Thursday, July 12, 2012

Decisions Decisions

Under Sail, Lake Champlain
44 36.55 N 073 22.63 W

I had planned to do a night passage to sail from Valcour back to Burlington tonight.  Night passages are very nice.  However, there's a gentle 8 knot southerly breeze, and we've had too little time under sail recently, so we're tacking back close hauled.  We are only making 3 knots so it will be a long leisurely sail.

My friend Pete sent me this link to a compelling story of what really happened in the cockpit of Air France 447.   Wow, is it ever dramatic.  Especially if you've ever been trained to fly a plane or to handle a vessel.  No, I do not have a comparable story from our block archive.

I didn't write about our arrival in Burlington on the 4th of July.  It was a doozy.

My original plan was to sit out all day on the 4th down in Porter Bay.  That is because severe thunderstorms were forecast.  We can handle thunderstorms and we can handle Burlington, but being at anchor at Burlington is the worst possible place to be during a storm.  It is extremely exposed.

Around 4 in the afternoon, I checked the doppler radar.  It appeared to me that any storms for the day had already passed, and had missed us.  I told Libby, "I changed my mind.  Let's go to Burlington right now."   So we did.

As we got up to the central part of the lake under sail in a gentle 10 knot breeze, we were pretty happy.  Just then the wind died abruptly.  Uh Oh, that usually signals a weather change.  Just then the Coast Guard came on the radio with a warning.  A severe storm was heading down the lake.  All boats seek shelter immediately.   "What the heck," I thought.  I rechecked the radar, and sure enough a massive storm had formed from nothing in just 30 minutes and it was headed for us.

What to do?   We decided to race the storm to Burlington and to pick up a mooring behind the breakwater.

To make a long story short, we did get to the mooring and attached ourselves, but less than 60 seconds before a 70 mph gust front laid us over. What a close call.   Burlington and surrounding areas got hit hard.  Hundreds of trees were downed and there was widespread flooding.

Thunderstorms like that usually last less than 15 minutes (and this one did).  If we had been riding at anchor we would have been OK.  If we had just sat in the middle of the lake with sails down, gone below and closed the hatches we would have been OK.  15 minutes is not enough time to create major waves, no matter what the wind speed.  However, while dropping anchor or while trying to pick up a mooring, the boat's vulnerability is at maximum.

Did we make the right decision?  I thought it over again and again, and I can't say for sure.  One thing is evident, we need more practice being adrift far from shore while hiding down below to ride out thuderstorms.  We don't need more skills, we need more comfort.

I must say a word though lest others try to follow my advice.  A Westsail 32 is an extremely seaworthy vessel, but she's not so fast with the motor.  When the Coast Guard advises all vessels to seek immediate shelter, that applies to smaller, faster vessels.  Larger ones like Tarwathie (and like the two dinner cruise boats out there with us) are better off doing the opposite. We should position ourselves as far from shore or shoals as possible, and drift.

Imagine yourself in an airplane.  The scariest thing is not flying through a violent storm, it is trying to land the plane during such a storm.

1 comment:

  1. Dick,

    As always, I appreciate and am enjoying your blog.

    Did you forget to include the link re. Air France? I would enjoy reading it.

    I really appreciate your examination of "run for shelter" vs. drifting far from shore.

    Thank you.

    Have a good weekend!

    C. Holmes
    Portland, OR


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