Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I wasn't kidding about the lightening

I checked iWindsurf today to see what the weather on Seneca Lake was doing and found this:

7/13/09: We lost our equipment in a lightning strike. We'll send out a replacement and hope to have something up within two weeks.

Makes me feel a little bit better about the whole thing somehow.

:) Shawn

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Consider driving on your next walk of shame - Seneca Lake 11 July 2009

So waiting for me when I get home from sailing, there is this great email from a friend of mine:

"just a few moments ago, as I sat drinking my coffee, the emergency broadcast system busted into NPR with a severe storm warning in the vicinity of Waterloo, with nickel-sized hail and lots of lightning, etc. I looked at the radar, and it was right on top of Geneva... you guys must've gotten PUMMELLED! Hope everyone's okay and you didn't have any epics!"

(I smile to myself as I think about the brilliant coincidence in her email)

My day started as a personal quest to end the (nearly) month-long hiatus from sailing as I have been focusing my efforts on writing my thesis. With the first draft sent to my adviser, a forecast of 18 SSW, and an unfulfilled quest for a carve gybe, I made plans to head to Seneca for my first real sailing in 4 weeks (and first half-day off of work in 2 weeks). On the drive north I pass all of the usually encouraging signs - seeing the creamy undersides of leaves billowing on the trees - and all the flags standing straight up as I head towards Geneva.

There was only 1 sail on water when I entered the park, and I stopped at the center of the N shore to test the wind, where my iPhone app said the wind was over 25mph (which I didn't quite believe it, but it certainly was windy). Rigging 6.4 I met Mike, Sharon, Suan, Doug, Ken and Bill (later Gary, Steve, and Klinger) as we all got ready for what was certain to be a great session.

The morning started with 45min of nice planning runs, comfortably settling back in the straps and getting the feel for the board again. Then to my surprise I look up on a westward-reach and the sky has turned this gun-metal blue color and I notice a bolt of white lightening above the city of Geneva to the west. Immediately - I turn around (with my "still in progress non-carving non-gybe) point my board back towards the eastern shore. As I set up for a waterstart after falling in and I debate what is safest thing to do, given that I was over a mile from my launch point, and at least 1/4 mile from the nearest shore. I count the seconds between the lightening and the thunder and counting 12-15 (roughly 2-3 miles from the lightening) I decide to keep sailing back to my launch point.

I figure that with the relative wind being faster than the true wind...yaddayadda... that I should be able to keep at least that much relative distance between myself and the storm and be back on shore quickly, but then I catapulted. Coughing out a mouthful of water, I get annoyed at how long it takes to set up for a waterstart again and start heading east. This time I nervously look back and see more bolts of lightening and just as I return my gaze to where I'm going, I lose my balance in a wave and am back in the water again.

Taking a pause in my *slightly* more hurried waterstart setup, I count the lightening-thunder interval again and this time its down to 8 seconds.

hmmm.... I can feel the twinge of anxiety in my stomach as I put my masters degree in math to work figuring out the closure rate of the storm.

I realize that I am being overtaken by the storm, but with it nearly 2 miles behind me, I decide to waterstart again and think to myself "I really need to keep my anxiety in check here and stay on my board, or I WILL end up riding this thing out here in the middle of this lake". Then just as I coax my board on plane I catapult again...

This is roughly the point that I feel my heart rate accelerate and I know I am reaching full-on survival mode as the distant booming sounds turn into sharper "cracks". I consider setting up for another waterstart, but this time when I look back, I can't see Geneva any more. Instead only see this massive vertical gray curtain, broken only by flashes (and reflected flashes) of lightening and I count:

one-onethousand, two-onethousand, three-onethousand, and at four there is a massive ear-splitting crash of thunder and in an instant its become very clear that I am not going to be sticking a 15 foot long mast in the air anymore. I feel the wall of rain close around me and start to loose sight of the nearest shore to the north. I laugh to myself, that this situation is a lot like alpine climbing, where nobody tries to go out in bad weather, and nobody really loses much sleep over near-misses with bad weather while up in the mountains in the winter. But when preparation collides with opportunity and its your turn to suffer "bad weather" becomes a very big deal.

The previously sprinkling rain, begot more rain, which begot even more rain... it was simply an unholy volume of liquid pouring out of the sky above me. Considering the options - I decided to just float along with my gear, keeping it upwind of me to soften the waves from breaking over, and decide to just be patient and let myself drift in the S wind to the N shore. This seemed perfectly plausible until hail started to mix with the rain as the sky, horizon and even the water around me disappeared in texture-less gray as the waves were still lifting and bobbing underneath me.

