On microbursts and mayhem

A stricken Ensign off the coast of Massachusetts. The end of August in New England featured fast-moving, powerful storms. Photo by Joe Berkeley

Years ago I was at a dock in Connecticut when friends of mine returned from a trip to Block Island aboard their 36-footer. They practically kissed the ground once their lines were thrown, and, to a man, were visibly shaken. The hours-old experience they described? Soon after leaving Great Salt Pond – sails up, with the boat moving well on an otherwise fair day – they saw what looked like some sort of system on the horizon. In short order it was upon them. When the weather hit, they said, it was a wall of wind and driving rain that laid their full-keeled boat on its side and held it there. This lasted five minutes. In that time, holding on for dear life, they watched helplessly as the dinghy snapped its painter and disappeared out of sight. When the wind stopped and the vessel righted itself, everything below was in a shambles and the headsail was torn. Their shared sentiment? What the @#$% was that?!

In the intervening years I’ve heard some similar crazy weather stories, but they’re usually few and far between.

Until recently.

The Ensign in the photo above was shot from the Point Allerton seawall in Hull, Mass., this past Aug. 23 by photographer Joe Berkeley (joeberkeley.com). It’s as bad as it looks – the Ensign eventually sank – but the good news is that folks on the two powerboats in the shot rescued both sailors aboard. To me, the fact that both sails on the Ensign are up is a telling sign. The Ensign sailors got caught. Joe said as much: That the thunderstorms that raced through Massachusetts that Sunday were extremely fast-moving, and that many got caught. Even inland, at Worcester, there were recorded gusts of over 50 knots. How hard is it blowing in this picture? It doesn’t matter, really. The answer is “hard enough to sink an Ensign.” And, believe me, these are salty little boats. A neat factoid is that the men driving the powerboats happened to both be U.S. military; one a helicopter pilot, and the other a former Army Ranger.

Two days later, on Tuesday, Aug. 25, a microburst swept through fleets of boats racing on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. According to the “Providence Journal,” wind speeds jumped from roughly five knots to 60 in the space of five seconds. Many people, again, were caught with their sails up. Though the event was short-lived, it did manage to swamp an Ensign (August was a tough month to be an Ensign) and sink both an Alerion Express 28 and a Herreshoff-designed S-Boat. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

A less well-documented microburst occurred that same day (Aug. 25) at around 3 p.m. in southern Maine. At Marston’s Marina, in Saco, our own Randy Randall said that watching the system tear through his marina was like “watching the world fly apart.” He said moored boats were knocked over on their gunwales, and four of the cables that hold his network of docks in place snapped. In the maelstrom of wind, rain and hail, seaweed flew high enough in the air to tangle itself in the grills hanging off boats. Randy says the weather was there and gone within 15 minutes, and was followed by a rainbow.

And finally, another fast-moving system. This one on Aug. 27. Former “Practical Sailor” editor Doug Logan lives in Branford, Conn. Heeding NOAA’s warnings for the possibility of severe thunderstorms on the afternoon of the 27th, Doug moved his 26-foot powerboat, Pup, to a nearby hidey hole with shallow water, a soft leeward shore, and good, sticky mud in which to drop an oversized anchor.

He was still aboard with his wife when 80-knot gusts – absolutely crazy high windspeeds for Connecticut – raked the town of Branford, knocking down trees and power lines. Doug and his Pup, fortunately, weathered the storm. (And two weeks later, Doug was still cleaning up his yard).

What does all this weather mayhem mean?

“Who knows,” is the correct answer. Only time will tell.

But – and the following sentiment probably applies to the current state of life on this planet these days, as well – more than ever it’s time for a firm hand on the helm and an ever-watchful eye on the horizon.