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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Swamp Tour - Friday 3-30-2012 - Caught in the Storm!

Hoping to beat the wind, we all woke before daylight and pulled anchor. This would be our last day on the boat, and even though it had not been a perfect trip, we all agreed that the time had passed by too quickly and none of us were ready for it to end. The boat’s trip meter read an even 150 miles so far.

The water was smooth and the wind was calm as I nosed up to the Five Rivers dock to let Glenda and Abby off to walk Daisy. I put on a pot of water to make coffee for Glenda and hot chocolate for Abby, and we headed out of Sardine Pass onto the Blakely River. We idled along until the sun started showing itself and the coffee was ready, then we revved up to about 5 mph as we went under the Mobile Causeway and entered the North end of Mobile Bay at 6:50 am.

The weather service was calling for scattered thunderstorms all day, but a check of the weather radar on Glenda’s phone only showed light rain throughout the bay. Even though the weather looked calm, I made the decision that everyone would wear a lifejacket until we got to Gulf Shores. That would turn out to be a good decision. As we started down the Eastern Shore, staying about a mile offshore, the wind and waves slowly increased.

About  9:00 am the Weather Service issued  a report of a severe thunderstorm with hail, 45 knot winds and heavy seas near the West end of Dauphin Island, tracking East at 10 mph.  I figured that we had about 3 hours before the storm would affect us, but by 9:20 the waves had increased in size and frequency to the point that I made the decision to seek shelter.  We were just South of Point Clear, and the GPS showed a small creek directly to our Southeast, so I turned and took the waves at as much of an angle as I was comfortable with. The creek was very narrow, but luckily it was bulk-headed as it ran between two houses, and we were able to tie to the bulk-head and get out of the wind. Unfortunately, between the two houses, we could not get the weather radar on our cell phones. The house on the bank we tied to appeared occupied, but we didn’t see anyone there. The other house was still under construction.

We stayed for about 30 minutes and decided to try it again. We untied and headed back into the bay, but it only took about 10 minutes to realize this was a mistake.  I turned the boat around and headed back to the creek. This time, as I entered the creek I blew the horn, and we went past the bulkhead and tied up at the resident’s boathouse. Abby and I then walked up to the house to let them know why we were there. The young lady who answered the door could not have been nicer, offering us dry towels, sodas, and allowing us to come in and look at the weather radar on her computer. Abby autographed a copy of her book and gave it to the lady for her 4 year old daughter.  Based on the radar and our limited view of the bay, we left at about 10:55 am and headed toward Gulf Shores once again. I hadn’t heard an update on the Dauphin Island storm, but figured we were well north of its path. Glenda phoned Jay and Liz and told them to meet us at the Weeks Bay Bridge. We were not going to try to get all the way to Gulf Shores.

About 11:15 I overheard two tug boat captains on the radio discussing the storm. They were on the Mobile ship channel, about seven or eight miles west of us. One of the captains said that the winds were at 45 and he could not see the front of his barge for the rain. About 30 seconds later, we were hit by a wall of wind and waves that seemed to come from nowhere. I estimated that the winds were about 30-35 knots and the waves were over 6 feet, and it happened so fast I didn’t have time to think!  Luckily there was very little rain in the front edge of the storm, as I worked to keep the bow headed into the waves and wind. My fear was that if the boat turned sideways, the wind would catch the tall cabin and flip us. I fought the waves for about five minutes (it seemed like an hour), as I tried to make headway toward the shore to one of the long piers that are in front of almost every house on the Eastern Shore. I finally realized that I wasn’t making any progress, and the waves were getting even bigger.
I’d never had the Knot-So-Fast in a heavy following sea before and it was really scary to think about testing it in 7’ waves and 35 knot winds, but I really didn’t have much of choice at that point. I thought about the low freeboard at the stern and the flat surface of the transom, combined with the two small scuppers for drainage in the cockpit. I was sure that if we got struck directly from the rear by a big wave, it would; a) toss the boat sideways and allow the wind to roll us, b) fill the cockpit with water and swamp us, or c) both.

  I glanced at the VHF radio button that sends an automated distress signal and made a mental note of exactly where it was on the radio. As the boat went up on the crest of each wave the prop came out of the water and the engine raced. When it hit the bottom of the trough each new wave pounded over the top of the boat. I could see out of the windscreen for only a split second between waves before the next one covered us again. If I’d had time to think about it, I would have worried about my epoxy joints and all the places I decided to save by using a few less of those expensive silicon bronze screws. Even with less than perfect joints, the boat held together, and actually felt very solid!

