Sailing into the storm

July 20th, 2011 at 8:42 pm by under Bill's Blog, News, Sports, Weather

“The worst of the storm hit just after midnight which made bolts of lightning our only light source.  As the wind built, our tack line exploded; we were knocked down immediately and stayed horizontal from winds of 54 knots for about 15 minutes!  Shortly after being knocked down, with no steerage, lightning flashed and another boat, without sails was planing right towards us! Thankfully, they managed to alter course and avoid a collision.  Once the winds calmed a bit, lights shined on our boat followed by the release of an emergency flare….” Source:–125837798.html#ixzz1SgzMhIw9 The picture is from a video at the link that was shot by Greg Alm during the storm from his helmet-cam.  The light in the picture and video is from nearly continuous lightning and the picture is a still frame, illuminated by lightning of that video.     I also received this story from several different viewers asking about the authenticity of the +100-knot (115 mph winds) recorded by one boat during the storm.   The first boat to finish was Windquest (the DeVos Family from Grand Rapids) and the adjusted winner was “Windancer” from the Muskegon Yacht Club.  Here’s the race results. ‘Regarding the 100 knot winds, I got this reply from the Meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Gaylord: Bill…We have also heard about 100 kt winds with this storm.  This magnitude is significantly higher than any other observation we received, and radar didn’t indicate anything close to this magnitude.  However, given that we’re talking about convection, it’s possible this could have happened on a scale smaller than could be detected by observation or radar.  Hard to know for sure.        Bruce Smith  MIC NWS Gaylord MI Radar picture from the National Weather Service in Gaylord at the time of  the strong winds. Winds on the 0.5 deg Base Velocity were around 60 knots at 3000 ft near the accident area.  Near the surface of the water, of course, higher winds were possible.

25 Responses to “Sailing into the storm”

  1. Paul says:

    Awesome picture Bill, it just goes to prove that the Great Lakes are small inland oceans. Thanks!

  2. Katie says:

    My Father in law was on racing and his boat was one of the first boats on the scene to help search for the missing sailors. He has some incredible stories to tell of that storm and what it did to his boat. We are very thankful to have him home safe and sound and my heart goes out to the other families who didn’t have the same good news.

    1. Bill Steffen says:

      Thanks so much for the comment, Katie. That was a huge storm…50,000 feet tall. The wind came up very suddenly.

  3. William says:

    Nice blog entry, Thanks

  4. Capt. Scott says:

    With all the lightening in the area how do these vessels not get hit?

    1. Bill Steffen says:

      Once in a while they do. They are all “grounded” (of course, nothing is perfect). When I was at the Univ. of Wisconsin…all boaters made a quick exit when a storm was approaching.

    2. DF (SE Mich) says:

      It is all random out there, lightning seems to judge everything equally. I’ve had lightning hit a few yard away but never our boat after countless storms. I actually only know two boats ever hit, everyone was fine since you are sitting on fiberglass which is a great insulator.

  5. meagan says:

    Wow!! Incredible footage and insider story. I can’t even imagine. Fascinating and tragic all at the same time. My heart goes out to the all the sailors and their families and especially to those that were lost.

  6. Brian (NE) says:

    The 100+ knot reading was likely — but not certainly — influenced by the movement of the boat as it whipped about. Nonetheless, the wind was probably well above 70 knots.

    1. DF (SE Mich) says:

      From the sailing forums I read lightning also messing with the readings. We don’t have on our boat, all by sailor instinct on our boat =)

      1. Brian (NE) says:

        Good point. That’s probably why you see on the graph the windspeed clocking between zero and 100+. Lightning interference.

    2. Katie says:

      My father-in-law’s boat had 100 knot winds as well.

  7. DF (SE Mich) says:

    Some sailors past the boat going home after Chicago-Mac… it has flipped itself back right side up…

    Still just floating around the Lake.

    1. GunLakeDeb says:

      I read a report that her owners *might* consider refitting her – it doesn’t sound like there was really all that much damage done to the boat??

      1. Glenn says:

        I have a friend that crews on the gauntlet.He told me that only seven of that style boat were made because of stability issues.If the do refit I hope they can address the stability problems.

        1. Katie says:

          My father-in-law crews on the Gauntlet as well (Mike) and was telling us that that kind of boat was made for sailing near the shore on the ocean, not for Lake MI. Also to Randy (SW Walker) The entire fleet had tracking devices on them for the Chicago to Mac race but the server went down 15 minutes into the race out of Chicago. I don’t know if it would be up and running at this point but that caused difficulty for the other racers that night (see above – boats just missing each other). It was sheer luck that someone on the rescuing boat spotted the beacon on one man’s life vest and hear his whistle from the capsized boat.

      2. Randy (SW Walker) says:

        i read that as well- It seems that knowing that, they would go out and pull it in and save one salvage.

        1. Randy (SW Walker) says:

          Further, how does that work? Is there a monitor on it so boaters know where it is? Is the CG keeping track of its whereabouts and posting a notice to mariners? As a big lake boater, just curious I guess.

