How nasty can the weather get out there?

August 2003

By Robert Brun
For Points East

It was already a warm day when I woke up that late-July morning in Portsmouth, N.H. At the tail end of a two-week trip Downeast in Maine, I was heading home to Newburyport, Mass. The skies were clear with wisps of clouds just beginning to infiltrate from the west. Beginning my morning routine, I turned on the VHF and checked the day’s NOAA forecast.

“Clear in the morning, increasing clouds by afternoon with the chance of thundershowers by 4 p.m. possibly severe in some areas.”

I checked my watch: 6:33 a.m. If I left for Newburyport by 11 for what would even in light air be a four-hour sail, I’d put into the Merrimac by 3 that afternoon and everything would be fine. I finished my leisurely breakfast and eased out into the Piscataqua River at 9:30, motoring through the last of the incoming tide.

I set the automatic pilot and hauled up the mainsail in the shadow of the old naval prison. The sea was a light swell that morning and the Isles of Shoals were clearly visible on the horizon. Rolling out the genoa I swung the Francis B., my Cape Dory 25D, around to starboard on a course that would put me clear of Odiorne Point. As the day progressed, the sky began to cloud over, and before long an even gray overcast sky obscured the sun.

Nothing much happened for the next few hours. The wind was light and the seas were mild. I flipped on the VHF around noon, eavesdropping on one side of a conversation between two fishing boats. The skipper mentioned that NOAA was reporting severe thundershowers in Worcester, Mass., heading east. I did a quick mental calculation and estimated I had at least 3 more hours before the squall line would make it to the coast. Readjusting the sails, I reset the automatic pilot and went below to prepare lunch.

As the afternoon wore on, the skies became even more overcast and gray, but with no discernable cloud mass visible I wasn’t concerned. Anticipating that I would at some point get rained on, I went below and removed my foul-weather gear from the forward wet locker. Returning topside I glanced skyward and witnessed a scene right out of a Hollywood movie: black clouds were boiling out of the west, building fast and heading directly toward me.

Without thinking, I raced back below and pulled on my rain gear. The first heavy raindrops began to fall as I reentered the cockpit and, connecting my harness to the jackline, rolled in the headsail. Next I grabbed the chart kit, seat cushions, binoculars and anything loose in the cockpit, unceremoniously tossing them down the companionway. No time for proper storage now. I started the engine and let it idle while I scrambled up onto the cabin top to the base of the mast.

Easing the main halyard in the increasing wind, I fought the first reef into the mainsail. Twice the grommet slipped off the reefing hook before I could make it fast and haul in the clew of the snapping mainsail.

Just then a high-pitched alarm cut through the howl of the wind. Looking up, I could see that the automatic pilot was now at maximum extension as it tried in vain to compensate for the boat’s increasing weather helm. With no time left for a second reef, I dashed back to the cockpit, disengaged the automatic pilot and moved the engine shift lever into gear. I removed my safety harness clip from the jacklines and secured it to the base of the through-bolted stantion. Taking up the tiller in both hands and bracing my feet against the opposite seat, I settled in to ride out this storm.

The boat rounded up once again and this time I found myself standing on the side of the cockpit seat with the port rail buried in the water. There was no longer any question of trying to make way in this weather. So I headed the boat down wind and prepared to ride out the storm.

Visibility was now less than 25 feet as torrents of rain, whipped about by the wind filled my eyes and pounded the sea around me. Waves that now crested at 6 to 8 feet rolled the boat from side to side as I headed in and out of the troughs. I let the main sheet run out and cleated off the boom just shy of the port shrouds. On this new heading, nothing now stood between me and Provincetown on Cape Cod. I was prepared to run the whole distance if that’s what it took.

Thunder and lightning were simultaneous as the full force of the storm passed directly overhead, but I could give it little thought as I struggled to keep my small boat under control. I had more important things to think about … like staying afloat. With the winds blowing from the west off the land just a few miles away, I hoped the waves wouldn’t build too much more then they already had.

For the next half-hour I watched the knotmeter rise and fall from 4.8 to 7.5 as I surfed up and down waves, trying to maintain a steady course. Then, without warning, the wind clocked around and before the boat could answer the helm, the boom jibed hard with a force that shook the entire boat. I was certain the whipping boom was going to take the mast with it, or at least part of the rigging, but everything held fast and I got myself back on course.

The wind, once again behind me, now drove the heavy rain in through the open companionway. In my haste to prepare for the storm it had not occurred to me to install the washboards and a good 1/4-inch of water was now sloshing about on the cabin sole. I could only guess how wet the cushions were by then so I used my body the best I could to block the open hatchway.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, the wind began to ease. The space between lightning and thunder widened and visibility improved so that I could now see the coastline again. The heavy downpour had settled into a warm drizzle and the waves relaxed into light swells. Once again able to get my bearings, I found myself off Salisbury beach just north of the entrance to the Merrimac River. I swung the boat around and rolled out the genoa. Setting a course for the #2 bell, I motorsailed between the jetties and on into the river.

I don’t have an anemometer aboard my boat, so I can’t say for certain what the actual wind speed was that day. The steward said the gauge at the club had hit 55, and Portsmouth, N.H., reported gusts up to 70. It didn’t matter, really; whatever it was, I’d come through it intact. I’m not sure how I’d known what to do, but I was sure glad I did.

Motoring into the river that July afternoon, I took a moment to reflect on what I’d been through. Although I’d been very focused, I had not been afraid and that surprised me now. I’d just been through the worst storm of my sailing career and come out unharmed. Suddenly, everything else seemed simple and I realized nothing would ever bother me quite the same way again.

So motoring along into Newburyport at 4.5 knots and feeling truly alive … I ran aground.