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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales

                  

THE TORNADO
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 Id 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 Autants 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 Autants 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 giant.

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 knuckles.

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 since.

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!

~ End ~

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