April 19, 2024

**Do Not Use**

New Director's Dialogue available now in ARC Event Library

Weather Blind

By Tom Watson

In the instant of a lightning flash, I read the number 7 on the black buoy as we sped past at a distance of about thirty feet. Simultaneously, I heard the thunderclap. I looked first at Bruce, then at Eric. Bruce was hiked way out in an effort to hold the boat down. He held on to the jib sheet with both hands and was as far back from the side stay as he could get. He did not want the lightning to follow the stay down to him. Eric hung grimly to the main sheet and was also hiked far out to the high side.

It was the spring of my son Bruce’s junior year in high school. We had been trying for some time to get our neighbor Eric Connor to sail and fish with us at Mexico Beach, FL. Finally, the time had worked out when all three of us could go. Eric joined us at our house Sunday morning at 5:00 AM for the drive down.

Before Eric arrived, I turned on the TV for a weather forecast on the Weather Channel which we had just gotten. I didn’t know much about the Weather Channel, but they ran frequent weather maps with radar coverage. This morning the map showed a cold front extending from a low in Illinois or Indiana, down through Tennessee and Mississippi on out into the Gulf. The map also showed a band of showers running roughly north-south from north Georgia down into the Gulf south of Panama City. I dismissed the showers over the water, believing they would dissipate, or would move over the land when the sea breeze took effect, later in the day.

As we drove down from Americus, GA and reached the turn onto U.S. 98 at Beacon Hill, I could see some cumulonimbus still over the water. They looked a long way off, and since it was still early, I continued to think they would dissipate. Maybe that’s because I wanted them to. As we drove on toward Mexico Beach Marina, I told Eric and Bruce what I expected the weather to do, and said I still felt safe going out. I prepared Eric for some bad weather drills once we were out because I had a lingering concern that the clouds might stay around and become thunderstorms.

We launched the boat at Mexico Beach Marina’s ramp and cast off. The land breeze propelled us out through the canal and on through the jetties where we found a gentle ground swell on the Gulf. I kept glancing at the thunder clouds, hoping they would go away, but if anything, they were getting bigger and coming closer. Bruce and I talked through a drill where we would drop the sails and take them off. Then we would take the mast down and, using the halyards as a painter, throw the mast overboard for a sea anchor. Our mast is aluminum with a wood core. It will float. The function of a sea anchor is to form a drag, so that the bow of the boat will always point into the wind, or more importantly, the waves. Each of us, Eric included, was assigned a job but I never really believed we would have to do them.

The wind picked up as we approached the buoy line, and our speed became fast enough for good fishing. We caught several Spanish mackerel. Then someone noticed the clouds getting blacker, and the water looking grayer. We could see the fast-moving cat’s paws as squalls came closer to us. It was time to put the drills to use!

We quickly dropped the sails, and as I prepared to drop the mast, Bruce and Eric stuffed the sails into the bag. We didn’t have time to drop the mast though, because lightning started to strike all around us. We tied an extra 50 feet of line to the anchor line and tossed the anchor over. Immediately the bow swung into the wind. The anchor was dragging a little, but it was doing its job. The winds probably got up to around 35 knots, and the rain was cold, but we weren’t concerned about cold. Lightning was the worry.

In 30 or so minutes the storm passed, letting us re-rig the sails and get back to the business of the trip. Of course, as so often happens after a thunderstorm on the Gulf, the wind fell off to a near calm. There were still three widely separated thunder clouds in the area, but I was confident that the sea breeze would soon move them over land. After all, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.”

In a little while the wind began to come back, and we got the boat moving well. The wind was from the sea as I wanted it to be, and the fish began to bite. We picked up a couple of good kings and several Spanish mackerel. It was beginning to look like a good day after all. We were having a fine time catching fish and bragging to each other when Bruce noticed the three thunder clouds seeming to merge.

The wind was picking up again, and it was getting very dark. I wanted to drop the sails again, but it was too late. The strong winds and lightning were already upon us. We put the sails into a permanent half luff and hung on. We flashed by the whistle buoy, (#1) just as the rain began to hit us in sheets. Visibility got so bad we could not see the whistle buoy, or for that matter, any buoy. All we could see was gray water and white capped waves.

Lightning was everywhere. We would see the flash and hear the thunder at the same time. It had to be extremely close. At every strike, I would count people. I was terrified at the possibility that lightning would hit our mast and kill one or all of us. Sailing was like riding a bronco. All I could see was the luff of the main sail and the compass. The compass swung wildly from 030 to 090 degrees as the wind gusts would force us to change our direction. Our lee rail was under water most of the time.

Until we saw buoy #7 in the flash of lightning, I had no idea how far we had come, or where we were, but then I began to fear running into a boat or a buoy in addition to the struggle to stay on top of the water. Then I realized what I should have known all along. The line of showers on the Weather Channel’s map was a squall line. Squall lines frequently form about 200 miles ahead of a cold front. This one was a classic. I thought of the times when, as an Air Force weather forecaster, I had felt that the pilots did dumb things. Some pilots who had good weather sense on Tuesday training flights became “weather blind” on Friday when planning to fly to Copenhagen for the weekend. Now I was the one who was weather blind! The Weather Channel had given me all the information I needed. I just hadn’t wanted to believe it. I knew I’d blundered, and I could only hope we would come out of this mess alive.

After seeing the number seven buoy we saw nothing to tell us where we were until Eric yelled, “What is THAT??” “THAT” was headlights of cars driving on U.S. Highway 98! We had sailed almost ten miles to the beach off Beacon Hill. Fortunately, the rain slacked enough that we had visibility. Lightning was striking all around us, and the wind was still high, but the waves were getting smaller. We were sailing right at the beach. Another minute and we would run aground, and probably wreck the boat.

We had no choice but to drop the sails and anchor, which we did in a big hurry. When we had the boat as secure as we could make it, we jumped overboard into the shallow water. It was so warm! We moved about 20 yards away from the boat, our lightning rod, and waited the storm out.

In a few minutes the storm was over, and we crawled aboard to rig the boat for the third time. Of course, the wind fell away to nothing. We were five or six miles from Mexico Beach Canal and had no wind to get us there. It was about four in the afternoon.

We started paddling and finally a very light breeze came up from the east. At least the direction was favorable, allowing us to enter the canal at around 6:00 P.M. We tied up fifteen minutes later at Mexico Beach Marina, and checked in. No one there had been much concerned about us. I don’t think they knew much about sailboats or lightning. I don’t think Eric will forget his first sailing trip.

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