The Line Storm
My old man never had much use for
sailboats, but as a native New Englander and a self-professed "swamp
Yankee," he's always had an opinion on the vagaries of East Coast
weather. In the meteorological World According to Dad, there
exists all manner of phenomena you won't find in the weather books, and
chief among these are the biennial occurrences--one in the spring, one
in the fall--that he calls the line storms.
These nasty gales
are so named, Pop says, because they vigorously draw a line between the
seasons. The spring version breaks winter's back once and for all and
ushers in the hazy days of July and August. Conversely, the autumn
edition bids farewell to any vestige of a lingering Indian summer;
break out the parkas, for it's all downhill from there.
Growing up, I'd always been skeptical of Dad's line storms, but not lately. For in the last few years, it seems that, every May and every
November, some wicked system gestates and grows in the North Atlantic,
and all hell breaks loose. In the aftermath come the U.S. Coast Guard
dispatches replete with grim tales of Maydays and abandoned vessels.
Some years, we also learn of the sailors who never came back.
Which brings us to the awful, unreal weekend of last May 7 and 8.
Taken in sequence, the stories go from bad to worse. On Saturday, an
injured 81-year-old sailor was airlifted from his boat some 300 miles
northeast of Chesapeake Bay. That same day, two sailors southbound for
South Carolina--delivering a 41-footer they planned to race from
Charleston to Bermuda a few days later--were also evacuated by
helicopter some 60 miles east of Cape Lookout, North Carolina.
But things really deteriorated on Sunday, when the 45-foot Almeisan
was creamed by a huge wave that stove in one of the boat's expansive
pilothouse windows. Believing the boat was going down, her veteran
65-year-old skipper and his experienced first mate were swept away
while deploying the ship's life raft. Remarkably, the mate survived
after drifting for some 20 hours, but captain Thomas Tighe wasn't as
lucky. Associate editor David W. Shaw's complete report on the tragic
incident can be found in Shoreline on page 18.
No one but those aboard Almeisan
can begin to describe what it was like out there at the height of the
storm and with the boat's interior fully exposed to wind and seas; for
others to attempt to do so is both unfair and unseemly. However, it's
also important to try to understand what happened and why, if for no
other reason than to possibly prevent history from repeating itself.
There's an old adage that the time to board a life raft is when you must step up into it, yet Almeisan
stayed afloat for many hours after sustaining the initial damage, and
her remaining three crewmembers were rescued from her decks early
Sunday evening. The Coast Guard provided Cruising World
with video footage of the boat taken from a C-130 aircraft, and while
down a bit in the bow, she appeared to be coping well with the large
swells. Ultimately, these images raise many questions but provide few
answers. For instance, why did Tighe feel his chances were better in a
raft? Why didn't a boat like Almeisan carry storm shutters? And, most
pointedly, why on earth was anyone at sea in the teeth of a violent
nor'easter that had been forecast days in advance?
In the case of Almeisan,
the latter might be the easiest one to answer. She'd left port nearly a
week before bound for Bermuda with a favorable weather window. But her
skipper had done the trip countless times and was obviously confident
about the vessel's capabilities should conditions change. Heck, if all
any of us ever did was wait for perfect weather, no one would ever sail
But I reckon my father, without even
knowing it, gave me an offshore-sailing lesson a while back that only
recently became clear to me. For when you push the seasons at either
end, and you do it often enough, sooner or later you're going to deal
with some really snotty weather that might escalate into something
beyond dangerous. Which is still OK if you've got the boat and the gear
and the crew and the skills to deal with it.
And if you don't? Well, that's easy, too. Don't even think about crossing that line.