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Don’t Mess with Mother Weather By Vicki Lathom

January 1, 2012

Dont Mess with Mother Weather

 By Vicki Lathom

A storm approaching Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas

Beginning boaters often share one thing in common; not leaving enough wiggle room in their schedules to avoid trouble.

Trouble means ending up entering an inlet in the dark, or during a storm, in an attempt to make port on schedule, or to save time. Like having a financial cushion before taking on debt, boaters need a time cushion for every trip.

I learned this the hard way. My husband and I were on a cruise in Chesapeake Bay in the 1970’s. We were in a little port called Solomons Island, which was fifty miles from our destination, Dunn Cove in the Choptank River. But a boat trip is just like a car trip, no? You just get in, turn on the engine, and go. We left Solomons at 3 PM, figuring that the trip to Dunn Cove would take the afternoon, getting us in before dark.

Our boat, Gypsy, was a fifty-foot sloop with a seven-foot draft, built in the 1940s. Solid but underpowered.

We overlooked one thing-the weather. Experienced boaters always say that, in planning for

The author and her partner, Barry Miller, aboard S/V Cantabile

a cruise, the three most important things you take into consideration are weather, weather and weather.

Around 6 PM a mass of violent thunderstorms reached down the Bay to us, just as we entered the Choptank. As they often do, the mass went up the river and then turned around and came back to greet us. Suddenly it got very dark. Gypsys large bow was diving down into big waves that washed over the deck and off the stern. The wind reached sixty miles per hour. As we later learned, its force picked up a wheelbarrow in someone’s yard.

We knew there were shallow areas around us, but with no lighted buoys, no GPS, and no visible landmarks, we were blind and navigated largely by luck. There were two times in my life when I’ve been so scared that my knees shook; one was that July night on Gypsy. I’d like to say that this was the last mistake of its kind I’ve made in boating, but it actually took several similar incidents over the years to make a lasting impression.

I happen to be fascinated with shipwrecks. In my research, I’ve found that a lack of understanding of weather-related consequences, and the failure to allow for adequate passage time and a safe weather window, is reasons for many of them. Three such wrecks happened in the past year alone.

S/V Maybe Tomorrow is the most recent example of a catastrophe caused by misjudging time and weather. In this case, the captain of a thirty-foot sailboat thought he could outrun Hurricane Irene from Portsmouth, Virginia to Annapolis, Maryland. He left on a Friday night. The hurricane struck on Saturday, and the boat and its liveaboard couple ended up in the surf on the shore of Ocean View Beach, near Norfolk, Virginia.

Last March a 19 year old, along with two inexperienced crew, took his father’s 48-foot steel schooner, S/V Le Papillon, on a joy ride from Baltimore, Maryland to Portland, Maine. In New Jersey, Le Papillon ran into shoals in Great Egg Harbor Inlet, a dangerous inlet in the best of weather conditions. As described by observers, on that day no one in his/her right mind would have attempted that passage (later in the journey the boat ended up on the shore near the village of Saltaire, on Fire Island, NY, after the crew reportedly became seasick and went below to sleep).

Yet another recent tragedy was the sinking of S/V Rule 62 in the Bahamas last November; it loss associated with stormy weather conditions.

The Lesson

The requirement that we leave enough time to travel is not limited to boating. Unfortunately, it appears also not to be instinctive. In our rush-rush society, we’re always cutting things short, and living in some dream world where things don’t need the real time they take.

After forty years of sailing, I learned not to mess with Mother Weather. She is the first three things I consider before making any passage by boat.

Editors Note: Vicki Lathom and her partner Barry Miller are currently en route to the Abacos, Bahamas and plan to spend the winter living aboard S/V Cantabile, their 43 foot Irwin Ketch. NFTB looks forward Vickis winter 2012 cruising updates. A version of this article first appeared in the travel blog Milliverstravels.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Carol permalink
    September 3, 2012 12:14

    While poor judgement certainly played some role in the demise of Le Papillon, that was no “joy ride” those kids were on. The 19 year old had been trained in and was working extremely hard at a shipyard doing boat repairs for well over a year and a half and was bringing the schooner up to his home in Maine so that he could do work on the boat and save on mooring fees in Maryland. As for the other crew members, one was most definitely a well experienced sailor. Exhaustion was one factor in the wreck, as they had spent the entire night hand pumping water out of the bilge because of shoddy workmanship by an electrician. While I agree that there was no way they should have taken the schooner up to Maine without the father’s permission, without better preparations and more trained crew members, the intentions were good. These kids were not born with silver spoons in their mouths- the way everybody is assuming. They have all worked hard, doing the grunge work that you all wouldn’t dream of doing. The saddest part of all of this isn’t just the substantial financial loss to the father (the boat was uninsured), but the damage done to the father-son relationship. The son has certainly learned many lessons through all of this and has been working very hard to try and make it up to his father. The lesson I have learned through all of this is don’t ridicule and make assumptions without getting all the facts first.

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