Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don’t Do What I Did

August 1, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

With the navigation lights reflecting off the glassy dark water, three of us left East Rockaway Inlet at 4:30 am on my 25-foot Aquasport. My girlfriend Robin, my friend Ed, and I were headed to a favorite spot off the New Jersey coastline.We were soon greeted by a crimson sunrise, prompting Ed to recite the mariner’s adage, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.”

I ignored Ed as I reveled in piloting the boat over the dead calm water that was accented by the reddish hues. Sure, the weather called for westerly winds five to 10 miles per hour, with waves two to three feet that would be increasing due to heavy squall activity 80 miles to the south. I calculated we’d be back at our inlet well before any heavy weather found us — but my calculation was wrong.

We made great time over calm waters. Spotting a big Bertram anchored nearby, I radioed the boat’s captain. We made sailor small talk for a while, speculating on the sea conditions and forecast.

Suddenly, a cool, damp wind came from the east as the sky took on a slate blue tint and the Atlantic Ocean turned a greenish color. The relative quiet of the ocean was interrupted by low rumbling sounds; I assumed I was hearing low-flying jets. My assumption was washed away as the sky was quickly lit up by flashes of lightning and sharp, ripping cracks of thunder.

Robin and Ed brought up the lines; as I was tending to the anchor, I noticed the navigational lights were on. I cranked the engine, hearing only the sickening click of the starter solenoid. Figuring that the cabin heater and lights had killed the number one battery, I switched to battery number two and started the engines.

Amidst the driving rain, thunder, and lightening, I radioed the Bertram’s captain for an update from his weather service. He said there were squall lines all around, with heavy rain and wind, and advised me to “run due north and then east to your inlet.” I briefly considered heading to New Jersey, as it was closer, but the waves were breaking west to east, so we hurried as he directed.

We laid out the graphite rods (aka “lightning rods”) on the deck, and Ed, Robin, and I wore our life jackets and foul weather gear. The ocean was so rough that I had to use the throttles to avoid getting caught atop a breaker or too far into the wave trough so as to pitch pole the boat. The waves were four to six feet high, so the bow still periodically stuffed into a wave. The pelting rain and hail diminished visibility, and there was confusion as the sea sometimes came at the stern quarter and was sometimes abeam of the boat. The bait cooler popped its mount, spewing ice and bait all over the cockpit.

It was all I could do to maintain a heading and keep the bow into the waves. I reviewed safety instructions with the crew should we capsize, and hailed the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to inform them of our plight. I was instructed to run east to Jones Inlet ahead of the weather. Sure enough, the ocean lay down a bit on that heading!

Just outside the inlet I hailed the USCG again for advice on how to enter this unfamiliar inlet with its breaking waves. I was guided around the dangerous West Bar into calm water where it was just a warm and humid day, with the squalls perhaps just a nightmare. (We knew it was all real, as the Coasties radioed back to be certain of our safe passage.)

I should have made sure all electronics were off upon anchoring and I should have filed a float plan with someone ashore before leaving the dock. As soon as I realized our situation, I should have contacted the USCG.  Most importantly, I was foolish to ignore the forecast, as weather fronts can move quickly (the sudden easterly cool breeze was a cold front, indicating a weather change with a falling barometer).  That red sky saying isn’t just some sailor superstition — it should be heeded when you see it, though when there’s an adverse weather forecast, it’s best to not even head out. Stay at the dock and barbeque!

By Paul Knieste

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