The ocean/sea can go from being calm, beautiful and enjoyable to a tempest, gray and ugly and threatening very quickly. Sure we get storms that come on us quickly on the land, but it’s not like our feet are rocking back and forth and we can’t see where we are or where we’re going.
I’ve had at least two major occasions when we are out cruising in calm, even pleasant weather and then out of no where have dangerous weather just descend on our boat. Both times there was just no where to go find shelter and we didn’t have that option. If we got caught in sudden bad weather, you can imagine others less trained, experienced and equipped got caught in the same weather and now require help. It doesn’t take much on the ocean to alter your situation so much that you are facing very real danger or you’ve already been seriously injured, tossed into the sea or even killed. Ending up in the water off of Massachusetts is a very dangerous situation. You may think you can swim to shore, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it happening. The ocean may look inviting but even strong, conditioned, experienced swimmers can quickly end up in life-threatening situations. Often people will go out in vessels that are just not designed or equipped for sea travel and it can often end up killing you.
A buddy of mine and I were assigned to the Group Boston Aids to Navigation Team (ATON). It was an interesting four years. It was good experience and good training and the Boston area is so rich in maritime history we got to be at sites and work on buildings that most people would never see. Certainly the iconic Boston Light House and other lesser known but just as impressive structures. There’s Graves Light, which sounds forbidding and it actually is. It is almost at the entrance of Boston Harbor almost out of sight of land, but oddly surrounded by rocks, ledges and other low water. Many Mariners not really aware of the area have not made it home ending up on the dangers around Graves. Many think it’s named Graves because of that, but it’s actually named after a British Admiral named Graves. There’s Minots light which also guards very treacherous water. We had one case, the subject managed to wend their way inside the rocks and ledges and then realized they couldn’t get out. Of course it was the middle of the night and we had to pick our way in to get them and then gently and gingerly pull them out with us.
As I said in this particular occasion we were assigned to the ATON team. Since we both had much experience in the area and driving boats and it was our job rating we would often shuttle people out to different locations by boat to do different kinds of work. Boston Light was the last manned lighthouse and so it required additional attention to accommodate the Coast Guard personnel that had to live out there two weeks at a time.
In respect to that we had just finished a day of work helping electricians do work out on Boston Light and were transporting them back to Boston which is, usually, a rather pleasant boat trip. This one would be challenging.
We were just using a small work boat big enough to transport four Electronic Technicians (ET) and their equipment out and back. We were just approaching the main channel when the emergency radio frequency just went berserk. As we looked into Boston we could see why. There was this monstrous blue/green cloud cover and from what we could pick out from the babble on the radio it was producing torrential downpours and very dangerous lightning. We really had no time to react and it was on us. We had no special navigation equipment on this boat and in this weather probably wouldn’t have helped anyway. Heavy downpours can just blank out radar and can also cut off satellite GPS. (like when a heavy downpour blanks out your satellite television at home).
So there we are, this is definitely the most intense thunderstorm I’d been in and I think the other guy. I know for sure it was for the ETs cowering in the boat cabin. I was outside with no foul weather gear on because it really wasn’t necessary when we started and it was hardly the first time I’d received a good hose down. I was trying to figure out where we were and where we are going it doesn’t take much for a small boat to get pitched around and going in a direction you don’t want to go. Inside Boston Harbor there are plenty of areas that you don’t want to hit either. We figured it out and were proceeding very carefully. It was mid-summer so getting hosed down was kind of fun.
The lightning was so intense I can only describe it by imagining what it would be like under artillery attack. Although it was so thick I couldn’t see the lightning I could very much hear it hitting and got that ozone smell of lightning disrupting the atmosphere. We may not have been at risk for artillery shrapnel, but even a close hit could have taken us out or at least disrupted the boat’s electronics and shut down the engine.
We made it through and my buddy and I thought it was great fun. That sentiment was not shared by the ETs who were expecting a routine uneventful day. Twenty nine years in the Coast Guard on the water taught me that sure there are routine days, but those days can get dangerous quickly and might just ruin your day.