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Old 04-12-2018, 16:25   #1
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Sailing in a White Squall

Last week I bought the movie White Squall, with Jeff Bridges. It is based upon a true story about the Brigantine Albatross. After watching the movie, I decided to do some research on White Squalls. The information indicates that they are rare in the ocean but more common on large lakes. The name comes from the white foam and whitecaps created by very strong winds. Also, it is said they appear extremely fast without the black clouds usually associated with storms.

In about 1978 I had a 19' Phoenix racing Cat. I took it up to lake Conroe, North of Houston. I took my wife and young daughter for a sail on a bright sunny day with clear skies. Halfway across lake Conroe, a violent storm came up out of nowhere in just a few minutes. The wind was very strong. I tried three times to tack back to the shore and got in irons each time. Other boats nearby couldn't help because they were also clearly in trouble. Finally I just dropped the main and the jib swung us around and took us straight downwind to the far shore. Fortunately, the Phoenix had very wide rounded hulls and dagger boards, so the cat did not dive deep enough to cartwheel. We came close, with green water halfway to the mast, but stayed upright.
It wasn't until I saw this movie and researched White Squalls that I realize that storm on Lake Conroe in 1974 was probably a White Squall.


Has anyone here seen, or been in a White Squall?

Does anyone have any suggestions for surviving a White Squall on small boats?
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Old 05-12-2018, 09:33   #2
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

Don't know if it qualifies precisely, but we've had a nasty experiences at least three times. First was sailing in the Irish Sea, headed to Dublin, about five miles off the coast. Lovely summer afternoon with a nice offshore breeze moving us right along. A huge black cloud formed over the green hills to port and moved quickly towards us. As you suggest, whitecaps made the affected area quite a different color, along with the heavy rain pocking the surface. We started he engine and lowered and furled all the sails with the wind blowing about 60 knots. The driven rain made it impossible to look into the wind. After a bit the rain stopped, but the wind continued for about 20 minutes. That was when we came across a man in a rowboat trying frantically to row back to shore - now about 8 miles off - with his two children. They had gone out for a nice Sunday fishing trip near the beach. We picked them up and took their dinghy in tow. They (and we) were quite relieved to get them aboard and below where they could dry off. We dropped them, damp but safe, at the Royal Irish YC at Dun Laoghaire dock and then went to pick up a mooring.

The second squall came without warning on an overcast day on Long Island Sound. We were sailing on a broad reach in a steady 18-20 knot breeze that had come up in the morning and had been increasing through the day as we sailed up to Guilford, CT. We had the full main and 150% genoa up, doing about 8 knots; a nice afternoon with the children down below playing cards and the adults in the cockpit. Suddenly, with no change in the sky, the wind picked up to 50 knots, turning the long rollers we had been riding into whitecaps, and driving us up with the rail in the water. No appreciable change in wind direction - just a lot more of it. The microburst apparently caused capsizes in Oyster Bay LI when it had passed through there. We started the motor and I took the sails down, starting with the jib, and secured them with sail ties. Not easy with the deck at about 35º and everything luffing like mad. Avoiding the rocks was an issue, since we were inside Falkner's Island when it hit, and were shorthanded and overpowered until I could get the main down too. We turned to head into Guilford, and over the land there was a thunder squall with rain and lightning - but no wind. The burst passed, and the wind died. The girls playing cards below couldn't understand why we had wanted them to put on their lifejackets. The rainbow was quite beautiful.

The third time was one afternoon on a Chi-Mac race after getting through the Manitous. A huge, solid black mass of clouds formed over Wisconsin and the paltry breeze we had started to die as it slid menacingly over to us. It was hot. It got still. The clouds got, if anything, blacker and bigger. The skipper had us strike the sails and lash them with ties before it hit. Lots of lightning, and constant thunder. First, it hailed, the stones making a splashing sound as they zipped into the water. They rattled on the deck until they were about half an inch deep. Then they disappeared, sideways, thirty seconds later when the wind hit us and blew them and us before it. We were doing 8 knots, dead downwind under bare poles on the Pearson 37 for about eight minutes. The anemometer read 50 knots, and since we were going ddw... Then it passed. We re-hoisted the sails and we were left slatting for hours until the breeze came up again.

