"Well the wind is blowin' harder now Fifty knots or there abouts There's white caps on the ocean And I'm watchin' for water spouts"
I signed up as a support vessel for the Crossing for the Cure. I planned to meet the rest of the crew in Ft. Lauderdale on Monday. Tom and Rob volunteered to help me sail there from Stuart. We untied the boat and pulled out of the slip in Stuart by 9:00am Saturday. We raised the sails and worked our way down the river to the St. Lucie inlet by 10:00am. There was just enough wind to sail so we shut the motors off and had a peaceful sail for a couple of hours down the coast near Jupiter Island. By noon the wind eased so we fired up the engines and continued down the coast toward Lake Worth inlet at West Palm Beach.
By 3:00pm we were 7 miles from our destination when a large black cloud appeared ahead filling the horizon. We could see faint flashes of lightning and hear thunder as the cloud grew larger and closer. The radio cackled a warning that broke up; all I could understand was “…thunderstorm…heading north-north east at 15… cloud to ground lightning… winds gusting 40-60 miles an hour…. Possible waterspouts… potential for tornados … take cover…
I had just said to Tom, “The time to reef [take down some sails] is when you first think about it.” Rob was resting below and came up on deck. Being unfamiliar with this boat in heavy weather, I decided to take down both sails. Catamarans can’t heel in gusts, so having too much sail up in high winds can put enough pressure on the wires holding the mast up causing it to fall down on the boat. If I had been on Gratitude, our previous monohulled boat, I would have left some sail up but not on this boat.
The crew struggled to get the large new main sail down but eventually they safely stowed on the boom. By the time Tom and Rob made their way back to the safety of the cockpit, the storm caught us. The winds went from 15 to 35 knots in seconds driving huge raindrops horizontally stinging our eyes and skin. The rain was dense enough we couldn’t see beyond the bow of the boat any way. I’ve read many storm tactic sailing books but until you are faced with one, it is hard to know what to do. Each boat and each storm are different. What works in one case, may fail miserable in another. Most authors advise against running under bare poles. Having a small amount of sail up gives you more maneuverability and stability, especially on a monohulled boat. I didn’t have the right setup yet to set a minimal amount of sail, so I decided to take it all down.
Fortunately, we were near land, the wind was blowing from the land, and as a result, the waves didn’t have time and distance to build too much, 4-6-foot max. The wind was so strong, it was blowing the tops off the waves keeping them from breaking. Waves are usually more of a danger to boasts than winds, especially breaking waves. I’ve read that a breaking wave higher than the width of a boat (20’ on this one) taken on the side can roll you over. With a cat, surfing down a wave can drive one or both hulls into the water, tripping the boat causing it to pitch pole and turn upside down. Unlike monohulls, cats are as stable upside down as they are right side up so capsizing results in staying with the mast pointed straight down.
In this situation on this boat, I decided to run with the wind. Even though we didn’t have any sail up, we were flying 10-12 miles an hour being driven by the wind and riding the current. The apparent wind was gusting from the upper thirties to the mid-forties. When running, the boat speed is added to the apparent wind speed making the true wind speed 45 to 60 miles an hour.
Although the storm only lasted about half an hour, it seemed a lot longer. We were driven 5 miles off course and offshore. When the wind eased to the mid 20’s I tried to head back to shore. The rain was still so heavy I couldn’t see land. The wind and current kept pushing us back so though the boat was pointed somewhere between south and west, we were actually still being driven backwards north and east. The compass said we were pointed southwest, but the chart plotter said we were still moving northeast. With no building visible to steer to, it was very disorienting. The wind kept blowing the bow around enough that were spinning in circles.
Finally, the wind and rain eased, and the clouds lifted enough that we could begin to see a few high rises on land. I could finally hold the boat somewhat on course. It took an hour before we were back where we started and another hour to make it to the Lake Worth inlet. Soon Sailfish was tied to the dock at ironically Sailfish Marina.
I made the mistake of not listening to the weather as soon as I saw the cloud forming up ahead. I didn’t have a small storm sail rigged and ready to deploy. We did the right things when we took all sail down and ran with the storm. We were lucky the wind was blowing off the shore. The waves weren’t too big, and the wind was driving us away from land, not toward it.
Land lubbers may wonder why I didn’t run to shore. Land was directly into the wind making it impossible to sail or even motor that way, there was no good inlet nearby, and boats are safer on the ocean than land in a storm. I was exhilarated but still amazingly calm during the storm. I had done all I could, and the boat was handling the wind and waves well. I bought Sailfish intending to do coastal cruises and not sail offshore. This experience taught me to be ready for rough weather even close to home and land.