It was supposed to be a short casual cruise to a waterfront restaurant and dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary. My wife and I were spending a four day weekend on our favorite lake with our Catalina 22 named Summer Dance. I had spent the last year refitting and restoring her from stem to stern and she was now a gem we were proud of and enjoyed cruising in. It turned out to be a grueling night that we’ll never forget and our worst anniversary in 37 years.
When we left for the restaurant, there wasn’t enough wind to make it worth even hoisting the sails. We motored forty-five minutes from the marina near where we were staying to the restaurant at the south end of the Long Bridge. The bridge crosses the mouth of the Pend Oreille River where it empties into Lake Pend Oreille near Sandpoint, ID. We tied up on the outside of the breakwater since the slips behind it were too short, mostly filled with other boats already, and in shallow, weed-filled water. A yellow and black motor boat had docked on the inside of the breakwater opposite us. Besides, we would only be there a couple of hours. What’s the worst that could happen?
Bad news travels fast
No sooner had we sat down at one of the restaurant’s patios and ordered drinks than my wife got a text message on her phone from our daughter 75 miles away. She had to pull her car off of a highway due to dime size hail and high winds. The children with her in the car were panicked. She knew that we were probably sailing on the lake and wanted to warn us that the storm was heading our way fast and to tell us that she was praying for us. I immediately went back to the boat, put the covers on our sails, dropped in the crib boards, folded up the bimini, tied on an extra fender, secured everything else that was loose, and double cinched the dock lines. I figured if that wasn’t protection enough, there wasn’t much more that I could do in the time I had.
When I returned to our table, my wife warned the waiter that a bad storm was coming our way and we asked to be seated inside. Only a couple of minutes after we had sat down near a window where we could see our boat at the dock below, the storm front hit like one of the many rumbling freight trains that pass through Sandpoint every day. Signs blew over, umbrellas took flight, and the other guests scrambled to take cover while the service staff tried to keep order and safety. When I looked down at Summer Dance, the surf kicked up by the wind was already hitting her broadside and had her pinned up against the dock, her mast swinging wide arcs with each swell. The boom topping lift cable gave up first and broke, simultaneously shearing the gooseneck fitting and sending the boom crashing into the cockpit. One end hung over the lifeline with the mainsail spilled out of the cover into the wind. Then the lights went out everywhere except for the cars that had slowed to a crawl on the bridge nearby.
What followed was two hours of excruciating torture watching my hard work get slammed up against and almost on top of the dock at times. It was like watching a badly mismatched boxer get pummeled mercilessly except that the round kept going and no judge stepped in to stop the punishment. Everyone in the restaurant seemed to be standing at the windows watching the savage display outside as tall Douglas Fir trees arced in the wind and waves washed over the docks. Nearby dinner guests were remarking about the poor little sailboat getting thrown around and felt sorry for its owners.
Following is video shot by another guest at the restaurant who graciously offered it to us. It is of the beginning of the storm before much damage had occurred and while it was still safe enough to be outside.
The other boats weren’t fairing much better. One new Chapparal rental broke loose from one of its cleats and started swinging on the remaining cleat. The boat’s twin sister broke completely free and washed up against the rock bridge abutment. Some of the owners ran down to try to save their boats, which were pitching wildly in their slips. The swim platform of one sheared off on the front of its slip (the men holding the boat in the video). The bow of another began hammering the wooden rim of its slip, just inches away from concrete. The owner of the yellow and black motor boat enlisted a friend or relative (the men walking in the video) to help him secure his boat and its rack-mounted wake boards that were beginning to fly away like leaves in the wind. Somehow in the mayhem, he injured his leg badly and two other men could barely drag him down the dock without getting blown off themselves. The boat broke loose from its ties, washed into the bridge pilings in seconds, and sank on the other side.
Meanwhile, Summer Dance was losing her fight. I could see that at least one of the fenders had punctured. The dock bumpers were torn off by now as was the rub rail on Summer Dance. Her deck rim was being shredded by protruding screws in the dock. She was starting to catch the edge of the dock with her exposed deck flange as she slid off the dock between waves. I expected the starboard windows to break any moment. Amazingly though, the lifeline stanchions guarded them and her low center of gravity pulled her back upright every time.