Sailing is always an adventure.
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Old 05-12-2018, 09:39   #3
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

I don't know that the phenomenon of a 'white squall' is relevant. Being that the very definition is a squall without the accompanying dark clouds of a typical squall. Whether you were in a squall, a white squall or a microburst, I'm not sure the seamanship differs.
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Old 05-12-2018, 09:50   #4
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

Yes, I encountered more than a few of these “white squalls” during my years on Lake Superior (btw, they’re not “white”). Would go from a gentle 10 knots to over 60 or more in a matter of a couple of minutes. Usually it was a very local system that rolled down off the hills. Cloud front would be very fast moving, dark, green or mauve, and rolling with arms reaching down. Scary stuff.

There was rarely enough time to run for cover so we would head further offshore, and just weather it till it passed.

One of Canada’s great troubadours wrote a song about them. His description is pretty accurate:

https://youtu.be/uQ4ddAgykfk

I’ve watched the movie a long time ago. I find it too sad to watch again. It’s a bit more Hollywood dramatic than anything I’ve experienced, but generally seems right.
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Old 05-12-2018, 10:54   #5
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

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Originally Posted by psk125 View Post
Don't know if it qualifies precisely, but we've had a nasty experiences at least three times.

Sailing is always an adventure.
Thank you for the great recounting of your adventures. For me they were relevant to my questions. It was the suddenness of the strong wind which caught me off guard. I have sailed many catamarans over the years, mostly Hobie 16's, but never had such a terrifying experience.
Last night I called my ex-wife and asked her if she remembered the day we went sailing on lake Conroe. She said, "You mean the day we almost died?" After 40 years, it was still vivid in her memory too.
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Old 05-12-2018, 11:03   #6
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

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Originally Posted by Shrew View Post
I don't know that the phenomenon of a 'white squall' is relevant. Being that the very definition is a squall without the accompanying dark clouds of a typical squall. Whether you were in a squall, a white squall or a microburst, I'm not sure the seamanship differs.

Agreed. I am looking for suggestions on how best to handle the sudden unexpected strong sustained wind. I believe I was very lucky to get out of that one alive. At that time I did not have much experience sailing, and my choice of actions was basically desperation. I could have just as easily been wrong.
Perhaps advice on ways to prepare for such an eventuality, either in rigging, configuration, or equipment would help. Thanks.
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Old 05-12-2018, 11:10   #7
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

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Originally Posted by Mike OReilly View Post
Yes, I encountered more than a few of these “white squalls” during my years on Lake Superior (btw, they’re not “white”). Would go from a gentle 10 knots to over 60 or more in a matter of a couple of minutes. Usually it was a very local system that rolled down off the hills. Cloud front would be very fast moving, dark, green or mauve, and rolling with arms reaching down. Scary stuff.

There was rarely enough time to run for cover so we would head further offshore, and just weather it till it passed.
One of Canada’s great troubadours wrote a song about them. His description is pretty accurate:
https://youtu.be/uQ4ddAgykfk
I’ve watched the movie a long time ago. I find it too sad to watch again. It’s a bit more Hollywood dramatic than anything I’ve experienced, but generally seems right.

As I recall, and was confirmed by my ex-wife last night, when we started across lake Conroe the sky was clear and sunny. She mentioned that we would not have gone out onto the lake with our three year old daughter if there was any sign of weather. At that point, the lake is about 2 miles wide. In the time it took to sail out one mile, it went from clear sky to probably 40 knot winds. I remember seeing a few small white clouds forming high in the sky, then WHAM! Of course, after 40 years, my recollections may not be accurate.
Thank you for the link to the video.
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Old 05-12-2018, 11:27   #8
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

Yup, they come up fast. It’s always humourous to already be fighting for your life in one of these sudden storm, and only THEN hear the weather warning come blaring over the VHF telling boaters to seek shelter !— yeah, thanks for that advanced warning .

