With Arlene at the helm and the storm astern, Elektra heads for port. © AK

On Sunday, June 30, my friends Arlene Graffa and John Cravenho were helping deliver my Cal 27 Elektra from Shelton to Norwalk, Connecticut when we were overtaken by an unpredicted flash microburst with winds over 70 miles per hour.

We started sailing down the Housatonic River from Shelton at 8 am, passing under the Merritt Parkway, I-95, the 110-year-old Metro North Devon bascule bridge, and the Washington Bridge (Route 1). We encountered a (much less severe) thunderstorm in Stratford, and docked for about an hour to let it pass.

We sailed a couple hours on Long Island Sound before the wind became stronger and shifted exactly against our westerly course. We furled the reefed jib as it was slowing us down, motoring against the strong current and headwinds without any sail, at about 2 knots.

We saw the impending storm over Connecticut – black, water-laden clouds and areas of rain. The storm was moving extremely fast out toward the water. We were off Fairfield in the middle of the Sound, and barely had time to don our foulies and life jackets before it hit. We were able to motor into the wind for a while, but as the wind strength increased and the rain and hail hit us, we lost that ability and had the wind on the beam. Arlene was at the helm, and she quickly turned the boat so the wind was off the starboard quarter to hopefully avoid a broach. The rudder and engine were overpowered by the 72mph+ winds. (When Arlene got home, she turned on her TV and the news indicated that gusts over 72 mph were recorded.)

Elektra was heeling dramatically, her cockpit coaming just inches from the sea level. Quarter-sized hail and a deluge of rain did not help. The microburst gradually subsided. It had lasted perhaps 15 minutes or more, but felt like an eternity. There was no official warning broadcast of such a storm or microburst from NOAA or Weather Underground, nor a Small Craft Advisory. It came upon the Sound very suddenly and fast.

Arlene has had several extreme weather experiences while delivering sailboats. She was totally collected and focused during the scary experience, and her sure hand on the helm prevented a dangerous broach that might have sunk Elektra. No one
panicked. Within an hour we had sun, and we eventually arrived safely at our mooring on the Norwalk River.

I had taken an Advanced Weather class and learned about the unpredictable, flash microburst phenomenon. We were encouraged to avoid them, but I don’t recall specific instructions of how to manage, if caught in one.

I have strong opinions on improving our traditional sailing teachings, which are not really responsive enough to the modern practical needs of the sailor. There’s too much abstract – and often forgettable – theory and not enough instruction about how to survive a surprise storm like a microburst, how to communicate for help in extreme weather, how to access communication equipment after capsizing, or how to tether oneself to the sailboat.

Gratitude to Arlene and Elektra! They are our heroes!
And thanks for the gods of the winds for not blowing even stronger! ■