I felt reminded of my Boy Scout days, where simple little things are taught to you like a mantra so that when you get scared, you don't forget them. The obvious windsurfing equivalent is the classic advice is "no matter what happens - stay with your board" but I realize that the lightening - thunder interval is now not only under one second - and the imperative to not get struck by lightening has become foremost on my mind. Staring at my aluminum boom sticking 15" out of the water with the lightening omnipresent above me I weight the calculus of breaking this cardinal rule and debate ditching my rig and swimming to the park (only intermittently visible) several hundred yards to the north.

The storm casts the deciding vote and I realize that instead of bobbing like a leaf ahead of the storm, I am actually floating in it - engulfed on all sides by the white arcs of lightening striking at all points around me. I knew in that moment that the need to stay low in the water, trumped all the usual rules, and not only did I rule out hopping on my board to paddle in, it became clear that THE highest thing around was my gear as it proudly topped the crest of every wave that buoyed it. With the sounds of the thunder towering over me, I realized that staying close to my gear not only put me near the highest thing around, but not knowing how long this storm would last, it was probably the slowest possible path to land. I checked the visual reference of the closest point of land I could make out in the pounding rain and hail and decided that my chances of swimming it were better than my chances of hanging on to my rig.

At first I had some hesitation about not only leaving my gear, I honestly feared the "you should never have done that" lecture I was sure I'd get when I got back to shore. The only thing I can assure you of, is that with enough lightening, you will ditch your stuff... Truth be told, I even considered ditching my PFD and just swimming back in my wetsuit, in order to get another 4 inches lower in the water. The cacophony of thunder, accompanied by brilliantly bright 360 degrees of lightening arcs all around, truthfully made it feel like a safer choice to watch my orange and black sail drape atop the waves as I swam away.

As I mentioned in a previous post, in a former life, I got to spend some time in the Navy's flight school down in FL and part of the standard "reindeer games" there was having to swim a mile - fully clothed, sans only boots. Its really a great water-confidence booster, and the real trick to it, is simply energy conservation. If you breaststroke the whole time and sidestroke only when you need a break, you get to spend a surprising amount of time relaxing in the "glide" position and you can literally do this for hours if need be. Surprised at how little lessons from that time in my life crop back up in useful ways, I am re-assured that even if I lost my stuff, I knew that a lightening strike was going to be the only thing that was going to keep my neoprene-booted feet off that northern shoreline.

The rain mixed with hail was so torrential, that at the points where I switched to the sidestroke to try and locate my gear behind me I was blinded and choked by the wall of water gushing down above me, and had to turn face down in order to see and breathe. A few minutes into my swim, I settle into a rhythm of swimming in the lulls between the waves and relaxing to let them push me along during my glide stroke. In a "lull" I get a sight of my kit, drifting 50-ish yards behind me, settling any fears that its going to be lost on its path as it drifts behind me.

Finally the rain eases enough that I can not only make out the shore, but the trees and cars along it. Minutes later I can see someone waving at me next to a car and its Mike and Brian waving to see if I'm okay. 100 yds from shore, I wave back, still swimming as its still too deep to touch the sandy bottom. With thunder still clapping around us, Mike and I wait for my gear to drift in and he helps me haul it over the breakwall and then we proceed to drive back to wait with the rest of the bunch for the storm to pass.

Its well past understatment to say that it was "good to see everyone" - and it was not lost on me the genuine concern that my fellow sailors shared for my welfare - having to ride out that storm in the middle of the lake. The rest of the morning was a blur with a few more shlogging runs, sail pumping and some pivot-gybe practice - but I spent most of it trying to decompress, and hoping the knot in my stomach would go away. It was definitely one of those "moments of grace" where you are truly aware of how lucky you are to be enjoying life and to have such great people to share it with. I chuckled to myself on the way home, how this whole "walk of shame" business is a lot more fun when one of your buddies drives over to pick you up, as today was my personal best of ending up about a mile from my launch point.

A special thanks go out to Mike and Brian for coming to check on me in the midst of the storm - a "modestly special" thanks to Ken for offering to buy all my equipment on the spot for $500 after I got back (I'm sure he was kidding ;) and of course my appreciation to all the wonderful folks who played a role, big or small, in this day (Geoff, Sharon, Suan, Bill, Doug, Klinger, Steve).

All the best!