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Riding out a Tropical Storm – First time on our boat



Eddie and I had had the dream of becoming sailors for years.  The longing of the sea was strong for both of us possibly for different reasons but still a common bond.  So we decided to buy a sailboat.  We had never sailed… EVER!  But lucky for us the boat broker was also a sailing instructor (and who later on became one of our dearest friends).


So included in the price of the boat we gained basic sailing knowledge and a friend for life. Sweet deal!


So after sailing with our instructor and other friends that were competent sailors we decided to go out on our own.  Our first sail, first night on the hook, first night of sleeping on the boat and this all happened.


Going to sleep to the rocking boat was heavenly. I loved every minute of it…..all 2 hours.  By midnight the rocking was more intense as the  storm increased.  We were alarmed but not in any way concerned about our safety….

….until the anchor line broke.



At about 2 am, the boat was completely free from it’s tether.


That is when the spinning, rolling, and yawing began with a violent force. Although the forward Genoa had been wound up tightly, the intense winds, which had escalated up to 68 mph (72 is a hurricane Cat 1), had unfurled the top portion.  This “tiny sail” was causing the boat to brutally rotate in circles while the 7 foot swells caused the vessel to heel so far to the sides that the safety rails were almost in the water.


Eddie started the motor and quickly jumped into the cockpit to try to turn into the wind, but each time he did, the forward sail would pick up the wind and twist us around.  This happened over and over.  Pitch, spin, heel.  Pitch, spin, heel.  Over, and over again.


[Side note: as more experienced sailors now, we would definitely have dropped the sails but back then, on our FIRST DAY SAILING, we just didn’t know]


We realized we were in some deep trouble and it was time to call for help.  I was down in the cabin that was turning, jibing and heeling, which caused me to crawl, retch and hurl!  My stomach’s evacuation joined the layers of ALL of the boat’s contents onto the floor.  None of the cabinets latches could hold with the brutal action of the vessel.  Broken coffee pots, canned food and vegetables, clothes and books and other belongings were spilled everywhere.


I, who had NEVER used a radio before was at a complete loss (REMEMBER: day ONE of us sailing alone) so I called 911.  The dispatcher did not know what to do with my call. I mean after all, who calls 911 while on a boat?  So she told me that I needed to call the Coast Guard and proceeded to tell me to get a pen to write the number down.


Might I remind you of the visual of the contents that were all over the floor?  So I began to crawl (standing was not an option) and dig through the incongruous heap of personal belongings for a pen.


Even now the hilarity of this situation makes me laugh.


Crawl, rummage, hurl.


I just finally gave up and strapped myself down into the Nav seat.  I told the operator that that was not going to happen.  And I think she realized from the amount of noise from the thunder, waves crashing and my retching that this was serious.


She managed to patch me into the United State Coast Guard and who then instructed me on how to get the radio working.  And that meant turning it on!


In the meantime, my husband was at the helm in the midst of 8 THOUSAND lightning strikes (yes I looked up how many happened that night) while holding a metal steering apparatus.  He had no protection from the wind and the rain as the Bimini top had been blown away, while trying to turn a boat that was not cooperating to a unknown direction. We had no instrumentation to tell us how far we had spun and whether we were going to crash into land.  He told me later that even as a firefighter that had 25 years of running into burning buildings, this was the first time he ever thought he was going to die.


Now I was still down in the cockpit trying to tell the Coast Guard where we were.  Of course I had no idea how to get our GPS coordinates.  They tried pinging my phone but the signal kept getting lost and of course was changing, by our ridiculous “Boat Ballet”.

The CG serviceman then began to talk me through sending a signal to try to find us.  The questions were simple.  “Do you have any flares?”


“Yes,” I excitedly exclaimed!  I was so proud that I remembered that we had them and where  they were.   But as luck would have it, they were no longer in the place where they should be.  They had joined all of the other objects rattling around at the bottom of the cabin.

In my search for them, I came across some grocery bags which quickly became my “airplane emesis pouches”.


Once back to the radio, he asked, “What kind are they?”  Then after my answer, he quickly added,


I am REALLY glad he added that last part.  (Remember: baby sailors on day one)


So I stuck the flares outside the companionway to strike them together only to have them quickly turn into a wet roll of uselessness. The torrential rain coupled with no bimini covering made for no flair lighting.


Back to the radio.  “What do I do now?” <vomit> “The flares got wet” <tie bag shut>

(At least I was trying not to leave my entire steak dinner on our beautiful African mahogany flooring)


Guardsman: “Do you  have a really high powered light?”


