We frequently get asked what it’s like on the boat when there’s a storm. We are quite used to the motion of the boat in heavy winds, but the sound of the wind whining through the rigging will keep me up at night. My husband is able to sleep through the storms and perhaps it is because he knows that I will be wide awake, should the unthinkable happen – a line breaks on our boat or on a neighbouring boat. We have experienced both situations during storms.
When we lived in Deep Bay, we had to contend with Qualicum winds – a gap wind phenonmena that would see winds increase from 5 knots to 35-40 in the span of 15 minutes. The force of the wind would sometimes cause a finger (and any boat attached to it) to break loose from the main dock. Ever since, we always attach a line to the main dock.
A storm was forecasted for that December day, but the intensity of the storm was greatly underestimated. As I drove south from Courtenay towards the marina, the storm strengthened and the highway was littered with limbs from trees and power lines, slowing traffic down to 30 kms/hour.
I came upon an old man and his dog pinned in the cab of his pick-up truck under a large Douglas Fir tree. He was unhurt, but unable to get out of the vehicle. Cell reception was poor in this area so I promised to call emergency services when I got to the marina.
I stood in the phone booth in complete darkness as the power had been long out while Deep Bay received the full fury of the storm. The walls of the phone booth pulsed with each gust of wind as I reported the accident to the RCMP. Turning my attention to the 150′ pier I had to walk down, I heard the unmistakable sound of a sail whipping wildly in the wind. Someone’s roller furling had come undone.
In the darkness, the reflection of multiple flashlights on the sail lit up the dock and I could see the silhouettes of 5 men trying to control the unfurled sail. One man was holding onto the sheet as the sail shredded. Without warning, he was suddenly picked up and dropped back onto the deck, jolting his spine and injuring his back.
The wind was so strong that you had to crouch down on your knees with each gust in order not to be blown off your feet and risk falling off the dock. The rain blown by these strong winds was so hard that it hurt your face and you had to turn your head to the side as you walked.
Our boat was no refuge from the storm, heeled over in her slip further than we have ever sailed her. We stayed like this for at least an hour at a 30-degree heel. I seriously considered abandoning ship for safer ground, but there was too much work to be done; all hell was breaking loose on the docks.
The storm raged for another 4 hours and the half-dozen liveaboards spent that time adding extra lines to fingers that had broken away from the main dock ( fingers that had been attached by eight 1 inch bolts, sheared off). We tied down dinghies on the bows of boats. Some were bouncing up and down so violently that it was too dangerous and we had to leave them. We tied down mainsails that had lost their canvas covers – shredded and unrecoverable. Added lines where lines had snapped.
As the storm weakened, we returned to our boats – exhausted yet exhilarated by our shared experience of helping each other. The next morning revealed the extent of the damage. Two boats were lost that night. Trees were knocked down on the only access road to the marina. Crews were so busy that it took five days to restore power to the area. Luckily we were self sufficient on the boat and weathered these days far more comfortably than our land-based neighbours.
Although this was December on Vancouver Island and there was no snow on the ground, snow plows were put into service to remove the fallen trees and branches that covered the highways making them impassable.
Chaz, the lighthouse keeper from Chrome Island Lighthouse arrived the following day with an incredible tale of his experience during the height of the storm. He had checked on the boat shed and found himself trapped by the wind- unable to make his way back to the house. He watched helplessly as the large timbers that made up the helicopter landing pad, became detached and flew off the island like they were matchsticks. Eventually, he was able to time his movement with the lulls in the gusts and arrived safely back at the house. But once inside, the walls of the house were moving with each gust and he took refuge in the kitchen. In his 25+ years of being a lighthouse keeper, these were the worst winds that he had ever been in.
This storm took everyone by surprise and it took a few days for the stories to come in. Two different pilots spotted water spouts in the Strait of Georgia just before dark. In the end, it was surmised that one of the water spouts touched Chrome Island and carried onto Hornby Island where it did considerable damage. Further south, a swath of old growth trees in Stanley Park in Vancouver were levelled. Gusts were recorded at 177 kms/hour – 95.57 knots!
I have no pictures of this storm as the worst of it happened in complete darkness. I do have the following image from the Comox Valley Echo. This was a humbling experience made brighter by the comfort that the liveaboard community came together to work as a team. This has been my experience with my fellow liveaboards. There is a strong sense of community and family.