I follow the weather pretty closely. Nationally, regionally, down to individual weather stations on buildings that I know. My primary use of Twitter is to follow weather nerds talking about the weather, and boy, do they love a named storm. But despite all of this, I wasn’t expecting much from Tropical Storm Isaias. At first I thought that it was trending east and might go out to sea, and then when it didn’t, I thought it would get beat up over the Carolinas and just be a blustery rainy day by the time it got this far north. Maybe it was the fact that it got downgraded from full-hurricane status so far south and I just got caught up in the classification, but I wasn’t overly concerned.
When we got back from sailing last Saturday, we found a note that the marina had tacked to my slip, asking that I add extra dock lines. That may have been my first indication that I was misreading the situation, since they’d never asked this before. I did double them up, and started paying more attention. Over Sunday and Monday, the forecast solidified, and didn’t look great, with high winds predicted at the shore by midday Tuesday. I started to get a little nervous that I hadn’t done enough preparation and decided that I should get down there.
But Monday was online game night with friends, which didn’t finish until late, and then I had to pull some things together to make sure that I had enough junk on hand to make it through the stay. Time has had little meaning for me of late, but I didn’t get down there until after midnight. It was completely, eerily calm.
I did a couple things in preparation, but mostly just set up the cabin to spend the night, plugged in some battery-powered things to charge, and went to sleep. At some point, I was awakened by getting rained on through the open hatch and closed up the boat. It was a little stuffy with the humidity, but was bearable with the cabin fan running.
I woke up near dawn on Tuesday morning, as is my custom on the boat (and nowhere else). It was still calm, and there were no obvious signs of an impending storm. I put out fenders, tied some sail ties around my jib, and ran extra lines. My cleats won’t accept anything larger than 1/2″ dock lines, but I have some thicker stuff that I ran to my winches as kind of spring lines/dock lines of last resort. I tuned my VHF to Channel 16, just to see if anyone out there was saying anything, but it was silent. A very orderly flotilla of ducks sailed by, seemingly in a hurry, and I wondered if they knew something was up.
I established a WiFi connection and chatted with some friends online for a bit, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do to prepare, and went back to sleep in an effort to be more rested for the worst of it. I was again woken up by rain, and had to put the crib boards back in and close the hatches. The wind was picking up by then, although it still wasn’t anything crazy.
As is the case with a lot of things, it was all fine until it wasn’t. At 10:54am, I sent a message to my sailing friends:
Do you ever think, “Maybe this was a bad idea?”
The wind speed quickly went to plaid. It was right on the beam, and the boat was heeling substantially in the gusts and bouncing around in the slip. The rain was horizontal and there was spindrift in the fairway. Then an alarm blared over my left shoulder, which made me reflexively duck as if I were expecting it hit me. Apparently, a marine VHF radio can automatically switch to a WX channel when the shit is imminently approaching the fan. It was only 11:02am when I sent the next message:
confirmed tornado warning now. lol.
Yes, there was a tornado out there.
000 WFUS51 KPHI 041500 TORPHI NJC025-029-041530- /O.NEW.KPHI.TO.W.0028.200804T1500Z-200804T1530Z/ BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED Tornado Warning National Weather Service Mount Holly NJ 1100 AM EDT Tue Aug 4 2020 The National Weather Service in Mount Holly NJ has issued a Tornado Warning for… Ocean County in southern New Jersey… Southern Monmouth County in central New Jersey… Until 1130 AM EDT. At 1059 AM EDT, a confirmed tornado was located over Barnegat, or 17 miles south of Toms River, moving north at 55 mph. HAZARD…Damaging tornado. SOURCE…Weather spotters confirmed tornado. IMPACT…Flying debris will be dangerous to those caught without shelter. Mobile homes will be damaged or destroyed. Damage to roofs, windows, and vehicles will occur. Tree damage is likely. PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS… Protecting yourself from immediate threats to life and safety shall take priority. Whenever possible, as long as it does not cause greater harm, all COVID-19 protective action guidance should be followed. To repeat, a tornado has been confirmed. TAKE COVER NOW! Move to a basement or an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows. If you are outdoors, in a mobile home, or in a vehicle, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris. &&
I like that they got a COVID-19 warning in there too. Even mid-twister, keep at least 6 feet away from a witch on a bicycle flying past your open window.
