Adventure Story: Strange Storm Strikes Simple Sail

This story originally appeared in Latitudes and Attitudes magazine.

Lake Perry and Our Patient Sailing Teacher, Mike Simpson

Lake Perry in Perry, Kansas, for all the world, looks like an anchor when viewed on a map. It is 10,000 acres of cruising ground for somewhere around 1,000 local land-locked boaters, about half of which are sailors.

One sailor in particular is Mike Simpson, and he was one of the first people to make our acquaintance several years ago when Jac and I got our first sailboat. Mike is a seasoned sailor who, along with his best pal, known locally as Pirate Fred, has done a lot of bare boating in the BVI.

Jac and I were delighted that Mike had invited us along for a ride on his Hunter Legend one early spring afternoon. A patient teacher, he spent several hours that day imparting as much knowledge as he could without taking away from the joy of the sail itself. We all took a turn at the wheel as Mike would point out trouble spots on the lake for us to keep an eye on when we were out on our own. He’d been sailing this lake for quite a number of years and was a wealth of knowledge, especially to a couple of neophytes like us.

Far too soon for me, the sun started to set, and we helped stow the sails as he motored us back to our little marina. On the way back in, Mike offered to go out with us on our 28-foot Columbia, and Jac accepted the offer almost before he got it out of his mouth. This hurt my feelings just a little. But, she was right to speak up. Having someone with his experience on board certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing based on our own collective experience at that stage.

As I said before, Lake Perry is shaped like an anchor and our marina sits on the bottom of what would be the right-hand fluke. The Devil’s Gap marks the intersection where the flukes attach to the shaft; it is also where the wind gets very weird, almost vortex-like, seemingly coming from several directions at once. One of the first questions always asked by other dock mates when you pull into your slip is, “Did you make it through the Gap today?” The answer to the question determined whether or not you had a long sail or a short one.

Dark Skies Do Not Deter True Sailors

 “Do you guys want to go out today?” Mike asked, as Jac and I were getting the boat squared away on a Sunday morning.   

I answered we’d love to but I had some concerns about the darkness of the sky over the north end of the lake. He answered my concerns by informing me that he had been watching the clouds all morning and had looked at them on his radar, and judging by the pattern he saw, he felt confident the storms, if any, would come nowhere near the lake. Naively confident in Mike’s knowledge of all things Lake Perry-related, we agreed and set about making ready to get underway.

By the time we had the boat ready for action, Mike returned from his boat carrying a small cooler in one hand and what appeared to be a miniature version of a boat fender in the other. I took the cooler from his hand as he boarded and stared inquisitively at the fender. Mike, sensing my question, demonstrated the purpose of the fender. Turns out a friend of his has converted it into a flask which could hold about a pint of your preferred beverage,

In his case, it was filled with Schnapps.

Since there was a slight risk of unfriendly weather, we chose to fly the jib only. It was a roller furling set up and easy enough to douse if things got crazy. With no sheets leading to the cockpit, the main could only be set by someone standing at the mast.

The prevailing winds were from the north and west which meant we could pretty much sail the length of the lake on one tack. It also meant that those storm clouds north of the lake could be blown down onto the lake. That realization was the impetus for flying the jib only. A little more than two hours later (eight miles or so into the sail) we had made it to the north end and prepared to come about and head home. The threatening weather had indeed stayed north of the lake, and it had been a very pleasant sail so far.

“Ready about?” I hollered.

It was about that time Mike suggested we go ahead and raise the main for the return trip. After all, we would be heading away from the storm which had been brewing all morning, he reasoned.

Setting the Main Sail

I agreed, and the decision was made that he would go forward and raise the main while Jac handled the jib sheets, and I manned the helm/tiller. Remaining on our current tack, Jac and Mike removed the mainsail cover. That being done, Jac manned the port winch as Mike prepared to hoist the main.

“Ready about?” I hollered again, to which both my crew members answered, “Ready.”

Pulling the tiller handle to starboard, I headed the little ship up into the wind, pausing just long enough to give Mike time to set the main before continuing on through our tack.

All Hell Breaks Loose

It was about the time the main reached the top of the mast that all hell broke loose. The raindrops from those aforementioned clouds were riding on winds strong enough to force them down on us even though the sun was still shining where we were, and they were about the size of half dollars and hurt like the dickens.

The wind that had brought these malicious pellets was wreaking havoc on everything and everybody on the little ship as she struggled to keep her feet under her. Along with halyards slapping and sails flogging, the sound of falling items down below was competing with the (now) very loud thunderclaps and lightning cracks.

storm

Up on deck, Mike’s 160-pound, five-foot-seven figure could be seen flailing about like an errant burgee as he attempted to haul down the main without being blown off the boat. We were being hit from the starboard side by wave action that was threatening to knock us down with each hit, or so it felt that way at least.

I immediately sent Jac below, out of the rain, as I tried to get the engine started. Mike was still trying to get the main under control while I tried tohold the bow in the wind. We were quickly approaching a shore and were running out of time. It seems in all the commotion a line had fouled near the top of the mast, and Mike was having a tough time pulling the main down.

Turning off the wind before getting that main stowed could’ve easily proven catastrophic to us, and the boat. Mike made one more Herculean effort by jumping up and grabbing as much of the main as he could in both hands and letting his weight bring the sail crashing down onto the deck. He did it just in time for me to steer us away from the looming shoreline.

