Living as full–time islanders, we learn to navigate the South Florida weather. For many of us that came from the northern climates, we found that winter was wonderful, spring was inspiring, but when the full heat of summer claimed the calendar, life in the Ten Thousand Islands became like an adventure movie filmed in a steaming jungle with afternoon thunderstorms of biblical proportions.
Who will never forget their first South Florida thunderstorm? The answer is most probably no one! Florida is the thunderstorm capital of the world and Tampa is the capital for lightning, but when all that heat and humidity rises over the everglades and delivers that almost daily afternoon storm, an old adage comes to mind that must never be forgotten: “There is no such thing as an atheist on a boat in a storm.”
A few summer thunderstorms ago when the Marco Beach Boys were trying to find ways to beat the summer heat, a call came through from Goodland. As it turned out, the call came from Marco Island Yacht Charters. This was the sailboat charter company located at the docks behind the Marco Lodge in Goodland.
It seemed the dockmaster had a sailing charter lined up for the last weekend in July. When I arrived on the docks and met the family for the charter, I was at once relieved and then apprehensive.
Standing tall beside the South Florida docks was the boat I was to take out along with the sailing family from upstate New York. The boat was a 43’ center cockpit sloop with a 60-foot mast. The charter company had about 12 sailboats, but this was my favorite. With the Goodland yacht charters, I never knew—until I arrived—what boat I was going to take out and I also never knew who was going out with me.
After speaking to the dockmaster and getting my instructions, I stepped out of the air-conditioning of the office and approached my favorite boat. Standing beside the big sloop was the family of six that chartered a day of sailing. It was July on Marco, and even though it was only 9 AM, the South Florida summer heat was oppressive. The family looked like they were ready for an adventure, but they also appeared as if they were ready to melt. There was Mom and Dad in their mid-60s, and their four grown kids—two boys and two girls with the youngest girl just out of college.
“Hello,” I offered with a smile, “Are you folks ready to go out?”
“Yes, we are,” Dad stepped forward, but he was searching the docks for someone else. “Where is the captain?” he asked after wiping away some sweat and looking back to the dock-house office.
“I’m the captain,” I answered.
“Oh no,” was Dad’s response. “We were told we would have a master captain with years of sailing experience.”
“That’s me,” I remarked. “I’ve been sailing for years and I have a master’s captain’s license.”
At this point, Mom stepped up. There was shade waiting just under a canopy on the boat. “I’m sure he will be fine dear,” she insisted. “Besides, you and the kids have enough sailing experience to handle anything that might come up.”
Begrudgingly, Dad grunted and then we were all aboard and waiting under the shade.
“So,” I began, and we had our introductions. I then explained life jackets, fire extinguishers, other safety gear and then the float plan. “Okay, it’s just after 9 and we should be back by 2. A good half-day charter.”
“Oh no!” Dad shook his head. We paid for a full day charter. The dockmaster said we come back at 5. We are going out 9:30 to 5. It’s all set.”
Now I knew why the dockmaster was waiting in the office. Afternoon summer sailing trips were always tricky. The weather was just too unpredictable.
“Have you been here long? Have you seen the storms?” I tried to explain, “In the afternoon—most likely around 3 o’clock there can be a thunderstorm. It happens almost every day. Some of these storms can be severe.”
“Listen,” Dad explained as if to a child. “We have sailed everywhere. We are all experienced cruisers and we race in sailing regattas all over the country. We can handle anything that might come up.”
Now it was my turn to shake my head and then I took a peek over to the dockmaster’s office window. I could see him watching with interest.
“As long as everyone understands,” I took time to look everyone in the eye. “If we stay out in the late afternoon in these waters, we might be caught in a storm. It could be scary.”
Dad smiled like the cobra to the canary. “Don’t worry about us,” he insisted. “We have more experience than you.”
“Fair enough” I offered, “We come back at 5.” Then I turned the key for the inboard auxiliary engine and started the motor.
Dad went crazy. “What are you doing?” he began to rave, “You didn’t run the blower for the fumes. You should have run the blower for at least 5 minutes. We all could have been blown to pieces. What kind of captain are you? Don’t you know about blowers and gasoline fumes?”
“This is a diesel engine,” I explained with another shake of the head. “There is no need for a blower as there is no gasoline onboard.” I looked to the others. “Diesel fumes don’t explode.”
After Dad offered no response other than sulking, we cast off and headed out toward Coon Key Light. The wind was brisk out of the southeast and soon we were sailing on a southwesterly heading. Dad stopped sulking, Mom broke sandwiches out of the cooler, and soon everyone was taking turns driving the boat. Dad seemed to forget the earlier rough start and he was right; everyone on board was a good sailor. They were having fun while I was watching the time, the tide chart, and the dark clouds rising over the everglades.
The more the day progressed, the wind began to shift in a more southerly direction. When the ship’s clock showed 2 o’clock, we were well offshore with beautiful blue skies ahead but towering thunderheads building over the land behind us.
When the youngest girl was tired of driving, I offered to take over. After tacking the boat and turning onto a new course that would lead us back toward Coon Key and the docks in Goodland, the mood onboard once again began to deteriorate. Just like the weather building ahead.
All the fun, family jokes and laughter stopped when lighting began to spike, and thunder began rolling out from the distance. The wind offshore picked up blowing us toward the storm and the closer we came to the clouds the stronger the wind became. Now there could be no doubt—we were sailing into a classic Southwest Florida thunderstorm. When the rising clouds covered the sun, Dad looked worried. He came up beside me at the helm and spoke quietly out of the corner of his mouth. “You’re not taking us into that?” he said. “We should go the other way. Away from the storm.”
“We can’t do that,” I explained.” This storm is moving fast. If we turn and run, it will catch us. There is no way we can outrun these clouds.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dad was looking up into the storm and especially toward the ominous bar cloud leading the way. Behind the alarming bar cloud, there was only a blue-black sky with no visibility seemingly possible. “You better turn again and take us back out because—” before Dad could continue, lighting struck ahead and the roaring crack of thunder that followed scattered the family below decks.
On deck at the wheel, I said my prayers, dropped the sails and started the diesel. With the engine pushing us into the storm, I remembered my mentor Jim Martin’s keys rules of sailing: If you don’t know when to take down your sails, God will take them down for you, and there is no such thing as an atheist on a boat in a storm.
When the wind came, we heeled over with the wind on the mast, the rain came sideways and hurt like ice pellets, and the waves that rose up against the current had to be alarming for the family in the cabin below.
After about 30 minutes of intense South Florida Mother Nature, we came through the other side of the clouds and the sun came out. This was when I left the wheel for a second to open the sliding hatch leading below. When I looked down into the cabin everyone in the family was wearing the big May West life jackets and they were all that very special color of green that you can never forget. Just like that very first Southwest Florida Ten Thousand Island thunderstorm.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by Thunder—the story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men.” Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.