Sunday, September 24, 2006


Turner Creek, N 39 21.919 W 79 58.754

We're sitting at anchor today awaiting more favorable winds before continuing south. Tomorrow sounds promising.

A strong cold front just passed here an hour ago. It is the same front that caused tornadoes and deaths in Tennessee and the midwest, and that threatened the entire northeast as it passed today. We had lots of warning that it was coming, so we have a secure anchorage.

I sat under the dodger and saw it approaching by eye and by radar. There was no heavy rain near us but a wall of very low black clouds approached rapidly. I estimate that it was moving at 35 miles per hour. There was only one sailboat with sails up visible when the front passed, and a couple of power boats. Simultaneous with the passage, the wind shifted within seconds from SW 4 to W 30 and light rain started.

The most drama was provided by the boat caught with its sails up. It was a little sailboat, perhaps a 21 foot day sailor with no lifelines, no roller furling. There were two people on board, although the second person apparently stayed below until it was all over. They got hit with the powerful winds from behind and promptly rounded up into the wind and dropped the mainsail. After tying down the main, I thought that they were going to sail with the jib for a while but suddenly the job sheet seemed to break away and the sail flogged violently. I watched as the captain struggled on the wildly pitching forward deck to tame that jib sail. Meanwhile the boat was lying ahull with the wind on the beam making about 3 knots toward shore. That put a definite time limit on the captain completing his task before running ashore. I ached to be there to grab the tiller for him to turn her up into the wind, but alas, he was single handing it.

Meanwhile on the VHF radio we heard someone calling repeatedly for the Boat US Tow Boat. Their radio transmission sounded very close. They called again and again but there was no reply.

Back on the day sailor, eventually the captain got the jib secured, then he disappeared below and came back a few minutes later dressed in foul weather gear.

Then we heard a new call on the radio from the Coast Guard in Baltimore. "Pan pan. Pan pan. Pan pan. This is USCG Baltimore. At 14:12 local time we received notice of a sailboat overturned in the Severn River and of a man in the water. All vessels nearby are asked to render assistance."

Meanwhile, looking behind me I could see one of the power boats that was out there at the start. It now appeared about to crash onto rocks on the shore. It appeared to be right up on the beach and two men were on the forward deck struggling with something -- I thought it was an anchor.

Meanwhile, back on the sailboat, the captain was furiously trying to start the outboard motor. He tugged wildly on the starter cord, perhaps 15 or 20 times before stopping. I think he gave up because the boat didn't seem to move.

Meanwhile, back on the power boat, I could see that the thing that the two men were struggling with was a mooring buoy and that they succeeded to moor the boat. It was just an illusion that it appeared so close to the beach.

Meanwhile, back on the sailboat, the captain had managed to deploy the anchor and now their boat sat safely with the bow up into the wind. About the same time, the front finished passing. The winds subsided to 12 knots and the rain stopped.

Back on the beach, two men got out of the power boat and motored in. Standing on the beach were two women watching anxiously. The women were not dressed right for standing out in the wind and rain. I bet they saw their men in distress looking out the window of their house and ran out.

Finally, the sail boat was able to start their motor and raise the anchor. Now for the first time, the second person appeared. Before that I thought he was alone. I could not determine the gender of the second person. Within 10 minutes they had both sails raised again and continued on their journey.

We also heard on the radio that one vessel had picked up the man in the water in the Severn River and another vessel had the overturned sailboat in tow. The Coast Guard canceled the pan pan. If you're going to capsize and get thrown in the water, the Severn River is an excellent place to do it because there are so many other boats around to assist you.

Now you see what kind of entertainment I enjoy out here on the water.

How about a safety critique of the 21 foot sail boat captain? First of all, he successfully completed all the critical maneuvers. He saved his vessel from peril. He showed courage and skill spending so much time on the forward deck of that little boat with no lifelines to hold on to. I give him a solid B for a good performance. Praise notwithstanding, what could he have done better?

1) He could have seen the front coming and been prepared. However, it came on him from behind at 35 miles per hour. Even a vigilant skipper could have been taken by surprise by that so I'm reluctant to criticise him for his failure. A better criticism was that he should not have been out there at all, given the weather forecast.

2) His best option would have been to keep sailing. Especially after his mainsail was down, the boat could have sailed nicely downwind, well under control, using only the small jib. The advantage of that choice would have been that he could have remained in the cockpit and not risked his neck by going forward. I suspect that there might have been pressure from the other crew person below decks to stop sailing that affected his judgment.

3) Having decided to not sail, he should have deployed his anchor before securing the jib, or donning foul weather gear, or starting the motor. Once anchored he could have done the other things while pointing safely into the wind. On that small boat there was no place up in the bow to stow the anchor, so it would have to have been retrieved from the cabin. Nevertheless, he made the wrong choices for the priority of his actions.

That captain's plight makes me reflect on the safety advantages we have on larger boats like Tarwathie. A sudden 30 knot wind would not threaten to capsize us even with all sails up. We have secured stowage below decks so that if we suddenly heeled 60 degrees or more, most things would not start flying around causing panic. We also have lifelines and hand holds -- very important for anyone who needs to go forward. We also have the anchor stowed in the bow ready for rapid deployment. We also have a quick starting diesel engine and a sheltered cockpit where other crew members can assist via motor without fearing for their own safety. The only counter factor is that Tarwathie is our home, not just a toy, so we are as anxious for her well being in addition to concern for our own safety.

Our first sailboat was an O'Day 19 footer and our second one was a Clipper 26, we also owned a 12 footer and a 20 foot sailboat when we lived in Sweden. A lot of what we know about sailing was learned on those little boats. Often, one has to be more skilled and more courageous to handle a little boat than a big one.

Changing the subject, now it is sunset and we just saw an enormous flock of birds. They may have been starlings. We were amazed because we could see them from 2-3 miles away and there were so many that they blackened the sky. It looked like a locust attack. The flocks divided then came together again. Finally they formed a long sinuous tear shape formation and flew away north. As the shape of the formation changed it gave it the appearance of a liquid black wave undulating as it moved northward. Great sight.

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