By Ilene Brandon, ILENE 3 (#445)
(reproduced with permission of Mainsheet, the Catalina and Capri Owners Magazine)
It was one of the final weekends of a spectacular season - the first with our new Catalina 320. We had traded up from a Catalina 30, which was preceded by a Catalina 25. (Guess we're a Catalina family!). We simply loved the new boat. It had all the features we wanted for our type of cruising: an enormous cockpit, a roomy aft cabin (we had always slept in the v-berth on the 25 and 30), more room in the head, a comfortable galley and spacious salon. And if our sons (ages 21 and 23) ever decide they want to spend time with us, which seems unlikely with their social calendars, there's even room for them.
Our season consisted of as many weekends as we could manage and a two week cruise in the beginning of July. With our home port in western Long Island Sound, our cruise to Martha's Vineyard was considered a great accomplishment. Our voyage to the Vineyard involved stops at some of the best harbors on the Sound: Port Jeff, Westbrook, Fisher's Island, Mystic, Newport, Block Island and Cuttyhunk. It was an outstanding cruise. The new 320 was remarkably comfortable and performed beyond our expectations.
But now we come to the end of the season and we're sneaking in another overnight at the next harbor. We're actually supposed to attend a barbeque at a waterfront park and then go back to the boat for the night, but it's such a spectacular day and the sailing is so perfect, we almost resist bringing it to an end. The Sound is filled with boats, almost exclusively sail. Something seems to happen around here towards the end of the season; both the power boats and jet skis seem less prevalent, while the sailors refuse to allow the season to end. Some emergency weather transmissions interrupt our exhilarating sail. The watches and warnings are for strong thunderstorms, accompanied by dangerous winds and hail. But the location seems to be to our north and west and moving in a path that will pose no threat to our area. Anyway, there's no mention of anything affecting Long Island Sound, so we continue to cruise towards Manhasset Bay. Suddenly - and it was truly suddenly - the sky over the Throgs Neck Bridge becomes darker than we've ever seen it. Immediately, things on the boat turn to near panic mode. Engine's on, we're dropping sail and tossing things down below. I'm at the wheel and Ron's on the coachtop trying to get the sail tamed and tied. The water, which had waves of no more than two to three feet just a few minutes before, is churning angrily. And things seem to be happening too fast, accelerating at a rate we can't keep up with. The seas are getting even rougher, the wind begins howling, water is spraying off the crest of the waves and the wind indicator...oh no, it's reading 45, more than I've ever seen at the helm. Of course, there's rain and lots of it. It's like being in a high speed washing machine. We're being tossed, soaked and spun. I have lots of trouble controlling the wheel and, while we're at the widest part of Manhasset Bay, there are four other boats nearby that are also struggling. We all try to stay out of each other's way, but the seas are so rough and winds so strong it becomes a real challenge. We see our friends, Dick and June Weiss, on their new Catalina 400 and recognize that we're all battling the forces and trying to hold the vessels into the storm. I resist the wind indicator for as long as I can, but now it's up to 48 and rising and I can t hold it into the wind anymore. Ron takes the wheel - he's got enough sense not to look at the wind indicator, since it does no good anyway - but even he finds that holding it into the wind is a challenge. Now I'm fixated on another essential instrument - the Lev-O-Gauge - which indicates that we're heeling more than 35 degrees to port and starboard as we swing back and forth in the churning sea. Heeling never bothered us too much before, but it's something else to be so hard over when you're bare-poled. We discuss, no yell, strategy. Yelling is not only a reaction to our feelings of absolute terror, but also an essential requirement when the howling wind drowns out any normal sounds. The howling is at a level I've never heard before and, if I could have been in better humor, I would have called out Auntie Em, Auntie Em. I begin to wonder whether my white-knuckled grip on the winch will hold me as the boat gets tossed about. I start having morbid thoughts about being washed overboard. People will surely say, she died doing what she loved, but I really don't love this!
This is a logical time to ask about life jackets and tethers and all that safety equipment we neatly stowed in the enormous locker in the cockpit. When I tried to open the locker, Ron immediately yelled for me to close it. He was concerned about it crashing down on me and, with two hands and a foot on the wheel, he was in no position to hold it up. Of course, it has that neat little hook, but you have to be pretty high (i.e., vertical) to hook that thing on and vertical was simply not in my plans. So, our biggest mistake is that we did all this with our safety gear neatly stowed. Of course, the Life Sling was properly mounted but there didn't seem to be any way it could ever be deployed properly or of any use to either of us in these conditions. Finally, the yelling turns into a plan. Since we can't hold it into the wind and we have the benefit of a deep harbor, we decide to run before the storm. Ron struggles, keenly aware of the other boats nearby, but is finally able to turn us around. The rain and hail are pelting us furiously by now and the wind is so intense. The waves are incredibly high and the wind causes the sea spray to come at us from every angle. Whatever form the precipitation takes, it's hitting us horizontally. We re simply beyond soaked. With no real advance notice (thank you, weather service), our rain gear remains nice and dry in the closet down below. But there is a marked difference in the boat's response to running before the storm. Naturally, the wind seems less intense and, if you can avoid looking back (I admit that I can't) at the huge waves following behind, you can actually begin to enjoy the ride as the boat rises with each crest. The harbor is deep and we make it to the end in a what seems like a just few minutes, but the timing is perfect. Things have eased - the wind is a mere 30 knots and the rain is no longer attacking. Dick and June are nearby and, when we compare our tales of terror, he reports seeing 65 on the wind indicator. The weather stations now offer detailed reports of sustained winds over 60 with gusts over 70. As far as I'm concerned, these are mere details; anything over 30 is well beyond my comfort level anyway.
Freak storms like this don t happen too often but, when they do, they leave an impact. The VHF calls to the Coast Guard and Sea Tow were endless that evening and the Coast Guard helicopter hovering above suggested that not everyone fared as well as we did. In fact, there was a casualty just a few miles to our east. A small daysailer went over and the couple on board tried to swim to shore. A powerboat nearby saw someone struggling in the water and attempted a rescue. Only one of the sailors was saved; the wife was killed by the prop of the boat that saved her husband.
What did we learn? Quite simply, safety gear comes first. We moved our inflatable vests and tethers to the forward shelf in the cockpit locker so things can be reached without having to climb in. We also decided to move one set of life jackets to the closet in the aft cabin just in case things on deck get out of control. We're actually thinking about making a storage area under the helmsman's seat to stow another set of jackets, which seems like the most sensible thing to do. But, wherever the gear winds up, it's got to be the first thing we attend to. Ironically, Dick and June made the same mistake and we all vowed that we would never be that stupid again. I learned something else: the wind indicator and Lev-O-Gauge are great instruments when the conditions are right. They are also capable of registering some very high numbers and inducing psychological torture. It's probably best for my sanity simply not to look. By the way, we never did make it to that barbeque; we were simply too soaked and too weary to do anything that night except dry off and enjoy the comfort of our new (and very seaworthy) boat.