“Yes!”, I replied.  Again proud of myself for knowing at least this much.


So I plugged the 12v light with the 5 foot cord into the DC socket which was located next to the Nav station about 3 feet from the opening which was 3 feet up from the bottom of the boat.  I’ll let you do the math.


I could just BARELY get the bezel of the 10-million-candlepower LED light over the bottom edge of the companionway to shine upwards.  Only, it didn’t quite make it up.  The light only made it to about 45 degrees which just happened to be the exact angle of the captain’s face at the helm.  Poor guy, fighting lightning, 7 foot swells, an uncontrollable boat, and now doing it completely  blinded. Needless to say, that didn’t work so well.



Next the soldier on the radio directed me to turn the anchor light switch on and off repeatedly.  That much I could do.  So until they spotted us, I did a lot of Flick on, Flick off, and of course Hurl.  (I think by this point, there was nothing left to bag and it was just dry heaves.  Please forgive me if this is too much information here.   )

To give you a time reference, we broke free of the anchor about 2 am and shortly after the Coast Guard set out to look for us.  We were not spotted until close to 5 am.  That is a whole lot of “water foxtrot” for our boat and for us.


I think the captain and I both made peace with the fact that we were going to die that night and do it together. But alas, I am here to tell the story, so you know we didn’t.


I finally got the miraculous call on the radio that they could see us.  It was the happiest news I had ever heard.  We were going to be saved.  Thank God for the United States Coast Guard!


Please do not think for one moment that this was the end of this story.  Oh no indeed.


But first, let me fill you in on a few pertinent details:

Our first night on the boat was a very romantic one, and therefore, with no one else around us, we went to sleep wearing nothing and were awakened in the same state.  Once we realized we were in grave danger, we grabbed our life vests (the tradition orange ones, not the fancy CG approved ones like we have now) and put them on.


Just the life vests.


Nothing else.


You know, when you are fighting for your life you don’t always think unimportant things through to the finish.  You are only in the moment of here and now, trying to survive.


So as soon as I told the Captain that the Guard could see us and  that rescue was close, he yelled, “Could you find me some pants?!!!”

Oh my.  So then there’s that.


So down to the floor to rummage through our belongings and the bags of regurgitation I went.  I managed to locate some shorts for each of us but there was NO WAY I was removing my cherished life jackets to put on anything more. With the 7 foot agitated seas and intensely raging storm, I still wasn’t convince we were going to make it.


The Coast Guard rescue vessel with it’s high powered motor and huge red pontoons was a beautiful sight.   A serviceman, who to my somewhat-antiquated view looked like a teenager, jumped aboard our vessel and told me to stand by the outer taffrail with my hands in the air.  He may have been holding my feet but as I looked at the boats passing each other in a 10 foot vertical motion, I thought I am going to be smashed between these two boats if I even so much as bend over.



Eddie will say that his view was of the two watercrafts passing each other in an almost opposite up and down movement and all he saw was my feet fly through the air.  In a perfectly timed boat passing, someone on the CG ship grabbed my arms and pulled me up onto it’s rising hull in one swift motion.  This amazing feat of timing could only be achieved by hours and hours of on board training.  These seemingly young men had some incredible skills.


Once on board the rescue boat, still nauseated and barely able to hold up my head, Eddie and I looked back at our beautiful Danseur du Vent (French Translation: Dancer of the Wind) being pulled sideways through the violent seas.  She couldn’t even manage to point into the wind but instead, was dragged behind sideways with no semblance of grace.  We could see her forward sail torn and tattered, the mast looking anything but straight up and down and her bent guard rails from the impact of the vessel’s smashing together.


Eddie offered up a bit of glib humor and said, “Well, it was nice sailing her that one time.”


Now the rescue boat began to enter the walls at the Bucktown Harbor.  The wind had died down and the rain had stopped.  There was a semblance of a rainbow in the sky.  It was time to let out a sigh of relief.


Haha.  Nope.


That tranquility was not a sign that the storm was over.  It was the eye of the almost-hurricane.


Xs show the impact area

Before we even made it to the dock, the other side of the storm hit us just as fiercely as before.  This time, we watch our beautiful wind dancer crash INTO the military dock bow first.  The boards went flying into the air like splinters.  CRASH went the bow and then again, SLAM, into the perpendicular dock with the same results. Planks and timbers shattering before our eyes.


Surely that was the end of this sailboat.  How much more could she take and still stay afloat?


