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Voyagers chased by a waterspout

Jan 1, 2003

To the editor: I believe every ocean mariner develops his own personal philosophy of dealing with the risks of being at sea. After 33 years, my approach to being safe has boiled down to five very simple rules: 1. Always exercise the very best seamanship, which includes good navigation. 2. Don't fall overboard. 3. Don't run into anything. 4. Don't allow anything to run into me. 5. If something really bad happens, be permanently connected to my EPIRB. In a recent passage from New York Harbor to the St. Mary's River entrance on the northeast coast of Florida, the "Don't allow anything to run into me" rule was tested to the absolute limit. I was sailing a recently purchased Morgan 51 Out Island, Delaine, from Mystic, Conn., to Amelia Island, Fla. Along for crew on the offshore leg from New York Harbor was a very willing but inexperienced business friend. This was, in fact, Pam's first offshore sailing experience. The first two days of our voyage off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia were uneventful. My decision to stay offshore round Cape Hatteras was based on three separate coastal weather reports, all forecasting west to southwest winds. Needless to say, the winds shifted to northeast, driving disorganized seas to eight feet. At one point prior to clearing the easternmost point and light at Hatteras my GPS indicated my boat speed over the ground at 0.0 while my speed through the water registered six knots. The first hours of this northeaster put Delaine and her crew into the classic situation of "clawing of a lee shore." But, finally, clearing Hatteras at about 1900 meant we could alter the boat's course more southerly, putting the steep seas on the quarter instead of the beam. During the early evening, out over the horizon, we noticed a few extreme and steep breaking waves. These breaking waves were five to six feet larger than the balance of the wind-driven swells and wave crests. Just before dark one of these rogue waves hit us on the beam. For a brief instant, I was certain the break of this steep black wall of water would crush both captain and mate in the cockpit. Somehow the boat slid down the face of this wave, and most of the breaking water fell astern. Still, I know my heart stopped for at least five seconds as this event played out. I cannot remember enduring a more life-threatening moment at sea. In the hour that followed, Pam and I considered our options for putting in at either Cape Fear or Minyah, N.C. The problem with setting for either of these ports of refuge was that, at a minimum, we would have to endure at least eight hours of a wicked beam sea. Our final decision was to set course for Charleston, S.C. By running off we could keep the seas on the boat's quarter where they would be the most manageable. During the night and, mostly, in surfing conditions, we endured two severe wind shifts. Both produced knockdowns, and one ripped my 100% working jib to shreds. I, now, admit to myself that I had too much sail for such unpredictable wind conditions. But by 1400 on the following day the seas had subsided to a comfortable four feet. After some discussion of the cumulative fatigue we both felt after 30 hours of rough sea conditions, we made the final decision to stay offshore for the remaining 145 miles to our ultimate destination, Amelia Island. At this point in our voyage, I must admit I was deeply humbled. The ocean with its rogue wave had, once again, clearly demonstrated its power and indifference. My mood was somber, and more than ever I just wanted to put Delaine in shore so that we could recover and rest. The following morning I monitored several intense lightning storms on the horizon and on our radar. By first light we were only 40 miles from our destination but surrounded by dark cloud masses and severe thunderstorms. At about 0800, I looked off our starboard beam and, for a moment, couldn't believe my eyes. Lowering down from the dark cloud mass was the classic funnel shape of a tornado. It took this waterspout no more than a minute to become completely defined and connected to the ocean surface. My comment to Pam was something to the effect that "on this voyage we are going to have to endure every imaginable ocean threatour voyage just wouldn't be complete without a tornado." My first thought was, of course, collision avoidance. The point at which this cyclone was connected to the sea resembled a giant sugar-coated donut. I estimated the white solid wall of airborne spray to be between 12 and 18 feet high and between 60 and 100 yards across. The point was about 400 yards off our starboard beam. The funnel column stretched approximately 2,000 feet from the ocean's surface to the base of the overhanging cloud. My first orders barked out to Pam were to "find this (expletive) thing on radar and give me a range and bearing." After several minutes of adjustment on our radar set, we realized our inability to get an echo off of either the cyclone column or off of the disturbed ocean at its base. Alternatively, we attempted to target any identifiable feature of the larger storm mass shown on the radar. We reasoned that, without the ability to track the cyclone itself, it should be moving in the same general direction as the larger storm, and if we could ascertain the storm's movement and direction we could take a collision-avoidance course. With Pam attempting to follow my instructions on the radar, my first response was, simply, go in the opposite direction of the funnel. After 15 minutes, there appeared to be no discernible change in the distance between the cyclone and the boat. My second course change was 90° and was intended to just get us out of the way. Eerily, the cyclone seemed to also change direction. At one point, we had to ask ourselves "is this thing chasing us?" After nearly 30 minutes into this ordeal and recognizing our inability to put any distance between the boat and the violent white wall on the ocean's surface just off our beam, we discussed our limited alternatives in the event of an ultimate collision. We agreed that all we could do was "go below, close the cockpit hatch, and hold on." Finally, after a total of 45 minutes, the funnel column fell apart. It first disconnected at the middle, and then the white wall seemed to just spin out on the ocean surface. For several minutes the remains of the cyclone connected to the heavy gray cloud overhead resembled a long tail twisting and bending, finally narrowing to a thread and then completely disappearing. Thirty minutes later we witnessed a second, much larger and darker waterspout off the stern of the boat. We called this second cyclone "waterspout number two," but we were able to distance ourselves quickly. Waterspout number one proved to be the most arduous test ever of this captain's patience and his rule number 4: Don't let anything run into me. Obviously, my August 1999 passage from New York Harbor to Florida will not soon be forgotten. Still, we ask ourselves the obvious questionswhat happens if? Is the boat simply knocked down and held down by the 200-mph-plus circular winds at the base of a waterspout? Can a person even breathe in the midst of a vacuum that is powerful enough to lift the heavy weight of the ocean's surface? Is it possible to drown in a solid wall of airborne spray? Is the only difference between a tornado and waterspout the fact that one occurs over water and the other over land? Does a waterspout coming ashore become a tornado, and does a tornado going to sea become a waterspout? Is there the potential for the boat to be sucked off the ocean surface and carried several thousand feet into the atmosphere? Is a collision at sea between a boat and a waterspout survivable?