Friday, March 20, 2009

On the Run from Inclement Weather

So the whole spring-break-Miami experience didn't pan out. The morning we left Blackwater Sound Patrick and I indulged in our usual routine of 30 minutes with NOAA's robot broadcasted weather radio report. A cold front was settling in, and I mean settling in, with no intentions of moving before punishing all of southern Florida's inhabitants with 5 days of inclement weather. 

Despite the day's forecasted thunderstorms--not ideal sailing conditions--we didn't have the luxury of sitting tight on our anchor. Connor had a flight to make and he at least needed to get to Miami. We were intimidated by the prospect of sailing for the first time through lightning and torrential rain, but we were comforted by the small flotilla of Blue Water Sailing School boats (one of which was captained by Uncle C.J.) who were all on there way to the same anchorage in south Miami. We would be in visual range of at least one of their boats all day and could hail them at any time if had a serious problem. Because storms at sea are ultimately inevitable, we decided to take the chance and put our storm tactics to good use. 

It was overcast with a 15 knot north-easterly wind so we were close-hauled all day, which means the wind and waves pounded us in the face the whole time. By mid-afternoon I could actually scrape handfuls of salt-granules off of my face from all the sea-spray making its way into the cockpit.

By late-afternoon, only 6 miles from our intended anchorage Hurricane Harbor, we noticed large amorphous heaps of cumulous clouds developing just north-east of Miami. From the water, you have the most incredible view of developing weather; the perspective allows you to see everything. I never realized how enormous and low lying storm systems could be, or how quickly they develop. It seemed like the sky was ready to cave in over Miami. Rather than continuing to heap up and form a thunderhead, the wind spread the storm system westward and within minutes a squall line had formed and as our good fortune would have it, it was originating directly over the anchorage we were heading for which provided the only good shelter within miles. At this point, scenes from films like The Perfect Storm and less relevant, but just as disconcerting, Jaws begin flashing through my mind and I am suddenly, deeply overwhelmed by thought of the Cape Dory being dashed to bits at sea.   

With no alternative, we continued sailing tentatively onward hoping that it would have blown over by the time we arrived. Half an hour later it was obvious we wouldn't be so lucky. The squall began to join with every other cumulonimbus cloud in the general area until it had spread across the bay completely obscuring Miami. We were only a mile behind two of the other Blue Water Sailing School Boats, another mono-hull and a catamaran, and we watched closely to see what they would do. Suddenly the catamaran entered the outer edge of the squall and completely disappeared. From the surface of the water to the clouds, we could only see a thick impenetrable grey. Within minutes we would be overtaken ourselves and we were beginning to feel strong blasts of cold air. 

We were only sailing with 75% of sail up as a precautionary measure for the hazardous weather. This came in handy when a sudden gust of wind knocked us suddenly over on our side completely submerging the port side deck in water. Patrick was at the helm while I let out the sails allowing them to spill all the air out of them so that we could right ourselves. We reduced our sails again and made the split second decision as we neared the southerly perimeter of the squall: adjust course and run away. 

We sailed as fast as we could southeast, while the front moved southwest at shocking speeds. After only placing a mile between ourselves and the squall it had disappeared over coastal Florida. We fixed our position and plotted a new course for Hurricane Harbor. Ominous clouds were continuing to develop over the Atlantic and we did not want to try navigating into a foreign anchorage without good visibility. 

We arrived without any misadventure and anchored amongst the Blue Water Sailing School Boats. I could help feeling show-offy to both the captains and their crew as we motored up nonchalantly after the squall and anchoring like it was nothing. Of course, Uncle C.J. knew better. He knew I had been terrified for the last 8 hours by the numerous phone calls I had made to him for advice throughout the day.

Shortly after settling in at the anchorage we discovered that the next three days would bring even worse weather, so much so that sailing at all would be ill-advised. However the storms would be hitting the worst over Miami so we didn't have the option of riding it out in Hurricane Harbor. We needed to get back Blackwater Sound before the following afternoon when the worst of the storms were expected to develop. 

(Just after arriving at Hurricane Harbor)

Patrick and I made plans to drop Connor of at a Marina five miles across Biscayne Bay and head from there to Key Largo. We were gone the next morning at first light and dropped Connor of at a fuel dock by 8 am. We felt like horrible hosts dropping our guest off on an arbitrary dock in south Miami, tossing him his bags and leaving him to his own devices. His plane wasn't even scheduled to leave until the following morning. But Connor was a good sport and understood that we could be in some serious danger if we didn't make it to shelter soon. 

(Connor as we left him to his own devices on some dock, somewhere south of Miami.) 

From the time we pulled out of the fuel dock to the moment we dropped our anchor later that day in Blackwater Sound, we watched storm cells develop and dissipate cyclically from every direction. There was no course we could set that wouldn't eventually take us into a storm. Luckily there were no squalls and the worst storm of the morning hit Miami just as we were leaving it. 

We did our best to dodge the foulest of weather. At one point two storm clouds converged upon us and reduced our visibility to approximately a mile. It rained hard and I was soaked through as it was my turn at the helm. Patrick of course got to navigate and remained dry below until the worst of it was over.

We were still wary of our near knock down the previous day so we sailed with only the Jib and the stay sail instead of using the main. We had to motor a lot but we maintained excellent speed and arrived at Jewfish Creek, a canal cut into the mangroves, which marks the entrance to Blackwater Sound. 

I couldn't believe how essentially purposeless these two days were. After two laborious days of sailing we didn't even step ashore much less explore Miami with Connor. Ironically, once we had returned to Blackwater, a local sailor told us he was driving that day to Miami airport and would have taken Connor if he had known about it. 

On the bright side, Patrick and I were able to spend more time with our favorite C.J., and became amateur meteorologists. Also, we were able to familiarize ourselves with the area from which we will likely be leaving from for the Bahamas which will be our next passage.  


  1. Hi, from your West Marine friends, Kathy and Frank! Your entries have been most interesting and fun to read, although I cringed at the descriptions of some of your adventures to date! Thanks for the phone call and we wish you fair winds and deeper waters. Hopefully as I write this you are across the "stream" and beginning your exploration of the Bahamas. Remember the depths on Explorer charts are in meters! Enjoy the conch (cracked, fritters, and salad) for me!


  2. Alaina!
    sorry i haven't been writing anything on these... i just feel like i can only say i'm jealous and proud and desperately missing you so many times...

    you've no idea how furious i am. i've been trying to open your comment and read it for a good three days but my computer would only show me it's there and then close the window when i clicked on it... until last night about an hour after the gap of time in which you said you'd have the phone on for me to call! i could have wept! you don't even know!

    so i've decided to just try and call you every day during that gap of time just in case until i go home on the 31st... i gather you have news. (beyond the obvious)