More pressing at the moment was us trying to run the 75 feet to the safety of the CG facility without being struck by lighting in the downpour.  We made it inside, dripping and exhausted but finally devoid of the anxiety of the last 5 hours. We were on dry land.


This was the first moment that I think I actually realized what I was wearing.  Goofy orange life vest and Wet. White. Shorts.


And that’s all.


It makes me chuckle to think of how many times I asked a passing Guardsman for an extra teeshirt or jacket but no one seemed to be able to find one. Again, I’ll let that sink in.


Looking at each other we realized that we had no cell phones and no numbers retained in our memories to call someone.  We were located on the OTHER side of Lake Pontchartrain both from where the vessel was moored and where we lived.  We had a yacht we were certain was a goner and therefore meant telling our insurance company that she sunk the first day out sailing her.  But we were safe and alive and that was enough for me.


This facility was very accommodating considering we are not cleared for military clearance and needed a “guard” on us at all time.  They offered us breakfast in their mess hall which itself was flooded with the surge of 2 inches of incoming water.  I am sure we were a sight to be had.  Drenched and tired but still wearing our Lifevests while on land.  At least I was wearing mine.  Finally a female Guardsman offered us some jump suits which were size XXXXL.  Yeah, that was a pretty comical sight as well with our crotch between our knees and 2 feet of extra pant leg to step on.  But hey, beggars can’t be choosy.


Once settled in the Rec hall we watched the tv reports of this same storm passing through Texas earlier that day.  We saw 18 wheeler tractor-trailers as they were picked up in the high winds and then came crashing down.  As it moved through Louisiana, this storm encompassed the entire circumference of the lake and then some.  There would have been no outrunning it in any shape, form or fashion.


Now calm with the endorphins out of our system and the storm completely passed.  The CG informed us that we were free to go.


Go where exactly?

And how?!

It was 10:30 am and it had been 4 hours since our last glimpse of our boat.  We walked outside, and there she was, looking battered and bruised but still afloat.


That was probably the biggest surprise of this whole event.  Her sails looked like a dancer’s fringe from the 1920s.  The stanchions looked like wet noodles and the mast had a slight lean from the lack of support. The Bimini was gone and the anchor was of course history.  The safety rails were curled in from the impact with the rescue boat but yet the bow was intact without a scratch!  Our beautiful Danseur had made it through.


How could that be?  We saw it smash bow first and bust the military dock!  But yet, it must have hit directly in the steel reinforced prow which held strong  and with no breach.


We couldn’t sail but our motor (as old as it was) seemed to be ready to take us home.  As we motored across Lake Pontchartrain, which after a storm is like a big bathtub sloshing around, we didn’t speak a word to each other for the full 4 hours it took us.  I spent the time down in the cabin, sorting through what might be salvageable, cleaning and tossing out my little “goody bags”.  Eddie, spent the time at the uncovered helm in the now blazing sun as he navigated us back to our marina.


We tied up the boat and went home only to not speak of the event, in any way, for at least the next two weeks.


After this said time, Eddie looked at me at questioned,

“So…… do you still want to do this sailing thing?”

I timidly responded, “Yes, do you?”


Of course, he wanted the same as I. Otherwise we would not be living on a sailboat right now. We only transitioned from our beloved Dufour after many years of sailing her for a boat more conducive to cruising the islands. It was definitely hard to sell her. I learned after that night how one could truly love an inanimate object as if she was a cherished family member. After all, our graceful wind dancer didn’t upturn even though the seas were certainly rough enough to make that happen.


So we consider this our Trial by Fire.  If we could live through this with our enormous lack of knowledge, then we will take what we learned that fateful day and work hard to never, ever, be that unprepared again.


The Sunny Sailor- 2011

10 Comments to Riding out a Tropical Storm – First time on our boat

  1. If it was easy everybody would live on a sailboat. Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
    We’re all here because we’re not all there.

  2. Great story! I’m glad you both got back on the “horse” and didn’t abandon your dreams. I’m going to make sure my Captain reads this so she will understand why I talk about loose stuff so much! I also think I’ll get some of those small trash bags mounted in a couple of places, just in case. Thanks again for the “lessons learned” story, it was a very enjoyable, funny and serious read!

  3. Wonderful write up! Thanks for sharing. I’m glad to have found your blog. I’ve got a lot more to read from you! My wife and I have a 47′ Beneteau and we are weekend sailors (for the moment). In 2019, we should be spending weekends on the hook vs. weekends on the mooring ball in Narragansett Bay. More to learn from you two!

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