England is famous for its fierce and furious coastal gales, which whip up off of the water and crash against the fishing villages and seaside towns that line the coast, endangering lives, ruining well-planned holidays, and generating enough evening news excitement to compensate for the lack of gun crime in the UK. I had seen enough footage of seawaters rising and breaking over seawalls to know what might be coming for Pas de Deux if a serious storm were ever to hit her — which, of course, I assumed would never happen. Optimism is a convenient thing to have if you’re going to live on a boat — realistic people, who do things like cost-benefit analyses, generally prefer to remain on shore.
Optimism only goes so far in the face of media sensationalism, however, and when we read a BBC forecast that threatened a winter gale with winds up to 70 knots and possible overtopping, I started conjuring up visions of city streets rushing with floodwaters, coastal inhabitants fleeing for their lives, and monster waves ripping boats from their moorings and bashing them against buildings and houses. It doesn’t help that I’m from Louisiana, where people take a strange pleasure in all of the hype and anticipation preceding hurricanes. I grew up spending hours glued to the television, tracking the storm’s every move, and standing in interminable lines to buy hand-crank radios, flashlights, and enough provisions to last through a nuclear winter.
Although I was ready to hightail it to Benn’s brother’s house and stay there until the danger had passed, Benn kept assuring me that a boat was the safest place to be under these sort of storm conditions. While I am still suspicious of this reasoning and pretty sure that it would not stand up in the face of, say, a category 5 hurricane, it is true that Ipswich is located several miles inland, at the meeting point between two rivers and a fairly well-protected estuary, and our marina is particularly sheltered. Besides, this would be our first great adventure aboard Pas de Deux — and we hadn’t even taken her out of the marina yet! It was all too tempting to miss.
The first order of business was to get Pas de Deux as storm-ready as possible. We closed the seacocks, removed everything that could be blown away from the deck and cockpit, and stowed loose lines and other things in lockers. Our jib was not rolled as well as it could have been, and we refurled it so that the winds couldn’t work it loose and shred the sail. We checked the main and mizzen, and they were sung and secure in their stackpacks, so we didn’t tie them down (also, I forgot to buy something to tie them down with). As we are missing one of our mooring lines (it’s on the shopping list, we just haven’t got around to buying it), Pas de Deux had been fixed to the pontoon using the jib sheet, which is not an ideal state of affairs to say the least. So, we found a nice, thick rope in one of the lockers and used it as a mooring line; it was a little short, but we cleated it off securely and it seemed strong enough to hold. Since we are on a floating pontoon, we did not have to worry about giving enough slack in the lines to compensate for floodwaters or rising tides.
We initially planned to take the dodger off entirely, as a strong gust could either tear it from the boat or use it as a sail, causing the boat to swing and knocking it against the pontoon. In the end, we decided to leave it up (yes, that decision was motivated by laziness) and just unsnapped the flaps on the side so that the wind could blow through it. We also debated about whether or not we should take down the solar panel, but we decided to wait to see how bad the wind got instead. I doubt that this would be a good idea in a heavier storm, particularly if you are not staying aboard the boat.
I was also worried that the pontoon and ramp would freeze over and we wouldn’t be able to get out very easily, so I bought a gazillion days worth of food, most of which could be prepared using the oven, as I figured that the stovetop (aka hob) would be too dangerous to use if the wind were slamming the boat around. We had enough alcohol left over for Christmas to last us for quite a while, but we also bought a few bottles of ale just in case.
When the gale blew in at noon on Friday the 13th, I happened to be writing in my journal and in an unusually descriptive mood:
Friday the 13th and all hell is breaking loose — well, not really. But it seems the gale is finally blowing in — first predicted for yesterday morning then midnight and now today at noon — which seems to have been accurate, as our boat, as still and stable as she’s always been, as steady and steadfast, as impervious to wind and weather, is swinging on her docklines and the waves are already slapping beside — there is howling through the masts, their halyards clanging against them, and the docklines creak occasionally — they are old and the one at the bow is not long enough, but they are well-tied (according to ASA standards, of course) and should hold. We are swaying side to side and the water, usually so calm as to be forgotten, slowly undulates beneath. There are floods coming, supposedly — 2 m above mean height — which could put us above the seawall — but won’t because we are well-protected here and really there is very little to worry about — the tell-tales are flying, splendid, furious little banners, and to the left (west) there are darker clouds brewing, although most of the sky is as bright and blue as April. It snowed this morning. There was a gentle icing sugar dust when we woke up, which seemed to thaw before we could even really appreciate it and was then replaced by a wild shower of fat, wet clusters of snowflakes and then rain. And now nothing but blue, grey (blowing west now, away from us) and wind — it is v. cold in the boat and I am in the bedroom, dehumidifier on and doors and bulkhead hatch closed, while Benn tries to unblock the sink in the galley and Fu lies in her bed, bored.
The boats are really bobbing about now, although the sky is brighter than ever — the wind must have swept the grey away, although there is still a bright white cloud cover to the north — I have to practice observing clouds and other things about the weather because they will help us when we are out at sea.
The monohulls are tossing around and there’s a light chop in the water — the rigging is shuddering when the gusts blow in and the loose halyard on the boat next to us makes a sound like a chugging train — but that’s it. It’s hard to be scared when the sky is not ominous — we were up this morning and did the laundry first thing, which is why I didn’t write here, although I am happy because it means that now I can write and describe the oncoming storm.
[The reader may have noticed that in my journal-writing mind I am an Edwardian lady seated at a mahogany writing table, slowly meditating on the changes in weather just visible from beyond the conservatory window (see: “splendid, furious little banners”). The reality, as you can see in the photo to the right, is far different. Sigh.]
At this point, I decided that I would do a play-by-play hourly account of the storm and I sat my journal aside until it was time to write the next report. That report, however, never came, and the day’s entry ended there. It isn’t that I lost my resolve — it was rather that nothing actually happened to write about. It was really windy and then, an hour or so afterwards, it was just kind of windy and a bit colder than usual. And that’s it.
Happily, there was no damage to the boat at all. We periodically checked on the state of the dodger and the solar panel, but all was well, even when the wind was at its highest — which is not to say that our preparations were all for naught. It was good practice for future storms and it got us on deck and doing sailorly things. We practiced unfurling and furling the jib, and I realized how much easier it is to handle our little, snappy little jib than it was to raise the larger sails that I got used to on our sailing course — one of the many advantages of having a smaller boat. We also practiced our knots (knot so easy — ha ha) and got to know our boat a bit better.
So, like the best adventures, all of the excitement lay in the anticipation and the retelling. Pas de Deux was safe, we suffered nothing more severe than boredom, and Fuji hardly even knew what happened. We went out for a walk afterwards and the worst damage we found was that one corner of a tarp had blown off of one of the boats in our marina and lay sadly soaking in the water. I’m not sure whether or not everyone else on the east coast fared as well as we did, but Ipswich got through just fine.
So much for our first storm. Here’s hoping that they will always be so painless!