By Rory Cumming
I’ve always thought of Western Long Island Sound as a relatively safe place to sail during the summer. The biggest worry is typically heavy boat traffic and skippers exhibiting poor judgment. The exception was on Sunday, June 30.
The day began with sunny skies and a nice 15-knot westerly. The Sound was packed with sailboats of all sizes, and my wife Jaci and I were sailing our Dehler 38c Rascal under jib alone. At 1:30, we were about a mile south of Long Neck Point when we noticed dark thunderstorm clouds approaching. As the storm bore down it became clear it would hit us, so we started the engine and began furling the jib but it jammed. We were trying to fix it when we saw a wall of white just to the north of us consuming everything in its path: first the boats on their moorings in Noroton Harbor, then Long Neck Point. In seconds the entire coast had vanished behind that white wall, contrasting starkly with the black clouds above. I’d never seen anything like it. And it was boiling towards us at incredible speed.
When the wall reached us it was more violent than any storm I’ve ever experienced on a boat, with extreme wind and blinding rain that felt like hail. At one point I glanced at the instruments and saw the wind speed at 55 knots. The wind had gone from mid-teens to gale force almost instantly. We were knocked down immediately and the jib split horizontally midway up and then exploded into shreds. I put the engine into a low rpm reverse to try to hold the stern to wind, which stabilized the boat. We were still doing 7 knots through the water, no sails, engine in reverse.
Before our attention had been consumed by the storm I’d looked around and noticed a dozen sailboats, several of them under full sail. I now saw one of them with both main and jib shredded and still being knocked over regularly. There was another smaller boat closer to us that had been knocked down as well, though her sails were still intact. She wasn’t coming up immediately but I thought they might since we hadn’t righted immediately either. But then her mast settled into the water and I knew they were in real trouble. It looked like a 20+ foot daysailer, and that type of boat typically has an open cockpit and is not self-rescuing: they’ll sink if they take on enough water. I throttled up and headed for the daysailer while Jaci readied the throwable cushions, life jackets and throw rope.
As we drew closer I could see that the boat was settling, and by the time we arrived just the bow and the mast were above water. Clinging to the port stay was a shirtless man clutching a fender. We would learn later that his life jacket had inflated prematurely, hampering his ability to manage the boat, so he’d taken it off. The worst of the storm had passed but the wind was still over 40 knots and a steep chop had developed so it was difficult to get close to the sinking boat. The wind was too strong for verbal communication so we motioned to the man that we were going to throw a rope and he nodded. He seemed to be calm and surprisingly unflustered by his situation, which was good news.
On the first pass we threw the rope and it fell well short. I circled back and came closer, close enough to communicate, and asked the man if he was the only one aboard. He shook his head and pointed to the other side of the boat, which was obscured by the sails. Jaci pulled in the throw rope, only to find that it had broken and was too short to be used. It had fouled on our prop when I’d reversed. Even amidst the chaos, I thought how lucky we were that it hadn’t stalled the engine. I motioned to the man that we would circle around to the other side of his boat to pick them up, and instructed Jaci to ready the Lifesling.
When we got to the other side we saw a woman holding on to the starboard stay, also clinging to a fender. Since neither passenger was wearing a life jacket I considered throwing them two of our foam ones, but with the wind and waves I was certain they wouldn’t be able to get them. We made a first pass towing the Lifesling but we were not close enough for them to swim to it. I circled around, trying to get as close as I dared despite my concern that the line would foul on the rigging of the sinking boat. This time the rope was close enough and the man swam out and grabbed the line. I slowed our boat and the man swam the rope back to his boat and helped the woman onto it. Once they both had the rope I steered away, engaged the autopilot, and began hauling in the Lifesling while Jaci lowered our swim platform. I extended our swim ladder, helped the man aboard and then we both helped the woman aboard. She was shivering, so Jaci immediately brought her below and covered her in blankets and towels.
The man (we’ll call him Bob) and I discussed what to do next. The boat seemed to have stabilized, no lower in the water than when we had first arrived. We radioed the Coast Guard to report the incident and the fact that there was a partially sunken boat that represented a navigational hazard. They acknowledged, but given that there was nobody in immediate danger and they had a dozen other very serious situations that required their attention, they would not send a boat.
The wind had subsided to about 20 knots or less and Bob wanted to recover a couple of items from their boat so he swam back to it. I was circling the boat, staying close in case it went down. When Bob came back aboard he was cold and shivering so we gave him an offshore foul weather jacket. We decided to call a towing service to see if they could recover the boat. Based on its sunken state the tow services were unable to help. The boat would need to be re-floated – it was a salvage job. At this point Bob observed that the boat seemed to be slightly lower in the water and indeed it seemed so.
The woman, whom we’ll call Hope, had recovered to some extent and come on deck wearing Jaci’s offshore jacket, and we talked about how lucky all of us had been. When we next glanced at the daysailer it was gone, replaced by a newly inflated life jacket, a fleeting gravestone. Moments later, a Coast Guard cruiser pulled up beside us and we explained they’d just missed the sinking. They asked if everyone was safe and if anyone needed medical attention. Once they’d determined the situation was under control they said they’d note the location of the sunken boat for the charts, then sped off.
There was nothing more to do regarding the daysailer so we headed for Stamford to drop off the couple. Bob and Jaci pulled down what remained of our jib and tied it to the deck. At some point Bob slipped through our bowsprit and suffered a minor scrape on his leg, to which Jaci tended. It would be the only injury from the entire ordeal. By the time we reached Stamford, both passengers were doing well and expressed their greatest thanks for our help.
As we motored back to Wilson Cove, Jaci and I had a chance to reflect on what had just happened. How had we let ourselves get into that situation? But what if we hadn’t been there to help the other sailors? What should we have done differently? Here are our takeaways:
1. After doing some research it seems we experienced a “microburst,” which is more common in other areas of the country and can pack winds of 95 mph. We’d never seen such a violent thunderstorm, onshore or off, and our experience has given us a healthy respect for thunderstorms – even on Long Island Sound.
2. We have created a readiness plan that involves getting together life jackets, foul weather gear, handheld VHF, and PLB, and reducing sail well ahead of a storm.
3. Keep your safety gear readily accessible, not buried in the aft cabin – or your garage.
4. Every regular crewmember should know the most important safety procedures, the location of equipment, and how to operate it. Jaci was not familiar with the throw rope and the Lifesling, which may have slowed the recovery process.
5. If we’d used a dyneema line or a mooring line instead of the throw rope, we would have needed rescuing too. It’s possible that those pre-packaged throw ropes are designed with enough strength to pull in a human or two but not enough to stall an engine.
One of the most important things to note is that just a month prior to this incident I’d taken Storm Trysail Club’s Hands-On Safety at Sea Seminar with the World Sailing Offshore Survival addition. What I learned there turned out to be invaluable during this storm and the ensuing rescue.
The only reason I took the seminar was because it was required for this year’s Storm Trysail Club Block Island Race, but it is the single best training seminar I’ve ever attended on any topic, for work or leisure. I’ve been sailing for decades, instructed sailing, and logged months offshore – and I learned far more than I expected. On top of that, it was actually a lot of fun. When else will you get a chance to shoot rocket flares at the Throgs Neck Bridge? Extinguish a barrel full of flaming gasoline? Deploy your inflatable life preserver and then attempt to climb aboard a life raft? Okay, that last one was more humbling than fun but an important experience nonetheless. Even if you’re just daysailing on Long Island Sound, you should take this course. ■