It’s a hot, still, mid-July day in 2006. Where do I want to be? On Cayuga Lake, on Willy Wispe, with Rosemary Serluca.
My wife Rosemary and I were taking a few days on the sailboat I grew up sailing on. It’s an Alberg 35, and her name is Willy Wispe. My father bought her with a friend in 1965, and I have sailed on her since I was 3 years old. From Lake Superior in Canada to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, I’ve spent entire summers on her.
It was our second year to take a few days and have the two of us spend some time on the boat that feels like my home.
The first day of our getaway we sailed up to Taughannock Park, and anchored on the south side of the point, in the protection of the delta formed by Taughannock Creek. We paddled into the park to see some music that is part of the summer concert series. Always a great time.
The next day we didn’t have to go far, just sail a bit and enjoy the lake. Just relax. It was a typical summer day, hot and not a lot of wind, but that was fine. We put the sails up and enjoyed the slow pace of life on the lake.
Not unexpectantly, the wind died, and we were left stationary in the middle of the lake, sails up. I rolled up the jib and left the main up, and said “let’s go swimming!”. I love swimming in Cayuga Lake in the summer. The water is about 400’ deep where we were, and even on the hottest of days, you can swim down about 5 feet and the water temperature drops off to the 60s. It is incredibly refreshing.
I treaded water enjoying the moment, feeling how much cooler the water was to me feet than my hands. I looked at Willy Wispe, motionless with the mainsail up, and savored the stillness.
I then noticed the unmistakable markings of a storm cell. It was a squall rolling over the west bank, heading right at us. It was local, not large, but showed the signs of great power with its darkness and denseness. Given that we were in the middle of “Finger” lake, which although is 40 miles long, is only a little over one mile wide at that point. The storm was only a mile away, so we had about 5-10 minutes before it would hit us.
I called to Rosemary to get back on the boat, keeping my tone relaxed, making sure I didn’t panic her. We got on the boat and I immediately brought the mainsail down and secured all loose items.
I told Rosemary we had a small storm rolling in and asked her to go down below. I got the engine going and started ahead. I was surprised how quickly the cell was moving upon us. I had to head directly into the wind, which was the West, and so I knew we had about half to three quarters of a mile before I would hit land.
We just got some headway and I was rounding into the west when it hit us. I was amazed at its force. We were about 30 degrees into the wind as I was turning west when the force hit us, and we heeled over hard, even with no sails up. The Alberg 35 is an overbuilt boat with a full keel and a couple thousand pounds of lead at the bottom. It doesn’t get pushed around easily. I’ve been in heavy weather and always felt safe, that she was built to take serious weather. I wasn’t worried now, because being a half mile from land, there wouldn’t be big waves, just wind. As long as the engine didn’t fail us, and the storm passed before we hit land, we were fine. The good news is that the water is so deep, we wouldn’t hit bottom until we actually hit the shoreline.
I had only experienced a wind anything like this once before, also on Cayuga Lake, when a similar storm cell snuck in from the West, when we were staying at a cottage on the East Shore. We had a 23’ powerboat docked on the shore. We saw the storm cell rolling over the lake from the lake house, and just like today only had a few minutes to respond. My brother and I ran down to secure the powerboat. We scrambled to get extra lines on when it hit us. It struck like a freight train, the wind had an incredible ferocity. My brother was on the edge of the boat when he was thrown into the water, between the boat and the dock. The boat, which was now bouncing around, could crush him against the dock. He looked up in terror. I reached down and was able to pull him up back onto the boat. Relieved, we quickly finished and got back to the cabin.
That moment was seared into my brain, and when I saw the storm cell this time, I did not hesitate. The wind was definitely well over 50 knots when it hit us. I prayed that I could get the bow rounded up into the wind. Thankfully, I had enough steerage and was able to slowly get turned directly into the wind.
I remembered reading in Chapman’s book on Seamanship about the nature of waves and water were affected as the wind increased over 50 mph, that visibility decreases to nothing. I saw what that meant. I couldn’t look forward because now the wind was picking up the water from the surface of the lake, which was like a thick, horizontal rain. I just kept behind the dodger, and was grateful we had one, and did the best I could to keep the bow pointed west and enough speed to keep steerage. We would be fine until we hit the shore, and given I couldn’t even see the bow of the boat, would be a surprise.
Rosemary was down below, and I could see her, and she knew it was intense, but I was relieved to see she was not worried, that she trusted me to get us through this. She smiled and looked so comfy and relaxed. I just smiled back.
Although it seemed like an hour, it was probably only 5-10 minutes, and it let up as quickly as it came. There wasn’t anything to do but continue our sail on Cayuga Lake.