Issue: August 2011
Weathering a Bay Squall

An afternoon boomer on the Bay can quickly turn a lovely day into a topsy-turvy nightmare. But not if you know your boat, know where you are and know how to ride it out. Herewith, a primer. . . .

by Tom Dove

The day begins like most summer days. The humid stillness of dawn gives way to a light, southerly breeze as the air heats up during the morning. A coppery haze appears in the western sky while the temperatures climb through the 80s, but by early afternoon that tinge of color is replaced by white cumulus clouds against a pale-blue sky. It seems to be a perfect day for cruising as our 20-foot powerboat merrily clips across the Chesapeake Bay. The four onboard--myself included--are more interested in activating some skin melanin or stirring up a few fish than in the more dramatic story developing overhead. The VHF radio tells its standard summer tale: "hazy, hot and humid, with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms."

Soon the predictable southeast summer breeze freshens to a less-predictable 15 knots and whitecaps skip across the water. Then, at about four o'clock, with the sudden rising of a sable cloud across the sun, we realize that we're in for a blow. A full-on thunderstorm has formed and is lurching down the river from the west!

Adrenaline fires the synapses of memory and each of us recalls a previous Bay storm. One crewmember was on a racing sloop in the Severn River when 60-knot gusts blasted through the fleet, shredding genoa jibs in seconds. Another had been fishing lazily, two miles offshore, when a line squall whipped the water into four-foot waves that broke over the little runabout. A third recalls the chaotic trauma of wind and current at the mouth of the Potomac, when full power to both diesels of his cruiser had no effect but to heighten the terror. Now we realize that another such tale is about to be added to our collective cache of foul-weather memories. That dark cloud is moving toward us fast.

Okay, this oncoming storm has our attention. Now what?

The wind hasn't changed yet. That's a good sign. The afternoon's southeasterly wind was a result of air rushing toward the building cumulonimbus clouds--the thunderheads--that were developing west of the Bay. The rising air inside the clouds drew in air from below like a big vacuum cleaner, producing the nifty surface breeze we had been enjoying. We should have recognized that.

Now that the massive thunderheads are fully developed, the rising air in the center cools at high altitude, then falls back to the surface at the outer edges. Right before the storm hits, the wind will shift 180 degrees and start blowing from the clouds instead of toward them. Its cold breath will be an ominous last warning, and we'd better be completely ready when we feel it.

There are three choices: Head for shelter, run along with the storm, or run toward the storm. If we had seen the storm in time and had been close enough to shore, we could have run for cover, but we didn't and we aren't, so we don't. (Here's where a fast powerboat has the advantage. With enough horsepower and speed, getting to port before a storm hits is definitely the way to go.) We won't run with the storm, either, because the lee (downwind) shore is too close and we don't want to chance getting blown into it. A lee shore is the most dangerous place of all in a blow. The only place to go is aground.

Instead, we race toward the storm, which offers better options. If we reach shelter, we'll be safe. If we don't, but get close to the western shore, we can anchor there, getting some wave protection from the land (effectively reducing the fetch of the seas by hanging close to the windward shore). If we can't get close enough to shore to anchor, at least we'll have put lots of room between ourselves and the lee shore.

A fast power cruiser roars past, its riders hanging tight as the driver steers a course to the mouth of the nearest western shore river. At 40 or 50 knots, they'll probably make it, as long as visibility doesn't close in and make it too dangerous to enter the river. We hope they're keeping a sharp lookout for the little fishing skiffs that were anchored close to buoy "2". A cruising sailboat just to the north of us doesn't have the option of racing the storm and so the crew is dropping the sails. One crewmember is on the foredeck, putting a couple of sail ties around the middle of the roller-furling genoa; that sail would flail itself to pieces if it unrolled in high winds. The skipper has decided to furl everything tightly and run slowly into the westerly storm winds under auxiliary power. If it gets really bad, he will either "lie a-hull" (broadside to the wind and waves) or turn and run slowly with them, depending on which position the boat does best in. With its heavy keel and seaworthy shape, the boat should ride out the storm just fine.

