Saturday, August 06, 2016

So over thunderstorms... Really.

I've never met a Meteorologist that doesn't have a few favorite cloud types.  Also... all of them have included in their top five favorite clouds the mammatus cloud and the cumulonimbus.  Always party favs at meteorology swaray for good reason, they are really really interesting feats of atmospheric gymnastics!     

(Click here if you are not familiar with the awesomeness of mammatus clouds.  I'll assume you are all  familiar with Cumulonimbus...)

This is not the storm in this story, but here you can see the mammatus clouds blowing off in the anvil top with the cumulonimbus in the bottom right of the picture.

Maybe it is a joke of the universe but I have been getting creamed by thunderstorms the last few weeks.

I'll tell you the story of one that hit me just west of Washburn, North Dakota.

I knew there were a lot of storms out this day... as it is pretty much the great plains and you can see them coming.  I was below the Garrison Dam by a day and was still looking for my rudder.  Heston was rowing and it had been raining on and off all day.  I kept looking back at a dark grey section of the horizon hoping that all the storms would just go around me.

I looked up early afternoon and over top of me was an amazing display of mammatus clouds.  Normally this would make me happy and I would text pictures of the clouds to other weather nerds… that day, I just made a frowny face at them.  They didn’t take the hint.

Normally you will find the mammatus clouds blown directly downwind of the storm.  The upper level winds being the steering winds for the weather.   (Surface winds don’t count for bubkiss about whether you are going to be hit by a storm or not.)

Anyways, I looked up and there were beautiful mammatus overhead.  There were a lot of low clouds in the distance so I couldn’t see the associate storm, but I knew it was out there.  Just by coincidence, this was also as I was passing the now likely found site of Fort Mandan.  I didn’t quite have good coordinates and I planned to come back with John so I kept cruising and hoping the weather would go away.

Late afternoon I  saw one single big hail stone drop about ten feet from the boat.  


Like a kid threw a rock.

I looked back at where I thought the storm would come from and nothing but nebulous grey clouds.  At this point, Mr Heston and I are running full tilt!  I have the throttle set for max blast and I am trying to get to Washburn North Dakota.  It is all river here and also mostly plains so I sort of wanted to park the boat at somewhere and hide maybe in a building or something. I don’t really know why I was trying to get to Washburn, but I was. 

It had been maybe ten minutes since I had looked behind me… when I turned around and…


It was the MOTHER of all shelf clouds!!!  (Shelf cloud = The lower leading edge of a super cell thunderstorm)

I am not exaggerating when I say it looked like it was the vacuum cleaner of god sucking up the earth into oblivion! 

I immediately looked ahead for somewhere to stash the boat and hid. Really not much.  As Dorthy will tell you, the great plains are a terrible place to hid from a storm.  Futilely I twist the throttle again against the stop hopping for just a little more speed.

I could see an island about a quarter mile ahead… It looked like I could hide there… nope… I’ll never make it… 

I spot a huge pile of rocks along the right side of the river.  It looked like they had originally been placed there to try and prevent the bank from being eroded by the river, but the river had just worked its way behind the rocks and it had eroded a sort of cove behind the rocks.  That’s it!  No other options… any port in a storm as they say, and this port is a little eroded spot behind some rocks.  

I keep the throttle wide open and aim the boat for the little spot of sand behind the rocks.  My intention is to slam the boat as far up into the sand as I can then tie it to something.

That part went great!  At full speed!!! (Basically a power walk speed) I slam the Mermaid right into that sand and cut the engine.  Immediately I hop out and tug as hard as I can to pull the boat as far in as possible.  I had apparently done a good job with my Bangladeshi ship breaker parking job as I couldn’t move it any farther than it was already.

Next order of business was to tie it to something.  Being the great plains still, there was a serious lack of stuff to tie anything to so I pulled the anchor out and wedged it into the rocks that I had mentioned earlier.  They sort of formed a rock pile about 40 feet long that was parallel with the river and the cove was behind it.

I put everything I cared about in my backpack put that in a garbage bag stuffed that into the rocks.  I then put everything else I wanted to keep dry in a big rubber-made container.  

I was as ready as I could be so I went up on top of the rock pile to watch the storm come. I only stood there for a few minutes when the wind became too ridiculous and I went down and hid in the rocks with the anchor and backpack.  All things considered, it actually was about ideal!  Most of the boat was protected by the rocks from the wind and waves, I was able to get down into the rocks incase of a tornado.  

(Oh yea... this was a text book looking tornado producing thunderstorm.  I started to assume that once I was passed the precipitation, I would be looking at a wall cloud with a tornado hanging down.)

So there I am, crouched into the rocks the wind absolutely blasting over the top of the rock pile.  It was like driving in a convertible on the highway in the rain.  When the rain did finally start, it was all blowing right over me!  Not to say I was totally dry, but I could look up and see the sheets of rain blowing right over top of me!

The masts on the boat were boinging around in the wind like car antenna in the the carwash and I was becoming less and less sure of my furling job on the sail… but it seemed to be holding.  

Slowly I realized that the water was leaving the cove!  The wind was actually blowing the water out of the cove entirely!  The boat was now resting on the dry sand.  Probably it would come back when the wind stopped right? If not, how was I going to get the boat back to the water?  Either way, that was a problem for future Nick, not now Nick.  

Suddenly problem solved…  The wind was now blowing the boat across the waterless sand back toward the river! The wind had blown the boat about twenty feet and it was sliding back into the water when I finally figured out how to get a hold of the anchor line and stop it. I wrestled it back in enough that the bow was at least resting on sand again. I snugged up the line as tight as I could, and got back into my hiding spot.  

The river didn’t exist anymore.  The wind was so ferocious that there was no water there was no sky… as I looked at the river, it was a wall of opaque white about 60 feet high.  I am sure it was a combination of waves, surf, foam, blowoff and rain, but in practicality it was just a wall of white.  If the boat had gotten out into that, I am sure best case scenario it would be that I pulled back a frayed rope end.  

It was horrendous!  (Also as I found out later, that same storm went on to destroy the town of Killdear, North Dakota.)  

Again, it all just ended up being a feat of endurance... just sitting there and taking it... waiting for the pain to be over.

Eventually, the storm went through.  I bailed enough water out of the boat so it wasn’t completely unstable and got back underway.  The lid to the rubber made container with all the stuff I wanted to keep dry was long gone and the container was now serving as a sort of toilet bowl with all my favorite keep dry items sloshing around in it.

This day, pretty much the only thing I had managed to keep dry was my computer.  Other than that, everything was completely soaked.

For the rest of the evening, the sky was spiderwebbed with lighting from horizon to horizon!  It was the most eery lightning I have ever seen.  So much static electricity.  Like an earth sized Jacob’s ladder.  The sky cracked continuously instead of rumble or clapped…. maybe buzzed with electricity.  You could just feel it in the air.

I did make it to Washburn ND that night, and slept on land. 

I did get hit by another thunderstorm the next day, but it was just a regular air mass thunderstorm… and in caparison it was like a butterfly kiss!  But serioulsy… so so so so over thunderstorms!


amateur.sophist said...

So begins a lifetime of Nick saying "That's not a thunderstorm- Shoot, one time when I was wake-boarding across America..."

Notorious said...

I would have done that even if I hadn't been through any thunderstorms out here!