Once you’ve been hit by a few of these things you learn to read the signs. Skies usually go from clear and calm, to first seeing a rapidly moving white or grey line of cloud rolling down over the hills. Out beyond shore it looks like a white/grey wall coming at you. The thing that gives it away is the rolling nature of the clouds, usually with arms reaching down toward the ground.

I learned to head off shore, reduce sail to a tiny storm slip, and if there is time, get on foulies and let it pass. Seas on Superior would sometimes build quite large, which is why I prefer to keep some sail up to allow for steerage. Some people like to go bare poles, but that leaves the boat basically lying ahull, which removes your ability to control direction.
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Old 06-12-2018, 03:15   #9
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

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Yup, they come up fast. It’s always humourous to already be fighting for your life in one of these sudden storm, and only THEN hear the weather warning come blaring over the VHF telling boaters to seek shelter !— yeah, thanks for that advanced warning .

Once you’ve been hit by a few of these things you learn to read the signs. Skies usually go from clear and calm, to first seeing a rapidly moving white or grey line of cloud rolling down over the hills. Out beyond shore it looks like a white/grey wall coming at you. The thing that gives it away is the rolling nature of the clouds, usually with arms reaching down toward the ground.

I learned to head off shore, reduce sail to a tiny storm slip, and if there is time, get on foulies and let it pass. Seas on Superior would sometimes build quite large, which is why I prefer to keep some sail up to allow for steerage. Some people like to go bare poles, but that leaves the boat basically lying ahull, which removes your ability to control direction.
Hi Mike,

Anyone who posts links to Stan Rogers music is OK in my books. Thanks for that As a transplanted Canuk down here in Oz, I still play his stuff regularly.

Many, many years ago I was driving with a friend & work colleague to Thunder Bay from Toronto with canoe on top, as you do. By the time we got to Terrance Bay it was time to get the canoe wet, as it was such a glorious day. We just headed out towards the horizon past a little rock island that was a seagull nesting site and got bombarded. Kept paddling just for the hell of it until I happened to glance back towards shore, to see a nasty gray cloud building up. Luckily, a quick decision to head back ASAP saved our bacon as the squall hit just as we got within furious paddling distance from shore. We barely made it against the wind & we were young and strong back then.

It was awesome watching the lake change in the hour it lasted, and I will always remember that feeling of knowing we would not have had a chance if we'd been out a lot further and got hit. That day I thought of another of my favourite balladeers,

"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy..."


Mike, one good turn deserves another;

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Old 06-12-2018, 04:15   #10
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

The thing to do is turn straight into the wind, sheet the main in hard, and start dropping headsails. On a monohull at least. The sheeted-in main will heave the boat to, and will be less flappy than the jib and staysail. This is assuming good sea room to leeward.
Heaving-to on a cat might be more tricky--some engine may be required to keep her straight into the wind. Either way, tactic is the same: bows to weather.
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Old 06-12-2018, 09:26   #11
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

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Hi Mike,

Anyone who posts links to Stan Rogers music is OK in my books. Thanks for that As a transplanted Canuk down here in Oz, I still play his stuff regularly.

Many, many years ago I was driving with a friend & work colleague to Thunder Bay from Toronto with canoe on top, as you do. By the time we got to Terrance Bay it was time to get the canoe wet, as it was such a glorious day. We just headed out towards the horizon past a little rock island that was a seagull nesting site and got bombarded. Kept paddling just for the hell of it until I happened to glance back towards shore, to see a nasty gray cloud building up. Luckily, a quick decision to head back ASAP saved our bacon as the squall hit just as we got within furious paddling distance from shore. We barely made it against the wind & we were young and strong back then.

