1990 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved
For the fourth time in an hour I was drawn outside
to watch the sky. Remarkable lightning displays
are not uncommon in South Florida in the summer,
but this evening my ancestral namesake, Thor, was
really outdoing himself. Stroboscopic flashes
burst like artillery fire among the clouds and
chaotic sheet lightning slashed across the low,
roiled cloudscape with sudden violence. Thunder
rumbled menacingly. At ground level the air seemed
charged with electricity. There was an
all-pervading feeling of expectancy that dampened
even the gaiety of the revelers inside the house.
Despite the fact that the evening was windless,
and so far rainless, I had a nagging feeling that
I ought to get back home to my boat. The ketch
Autant lay at anchor in Coconut Grove's
crowded outer harbor, a short walk and a dinghy
ride away. I decided to leave the party early.
At the waterfront my plywood pram dinghy bobbed between her
painter tied to the sea wall and the small stern anchor that
held her off. I brought her close and scrambled in. It only
took a minute to determine that the temperamental little
outboard motor was once again on strike. Out came the oars
and I began pulling toward the anchorage, a row that would
normally take about 5 minutes.
As I passed alongside the Dinner Key Marina pier I eyed the
yachts berthed side by side. Tethered to their pilings, they
seemed restive, jittery - like stabled horses sensing
trouble. A sea breeze sprang up, ruffling the surface of the
inner harbor. Thunder boomed louder now and the dry
lightning increased to the point where you could have read a
book by it. There persisted an eeriness, a surrealistic aura
to the night. It was building up to something.
Once I’d gotten clear of the pier the freshening wind and
chop was on the nose; although I pulled harder at the oars,
progress was slow. Altogether it took me 15 minutes to row
from shore to my boat.
Aboard Autant I immediately went below and switched
on the NOAA Weather Radio receiver, just in time to catch a
special weather bulletin: "A tornado has been reported in
southern Dade County, moving rapidly east towards Biscayne
Bay. Residents are advised to remain indoors, to keep clear
of all windows, and to report tornado sightings to the
National Weather Service or to the police. Marine interests
in Coral Gables and Coconut Grove and in the Gulf Stream off
Dade County should seek safe shelter immediately and remain
tuned to this station for further information."
It was headed this way!
I stood there for a moment, wondering what the announcer
might have had in mind as "safe shelter" for a sailboat in
the path of a tornado. I went on deck and peered into the
black night made staccato-bright by the stroboscopic
lightning. I didn't see any tornadoes, but I did notice I'd
left the oars lying loose in the dinghy. I fetched them and
lashed them on Autant’s coach house. I didn't really
believe that a tornado would actually strike here, but just
the same I made a quick patrol of the deck to secure any
loose gear and satisfy myself that all was in order.
Altogether, I hadn't been aboard Autant three minutes
when it hit.
The tornado gave no warning. I didn't see or hear
it coming. I was standing in the companionway
taking a final look around when all at once the
boat veered sharply and - WHAM! - slammed down to
port, nearly onto her beam-ends. She was, of
course, under bare poles at anchor, but she might
as well have had full sail up because the sudden
hurricane-force gust that knocked her down pinned
her there. The wind roared so loudly it drowned
out the thunder. Instantly, a deluge of rain (I
supposed it was rain, though it might have been
seawater) engulfed me so that even in the
brilliant lightning flashes I couldn't see
Autant’s bow. But a moment later I glimpsed my
nearest neighbor, anchored just a few boat-lengths
away, as if through a watery tunnel. His 40-ft.
cutter was also on her side, held down by the
shrieking wind. Then they disappeared behind a
wall of wind-whipped spray and spume.
The anchorage was instantly awash with steep, breaking seas.
Not huge seas, but jagged, confused and white capped. They
seemed to come out of nowhere, slopping over the decks and
jostling my boat.
Then, just as suddenly as she'd gone over, Autant
abruptly righted herself, released by a stalled wind. She
sprang up as if startled, but before I could even breath a
sigh of relief she was again slammed down, this time onto
her starboard side, with the same violent impact. Again the
wind screamed and howled and shook my world like an angry
I'm not sure how long we were down, seconds or minutes. My
sense of time seemed to vanish along with my sense of
control. I simply remained riveted to one spot, helpless in
the maelstrom, gripping the companionway combing with white
And then it was over. Just like that. The wind, the water,
the breaking seas simply vanished, leaving behind a light
drizzle, an astonished sailor, and a remnant chop that
quickly settled. Autant, whose 100-lb. navy-type
anchor was well set in the soft bottom, hadn't budged. She
rested casually now as if nothing had happened. So, too, did
my nearest neighbor - I soon saw the skipper poking his head
cautiously out of a hatch - but the receding lightning
illuminated two or three vessels hard up on the beach, boats
that hadn't been there before. (The next morning revealed a
total of six boats that had been torn from their moorings
and driven - or tossed - ashore).
How hard did it blow? 100 knots? 200? Who knows? The wind
packed more wallop than any I've ever experienced, before or
Mighty Thor hammered again on his great anvil; cosmic sparks
flew and the heavens rumbled, but farther away now. As I
closed the hatch to retire below, I glanced aloft and
whispered a heart-felt thanks to all the powers that be,
that the tornado hadn't come a few minutes earlier while I
was still out in the dinghy!
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