June 21, 2006

Staying Safe When Thunderstorms Hit

Just the other day I was talking to a boating buddy of mine when he revealed his scary experiences off Gardiner's Island as a thunderstorm unexpectedly hit.

He had very little time to evaluate his plan of action, as his boat was catapulted into torrents of rain, gale-force winds and lost visibility. He admitted that he hadn't taken the time to listen to the usual marine reports that can be accessed daily via boat radio systems and the Internet. Luckily, his encounter with the kind of storms that often encroach upon us in the summer had a happy ending. Nothing ever looks as good as the sight of your dock when you've just waged a war to stay afloat!

That day, my mind raced back to a similar experience during the summer of 1981. As an eight-year old, nothing was more exciting than leaving our marina in Blue Point in our new 28-foot Cruisers Inc. to traverse Great South Bay and tie up at Watch Hill on Fire Island. We'd already made numerous trips across the bay during that muggy August, never to encounter the "30% chance of storms" that had become the daily banter of meteorologists.

While technology wasn't as advanced as it is today, marine forecasts were easy to retrieve on our boat's radio and we knew how to recognize a flag indicating inclement weather conditions. The truth is that we probably just wanted to get across that bay as quickly as possible so we could weekend at the beach.

As I recall, the sun was shining brightly as we slipped away from the dock and the South Wind headed well . . . south. I was up on the fly bridge with my father when the black cloud suddenly appeared and a long roll of thunder pierced the quiet of the moment. The bay was transformed into a squally, rocking roller coaster ride, similar to one that you'd avoid at an amusement park if you don't enjoy dealing with serious anxiety (did I mention that I detest roller coasters?).

In an instant, my mother had rushed up to the bridge and pulled me down the ladder into the cabin. Gemini, our fearless black lab whom we called "the captain," had wedged herself into the darkest corner of the forward berth and could hardly be seen. Even though I could swim, my parents insisted that I always wear a life jacket onboard a boat. I only sensed fear when I noticed that my mother was also wearing one!

About 10 minutes later, the squall moved on and bright sunlight appeared through the dismal gray. My dad, being an experienced skipper, had successfully dealt with torrential rain and a wall of blackness and wind that brought visibility down to zero. Conditions were so bad that the marine forecast was totally lost and even radar became undependable. As an adult, it still amazes me how we took on so much water that day and stayed afloat or how our vessel didn't become a victim to the storm that grabbed our fly bridge and tossed us back and forth continuously.

Thanks to my father's quick thinking, we managed to avoid hitting another boat and he also kept us from running aground in that shallow bay. The ever-stoic captain at the helm simply maneuvered in as small a circle as a 28-foot vessel could endure. When it was all over, there was no question in his mind about charting the course; he turned back and headed north to the safety of our protected marina. It was only years later that my father told me how frightening the experience had been, especially since his family was on board.

I guess the best advice I can give to boaters is to pay careful, strict attention to all marine and weather-related reports and keep the VHF radio on at all times when any unusual fluctuations in storm activity have been noticed. Be sure all your passengers are wearing life vests and, should you choose to go life-jacketless, have one nearby. How quickly that doom of gloom black cloud can appear out of a seemingly perfect sky, especially during the heat and humidity that is always a part of living on our island during the summer season.

As the one in command at the helm, remember that the boat is your own responsibility and it can't return safely to the dock unless the captain at the wheel is fully prepared. Never drink alcohol and put others at risk. I'm not sure who first said the famous quote, but keep in mind that, "you can't un-ring the bell." When all else fails, seek safe harbor or drop anchor in a shallow cove to ride out the storm safely.

The renowned dog days of summer are upon us once more. Heed their warning on the water!

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