The Line Storm

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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 anywhere, anytime.

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.