2010 Lake Ontario 300 Challenge

Thunderstorms Invade The Course
At 12:34 pm (1634Z), just one minute before the solo sailors started, storms made their first appearance on radar in the vicinity of the starting line (below, left). Just twenty-five minutes later at 12:59 pm (1659Z), the radar imagery (below, right) shows these storms had increased in number, size and intensity. An annotated version of the 1659Z radar image shows that the thunderstorm immediately to the west of the starting area was moving east-northeast at approximately 29 knots. The neighboring storms were all moving in a similar direction and at a comparable speed.

Base reflectivity radar image from KBUF at 12:34 pm (1634Z) on July 17, 2010. (larger image)
Base reflectivity radar image from KBUF at 12:59 pm (1659Z) on July 17, 2010. (larger image)

The position, anticipated course and speed of these storms, particularly the impressive one to the west of the starting area, made it likely that nearly all of the participants would be affected as the storms swept east along the course. The first group in the path of the storms was the single-handed fleet.

Paul Nickerson, a solo competitor on board NickNack, was approaching Toronto as the first thunderstorm hit at approximately 1:20 pm (1720Z) (photograph). While this initial thunderstorm looked quite threatening and possessed an impressive array of lightning and thunder, the wind produced by the storm’s downdraft wasn’t nearly as strong as Paul had anticipated. However, his decision to furl NickNack’s headsail to reduce the risk of damage and injury was a prudent one. This leading storm was a harbinger for the remainder of the afternoon.

Base reflectivity images at 1720Z, 1830Z and 1859Z on July 17, 2010.

The second thunderstorm to hit NickNack occurred at approximately 2:30 pm (1830Z) approximately 10 to 12 miles east of Toronto. Several competitors reported large hail. The radar image confirms this observation, showing a hail spike, the radar signature of hail within a thunderstorm’s updraft (read more about hail spikes). The zoomed-out version of the radar image at 2:30 pm (1830Z) also showed a nearly unbroken line of thunderstorms stretching from central Lake Ontario westward to Lake Huron.

After a short respite, the next and largest storm reached Paul at approximately 2:58 pm (1858Z) nearly 18 miles east of Toronto. NickNack’s anemometer registered a gust of 52 knots; other boats in the race reported gusts to 70 knots. Paul prudently reduced sail area in anticipation of this large storm and drifted slowly downwind for nearly fourteen minutes while it passed overhead.

The single-handed sailors may have been the first group affected, but they were not alone on the race course. The rest of the competitors, nearly 160 boats, were in the path of the storms as they headed east. Many of those who had started earlier had hoisted spinnakers in an effort to take maximum advantage of the brisk southwesterly winds and the downwind course. Encountering strong winds from a thunderstorm while under full sail can easily and quickly lead to broken gear, damaged sails and injuries. But a similar encounter while flying a spinnaker can be particularly disastrous as it dramatically increases the potential for a broach. Spinnakers are the lightest and largest sail in a competitor’s inventory and these characteristics make them difficult to handle in stormy conditions (for an account of coping with a spinnaker in a thunderstorm, click here).

Boats on a downwind course are also susceptible to an unintentional gybe, a situation where the boom sweeps quickly and violently from one side of the boat to the other. Serious injuries are possible for any crew member caught in the path of the boom or the lines associated with it. A crew member on Black Diamond, a Jeanneau 39i, received at least two broken ribs after being thrown across the deck during an accidental gybe, prompting the skipper to retire from the race in search of medical attention (read more).

At least two boats were dismasted and Cheekee Monkey, an F-31 trimaran from the Chicago Yacht Club, capsized at approximately 2:52 pm (1852Z) several miles east of Toronto. Fortunately, the crew of the trimaran was quickly rescued by the Canadian Coast Guard. The boat was recovered the following day (video) and the owner, Ron White, quickly committed to competing in the 2011 Ontario 300. Click here for a description of boat’s recovery and the harrowing minutes Don Walton spent extracting himself from a tangled mess of lines in the immediate aftermath of the capsize.

At 3:30 pm (1920Z), a little more than twenty minutes after the third storm hit NickNack and Cheekee Monkey capsized, the NWS forecast office at Buffalo issued its first Marine Weather Statement warning of a cluster of thunderstorms packing strong winds and moving east at nearly 40 knots. Although the Statement recommended that “boaters should go to a safe harbor immediately”, it was issued far too late for the Ontario 300 participants to heed the advice as most of the damage had already occurred.