Hit by vicious electric storm while in 4kts of Gulf Stream

by Glen

Monday 18 May, passage to USA day 4: As we depart the Cuban coast just west of Havana, the effect of the Gulf Stream gradually builds up. Each mile sees our SOG (speed over ground) increase a little bit more above boat speed (speed through water). By breakfast time we have 2.5kts of current helping us towards Florida. The sea state is calm and the SE wind is beautifully light at 6-10kts. The wind direction allows us to be powered up, sailing just off the wind on starboard tack. It’s interesting to see only 6kts of wind and yet SOG of 9-10kts 🙂 Perfect conditions for making good mileage yet tranquil sailing.

The general atmosphere today is a bit weird though. On such an English summer’s day, we would says it’s very “sultry”. There is a lot of haze and stillness. It’s the kind of day that produces electric storms by late afternoon. And on our PredictWind forecast, the CAPE values are extremely high where we are. So we expect the worst, but surprisingly manage to go through the whole day and afternoon with no sign of any menacing thunder clouds forming. And by evening, the CAPE values are decreasing again. Meaning less risk of electrical activity.

With Cloudy slipping gently along, sailing perfectly, we are attracting visitors it seems. We take on an unlikely pair of hitch-hikers. First a wood pigeon! Very odd for such a specie to be out at sea. Maybe the lack of tourists in Havanah Plazas has forced it to flee to USA? It looks exhausted and ends up sitting in the shade under the starboard pushpit seat with its eyes occasionally closing. We gently push a bowl of water towards it and after a while it goes to it and takes a few sips. And in gratitude, does several green poops on the deck!
Our next visitor is one of those large white birds with very long legs and neck, long beak and orange head-cap. You often see them wading in a field or perched on the back of a water buffalo. It really struggles to land on the boat. It was especially comical watching it trying to land on the radar pole. It would approach OK, then 1ft from touch down its wings, legs and feet go over the place, and it aborts each time. A little bit more challenging than landing on a stationary buffalo, it seems! It must have circled 40 times before it eventually landed sensibly on the edge of the dinghy. Its long legs can’t be more than 1/2cm (3/16”) in diameter, and each supporting a very large spindly foot. It almost looks like a cartoon character as it grips to the dinghy and watches us. Both birds stay with us for several good hours, before I tell them to go find another boat to poop on! Poop on my new dinghy chaps would be my Pearl Harbour!

By mid afternoon the wind randomly dies and we turn on the engine. Then it fills in again and the goes engine off. We do several cycles like that until the engine finally stays on and the wind disappears completely. The peaceful and gentle sailing had been wonderful, and had lasted all day. What happened next is quite the contrast.

We’d had the radar on all day looking for signs of thunder cells forming. By sun down we really thought it had been our lucky day in that respect. But mid evening, 25nm SE of Marathon (Florida Keys), we start seeing the tell-tail signs of purple on the plotter screen. Small at first but building rapidly. Then we observe lightening starting in the same area. And as each flash lights the night sky we can see the enormity of the overall thunder cell. It’s about 15nm north of us and 20 no in diameter. With the wind direction we have had all day, it should blow inland, away from us.
Fingers crossed, I place a few way points and watch how the cells are moving. It indicates the smaller cells are conglomerating and heading in our direction at about 25kts! We calculate we should be able to turn to starboard and get around the side of it, so that’s what we do, at full speed heading south. But after 30 minutes of running away it’s clear it’s not going to let us get away.
With the inevitable about to happen, we decide better to turn 180 deg, meet it head on and get through it to the other side as fast as possible. That’s what we do, now motoring hard to the north, confronting the oncoming flashing giant. Everything from the cockpit goes inside, hatches and vents secured, decks checked, extra anchor tie-down put on and extra lashing to the spinnaker pole. Important electronics again go into the oven and mast antennas disconnected.

