Saturday, August 31, 2013


Tornadoes that happen over large bodies of water are called waterspouts.   Somehow, the name doesn't seem to invoke the same panic as the word tornado, which sounds like havoc about to happen.  During the time I was cruising, I saw quite a few waterspouts, but two will remain etched in my mind forever. 

The first one was in Marathon in the Florida Keys.  The boat was on a dock at a tiny marina on Florida Bay.  This was in back of a fish house that has since been torn down to make way for more lucrative properties.  It was the middle of the afternoon and I was up at the fish house talking to some other residents.  Someone from one of the other boats came up yelling loudly about a waterspout, a giant waterspout that was headed directly toward our boats.  We really couldn't see much from where we were - buildings were in the way, so we all ran down to the docks. 

As we reached the docks, I realized that if it actually did come to our marina, there was no way to help the boats.  We couldn't get them out of the way and if we tried, we could be running right into it.  The only thing we could do was stow the canvas, wrap the sails and clear the decks of anything we had laying around.  It was a big waterspout and we had no way of telling how fast it was coming toward us, it just seemed to be sitting there looking ominous. 

In the end, it just seemed to dissipate.  The funnel detached itself from the water and lifted itself into the cloud.  What a sense of relief! 

The second major one I saw was in Venezuelan waters.  We were traveling from Los Testigos, a group of small islands that are mostly unpopulated except for a few fishermen.  We had been hit by lightning and were on the way back to Trinidad to get everything repaired.  We left early morning and the weather was overcast, but not threatening.  By the time we were about halfway to the mainland Venezuelan coast so that we could run along the coast and stay out of the eastern tradewinds, we were totally out of sight of any land and the clouds were building. 

We knew it would be a soggy trip, rain didn't bother us much since we had a good bimini, dodger, and we put up the side curtains, so we were mostly covered.  Of course, by that time we saw a waterspout, another huge one, off to our starboard side.  Since we had no background except the sky and the Caribbean Sea, there was no way to tell which way it was going - we couldn't just go the other way.  There was no way to figure out how close it was either.  It could have been a smallish one really close or a huge one a mile away.  Again, it just seemed to be hanging there.  We watched it for what seemed hours, hoping it would disappear.  

We kept on moving, hoping we were going the right way to leave it behind us.  We figured we had just been hit by lightning the day before, nothing much worked on the boat because all the equipment was fried -  so why not add some more excitement with a waterspout!  Luckily, it seemed to fade and we could see it disappear into the cloud above it.   Our passage along the Venezuelan coast that night was a bit tense because there were thunderstorms all night - we had already been hit by lightning the day before, but we were the tallest thing out there - and I had my hands on the wheel.  Of course, here could have been more waterspouts, but we couldn't see them in the dark.   Sometimes it's better not knowing.

In both of these situations, we were lucky enough to have those waterspouts dissipate and return to the clouds and leave us unharmed.  What a relief. 

Betty Karl

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