This story is by Rod Wallace and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In early June I took my daughter and 4 young friends on a sunny day with a light southerly breeze, sailing. Other boats had spinnakers up. The girls began begging to set sails. I thought what can go wrong? I pulled up the main sail and set the rainbow spinnaker heading north. The mainsail was pushed out to starboard and the spinnaker was set to port. Running wing and wing. With a light wind aft, it’s a comfortable point of sail especially for new comers.
Warm, smooth, silent except for the slight sound of water rippling the bow pushed aside. The view of Chicago from the lake about 10 miles north east from the Loop is my favorite. The black X braced Hancock stretching 1000 ft into the sky when was completed spawned countless other tall buildings of various shapes and colors, and the crown jewel the Sears Tower.
Around us were dozens of sail, fishing and pleasure boats. A few flew spinnakers of many hues. More small boats were in close to the beach.
The girls removed their life jackets and coats and were basking in the sun. One of girls pointed, “Is that a fire on the shore over there? See the little grey cloud to the northwest?”
I saw the cloud, but it didn’t look like smoke. The light to the northwest was distorted and not clear. The micro burst of wind from the northwest slammed into the boat pushing it into a death roll. First the boat rolled to the right pulled by the spinnaker, then to the left pushed by the mainsail. The boat heeled until the mast touched the water and remained there, pinned down by both the spinnaker and the mainsail. The five girls were hanging on to avoid being thrown into the lake. I hollered to get below. One of the girls was screaming, “She’s not coming up.” Ready to jump in the lake, but I grabbed her and pushed her into the cabin with the others, tossed in the coats and the life jackets, closed the hatch, and locked it. “Put on the life jackets.” They were safe for now but very unhappy. The boat was on her side and the windows under water. The wind increased.
I flashed back to a conversation at the Pink Pony bar after I finished the Chicago to Mackinaw Island race. The words of old salt came to mind,
“Running wing and wing. I don’t do it. A change in wind and you’ll jibe into a death roll. In a race when you’re pushing the boat and with too much sail, a death roll is not unusual but easily managed with an experienced crew. I’ve been told many times my boat bottom was very clean.”
The one next to him, “Seriously injured one of my crew when the boat jibed, and the boom hit him in the head.”
“I rig a preventer line tied to the boom, so it can’t accidently swing through the cockpit.”
“Good idea, but if you’re alone, a sudden wind shift is big problem. The main is out on one side with the spinnaker on the other side. The boat will death roll and be pinned down. The boat isn’t going to get back on her feet until the sails are down. Alone you can’t manage both the mainsail and the spinnaker at the same time. You might as well as bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.”
The old salt took another drink, “Your only chance is to cut the sails and let them fly away without falling off the boat. Good luck when the boat is lying on her side. Better wear your life jacket with your harness fastened to the boat. And your rigging knife to cut free if the boat goes down.”
“Nope, can’t do it. The deck is about 90 degrees, as is the cockpit and half full of water. Very limited what you can do. If he goes overboard he’ll never get back on the boat. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.”
My reverie was broken when I saw a dark cloud churning up dirt and large chunks of debris in the northwest. I was puzzled for a minute until I heard the sirens. A tornado heading right at us. For a minute, I froze.
I could stay on deck and try to release the boom and drop the sails. I cursed. My life jacket and harness were safely stowed below, my knife was in my pocket. So much for being prepared for an emergency. If the tornado should hit while I was on deck, I’d be thrown off the boat. The boat may turtle, sink and the girls will likely die, and I wouldn’t last long in the cold lake water with no life jacket.
The other choice was go below, batten the hatch and let the boat fend for herself. If the boat does turtle with the mast straight down water rushing into the cabin will make it impossible to escape. We may all die but if there’s any chance I’ll be there to help.
But maybe… I’ll cut the preventer line holding the boom and main and let it fly across the boat and hit the shrouds. Maybe the boom will break the shrouds and the mast under pressure by both the main and spinnaker will come down to the lee side. The broken butt of the mast may hole the hull and the boat sinks but still better than the boat turtles. We’ll have a chance to survive. Praying for a miracle, I cut the preventer line. The boom went flying over my head and hit the life lines and pulled out several stanchions, but the mast stayed up. The boat came up and rolled to starboard but the main was caught in the life line tangle and didn’t follow as did the spinnaker. I heard the girls screaming. I climbed on the deck to the mast and cut the spinnaker sheets and the main and spinnaker halyards. The spinnaker went streaming from the top of the mast but no longer a danger. I pulled the main out of the luff grove in the mast but there was no time to secure it. The had tornado burst through trees and dropped onto the lake edge, heading straight toward us. I jumped below, slammed the hatch closed, and covered the girls lying on the floor. With the boat back on her feet the girls were more relaxed. They didn’t know what was bearing down on us. Suddenly the wind howled like a freight train was coming, and the boat shuddered, pitched and rolled for an interminable time. When it became quiet I opened hatch. The funnel cloud was about several hundred yards east of us, moving fast. The wind subsided as did the waves. The girls were still huddled on the floor. The clouds parted, and the sun peaked out. I stepped into the cockpit to survey the damage. Surprising there was little apparent damage except where the fiberglass was gouged by the boom. The boom was hanging over the side but still attached to the mast. The main sail had several large holes. Fortunately, the tornado skipped past and we didn’t suffer a direct hit. The girls crawled out and looked around. “Where are the sails?”
“Help me pull the main out the water. Maybe the sail maker can repair it. The spinnaker is gone, the tornado took it.”
“Really, a tornado?”
“Yes, we’re lucky to be in one piece. Look around, others got hammered.”
There were numerous boats pulling down torn sails. Several were on their side.
“Look, a boat is upside down.”
“Sure is, we’ll head over and see if we can help.”
Before we arrived, a police boat arrived and picked up two people who were in the water. As we watched a plume of water and air rose from the overturned hull and quickly sank. It could have been us I thought.
We slowly motored in and docked in front of the yacht club. At the bar people were talking about the tornado shown on the news.
“We were hit by the damn thing,” I said to the bartender. An older man sitting next to me was wearing an ‘Old Goat’ shirt. The title ‘Old Goat’, was awarded to those who finished 25 Mac races.
“Really. You weren’t hurt? How’s your boat?”
“Only my pride is hurt. I lost a couple of sails. The boat’s beat up but OK. I made a bad decision going out, but there were no storm warnings. When I saw it coming I had only bad options and no time to prepare or think of a plan. I just reacted based on my experience. It turned out ok.”
The Old Goat concluded, “Sometimes when faced between two bad decisions, in a flash of desperate inspiration you throw a Hail Mary.”