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Dragging Anchor in a Squall

An unexpected storm puts Rob Williams and his crew aground
2021-Sail-JanA

The wind shrieking through the rigging jolted me awake in the middle of the night. It sounded like the bimini was being ripped to shreds. I grabbed my iPad to check our position on the way to the cockpit and did a double-take: we were 25 yards from where we had dropped the hook a few hours earlier.

It had been the last day of a 10-day, late-July Chesapeake Bay cruise with my two longtime sailing friends, John and Barbara, on my Catalina 320. We had planned to celebrate our last night with a final anchor out but first had to spend the afternoon avoiding squalls. A nasty one threatened as we motored south under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. We began contemplating the shelter of a marina. Should we find a slip for the night?

We decided it was going to hit before we could get in, so we disregarded the adage “any port in a storm” and opted to ride it out. We left the bridge astern as we motored into the three- to four-foot chop from the south, life jackets and foulweather gear on, sails lashed and hatches battened. Soon, though, the storm unexpectedly broke in two, heading north and south of us, leaving a clear path down the middle. When we made Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse to the south a little while later, the clouds had all but blown away, and the wind and waves had begun to settle down. We rolled out the genoa to enjoy the last bit of wind.

By the time we found our anchorage, the thunderstorms were a distant memory. We motored past a little sandbar, poked into the lee of a wooded shoreline for protection and set the hook in 10ft of water with a healthy scope. For our last night, we had the sheltered little cove all to ourselves, except for a white daysailer moored some 25 yards off our stern quarter. We peeled off our life jackets and foulies and left them down below in a soggy heap. After a swim and some dinner, we had front row seats for a “red sky at night” sunset.

Eventually, after charting our anchored position on my iPad, I did a last check on deck and went below. My crewmates were not far behind. Like many summer evenings on the Chesapeake, the squalls of the afternoon seemed to have blown themselves out, and we were left with every prospect of a good night’s sleep. There wasn’t a breath of wind. Not a ripple on the water. But not for long.

As I bolted back up toward the cockpit several hours later, lightning flashing and thunder crashing, I shouted over the noise of the wind to my crewmates: “We’re dragging!”

Poking my head out of the companionway all I saw was that little white sailboat, illuminated in the pitch black by flashes of lightning, sliding quickly past as if she were motoring full steam ahead looking for shelter. Except we were the boat that was moving. Backward.

“Starting the engine,” I yelled back into the cabin as I jumped behind the helm. John appeared in the companionway, an expression of utter disbelief on his face as he quickly took in the scene before him. “Checking the anchor!” he shouted, snapping on his life jacket and disappearing into the darkness as he made his way forward. Barbara also appeared in the companionway with my life jacket and foulweather gear.

Motoring slowly into the wind I did my best to maintain steerage, but the bow was all over the place, hobby horsing in the chop. With every lightning flash, I caught a glimpse of that little sailboat, now off our beam, yawing and jumping wildly on her mooring.

Suddenly the wind turned it up a notch. Like a punch in the face, the full brunt of the storm hit us.

Radar data showed later that the center of the storm we were in passed just to the north of us as it went by. A nearby weather buoy reported a sustained 70 mph gust and a waterspout was identified just south of the Bay Bridge, which was closed because of the high winds. The National Weather Service later confirmed a tornado with 125 mph winds hit Kent Island 10 miles to the northeast on the other side of the bay, destroying 11 buildings and damaging another 155.

Our 29hp diesel couldn’t compete. The wind started pushing us backward again. A couple of seconds later, we heeled to port as if we were close-hauled in a blow caught with all the sails up.

“What the?” I thought to myself. “The keel must’ve snagged the mooring line.”

Just as quickly, though, I realized, no, we had been blown onto that same small sandbar we’d had to navigate our way around earlier that evening. Obviously, finding the bottom is never a good thing. But in this case, that little scrap of sand may have saved us from something far worse: getting blown hard ashore or into a dock. Now we just had to get back to deeper water again.

Turning the wheel to starboard, I gave the engine a burst of throttle. Nothing. Still heeled over, I pushed the throttle forward all the way and held it there. The boat shuddered ever so slightly and then seemed to relax as she straightened up again and found her footing in deeper water.

Around that same time, the wind intensity diminished ever so slightly, after which it fell a little more. It felt like it might almost be over. To be on the safe side—and in case this was just a lull—we quickly reset the anchor.

Soon afterward, as suddenly as it had hit, the storm was gone. It had been a classic Chesapeake Bay squall, albeit a far more intense one than any I had experienced in over a decade of sailing.

When I see John now, a few years and many sea miles later, he often reminds me about that time we “anchored out in a tornado.” We slap each other on the back and have a good laugh, both conveniently forgetting how lucky—and scared—we’d both been at the time.

To our credit, we’d left both boat and crew mostly prepared that night before turning in: deck in shipshape condition, dinghy snug to the stern for maneuvering, anchored position charted, key in the ignition. However, we’d also neglected a number of critical items that are now very much a part of my at-anchor checklist. These include:

Check the weather—No matter how nice an evening, always check the forecast before turning in. We learned later that the National Weather Service had issued a special marine warning about an hour and a half before we were hit that warned of a severe thunderstorm capable of producing waterspouts near our location.

Leave your VHF on—Many VHF radios are equipped to broadcast the NOAA Weather Radio 1050Hz automated warning alarm.

Use an anchor alarm—Our nav package has one, but we didn’t know how to set it and thought—wrongly—we wouldn’t need it that night.

Bottom line, we had dealt with squalls all day, and it felt like the dirty weather was over, but we were wrong. Never forget to keep the day’s bad weather in mind when you make your decision to anchor out. Red sky at night or not, don’t let your guard down. 

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

January 2021

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