The First Storm

After taking the ASA classes I was set on pursuing sailing. The courses allowed me to get on a boat and see what it is like, and I was hooked. Unfortunately sailing is expensive, and this is something that will be brought up a lot in this blog. So while I was not able to get back on the boat very quickly, I immediately purchased a few good books to continue my sailing education. I may not be able to afford the practice of sailing, but I at least could afford to learn the theory. A few months later in September 2007, I felt it was time to get back on a boat no matter the cost. I offered a day of sailing to my roommates and friends from our street if they were willing to split the cost, and they all were happy to join in.  So we took a trip up to St. Augustine for the weekend with plans to sail all day Saturday on one of the small J-24's from the same people I took the class from (St. Augustine Sailing School at Comanche Cove Marina: www.sta-sail.com).

I was pretty nervous about the sail because I hadn't been on a boat in a few months, and felt I lost a bit of the simple skills that reading the books couldn't keep fresh.   These were little things such as hanking on the sails, running the rigging, using the outboard...all things specific to the small boat we only spent one day on.  However, after we were shown the boat and I started working with the sails and rigging, things came back to me and we were out of the harbor in no time.

Looking back, I did a few things very wrong from the start.   The winds were absolutely dead when we were at the marina in the morning.  We predicted that the sea breeze would start to flow sometime around 10 or 11 am, and we would have pleasant winds to sail around in.   We did not, however, check any kind of forecast for the day and the marina never warned us of any potential bad weather.

So after getting to know the boat a bit we pull the dock lines and headed off.   None of my friends have sailed, let alone stepped on a sailboat before.   So with my limited working knowledge I had to teach them the ropes. Luckily, they were all receptive to the instruction and picked it up quick.

Motoring out of the marina, me on the tiller:

We got out of the marina and hoisted the sails.   As mentioned before, the winds were super light, I'd say about 2-3 knots. We were able to get moving and I soon taught everyone how to tack, jibe, and work the sheets.

Here we are on the way, enjoying the Intercoastal shortly after setting sail (notice the darkening skies):

We scooted around in light winds for about an hour or two waiting for things to pick up.  We kept an eye on the clouds and accepted that we will probably get some rain at some point. So we sailed north on the ICW trying to find some wind. At this point I began to keep a close eye on the big dark cloud that seemed to be the meat of the storm.

As we ventured further north the wind finally started to pick up. Every five minutes or so the wind would pick up another few knots until we were moving at a brisk pace. For about 15 minutes or so...we were really sailing.   We were moving along at a good clip, unlike I had sailed in my training.   We were able to get the boat on the rail and find a good rush with the speed and trying to handle the boat.   Everyone adapted fast and figured out how to handle the sheets and sails so we wouldn't collapse.  Soon we were hooting and hollering with the speed and excitement the new winds provided.  Every once and a while we would find ourselves a bit over canvased so we had to spill the sails to slow down.

As the winds continued to pick up  I started to notice our surroundings. To the north, the cloud that was menacing before seemed to develop a wall of rain that was approaching us. As the wall got closer and closer, the winds picked up and up. Something clicked in my mind that things are going to get a little out of hand here soon.   I started to notice that all other boats in the water seemed to have wisely disappeared.  It was eery and the weather approaching us all of a sudden looked much more dangerous than fun.

With what looked like only a minute or two before the wall of water hit, I pulled down all of the sails and sent everyone except James down into the cabin to wait out the rain.   At this time the lightning came and the rain picked up to a massive downpour.   Only a few seconds later, the wall of water hit us and with it winds gusts up to 30 knots.   At this point I was about to sh*t my pants as lighting bolts were striking near us, deafening our ears and terrifying our minds.   I knew we had to anchor or we were going to run aground on the banks of the waterway as the wind was pushing us toward it.   James took the tiller and motor while I tried to set the anchor.  Unfortunately, I had not had much practice with anchoring in my training, something I really really wish I had.    I threw off the anchor and with the current, wind, and chaos of the weather it seemed to just float in the water and run down current away from us.  It didn't help that the anchor was sized for a dinghy with no chain rode.  I cannot begin to describe the panic and chaos that was going on at this moment.   James and I were screaming at each other wondering what the hell we could do to save the boat and ourselves.   We tried the anchor over and over and eventually I remembered to let out a lot of line to get the anchor to the bottom.

What seemed like ages was probably only a couple of minutes, but we got the anchor set. A couple of lightning bolts came within a few dozen yards of us and we were convinced that our mast would catch one and fry us.  After the anchor was set we both joined the others in the cabin to ride out the storm. The big winds seemed to die down once we got in the cabin so the wait wasn't too turbulent. But the rain and lightning continued for about a half hour. We took the time to calm down from the panic and have a survival beer.

Here we are in the cabin escaping the storm:

It was here that I realized how close we came to being in huge trouble.   If we had waited ANY longer to take down the sails, we would have been in a position where the boat could have been easily broken or lost altogether. The others, especially the three who spent the crazy moments down in the cabin, had no idea how intense and serious the weather was for us, but the look on my face and the panic James was able to see convinced them that we just survived and successfully pulled ourselves through something that was potentially damaging.

After the storm passed, the winds died off once again and the water became glass.   We arose from our hole triumphantly surviving the storm (my first on a sailboat!), and were ready for more sailing.  After all, we only had winds for a short period before sh*t hit the fan!

Here we are, soaked, enjoying our triumph by motoring around near downtown St. Augustine:

We had endured, and the rush we experienced gave us a high that lasted all day. A few hours later after motoring about we returned to the marina.  When we arrived and the marina employees came to greet us, they were shocked and impressed that we came back unscathed. T hey wondered where we had been and why we had not returned to the marina when the storm was coming.   I checked my phone and had 16 missed calls from the marina and my parents!  Apparently they were trying to hail us for a while to get us out of there.  Lesson learned, keep near the communication devices. We did not even keep track of the VHF radio and had it on silent the whole time. Despite all of that, they were happy to see us in good spirits and safe.

It turns out I did a lot of things right, and a lot of things wrong, but the rights outweighed the wrongs.   On such a small, rickety boat, and with very little experience in the captain and even less in the crew, how we pulled it off without grounding was quite admirable.   I soon became very proud of my instincts and was happy to gain such experience so quickly. I was also proud of the crew and was confident I could take them out and trust them to learn more.

With the exception of a small break on the companionway boards (unrelated to the storm), the boat was in good shape and we left with our heads held up high.   Of course my parents were freaking out, but we had a story to entertain and lift their spirits.   The rest of the weekend was spent celebrating our adventure and looking forward to the next.   I was also pretty excited that my friends were down for more sailing, even after experiencing the worst first. The little time we had with wind got them hooked methinks.