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Angus Phillips

Battening Down for Spring Squalls

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page E04

The prettier the weather gets, the more people are drawn to the water. Spring is for boating, but wise boaters also know it's the mid-Atlantic region's most treacherous season, when wild storms pop up unannounced and the water is still cold enough to kill.

It's what meteorologists call the transition season, when dry cold fronts push down from Canada and smash into festering, wet, warm weather troughs lumbering up the Gulf Stream. Hang on to your hats when these mighty forces clash, as clash they must.

A classic Trumphy motor yacht runs toward harbor as a black-clouded squall passes over the Chesapeake Bay. (Bob Grieser -- Outsideimages)

We heard the first cannon shots of the new season last weekend. Lightning lit a grim black sky and thunder shook the house. I lay secure in bed, reflecting on the fun and fear we'd had 12 hours earlier on Chesapeake Bay when the leading edge of spring's first buster came charging through.

I was with Ian Berman on a 16-foot skiff, following 22-foot sailboats around the Severn River off Annapolis. Berman, junior-sailing director at Severn Sailing Association, was running a safety boat for the annual Star Wars Regatta, in which last year's top finishers from various racing fleets around the bay compete to see who's best. Usually, a safety boat is an afterthought in a high-class group like that. Not this time.

It was a rough, warm, rainy morning with southerly gusts to 25 knots. We saw one crewman get flipped into the 50-degree water during warmups, but he was quickly retrieved, no harm done. Several other boats flew out of control in tight maneuvering around the turning marks during the first race, but no one went swimming.

Everyone knew worse was coming. The marine weather forecast for two days had warned of squalls along the leading edge of a big Canadian high pressure system. Temperatures behind the front were sharply cooler and every sailor knows when cool, dry air meets warm, wet air, sparks fly.

"Uh-oh," Berman said, glancing across the bay toward Kent Island, or at least where Kent Island used to be. Instead of a horizon, he saw only a wall of whitewater.

A dozen race boats stretched between us and the line squall. We watched in horrified wonder as the wall of wind and water smashed into the fleet, toppling boats one at a time. The 22-footers were running downwind under spinnakers; one moment one would be flying before the wind, the next it was pinned hard on its side with the big sail flapping out of control.

Every boat got hit. Some coped better than others. "There goes a kite," said Berman as a blue spinnaker shredded.

"The guys behind us are in trouble," I said, gesturing to a capsized boat with its mast in the water and the crew scrambling onto the upturned hull to stay dry.

"Everybody's in trouble," said Berman. "It's hard to know where to go."

Then the wall hit us and the question was academic. You couldn't see or do anything. We stood by, waiting for a break in the mayhem.

At such moments I'm both exhilarated and scared, although the older I get the more I tend toward exhilarated. It's like being inside the kettle drum during the "1812 Overture," or out on Fort McHenry with Francis Scott Key watching the bombs go off. You just stand with your mouth agape, helpless, water streaming down your oilskins, rain lashing your face, and feel the forces of nature go at it, hammer and tongs.

By most measures, last weekend's squalls were not too bad. Gusts probably never exceeded 45 knots and the really hard rain was short-lived. I've seen worse. I must be unlucky. Plenty of diehard boaters and fishermen never endure really foul weather. I've seen plenty.

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