Two images stick in my mind from Sunday's great storm on the Potomac.

The first is of a swirling wall of water, lifted three feet from the surface of the river by the immense power of 70-knot winds advancing west to east.

"Frankie, is the wind doing that?" asked Frank Gallagher's sister, Patsy Coffman. Gallagher took no time to answer.

"Get the mainsail down! Get the mainsail down!" he shouted. There wasn't time for that, either.

The second image came moments later, just as the wall of wind smashed broadside into Gallagher's 19-foot Lightning sailboat, "Energize." It lifted the hull high in the air and knocked her back, burying the sails and mast deep in the water.

As Gallagher, his sister and I tried vainly to climb up the windward side and level the boat, I looked ahead to where Al Davis' boat had been.

She was still there, still upright, still afloat. All four of the crew were still aboard, making a mad dash toward shore with the wind at the stern.

Only one thing was missing. She wore no sails; no mast; no boom; no rigging.

The wind, coming from behind, had stripped away everything above the deck line and blown it over the bow. She looked for all the mayhem like a rowboat on a mill pond.

Then things started to get hairy.

Three Lightnings in all -- Gallagher's, Davis' "Stormy Petrel" and Frank Gentile's "Potomac Brave" had tried to make a hurried passage from a spot north of Fort Washington back to the Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria Sunday evening before the storm exploded. They never made it to the Wilson Bridge.

It was Lightning Fleet 50's annual June picnic and no boats came home whole.

Gallagher and his sister and I decided the effort to keep Energize level was futile. We took shelter behind the capsized hull and hoped the wind would blow us into the Maryland shore.

After the initial shock blast of wind the breeze seemed to pick up, accompanied by torrents of rain. We huddled in the lee of the cockpit and tried to collect our thoughts as we listened to the whump, whump, whump of new wind arriving in sheets.

Gallagher was composed. "We're all right," he would say, then, "Is everybody all right?"

The boat, blessed with foam flotation, bobbled in the water on its side for awhile before turning completely turtle. We clung to the hullsides, keeping tabs of our feet to stay clear or stray lines and rigging.

We had life vests on and seemed as secure as you can be with a capsized boat in the middle of a big river in a gale.

Then the lightning started, immense shafts splitting the black sky. We could hear the trees cracking where it hit.

Then another ominous sound -- a grinding and groaning from inside the boat.

"It's the mast," said Gallagher. "It's buried in the mud. We're going to lose the mast."

A curious calm settles over people in positions of ridiculous powerlessness. There was nothing we could do so we did nothing but hang on and peer through the driving rain, hoping for a glimpse of Davis or Gentle, to see if they and their crews were all right. Foot-tall swells occasionally lurched over the hull and smacked our faces.

The mast finally buckled and gave way. The boat began bobbing toward the Maryland shore, only to be brought to a grinding halt 150 yards from the beach when the water shallowed and the remains of the aluminum mast dug in again.

The grinding and groaning, resumed, Gallagher wore a pained expression as he listened to the pressures eating away at his racing boat.

The shore began to look terribly inviting. "Don't leave the boat," said Gallagher. "It's farther than it looks."

I have no idea how long it all lasted. It could have been 10 minutes and it might have been 45. I know my arms ached and I had begun some serious worrying before the wind subsided and the rain dropped off to a smattering.

When the ceiling lifted we could see Gentile and his crew clinging to their capsized boat, pushing it toward shore. Davis had disappeared around the bend, presumably having made it to shore under no poles, no sails.

We relaxed.

A power boat swept by. Patsy Coffman was convinced it was the Coast Guard, but whoever it was had no interest in distressed sailors. He plowed south down the channel.

Then another power boat appeared. It was Mike Arnold, who had hosted the fleet picnic at his place on the river in Oxon Hill. He checked Gentile's boat first, then swung our way.

Two beefy guys jumped overboard and swam over. With five people hauling we managed to swing Gallagher's boat upright. The mast came up last, shattered into three pieces with the torn mainsail still bent on.

Arnold apologized for taking so long. It seems the storm had uprooted a wild cherry tree which fell on his bedroom, caving in a portion of the roof. He'd had a few things to worry about.

Arnold said Al Davis had indeed made it to shore, and had immediately set about jury-rigging a short sail with a piece of his mast, which had broken in three pieces. He'd done that successfully and was prepared to sail home, after renaming the "Stormy Petrel" the "Stumpy Petrel."

Gentile had fared best of all. His rudder sheared off with the initial blast of wind. The boat turned turtle and rolled up so that the mast was dragging all the way into the Maryland shore, instead of digging in the way Gallagher's had. All he lost was his rudder.

Chesapeake Bay/Potomac evening summer squalls are legendary for their intensity. But in 10 years of boating on these waters I'd never found myself in the teeth of one.

I'd never quite believed those who say these storms arrived so suddenly there is no time to do anything but pray.

But that's exactly how it is.