It was awesome watching the lake change in the hour it lasted, and I will always remember that feeling of knowing we would not have had a chance if we'd been out a lot further and got hit. That day I thought of another of my favourite balladeers,

"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy..."


Mike, one good turn deserves another;
Another great song . Gord captures the power of this inland sea of Superior. I used to sail over the Fitz’s wreck (it is well market on charts) — it always produced a shiver up the spine.

Nice story about canoeing on the Big Lake. I know the area well. I used to live in Marathon, just down the road from Terrace Bay. I did a lot of sea kayaking on the Lake, including a paddle out to the Slate Islands. As your story tells well, these squalls can come up out of nothing very quickly. Awesome, but scary.
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Old 06-12-2018, 10:46   #12
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

Yes, once, in the Sea of Cortez, about half way up, in the area near San Carlos. 60 knots from what is locally known as a Torrito (Little Bull) made the dead calm sea build to six to ten feet, almost instantly. I had never been pooped before, but the cockpit filled three times and one wave went broadside, right over the cabin top. My radar alarm was my warning - it was night - and I barely had time to get the hatch boards in. You could see a line of white across the horizon, even in the dark. Fortunately, I was motoring since there had been absolutely no wind, and I just continued to motor as close to dead downwind as I could, using the angle of heel for guidance. Basically, I steered away from the heeling. This lasted about two hours, and the GPS track was something to see. I slunk back to port, thoroughly spooked. I sat there for several days, contemplating whether I wanted to go sailing again. After all, I had sailed plenty up to that point.



I did go sailing again, and have done so ever since, but my thoughts about weather have never been the same, nor has my brashness! The Sea is a big fella!
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Old 06-12-2018, 11:21   #13
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

I think most of us that have spent some time on the water have experienced some overwhelming conditions. I've had a few that may be called "white squalls",- sudden high winds without visibility. These are short-lived events in my experience, usually lasting no more than 15 to 30 minutes at a weather front or disturbance. "Sailing" in a white squall was never an option for me. These events would knock down even my heavy wide-beamed vessel. My response was always to drop things forward first. 'quickly douse the foresail; slack the main and leave the mizzen to keep me bow to the wind while securing the larger sails.
I'm sure some would have a little strong storm sail on the main, but I would always just turn on my diesel and motor pretty much in place into the wind until things settled.
I think it was Mike OReilly a page or two back that said these white squalls aren't white. I agree, yet we did have one in Albemarle Sound that was strikingly white. This was in bright sunlight and a sudden whipped froth of water in the air with no visibility. Another time Nancie and I anchored in the lee of "Center of the World Rock" on the north side of Grand Bahama Isle during a longer event (still just a couple of hours). We were total "pansies" on our knees in the cockpit with our children below. Near the end of this event we heard a weird screeching sound. It turned out to be the free movement of our large aluminum anchor roller that had been frozen in place since we bought the boat five years earlier. We kept it lubed after that and credited the squall in our log for the repair!
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Old 06-12-2018, 12:55   #14
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

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Luckily, a quick decision to head back ASAP saved our bacon as the squall hit just as we got within furious paddling distance from shore. We barely made it against the wind & we were young and strong back then.

"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy..."
Your comment reminded me of the line from this Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald.

" The searches all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her"
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Old 06-12-2018, 13:01   #15
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Re: Sailing in a White Squall

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The thing to do is turn straight into the wind, sheet the main in hard, and start dropping headsails. On a monohull at least. The sheeted-in main will heave the boat to, and will be less flappy than the jib and staysail. This is assuming good sea room to leeward.
Heaving-to on a cat might be more tricky--some engine may be required to keep her straight into the wind. Either way, tactic is the same: bows to weather.

I tried that, three times. I was going downwind when it hit, and each time I tried to turn back into the wind I got in irons. Finally just spun around with the jib and let that pull us downwind to the far shore a mile away.
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