Voice of Experience: A Rough Season Opener
In the Northeast the arrival of spring brings much anticipated preparations for the start of the sailing season. In my case, this includes trailering Windseeker, our 23-foot Seaward, south to Island Heights in New Jersey where I have a yard commission the boat. Afterward I sail solo across Barnegat Bay to the Lavallette Yacht Club where we keep it for the summer, which for my wife, LaMae, is the most anxious part of the process.
This past year we decided to combine the annual migration south with a visit to our son’s place near Ocean City. As part of the plan, we dropped off the boat at the yard so that it could be launched on Friday. The following afternoon, upon returning from our son’s place, we stopped at the yard and found the boat almost ready for my solo sail across the bay.
While waiting for the crew to finish commissioning the boat, we saw some dark clouds gathering to the southwest. As always, LaMae was anxious, but I was happily looking forward to the adventure. The weather forecast called for occasional clouds and light winds, and I anticipated a pleasant sail across the bay. I checked the weather again, and the predictions for southerly 10-15 knot winds convinced me I should have a pleasant crossing.
Once on the bay, I immediately raised the main and unfurled the jib. The crossing was off to a great start! I confidently called LaMae and told her my ETA at the club would be sooner than anticipated.
As I approached the bascule bridge on Route 37, I furled my sails and called the bridgetender to request an opening, to which he responded by asking me about my mast clearance. At first I was confused, because for the past 10 years it has been well established that my boat, with its 34-foot vertical clearance, needs a bridge opening. Also, we had recently had an unusual amount of rain and the tides were remarkably high. I checked the clearance gauge on the side of the bridge and informed the tender that I needed at least 34 feet and that the gauge now indicated only 28 feet. He finally gave the standby signal, and as the bridge started going up, I moved closer and put the boat in neutral.
It was then that I realized I was moving faster than usual. The discussion with the bridgetender had distracted me, and I had not noticed there was a very strong current running toward the bridge. I had also not seen that several small powerboats were approaching from the opposite side.
Next thing I knew I was being pushed under the bridge before it was completely open. I heard the bridgetender shouting on the VHF radio, “Captain, you are going to hit. Turn around!” I guess by now he was convinced that I needed an opening.
Unfortunately, the moment the bridge bells and sirens began sounding, several small boats on the other side started moving under the bridge, motoring slowly against the current and blocking me from moving to the center of the channel where there was more clearance for my mast. To complicate matters even further, I had a large powerboat approaching from behind. I quickly put my engine in full reverse, but the prop walk only moved my stern toward the small boats coming in the other direction and made it much more difficult to maintain steerage.
I said a prayer and braced myself for the inevitable collision. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the top of my mast hit the bridge with a loud bang. The high-pitched scraping sound of metal against metal was ear piercing. The bridge continued going up and pulled my boat right along with it. As the bow went up, the stern began taking on water. It felt as if I was being launched into space. All of a sudden, my anchor light, antenna and anemometer gave way and the boat dropped back into the water with another deafening bang. Surprisingly, we were still in one piece and kept moving through the bridge.
Once I was through the bridge and out of the channel, I dropped anchor and carefully inspected the bilge, the mast and its tabernacle and all the rigging. Having determined that the only damage was to the anchor light, radio antenna and anemometer, which were now all at the bottom of the bay, I raised anchor and set sail again.
All this time I was monitoring Channel 16, and there was complete silence. Neither the bridgetender nor a single one of the small boat skippers bothered hailing to ask if I needed assistance—although the occupants of these boats were all craning their necks to see if there were any more surprises in store.
As I settled in the cockpit and continued sailing toward my destination, I noticed the sky was continuing to darken. Then I saw lightning. Then rain started to fall. The weather had apparently made a sudden change while I was struggling under the bridge. As the rain intensified, visibility decreased. The pleasant 10-knot breeze was now a steady 20-plus knots, so I took in most of the jib and reefed the main. The lightning was getting closer, and the wind was driving the rain almost horizontally into the cockpit. It hit my face like tiny sharp needles.
By now I figured nothing else could go wrong. The storm was directly over me and the lightning strikes were less than a mile away. Suddenly a bright flash illuminated the boat and the entire shoreline, and the hairs on my arms and head stood up on end. My immediate thought was that lightning had hit the boat. As I waited for the next strike, I locked the steering wheel, said another prayer, and muttered under my breath, “Sailboat, you may go wherever you want, but I am not touching the wheel.”
As the lightning passed, I saw that the last strike had blacked out the towns of Lavallette and Seaside Heights, which meant I had to approach the shore in near darkness—yet another challenge. Fortunately, the wind diminished as I was docking, which made things less stressful.
It was Saturday night, which meant that along with LaMae, who was waiting for me, the club was full of members and guests attending a dinner. I had quite an audience as I rounded up into my slip. Because there was no power, dinner was put on hold, and I provided the entertainment. Cocktails in hand, everyone had witnessed my approach out of the storm, and they now gave me a loud round of applause as I docked. My anxious wife was upset that I had sailed through such an intense lightning storm, but did not notice the damage to the top of the mast because of the blackout. It wasn’t until later that night, while having cocktails with sailing friends, that she learned the full story.
What I did right:
Before leaving I filed a float plan with a family member and had checked the most recent weather forecast.
I wore a life jacket and harness throughout my adventure.
After colliding with the bridge I carefully inspected the boat for damage before proceeding.
I had a backup handheld VHF radio aboard to use after I lost my masthead antenna.
What I did wrong:
I should not have let my confidence in the weather forecast blind me to the deteriorating conditions I observed. Given the dark clouds I saw, I should have checked another source of information.
Given the recent heavy rainfall, I should have expected stronger currents in the area. I especially should have noticed the strong
current under the bridge before getting caught in it.
I should have noticed the group of small boats on the other side of the bridge earlier and should have asked the bridgetender to request that they respect my right- of-way as a vessel transiting the bridge with the current. I might have also hailed the small boats myself to make this request.
I should have stayed clear of the bridge while talking with the bridgetender and should not have approached until the bridge was up and I had a clear route through it.
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Illustration by Steve Sanford