The power cruiser to the south of us doesn't have time to make it to safe harbor; we're all about three miles from the Western Shore and five miles from a sheltered creek, and the squall may reach us in just 10 minutes. Even if that cruiser can do 25 knots in smooth water, they'll have to slow to displacement speed--about seven knots--once the water gets really rough. The woman at the helm has called everybody in from the decks and is headed for a high shoreline to the west, most likely to drop anchor or power along slowly where there should be some protection from the high cliffs.

There's a teenager out here in a sailing dinghy. She drops her sails, lashes everything down, lowers the centerboard, turns the stern to the oncoming wind and settles low in the boat for stability. Clearly, she's done this before. Self-sufficiency is one of the greatest lessons boating has to offer. The kayaker close to the Eastern Shore has an option we do not. He paddles quickly to the beach and hauls his boat up above the high-tide mark. That's not far from a shopping center, and he'll be nibbling pizza while we rock and roll. We prepare the boat first, lashing down and stowing all loose gear, including seat cushions, picnic coolers, boat hooks, oars and water skis--anything that could become airborne or skid across the cockpit. One of us takes the anchor out of its locker, carefully coils the anchor rode and secures its bitter end to a sturdy padeye so it is ready to lower quickly if necessary. The skipper checks the main and auxiliary bilge pumps and pumps the bilges dry. Next he checks the fuel gauges, calculating the number of hours of running time remaining. It's vital to know that, and if we were in a smaller boat with portable tanks, he would have switched over to the fullest tank before the water got rough.

The engine is running smoothly at normal cruise speed, the running lights work fine, and the VHF radio is now crackling with excited calls from boats already engulfed in the storm. We have at least four hours of fuel left in the tanks, all the vital equipment works, the boat is in good condition and everything is secured. Out comes the chart. We plot our position using GPS, note the waypoints for our home river and check the boat's speed. The skipper has owned his boat a few years and knows her idle, cruise and top speeds. He sets a GPS waypoint near the mouth of the river in the direction of the storm; that's where we'll anchor if we can't make it into the river safely. Finally, he notes the compass course to that waypoint, turns to it, checks the time, and tells the rest of the crew where we are and what he's doing. Somebody else might have to steer in the next hour or two, so it's important for all of us to know what to do.

Next, we don our life vests; one of us has a "float coat" that provides warmth, dryness and buoyancy, and the rest of us make a note to buy one of those on the next trip to the chandlery. Two of us have the handy inflatable vests, which permit free movement and thus enhance safety. One is stuck with the bright orange "horse collar" and looks downright uncomfortable. The foul-weather gear also comes out; wearing a full suit with pants and jacket is a good idea in this situation. Even in summer, it can get chilly in a squall, and hypothermia clouds judgment and cuts strength. The chef du jour hands out granola bars for a quick shot of energy. This will be an adventure.

A lightning bolt leaps across the face of the oncoming clouds and we count, "thousand one, thousand two, thousand three . . ." until the thunder reaches us just as we say "thousand 15." Sound travels a mile in about five seconds, so we divide the 15-second count by five. It's three miles from the cloud to our boat. Most lightning strikes hit powerboat antennas, which are not grounded effectively but are the highest points on the vessels. We fold ours down to the deck. Most sailboats have well grounded masts and rigging but occasionally get hit anyway. A strike to a grounded mast usually destroys the electronics but spares the boat.

Finally, the first gust of Canadian air hits, shipped to the Chesapeake on a southeast-bound cold front. It's about 30 knots, a typical start for a summer squall, but could get a lot stronger very soon. Our outboard boat is reasonably seaworthy. It's 20 feet long and was designed for fishing, skiing and picnic outings. The high, flared bow deflects spray pretty effectively, but the transom is a bit too low for safely running off in front of big waves--another reason we shouldn't be running with the wind. The best choice for us when the waves begin to build is to slow down to displacement speed and plow steadily into the seas. (Perhaps the most common cause of major boating accidents is foundering, which starts when waves sweep over a low transom. Once the boat fills with water, it becomes unstable and capsizes. The Coast Guard discovered several years ago that small-boat accidents listed as "capsizes" usually began as founderings, often from waves taken over the stern.)

Off to the south we see a little runabout, also with a low transom--and, to make matters worse, a reverse sheer, sloped foredeck and low bow. Like us, that boat should avoid running with the wind, but he's also got problems running into the wind. With that low bow, if the waves get higher than about three feet, the boat will plow into them, drenching the crew and, perhaps, swamping the vessel. Their best option is to run into the wind, but they'll have to maintain enough speed to keep the bow raised and smashing through the waves. Those folks will have a story to tell tonight--if they have any teeth left.