The landmarks mentioned in the warning were Barnegat and Toms River, which I was between. The tornado was seen in the town of Barnegat, about 10 miles south of my location, coming my way at 55 mph.
I looked out the window and contemplated my options. I had intentionally lengthened my dock lines to provide maximum shock absorption and to account for any weird fluctuations in the height of the water, but that made for a long jump to the dock. Fortuitous was being blown away from the finger pier, heeling in a less-than-helpful direction, and bucking like a defective carnival ride. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to leave the boat if I wanted to and wasn’t sure where I’d go if I could.
I listened to the weather robot drone on for a while. I occasionally turned it down to listen for a tornado, although I’m not exactly sure what a tornado sounds like or if I’d be able to discern it from the rest of a tropical storm while inside a fiberglass tube. Nothing new seemed to be happening.
I decided to make coffee. Maybe this is when it helps to have a bit of a nihilistic streak, but coffee is good, it’s something I can control, and it wasn’t going to impact the direction of the tornado one way or the other. I have complained at length about the movie All is Lost, in which Robert Redford does a series of inexplicable things on a sailboat that often do not improve his increasingly terrible situation, and maybe this was my “Oh, there’s a storm coming? Maybe I should shave” moment, but whatever. I was as prepared as I was going to get, and I wanted coffee.
I successfully brought almost all of the coffee-making equipment, but somehow forgot my grinder. Undeterred, I put the whole beans into my steel mug and crushed them with the butt end of a screwdriver. Did it do as good of a job as my ceramic burr grinder? No. I did not get optimal extraction, but I was technically able to make 32oz of coffee, and, as they say, any quart in a storm.
I don’t know where the tornado went, but it avoided me.
The conditions remained the same for some time, and I slowly began to acclimate. It wasn’t supposed to get any worse than it already was, and things seemed to be generally holding together. The rain would occasionally ease up, and I took advantage of one of the lulls to go up on deck and switch the lines to give the most active dock lines a break. I noticed that the boat in the slip immediately upwind from me looked like it was going to lose its bimini, which I assumed would then fire into my boat at 50kts. While I was contemplating that, I saw that there were other people at the marina—the first people I’d seen since I arrived the night before. Richard boarded that boat to tend to their canvas, and there were marina employees rushing around checking on things.
I felt better that there were other people there, and I was finally able to imagine how I’d potentially be able to disembark. I wondered how the boats were doing on the other end of the marina, so I collected my coffee equipment and walked over there. I saw Mike on the way. The wind was incredibly loud, and we couldn’t really hear each other, but we gave each other a thumbs-up to indicate that we were fine. Several boats still had biminis up, and they were all taking quite a beating. The bulk of the marina staff seemed to be concerned with a boat that had its jib come partially unfurled, but they said that there wasn’t anything that could be done about it while it was still blowing that hard. It was already ripped up, and may have been a goner, regardless. I washed my dishes in the marina building on the far end and wandered back.
Bands of rain continued on and off for a few hours, and I’d occasionally have to put the crib boards back in when it was pouring and take them out when I could to get a little air flow. I didn’t think to take many pictures when it was really nasty, but during one of the later bouts of rain, I did shoot a short video through a small vent in my boards during one of the rainier (but less windy) portions.
I stayed until about 4:00pm, at which point the sun was shining and the wind had calmed down quite a bit. I hadn’t even noticed that the power was out, because everything I was using also ran on batteries and the WiFi somehow never went down. In the end, the storm behaved as predicted, with wind gusts close to 60kts for a solid couple hours between 11:00 and 1:00.
I had never seen wind that strong. I’m not sure I care to see it again any time soon, although once the initial shock of it wore off, I did get used to it—at least when safely tied to a dock. I’m not sure that anything I did during the storm really had that much of an impact, but I don’t regret the experience. As far as I know, there was minimal damage at the marina, thanks in part to the folks running around and addressing things before they got out of hand. A lot of people had it much worse. Isaias was an education for me, and I will likely not underestimate a tropical storm again.