Our Labor Day Heavy Weather Adventure

If there was ever a time not to go sailing, Monday, September 3rd, 2007 was that day.


As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, Janet and I spent the Labor Day Weekend in Lake Tashmoo on Martha’s Vineyard. It was an incredibly beautiful end of the summer weekend on the Vineyard. We didn’t want to leave. So, when we first heard the weather forecast calling for 35 knot gusts on our trip home Monday, we thought we’d either leave on Sunday night or stay till Tuesday.

Laying out on Tashmoo Town beach near the breakwater Sunday afternoon, Janet and I decided there was no way we were going to leave that idyllic place earlier than we had to. We’d leave Tuesday or if the weather forecast improved we’d leave Monday as planned.

Sunday evening and Monday morning I kept a constant vigil on the National Weather Service forecast that was issued every few hours. For as every seafaring person knows, those forecasts are never very good. But on your boat that’s the only weather forecast you can get. Unless you can call people on your cellphone and ask them if they’ve heard the weather reports. And usually, they’ve heard the landlubbers version of the weather: “sunny today in the 70’s, and a bit breezy”. Which is even worse than listening to the NWS. But that Monday we were lucky to talk to a couple of different people that listened to the marine weather. And they were telling us conditions were going to be getting better. Which corresponded to the NWS forecast Monday morning that stated “southwest winds, 15-20 knots, gusting to 30 knots”.

Gusts up to 30 was still a no-go. And we could see for ourselves how violent the wind gusts were. At that point, our thoughts were we’d go play another game of tennis at the town courts and come back after lunch to make a final decision whether to stay or go for the day. Though that morning as we walked to the courts, Janet and I both told each other we wanted to leave. We had to work the next day. We should be getting back. That attitude clouded my decision making process when we returned to Galatea around noontime. By then the NWS was calling for “southwest winds 15-20 knots, in the afternoon, gusting to 25 knots”. Those forecasted conditions were acceptable. I’d sailed in that countless times. We’d be surfing all the way home with winds on our port side quarter. I asked Janet if it would be OK for her to sail in 25 knot gusts. I explained it would be heavy weather sailing but nothing dangerous. She agreed it was alright for her. She wanted to go home as much as I.

We made the decision to go. We’d leave at 3pm for the best time to make it over the shoals of Middle Ground and give the winds some more time to die down. We’d be home in Mattapoisett before dark.

We left Lake Tashmoo at 3pm on the dot. We prepared the boat and ourselves for heavy weather. I went over the use of the marine radio, flares, and other safety equipment with Janet before we left. I double checked everything. Got our courses laid out and GPS waypoints all set. The dinghy was lashed securely and pulled in closer to try to avoid it capsizing. Janet wore her life vest, mine at the ready. Safety harness and handheld marine radio in arms reach.

Once we left port we discovered the winds were from the West not the SW. And they were blowing at a steady 20-22 knots, not the 15-20 knots as I was expecting. Overall, the sea conditions in Vineyard Sound weren’t bad. We had 5 to 6 foot waves on our beam / stern quarter. It was choppy, heavy seas. But Galatea handled everything without problem. We left the mainsail down, using only the genoa. Furling it out no more than a third of the total sail area. We were flying across the Sound at about six knots.

Janet did great as well. In the past, she would be really nervous in those kind of conditions. But she handled it like a veteran sailor as we crossed the Sound and made it to the eastern entrance to Woods Hole.

After getting through the channel at Woods Hole, the seas were calm and flat at the western entrance. We couldn’t even see whitecaps in Buzzards Bay. Everything looked good at that point so we decided to make the passage to Mattapoisett. Our original plan was to stay in Hadley’s Harbor overnight if the conditions in the Bay weren’t good.

As we sailed out of the western entrance of Woods Hole, the seas grew higher and higher the further we went. We were seeing five footers, then six foot seas. The wind continued blowing at over 20 knots from the west, with gusts up to 30 I estimated. The seas were hitting us on our beam as we stayed on course to Mattapoisett. We were fine at that point. These were the same conditions we experienced in Vineyard Sound. I thought we’d make it across the bay in about an hour.

It wasn’t to be. Before long we were being hit with seven foot seas, then 8 footers. I had to alter course and sail with the waves. Taking them on at about 45 degrees. The conditions weren’t dangerous at that point. I had good steerageway, the waves weren’t breaking. I worried how Janet was handling the situation, knowing she’d never experience this kind of heavy weather. I debated to myself if we should continue across the bay or turn around. I continued on, keeping an eye on the conditions. Would they get better, stay the same, or get worse? It was hard to know.