Finally I saw that the distance to the next wave seemed a little longer than the others, and as we crested I listened for the prop to bite again and turned hard to port. The boat turned on a dime and I pushed the throttle forward and straightened up the boat as the next wave approached. I braced for what I thought would be a major impact at the stern, but the impact never came! The wave slowly slid under us as the stern floated high on it – no splash, no jerking of the boat! I was then able to angle toward the shore and target a gap between two piers about a half mile away.  The ride now was not smooth, but it was much less scary than before. The boat handled predictably in the following sea as we turned and went between the two piers. My relief was short-lived though, as I noticed that the pier to the south had no decking – just bare pilings, and the pier to the north of us was of a strange design with a single row of central pilings and supports that spanned from the edges of the pier down at a 45 degree angle to the water. There was no way we could tie safely to either pier.

I turned back and went north again, looking for a suitable pier to tie to. A few houses up I saw a lady on her front porch waving to us. The pier in front of her house had a covered enclosure and the north side of the pier looked like it was low enough for an emergency docking. We made it to the pier and tied two lines as fast as we could. Glenda got onto the pier and tried to keep the boat from pounding against the pilings while I adjusted the fenders. The homeowner came out and verified the wave height by telling us that the Knot-So-Fast was going completely out of sight between waves!  That would put them at a minimum of about 7’.

Once we secured the boat, we called Jay, who was now at Weeks Bay, and gave him the address where we were. He arrived a short time later and Liz drove Glenda and Abby back to our house at Ft. Morgan to retrieve the trailer. Jay and I took the boat 7 miles back up the bay to the Fairhope City boat ramp, arriving there at 1:15, and waited for Glenda to bring the trailer. I didn’t completely relax until the boat was tied down on the trailer and we were back on the road to Ft. Morgan.
Safe at Fairhope's city boat ramp, waiting on Glenda and the trailer.

Since our ordeal, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what happened. I feel very fortunate that we came through it, and very stupid for putting us in that position.  Glenda and Abby did not seem to be affected by the incident, and they both claim they never got scared! I offered them an old quote I heard a long time ago. I don’t know who said it but it is very true:

 “If you manage to stay calm and keep your head when all those around you are losing theirs, you obviously do not fully comprehend the circumstances!”

 From Glenda:

 Off we headed bright and early Friday morning - ok well not bright but early.    The plan:  beat the storms that were coming from the west.  The wind warnings were over and now we just had to worry about squalls lines.  I still think we would have been fine.  But Tom was doing the piloting and it appeared to be stressing him to say the least.  For the 1st almost 2 hours we just battled bouts of heavy rain.  We were listening carefully to warnings of a thunderstorm headed east from Dauphin Island.   The wind dramatically increased within just moments causing waves to rise up and over the bow of our brave little boat J Of course Tom was doing just fine but he seem to think just any moment now a massive wave was going to turn of over.  We took shelter first in a little canal between two houses.  It appeared to have passed.  I still think it had, but the water was still terribly rough and if we had continued we would have had about 3 more hours of rough travel and I don’t think our captain was up to it.  He made the call and God had everything in place for us:  A lady watching us through her binoculars that provided her hospitality, a strong pier, and a friend willing to come to pick us up.  Tom trembled at the thought of putting Abby, myself and Daisy in danger.  I ask if he really believed God would let us die before it was our time?  Well maybe not but I suppose we could have gotten really wet. 

This was a wonderful trip and I can’t wait for our next adventure!

From Abby:

Today is Friday. We had to get up really early 'cause there were storms coming off of Dauphin Island. After we got started, GG was going to cook her a cup of coffee and she cooked me some hot chocolate as well. We had to come across the bay, and the bay was really rough! So we got a little bit far and there was a little “slip-in” that went between one house and another, and we honked the horn to let the people know we had to stay there because of the storm. We stayed there a little while, then we got back out of the slip, but it was still too rough so we went back in the slip. This time we went up to the house to see if it was OK if we stayed there. The lady said it was fine, and she showed us a radar of the storm. 
A little bit later we decided to go back out again, and pretty much the whole time I was playing my DS [video game].  This time we had to stop again because the water was rough. There was a lady watching us through binoculars and she said “I would see you go up and then I would not see you, then I would see you, then I would not see you!”  We pulled up to her dock and the boat was banging up against it. She had a little dog name “Bell”. We had to get out of the storm so we called GG and Papa’s friends Jay and Liz, to come pick us up there. We gave them the address. Me and GG rode in Liz’s car back to the beach house and Mr. Jay wanted to ride the boat with Papa to get it out of the water.  Daisy went with them, not us, and Daisy ended up throwing up on the boat! Papa said it was because she probably missed us, being out there without me and GG.  Then we went to the beach house and that was it!

This trip was FUN!  I’m sad the trip ended, but I’m also glad the trip ended. It’s funny how that is. The trip was fun overall!

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