As I turned off, Mike threw a few bungee cords on the flailing main while I finished rolling in the jib. With the sails finally under control, the noise on deck gave way to the noise from the sky. Thunder boomed and lightning cracked all about as the heavy raindrops stepped up their assault and landed in rapid-fire succession churning the already roiling lake into a tempest of biblical proportions. 

The rain was falling hard enough now that the shoreline was almost invisible as we chugged our way back towards the Gap. Mike had made his way down below with Jac while I stood in the cockpit covering what I could of my face with one hand, while trying to maintain control of the tiller with the other.  As long as we were north of the Gap things were relatively under control as there was some protection from the wind between the current shorelines. But I knew that once we were on the other side, that protection would cease to exist and our course would require turning in such a way the wind would be hitting us full on from starboard.

Imagine for a moment the last time someone threw you something from down below while you were in the cockpit. Now imagine that something being caught by the wind as soon as it cleared the hatch, only to be blown overboard as you helplessly watch it float away. This is what we would be up against once we started into the Gap. If we were doing this on a calmer day, reaching the Gap would mean pulling the tiller to port for a moment in order to clear the point on the opposite side and then pushing it to starboard to straighten out the course now passing that same point off to port.

The Situation Intensifies

It would not be that simple today. Today we would be that something that got blown over when it cleared the hatch, and the "hatch" was where the Gap opened itself up to the anchor flukes. As we neared this point, I steadied myself for the blast and was not disappointed. As soon as we cleared the point off to starboard, the wind caught us full on. I quickly increased the throttle and turned hard to starboard. Sitting on the leeward rail with the tiller pulled up under my chin and my legs stiffened against the starboard cockpit gunwale, time seemed to stop momentarily.

We were frozen in this position not moving forward or aft, not right or left. Just there in mid-air between a sky bent on pushing us below the waves, a wind bent on blowing us over and a lake hungrily ready to swallow us up. Soon enough the moment ended, and the bow started to slowly fall off to starboard. We headed straight into the howling wind and rain and maintained this course until I felt sure we were far enough through the Gap that we wouldn't be blown onto the shore that would be on our port side as we ran toward the marina.

Feeling we had reached that point of safety, I eased off to port. The wind had increased even more by this point, and I was forced to maintain the tiller in a position steering us to starboard in order to keep from being smashed on the windward shore. I hoped my calculations were correct, and we could stay off that shore long enough to make it around the point that would take us home. That point was at the end of what was now the windward shore.

Several times during this part of the trip, we were blown over far enough that the prop broke the water’s surface and would whine noisily for a second or two before once more being taken below the waves. The first time that happened, I wasn't sure it would turn out that way and thought we were going over.

I had almost forgotten about my crewmates when all of a sudden I heard Jac yell, “Hey honey, you wanna sandwich?" As though realizing for the first time that she and Mike were even on this boat, I looked beyond her at the cabin below and saw Mike casually having lunch that my wife had prepared for him, taking a sip of beer and leafing through a magazine. The scene below could not have been more different than the action taking place in the cockpit if we had all been on separate boats.

"No thanks, babe," I hollered back, not sure she could hear me above the wind, rain, thunder, lightning and of course the prop popping up out of the water.

"Okie dokie" she said, slamming the hatch closed, leaving me once again alone to do battle with the elements. I couldn't help but wonder at that point if the serenity of the scene down below was confidence in my abilities as Captain, or the most sincere case of nonchalant-ness ever witnessed.

Turning my attention back to the situation at hand above decks, I did some quick calculations in my head. I figured at our current rate of drift times our speed over ground we should be smashed on the rocks just about 50 feet or so shy of the point we needed to clear. Hope Mike is enjoying his sandwich.

Calm After the Storm

Within about 25 feet of impending doom, the wind suddenly quieted to a calm breeze, and the dark clouds had given way to sunshine. Suddenly I was warm for the first time in almost two hours and was shielding my eyes from the rays of the sun instead of the sting of the rain. The hatch flew open, and the hatch boards were removed as Mike and Jac casually rose from below.

"Whew, that was a helluva storm,” I said enthusiastically.

"What storm?” Mike asked, with a crooked grin on his face.

I'm gonna miss Mike.

The dredging for his body is scheduled to start tomorrow.

 

~~~

By Capt. Rob 
Rob Poindexter, Partner / Writer, I Want To Write For You

 

 

 

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4 Responses to “Adventure Story: Strange Storm Strikes Simple Sail”

  1. Wow Rob! Great story. I was captivated right up until the very end. My favorite part? When Jac yells, "Hey honey, you wanna sandwich?" ….love it! 

    • Robert says:

      Thank you so much, Samantha!! I haven't read this story in a while but your comment spurred me to do so. Great memory!! Thanks.

  2. What a great adventure story, Rob. You had me, too! :)

    I was all set to offer my condolences, but then I read it again, just to be sure I wasn't overboard. Nice subtle touch of humour!

  3. ROBERT POINDEXTER says:

    Thanks, Marianna. The smooth sailing days are nice, but it's the challenging ones that render the best stories. Provided you live to tell them, of course.lol

    Have a great day and thank you so much for the kind words.

    It's always great to hear from you.

    Rob

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