Don’t Mess with Mother WeatherBoating, SAFETY, STAFF — By Vicki Lathom on September 19, 2011 at 01:07
By staff writer Vicki Lathom. Photos Copyright © Vicki Lathom.
Feature photo: Taken in the 70s, Bill and Vicki Lathom on board Gypsy, in the harbor at Charlotte Amalie, U.S. Virgin Islands.
BEGINNING BOATERS have one bad thing in common: not leaving enough wiggle room in a schedule to keep them out of trouble.
Trouble means ending up entering an inlet in the dark, during a storm, because you tried to cut the time short. Like taking on financial debt, boaters need a cushion of time for a trip.
I learned this the hard way. My husband and I were on a cruise in Chesapeake Bay in the 70s. We were in a little port called Solomons Island, which was 50 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 p.m., figuring that Dunn Cove would take the afternoon, getting us in before dark.
Our boat, Gypsy, was a 50-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 a cruise, the three things you take into consideration are weather, weather and weather.
Around 6 p.m., a mass of violent thunderstorms reached down the Bay to us 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’s very dark. Gypsy’s large bow is diving down into big waves that wash over the deck and off the stern. The wind reaches 60 mph. As we later learned, its force picked up a wheel barrow in someone’s yard.
We know there’s a shallow area around here, but there are no lighted buoys, no GPS and no landmarks. We are blind and depending on luck. There were two times in my life when I’ve been so scared that my knees shook: one was when I was to give a speech to a large audience while I was running for student council; the other was that July night on Gypsy.
I’d like to say that this was the last mistake of this kind I’ve made in boating, but it actually took several similar incidents over the years to make an impression.
I happen to be fascinated with shipwrecks. In my research, I’ve found that a lack of counting in the weather and allowing a realistic schedule is the reason for many of them. Three such wrecks happened in the past year alone.
Maybe Tomorrow is the most recent example of misjudging timing and the weather. In this case the captain of a 30-foot sailboat thought he could outrun Hurricane Irene from Portsmouth, Virginia To Annapolis, Maryland. He left on 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.
Last March, a 19-year-old took his father’s 48-foot steel schooner, Le Papillon, on a joy ride from Baltimore, Maryland To Portland, Maine with two inexperienced crew. In New Jersey, Le Papillon ran onto shoals in Great Egg Harbor Inlet, a dangerous inlet in the best of weather. As described by observers, on that day no one in his right mind would have attempted passage. (Later in the journey, the boat ended up on the shore near the village of Saltaire on Fire Island, New York, after the crew reportedly got seasick and went below to sleep.)
A wreck which ended in tragedy was the sinking of Rule 62 in the Bahamas last November, also the result of serious misjudging of the weather and conditions. (See Vicki’s story, Sailing in the Bahamas: Beautiful . . . and Dangerous)
Leaving enough time for getting somewhere is not limited to boating and it is not instinctive. In our rush-rush society, we’re always cutting things short, living in some dream world where things don’t need the real time they take.
After 40 years of sailing, I don’t mess with Mother Weather. She is the first three things I consider before making any passage by boat.
Vicki Lathom has been a writer and sailor for 40 years. She retired from being director of public information for Montgomery County, Md., in 1996, and went to work for Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer as his speechwriter. Vicki has also done freelance travel writing and photography for such publications as SAIL and Maryland Magazine. She is currently a writing instructor for two graduate schools at the University of Maryland. Her higher education has been in journalism and public administration.