Outdoors in Maine: Avoid the cardinal sin of boat safety

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How does that saying go? “Fool me once shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me?” Why is it that some of us never learn from our mistakes?

In my book, “Backtrack,” chapter four is titled “The Lightning Thing.” Here is an excerpt:

A few years ago, in early September, I tried to outrun an incoming electrical storm coming hell-bent down a lake. The wall of the storm cell was about 5 miles north of my boat and sweeping my way.

Camp and shelter from the impending deluge was a mere mile away. If my 6-horsepower Johnson outboard had been a 20-horsepower, I might have made it. But I didn’t. The September squall descended in all its fury.

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Amid the lightning, driving rain and crashing thunder, the stench of ozone announced the proximity of the electrical activity. As I willed my outboard to go faster and my heart to beat slower, the squall cell passed leaving me cowed but unscathed.

Yes, I was foolish, and lucky. I broke the cardinal rule: in an electrical storm don’t get caught on the water. It just wasn’t my time.

Flash forward.

Back in mid-August, on a sunny afternoon on Branch Lake, Diane and I were on the final upwind leg of a sailboat race. Our 16-foot O’Day Daysailor was bringing up the rear in the race bested by speedy Hobie Cats and fragile little Sunfishes. We didn’t care. We were IN the race and that’s all that mattered. We were having fun — or so we thought.

The darkening gray cloud deck on the western horizon had caught my attention on the second leg of the race. Diane saw it, too.

“Not to worry, Hon,” I said with an air of confidence. “We have a good hour before that baby moves in.”

Since getting back to camp involved beating directly into the wind — a slow process — I should have known better. As I eyed the cloud movement and the slightly freshening breeze, consideration was given to raising the centerboard, dumping the sails and putting the boat on the nearby beach until the storm cell passed.

Then it happened with little warning.

Abruptly, with no telltale lightning or advance cold front, a microburst descended upon the lake with a suddenness and fury unlike anything I have ever witnessed on Branch Lake, and I have been on this lake just about every summer for more than 50 years. High winds, sheets of driving rain and hail transformed the lake from a Colbalt Blue gentle chop into a frothy, ivory black cauldron of 3 to 4 foot waves and blowing spindrift amid the hail and stinging rain pellets.

A number of small sailboats capsized. I could see heads bobbing in the tumult as weekend sailors clung to their overturned craft and folks with big party boats attempted rescues.

In our boat, we managed to uncleat the jib halyard and let the wind have its way with our flapping jib and wind-strained mainsail. For 20 or 30 minutes, we simply kept the craft quartering into the wind while the storm beat on us and our little boat.

My son, watching the storm from our dock and unable to see us through the wall of driving rain, could only wait and worry. He said that when the cell had mostly passed he could tell that we were still upright at the other windward side of the lake.

It all ended as quickly as it began. When the danger passed Diane and I, a couple of drowned rats, convulsed in laughter, the kind that comes more from nervous relief than from a moment of humor.

“Let’s go home,” I said.

“That’s music to my ears,” Diane quipped.

We sailed back to camp under our own steam.

All sailors survived that sucker punch from Mother Nature. Lesson? Of course, more than one. My first voice told me to beach the boat, but I didn’t listen. With years of weather watching under my belt and a number of outdoor articles about boating safety, I never expected that I would ever place my wife and myself in this kind of peril.

I should have known better than to underestimate the risk — the cardinal sin of boating safety. In the Maine outdoors, this kind of thinking can get you in big trouble.

The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.

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