Squall line on Lake Erie
It was late June, and my wife, Lyn, and I were halfway through an 11-day vacation cruise onboard Fellowship, our Hunter 26 trailersailer. We were visiting the islands at the western end of Lake Erie—South Bass and Kelleys islands on the American side, Pelee Island on the Canadian side—as well as Leamington, Ontario, on the mainland about 15 miles north of Pelee.
Leamington’s large municipal marina has plenty of transient slips, and a large cruising contingent had come in for the annual Taste of Leamington festival. Local restaurants set up booths at the marina, and there we had a delicious sequential lunch provided by five different restaurants.
We planned to spend the rest of the afternoon sailing to Pelee Island. The sky was clear, with only a few wisps of cloud very high up, and the computer and radio weather forecasts we checked called for a 30 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms, with wind from the south at 5 to 10 knots.
At about 1400 we were sailing close-hauled to the southeast when we heard that the probability of rain and thunderstorms had increased to 40 percent, and a severe-thunderstorm watch had been posted for western Lake Erie. We decided to drop the sails and use our outboard to motor directly to Pelee Island. An hour later a severe-thunderstorm warning with a forecast of 35-knot winds and lightning was posted for the Bass Islands, just 23 miles to the southwest. The disturbance was reported to be moving west at 18 knots. We decided to head back to Leamington, now about 5 miles north of us. With our sails hoisted again, we were making nearly 6 knots in the 12-knot breeze—better than we would have done with the outboard. A thunderhead in the distance behind us appeared to be moving west, and we thought it would pass well south of us.
About an hour later we saw a churning wall of black clouds approaching us from the south. We weren’t sure how fast it was moving, but we were quite confident we could make it back into the harbor before it hit.
Just as we approached the outer breakwater, the wind picked up. We realized we might be in trouble. About 200 yards off the entrance, I started the engine and turned into the wind to furl the jib and drop the mainsail into its lazyjacks. Then I turned downwind again and headed toward the entrance at full throttle. Just as we came abreast of the breakwater, we were hit by a blast of wind that must have been at least 35 knots, and the waves began to build quickly. We were now being set hard toward both the outer and the inner breakwater, and it took everything I had to keep the boat under control as we headed into the harbor.
The wind continued to build—we learned later that two boats in the marina recorded gusts of 55 and 63 knots—and rain was now pelting us relentlessly. Then we were bombarded with hailstones and an occasional burst of lightning.
The marina has four long piers, five channels, a reasonably large staging pool, and a courtesy dock and boat ramp. There was a large boat secured at the end of every pier, so crash landing on any of them was not an option. Trying to motor down a fairway in these conditions, I realized, might lead to a financial disaster because of all the boats I might hit as I went by, so the courtesy dock seemed our best hope. A huge gust hit us on the starboard side and caught the top of the doused mainsail, which started to slide back up the mast; then it heeled us over, and the prop came out of the water. The boat began spinning around out of control. But as it spun it came back upright, and as soon as the prop was back in the water I gunned the motor and turned the boat into the wind. That worked fine for about three seconds, until another gust heeled us and pulled the prop clear of the water again. We were being blown onto a pier packed with large boats.
Once the boat leveled off enough to put the prop back in the water, I headed for the channel that would take me to the boat ramp and courtesy dock. One side of the channel was packed with boats, the other consisted of large boulders that made up the breakwater. When another gust heeled us over 45 degrees, I thought that this time we were headed for the rocks. With and without the prop, I had to keep the boat from swerving from one side of the channel to the other in the crosswind. Finally, I saw the bulkhead next to the boat ramp. If I could get to it without crashing on the rocks, we might have a fighting chance to get the boat safely tied up without damaging another boat or ourselves.
But when I reached the bulkhead, the motor couldn’t slow us down enough to stop—so we kept going. Our last chance was to find a place to land at one of the two courtesy docks. When the prop was in the water, I worked the engine and throttle to control the boat. The docks were at 90 degrees to our course. I missed the first one, but managed to stop the boat and carefully back it down between the two docks. Our fenders absorbed the impact as we slid along the piers, and, fortunately, there was no damage.