        2. DF (SE Mich) says:

          They strapped a strobe to the keel when it was upside down but now it is just floating around. There is a group of sailors willing to go get it out of the way but are trying to get permission from the family.

    2. Randy (SW Walker) says:

      Amazing pic- Look at how calm the water is now. So sad. Thanks for the post

  8. GunLakeDeb says:

    That same storm hit us as we camped at Wilderness State Park. We were somewhat protected from the wind by the pine trees surrounding us; but I have never seen lightning like that before – it was mostly c-to-c; but it was non-stop (strobe-like)and seemed to go on for a few hours. As DF says – lightning doesn’t always go for the tallest thing – we had a few bolts strike close by in the lake, even though the campers on shore (maybe 25′ away?) surely presented a taller target.

    From accounts I’ve been reading, it sounds like several boats were laid on their sides – and they’ll come back up. Wing Nuts was “turtled” – I’m surprised that she’s righted herself. It sounds like her crew did everything super-safely and correctly; the loss of 2 members of the crew is just heartbreaking.

    1. Brian (NE) says:

      Wing Nuts was an unusual boat in that it had hard wings that extended from the hull. This is only my personal opinion, but I believe those wings made it easier for the wind to push her over and more difficult for her to right herself. I agree that the crew looks like they did everything right — bare poles and tethered.

      The loss of the two crew is indeed heartbreaking.

      As an aside, the last time a large storm like this ripped through the Chi-Mac fleet was in 2002. We were camping with some good friends at . . . Wilderness State Park. I still have yet to see a storm like the 2002 storm. Tents were rolling down the road when it went through.

      Interesting, the couple we camped with were in the Chi-Mac race this year.

    2. Bill Steffen says:

      This is from the Meteorologist-in-Charge of the National Weather Service in Gaylord: “Bill…

      We have also heard about 100 kt winds with this storm. This magnitude is significantly higher than any other observation we received, and radar didn’t indicate anything close to this magnitude. However, given that we’re talking about convection, it’s possible this could have happened on a scale smaller than could be detected by observation or radar. Hard to know for sure.

      Bruce Smith
      MIC NWS Gaylord MI

  9. Bill Steffen says:

    This is from DT: “Re the scattered reports of 100 kt winds: Possible explanations include: *electrical futtzery due to unprecedented lightning causing readings which are simply unreliable. Windlogs on these boats also show readings of zero. I don’t believe that it blew 100, but it may have elsewhere on the lake. I also don’t believe that it blew zero during the height of the storm

    *extremely isolated downbursts, microbursts where perhaps did blow 100 kts straight down or straight line anyway, and not over a large area.
    Bill, in the past on various brands of sailboat instruments I have experienced some kind static discharge of electrical disturbance where huge numbers would flip thru the displays. We’d always put little faith in those numbers. The much better brands of instruments do much better with reliable wind velocity numbers. However even these are subject to possible electrical foolery.

    I don’t believe that it blew 100. It may have but there are other possible explanations for why this seems to have occurred. I agree with your colleague’s note from Gaylord (that the storm may not have had 100 kt capability) .

    Did I forget to tell you we had St Elmos Fire for 20 minutes! We had four glow balls on the backstay! It SIZZLED audibly when the thunder would lay down for a moment of relative quiet. It was tough to see for all the bright flashes of lightning.”

    1. Bill Steffen says:

      Here’s more from DT: “Hello Mr Steffen,
      I sailed the Chgo-Mac race and of course we experienced the storm. When it hit us we were in the lee of Beaver Island. The wind had built gradually to about 35 knots TWS. We’d sailed for about two hours after sunset (which was early due to THICK cloud cover that rather suddenly appeared from the monstrous storm) under spectacular lightning. Imagine 1,000 strobes firing your way. A dazzling non stop light show.

      After peaking at 35 kts, it dropped below 30 kts, then soon under 20 knots. We grew comfortable with that. We liked it. It was relaxing. Then it dropped below 10 and we got sharper with the weather eye. I spotted it. A double white eyebrow on the roll cloud, it was only a couple hundred meters from us, to weather, bearing down on us, and not very high above (low in the sky).

      Have you ever seen that, or heard of a double white eyebrow? Fascinating!

      Then we got busy taking down our spinnaker. We had begun the douse when the wind started bearing down. It increased in the typical few seconds to something more than 35 knots. Probably not more than 60 knots. Probably not more than 50 knots. It can so difficult to gage and we were too busy getting the sail down to notice. When things settled out we had our full mainsail up, doing 16 knots for over ten minutes and the wind was in the upper 30s and then it remained in the mid 30s for about 45 minutes. Then things wound down.

      Seeking the lee of Beaver was a great plan. We had less seastate, more searoom and I think the land friction magically reduced our max velocity. We observed just to our south that it looked more intense, towards the open water s/o Beaver.

      We knew the storm was coming from the Friday skippers meeting weather briefing from Chris Bedford. We tracked it on boat radar and garmin XM WX (GPS). Condolences to the deceased’s families, friends and crew.”

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