Then the wind starts. It suddenly swings 180 degrees to bang on our nose, and rapidly increases to 25kts as the lightening starts to flash around us. We are right in the middle of the Gulf Stream current here, and this new wind is directly opposing the 3kt current. Any wind against GS current is bad. It had been the lightening that worried us most, but the sea state will now be our main enemy here. The wind peaks at 36kts which is actually over 40kt with the current considered. And with it comes lashings of rain, coming in a horizontal sheet shooting passed us and hitting the windscreen with deafening noise.
After a few minutes, the wind steadies back to 28kts and the sea state is still relatively OK. But that quickly changes. At first it’s just the occasional wave spray over the bow but within minutes the waves are more than 2m high and extremely short. As Cloudy slams into them, most are now clipped off and coming over the deck and right up to the windscreen. One or two come right over the spray top onto the aft deck. And one even makes it into the dinghy along with a frightened squeal from Oana (… even louder than her giant cockroach squeal!). This is the reason we like to have the dinghy upside down tied to the deck for longer passages. A big wave into it, while on the davits, would break the davits. A horrible thought for that to happen in the type of conditions that would cause it. Luckily, not too much water landed in there and it quickly drains out. It’s frightening all the same.

As we come out the other side of the squall (on radar) we expect the wind to drop. But it stays above 20kts for what seems an awful long time and with each minute of wind-against current the sea state gets worse. We’d had a bad time off the Hatteras in the Gulf Stream last year, but this occasion gets the prize! On the positive side, all this time our boat speed stays above 7kts. We have only lost 1/2 kt of speed. Amazing considering what we are motoring into. This is where we are glad to have 180 horses and a turbo working down there. And, it has to be said, this is where we are again thankful to be on a Hallberg Rassy. You can almost hear Cloudy shouting “yeah, I’m Swedish …. bring it on you MF!” And we just feel like passengers in safe hands.

Over the next hour the wind gradually decreases to mid teens. But contrary to any forecast, it stays from the NW and just a fraction too shy to sail. So we continue to motor into it while getting out of the main current. And that take us to midnight.

On decks, everything seems to have survived, except for several flying fish scattered around. But inside, we’ve had water entry into the saloon. How come? Well, I had opened the saloon deck hatch a few days ago (normally we never open it) and had closed the blind to keep the sun out. Well, although the hatch was down it was not secured and a little bit of each wave that came over the deck had entered inside. I don’t mind wet carpets… but wet salty ones are not good. We’ll have to rinse and dry them best we can before they start to stink. Bummer. But other than that, no harm done, except to our pulse rate and nerves, especially Oana’s. Before sailing, Oana hated any thunder storm. It just goes to show: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, right? Well done her, that’s all I can say. Not many spouses would endure such experiences. My opinion.

And so on into our last day at sea…

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4 comments

Dennis May 20, 2020 - 10:14 am

Hi Glen, glad to see you arrived safely in West Palm Beach. We were amused by your comment on being thankful you were in an HR when the squall hit you off Marathon Key. We said the same thing last week in the middle of the LI Sound when the winds were 20-30 gusts to 35kts out of the NW and opposed the tide. Endeavour was surfing down 5-6 foot breaking seas doing 9.5 knots. The boat behaved beautifully!

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Glen May 25, 2020 - 8:24 pm

Yes Dennis. Each time we are in a rough sea, Cloudy having any issues with it is the last thing on my mind. We feel so safe on her. The only danger on her is ME!

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Chris L May 20, 2020 - 12:12 pm

Hello Captain Glen,
Delighted to read that you👏🏼, the Commodore👏🏼 and the Swede👏🏼 made it unscathed through that Gulf Storm…! Enjoyed immensely watching the last video that was uploaded – preparations for sailing Bahamas to Jamaica & Para-sail set-up & use. FYI….West Texas Intermediate had almost equaled Brent Crude in price…they are both wavering between USD 34.00 to 37.00 per barrel. Fuel cost should still be cheap – around 50% less than compared to what it was when you both originally departed the USA last year. Also be aware that you both best protect yourselves by buying a supply of P2 (N95) type face respirator masks; because, the USA’s COVID-19 infections [1,532,485] and deaths [92,128] haven’t showed the slightest inclination of slowing down, from the lack of proper social distancing being practiced. There are clusters all along the East Coast and your quarantining & safety efforts will be for naught if you chaps get exposed.
See….Johns Hopkins University (JHU) COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) – https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

Looking forward to the next installment….🙏🏽 Stay safe & sane🖖🏽,
Chris. L

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Glen May 25, 2020 - 8:22 pm

Thanks Chris. Yes, we fully intend to stay 100% isolated till we get on that plane and then have no choice. Once we arrive to Herrington we will anchor off the marina and not enter till we have flights. then it will be haul out and run! Luckily we have enough supplies to last months!

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