After about an hour, when the winds slowed enough that it was relatively safe to go outside, I went down to the shore end of the dock to capture some video for posterity and the insurance company. I helped a handful of other men secure a couple of boats that were now in danger from the wind that had reversed directions. Some of the dock cleats had pulled completely through and dock lines had snapped. Summer Dance was now being blown in the opposite direction, away from the dock, which relieved me until I saw that the entire dock had loosened on its pilings several inches. The skirting of the breakwater had also broken loose at the end of the dock and was beginning to peel back towards Summer Dance, pushed by the waves.
If it wrapped around or under her, worse damage was sure to happen. I found another guest that was willing to help me pull her back toward the opposite end of the dock aided by an extra long spring line. It was all the two of us could do to hold our grips on the dock lines as the wind tried to take her away. It was then that I saw up close how the dock had chewed through the deck rim like a great white shark.
We were the last guests left in the restaurant by now. Its owners offered to drive us back to where we were staying for the night since we obviously couldn’t use our boat. I felt like we were betraying Summer Dance as we drove away in the total darkness, her halyards ringing the mast in a mournful distress call. The drive through the city was surreal. All of the buildings and traffic lights were dark. Pedestrians weaved through tree limbs and leaves coated the streets.
When we were dropped off at our powerless bungalow our key card couldn’t unlock the door and we had to reach in through a nearby unlocked window. We went straight to bed, but first I took a sleeping pill to help me not replay the disaster in my mind all night long.
The morning after
We woke the next morning early and the power was still out. We made coffee on the BBQ grill and ate cold cereal in silence before we drove back to the scene of the previous night. Several boat owners were already there discovering what was left of their boats in the daylight. Other than some bent stanchions, twisted fittings, missing bottom paint, and taking on a little water, Summer Dance was intact and could move under power. The contents of the cabin and lockers looked like it had been spun in a lottery ball machine. I untangled the boom from its lines, stowed it below, and cleared the cockpit for the slow motor passage back to the marina where we were staying.
After we pulled Summer Dance out of the water and while I was tying down the unharmed mast, a man who had also been at the restaurant the night before stopped to ask if ours was the sailboat he had seen. He was visiting from the Seattle area where he had spent his life boating in Puget Sound. He said he had never seen a sailboat tossed around like that before, at one point nearly horizontal on top of the dock with her mast almost hitting the water on the other side. A long scratch starting near the water line and extending vertically up the hull confirms his story.
News of the storm was broadcast all over the Pacific Northwest. Residents who had lived in the area most of their lives told us they had never experienced a storm like that before. Upwards of 70 thousand utility customers, which is a lot in that part of the country, lost power, some for days. A fire rescue boat on the same lake was swamped trying to retrieve two stranded victims. Its crew had to be rescued themselves. The Kootenai County Sheriff’s office reported swells had reached 6-8 feet. The wind speed logged at the Sandpoint airport topped out at 56 mph. It could very likely have been more where we were, unimpeded by miles of open water. What made the experience even more surprising was that a similar storm with 70-80 mph winds had ripped through the region only 10 days before. In addition to hundreds of other incidents, it destroyed some docks at a different bay, started several wildfires, and destroyed over 40 mobile homes in one park from toppled pine trees.
All was not lost
I saw Robert Redford’s epic but controversial sailing disaster movie All is Lost. You probably did too. Sitting in Summer Dance‘s cabin and looking through the hole in her hull at about the same location as in Virginia Jean, the irony wasn’t lost on me. Now, I’m not comparing our experience to that of Bob’s character. The location of the hole is the only similarity. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I should have shoe-horned Summer Dance somewhere inside the breakwater with spring lines on both sides and removed her sails completely. But that’s not what I would normally do, so I didn’t.
Summer Dance will be repaired and sail again, this season, hopefully. In the larger scheme of things, she’s only part of the stuff in our lives and expendable. We’re grateful that we didn’t get caught out on the water during the storm and that neither of us were injured. Maybe our daughter’s prayers were answered, maybe it was providence. It didn’t take my wife long to remark that we deserved a do-over night out.
Help us get Summer Dance back on the water
I don’t have a final estimate yet, but repairing Summer Dance is going to be expensive and time consuming. I won’t be doing the fiberglass repair myself, it’s too complicated for my skill level and it want it done right. We had insurance, so we’re only going to have to pay the deductible. If you want to help us get Summer Dance back on the water and would be willing to support this blog in a non-monetary way, then please vote for our photo in the Sailrite 2014 Summer Project Photo Contest between August 15 and August 30. It’s the same photo as the one at the top of this post. If we win one of the gift certificates, we’ll use it to help replace damaged hardware and/or fund new projects that you’ll see here. It costs you nothing but a few minutes of your time. I would really appreciate your support.