come about and head back to where I thought the bell was. Because we were just under reefed main and heading into the big rolling waves (that had built up in the short time we were crossing the sound) the boat wouldn’t come around. That left the alternative of jibing. Fortunately, we had practiced the operation numerous times the day before. I gave the order: “Hang on and jibe ho” The boat came around, heeled about 30 degrees but didn’t spill anyone overboard, no doubt because everyone was hanging on with white knuckles and parboiled hands.

We sailed for a few minutes on this course and Kevin yelled, “I see a buoy!”

It was the nun buoy just east of the bell we had been looking for. We were right on course between the two. Now that I knew where we were, and since the waves and the wind had dropped a little, I asked the crew if they minded if we stopped sailing and turned on the engine. They were unanimous. “Just get us back to land as fast as you can.”

When we arrived at the dock, one of my powerboat friends asked, “Where did you hole up in the storm?” to which I answered, “In the middle of Broad Sound but fortunately, I had a good crew.”

I rewarded their performance under stress by taking them to the restaurant and filling them up with hot fish chowder and blueberry muffins. I told them if they decided to go on to the next ASA course (which covers heavy weather sailing in auxiliary sailboats up to 30 feet) that they had already passed the skills part of the course. Then I asked if anyone had read the wind gauge during the crossing. They all admitted they were too concerned with their assignments to look at it. The next morning I checked it and it read 36 knots as the maximum wind velocity recorded the previous day.

The Perfect Storm was able to sink boats and drown crewmembers. This imperfect storm didn’t do either, but it certainly expended a good effort on a defenseless little 24-foot boat and a novice crew who learned quickly.