A Stormy Trip on Lake Erie
July 2009

On Thursday, July 17, 2009 we were enjoying the final evening of our 2009 annual summer cruise at the recently remodeled Middle Bass Island State Park marina in Lake Erie's western basin. The marina is located at the site of the former Lonz Winery which closed in 2000. The State of Ohio purchased the property and is developing a master plan to transition the winery into a conference facility and dramatically improve the marina.

Our original intention was to return to our home port of Lorain, Ohio on Saturday. However an approaching cold front and a forecast for brisk northwest winds during most of the weekend prompted us to revise our plans. Although conditions on Saturday were not expected to reach the threshold for a small craft advisory, sailing home in the southwest winds preceding frontal passage on Friday would be far more comfortable and enjoyable. The cold front was expected to pass during the early afternoon, so an early start would be needed in order to increase our chances of completing the five-hour trip before the arrival of showers and thunderstorms. Alarm clocks are never popular during vacation, but we set ours for 5:30 am.

We were awakened around 1:30 am (0530Z) by gusty winds, rumbles of thunder and a driving rain. A check of the radar showed a broad area of precipitation over the western end of the lake. Winds at the nearby South Bass Island CMAN (SBI-CMAN) station were southwesterly at nearly 20 knots. We closed the hatches and tried to sleep, but the weather's challenge of our plans for an early departure made it difficult to settle into a restful sleep.

A fitful four hours later, the chime of the dutiful alarm clock was accompanied by the sounds of rain and strong winds. A quick check of the radar (below) showed a broad arc of precipitation (associated with a pre-frontal trough) extending from the western basin of Lake Erie back to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Winds at the SBI-CMAN had veered to the northwest and were gusting to 26 knots. The combination of rain, thunder and strong winds put a damper on our early departure so back to bed we went for the second time of the night.

Composite reflectivity radar image at 0928Z on July 17, 2009. (larger image)

Just a few hours later at 8:00 am (12Z), radar imagery (below) showed that the extent of precipitation had diminished considerably with only scattered light showers west of the islands. Winds at the SBI-CMAN at this hour had returned to the southwest and were in the range of 8 to 10 knots. The 12Z surface analysis showed the cold front was just west of Lake Erie. Despite the presence of a low, thick cloud deck, conditions appeared favorable for the trip home and we were underway just before 8:30 am (1230Z).

Composite reflectivity radar image at 1159Z on July 17, 2009. (larger image)

Initially, the winds were too light to sail and our diesel engine pushed us steadily towards our goal in a light rain. As we approached the northeast corner of Kelley's Island around 10 am, patches of clear sky were emerging and the wind began to increase. Unable to check the radar, I assumed that the clearing marked the arrival of the cold front and the end of the precipitation (A subsequent analysis of the composite reflectivity imagery from 10 am (14Z) indicated the area to our west was largely precipitation-free.) Under these favorable conditions, we transitioned from the noisy diesel to the quiet power of our sails and continued on our journey.

During the next hour the skies continued to clear and the threat of rain appeared to be declining. My post-trip review of the radar (15Z) revealed that while a few showers were present in the western basin, most of the rain that was associated with the earlier activity and was now far to our east. Light winds accompanied the clearing conditions and we were once again relying upon our engine.

Between 11 am (15Z) and noon (16Z), the steady development of low, dark clouds on the western horizon dimmed our hopes for a dry and uneventful trip home. Click here for the 16Z composite radar image (a red dot marks our approximate location). When it appeared likely that we were to be overtaken by thunderstorms, we lowered the mainsail, secured the hatches and donned our raingear. A short while later it began to rained torrentially, and visibility was reduced to a few hundred yards. Fortunately, the wind associated with the storms topped out at approximately 20 knots -- far less than I was expecting. At 1632Z, the Cleveland National Weather Service (NWS) office issued a Marine Weather Statement concerning the rain, lightning and gusty winds associated with the line of thunderstorms.

The rain and gusty winds persisted until until we reached our home port of Lorain at 1:30 pm (1730Z). An animation of base reflectivity radar images from 1601Z to 1730Z can be viewed here (the red dot marks our approximate position). Below is a collection of pictures taken before the arrival of the torrential rain.

In summary, we were quite fortunate. Most of the thunder and lightning passed a few miles to our south, an observation confirmed by a comparison of the radar imagery and our estimated position. In hindsight, our interest in completing our trip before the weekend clouded my judgement regarding the potential of the cold front to promote additional convective development. The atmosphere never stops teaching us lessons.