As the skipper of Galatea, I should have been more cautious. I should have turned around at that point. It wasn’t long before the seas grew worse and we found ourselves in treacherous conditions. The seas grew to nine feet, then ten. The waves grew sharper and began crashing on us. Tossing us about like a toy in a bathtub. I was loosing our steerageway, fighting to point our bow onto the oncoming waves.

Instead of putting up more sail that would have us at a greater angle of heal in the heavy winds, I decided to get better steerage by starting the engine. I had no more thoughts of crossing Buzzards Bay or turning around, my only thoughts at that point where keeping Galatea under control. I grew worried and knew Janet was scared.

It was only moments later that I heard a loud snap and felt the whole boat vibrate. Janet yelled out we lost the dinghy. I turned around to see the Jenhiu capsized and floating away. It was a surreal sight, something out of the movie “A Perfect Storm”. But I never gave a single thought to recovery nor turn my head back a second time. We were in danger and controlling the boat was my only concern.

Then in a rapid succession, less than 20 seconds later the engine died. I knew immediately why, in ten foot seas the sediment in the fuel tank would have clogged the filters quickly.

Another wave crashed over the side of Galatea, tossing us around. We were loosing control. We couldn’t properly steer into the waves any longer. Our only choice by then was heading back. I turned Galatea to run with the seas so I could get a bearing on the entrance to Woods Hole. We were about a mile and a half out into the Bay. Janet was in the cabin, asking whether we should call the Coast Guard. She told me later that from where she stood in the cabin the waves on our stern where higher than my head. She also told me later she thought we were going to die. I felt terrible about that, putting her in that situation. It didn’t matter that I told her we were never that bad off. But that’s how she felt.

Anyway’s, as soon as I got my bearing for Woods Hole and set our course, I gave Janet the go ahead to call the Coast Guard. Informing her to hail the CG with the distress call “Pan-Pan”. It was important to let the CG know of our situation but not send out a “May-Day”. We were in a dangerous situation but not a life threatening one.

Communications with the Coast Guard was confusing at first. Janet did a great job handling the call on the marine radio and providing them with our situation. I discovered the handheld radio was useless. It took a while for Janet to finally communicate to them that we were under control and sailing back to Woods Hole. And all that we needed was a tow when we reach the calm waters at the entrance. Once that was understood the CG notified SeaTow for us.

Sailing back to Woods Hole turned out not to be a problem. The seas continued to batter the boat, but Galatea handled them well. As time went by the waves grew less and less. A boat from SeaTow met us about a half a mile from the entrance, in about 4 foot seas. We informed them that we’d take a tow once we were in flat water. Janet told me afterwards how much better she felt with them motoring behind us on the way in.

SeaTow brought us into the inner harbor at Hadley’s where we set an anchor. Janet and I were glad to be there. It was still howling with 30 knot gusts and we were safe and sound in port. The tow cost us over $200 dollars but it was well worth it. As Janet said, “What’s our lives worth?”

After getting the boat shipshape and everything put away we made some strong gin and tonics and talked over the the mistakes we made. We also discussed the correct things we did (otherwise we wouldn’t have been there talking about it), as well as, how well we worked together in a crisis. We learned our lessons. For starters, we’ll never head out in those conditions ever again. I also let Janet know how proud of her I was. She was a real trooper. She was terrified by the dangerous conditions we were faced with, but she never panic’d. She handled herself really well.

With another round of drinks finished (well for me anyways), I went about cleaning the fuel filters and getting the fuel through the fuel lines. I got the engine started just after dark and let it run for a while to charge the batteries and make sure the fuel flowed through the filters.

We ended up having a nice evening and overnight stay at Hadley’s Harbor. It’s another beautiful harbor, one of the nicest in Southern New England. I’ll post a picture and a description in an upcoming blog entry.

We motorsailed back to Mattapoisett the next morning. The winds were light and out of the northeast, almost dead centered on our course. Neither Janet or I wanted to take the extra time to tack back and forth. We just wanted to get home. We picked up our mooring at noon, ending our adventure after four days living on the boat. It was time to get back to the real world.


One Response to “Our Labor Day Heavy Weather Adventure”

  1. Lorraine says:

    A breathtaking, scary story; So glad it has a happy ending. Whew

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