The sky is a scene of high drama. Black clouds roil toward us, dragging deep shadows across the foam-streaked water, and lines of wind race across the surface. The waves are building, growing to the steep four-footers that have made Bay squalls famous. We slow down, come off plane, and move ahead at fast idle, making about three knots against the wind.

A waterman plows by almost serenely. His 40-foot workboat is long enough to bridge the waves, the high bow slicing through the gray-black surface as the powerful inboard engine carries him homeward in security. Just another day for him; those guys know things most of us don't. Farther north we can see a daysailer lying a-hull, drifting downwind, heeled over and sliding across the water. Her keel will keep her upright, there's plenty of sea room before encountering the lee shore, and the crew is riding in relative comfort.

Suddenly the body of the storm is upon us. We all look around carefully and note the positions of other boats and landmarks ashore. They'll disappear in a second. Great drops of rain splash onto the deck. In moments, the sky is obliterated by blowing rain, and visibility drops to nil. It's still a mile to the river mouth and our emergency anchorage, and we proceed slowly. We're all bowed over against the wind and rain, hanging on to the gunwales and grab rails, totally blinded.

One of our crew has a little handheld anemometer; the wind is holding at around 40 knots, with gusts to about 50, so this is a fairly typical Chesapeake storm. The extreme ones, with gusts of 60 knots or more, tend to occur during the hottest months when fast-moving cold fronts drop the temperature most sharply.

The skipper notes the time and, knowing our speed and course, figures that we've reached the mouth of the river. The GPS confirms this, and the depthsounder shows we are in water shallow enough to anchor out of the channel; that's the prudent thing to do, since we can't see more than a boat length in any direction and the other vessels are out here somewhere.

The skipper throws the engine into neutral, the anchor goes over the bow and all the road is paid out to be sure the hook sets firmly. The hook catches and digs in, and the bow swings into the wind. Before shutting down the engine, the skipper checks the tension on the anchor rode and the position on the GPS for a couple of minutes to see if we are dragging. We can't see any landmarks ashore to be sure, but it seems to be holding, so the skipper kills the engine, to eliminate the possibility of wrapping the prop on an underwater line as crab-pot buoys slip by.

We huddle behind the windshield and listen to the VHF radio, its range reduced by the lowered antenna. Channel 22 is busy, with the Coast Guard trying to locate a cruiser that has lost engine power and is drifting toward the Eastern Shore. The skipper sounds inexperienced and scared, saying his high-sided vessel is rolling badly.

Gradually, though, the wind abates and the rain diminishes. We can see houses ashore now and feel confident in resuming our trip home. The skipper starts the engine and the strongest crewmember takes in the anchor rode as we motor slowly forward, cleating it when the road is straight up and down. The hook is really set hard, and it takes some engine power forward to dislodge it.

The water is still rough (waves outlast a storm) and the wind is holding at 20 knots, but we can plow homeward at displacement speed in reasonable comfort. As the sky brightens, we see that the boats around us have survived, their crews wet but exhilarated. The girl in the sailing dinghy and the folks in the daysailer will have a long slog back to windward, if that's where they came from. The woman with the slower power cruiser is ahead of us in the river, with no apparent damage. The little runabout had dropped anchor near us and is now running slowly a few hundred yards away. The fast power cruiser got home before the squall hit. The cruising sailboat--having laid a-hull until almost reaching the lee shore of the Bay--might choose a quiet anchorage on the Eastern Shore and stay there until tomorrow.

As is clear from this particular blow, heavy weather piloting tactics will vary depending on boat type and size, condition of the crew, experience of the captain, where you are when the storm hits and many other factors. But four rules of thumb apply: Know your boat, know your limitations, know where you are, and always err on the side of caution.

Some might say that what is heavy weather to Bay sailors wouldn't raise the eyebrow of an oceangoing mariner. Perhaps, but perhaps not; a crewmember on our boat, who had been reading Captain John Smith's 17th-century account of his Chesapeake adventurers, reminds us that the worst weather Smith ever encountered, in all his ocean-roaming years, was a summer squall at the mouth of the Potomac River.

We all believe it.