“If you don’t like weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” — Mark Twain
Twain’s quote is baked into the psyche of many New Englanders who reside in the mountains or along the coast. We can all cite our own personal experiences regarding, hail, twisters, squalls, blizzards, white outs, hurricanes, and retrograding coastal storms like the Halloween Storm AKA, The Perfect Storm.
The National Weather Service was founded on 9 February 1870. It was not driven by exact science; however, there was a need to understand weather patterns, predictions and warnings for the burgeoning growth of the United States in its interior and its coastal communities. For example, the flood plains and bayous surrounding a place like New Orleans need warning systems. Moreover, we were a prodigious agrarian and fishing culture prior to the Industrial Revolution and people needed to have some idea of what the weather may do — or not do. With the invention of the computer and the study of meteorology, we as a nation have an idea what danger this way comes with some bright weather folks calling the shots. Given the hard science and study of the weather’s possible behavior, we still can defer to Twain, who so eloquently nods to the fact that we sometimes have no idea what the hell is happening, and how little power we actually have regarding Mother Nature’s agenda. As a ferry worker and a sailor, I’m aware of the weather on a daily basis. I’m hard wired to think about the weather for work and play. (As I’m writing this column, I’ll periodically look to see what the winds are predicted to do because I’m going sailing for three days.)
Hurricanes are predictable for the most part these days. We have a shot to prepare and weather hurricanes of various intensities. In 1900, a storm hit Galveston Texas. The weather service referred to this as the “Great Storm,” where thousands perished in this event that was packing winds of 145 miles per hour; what we would call this kind of storm today is a Cat 4 hurricane. They didn’t name storms in 1900. No romance was pinned to tumultuous weather. Galveston took a direct hit by this storm during its heyday of shipping and receiving goods internationally. Six thousand people died during this storm, and Galveston was leveled. There was tremendous wealth in this seaside town, and there were also the less fortunate; most notably, children who perished in an orphanage. These people didn’t know what hit them and to this day remains this country’s worst national disaster. Although we have better science and analysis regarding weather, hurricanes can still be unpredictable.
We saw Hurricane Bob, Irene, and Sandy coming because of some solid calculations. However, we never saw the Hurricane of 1938 coming and savaging the coast of New England. Sandy created a new benchmark, or shall I say watermark, for those of us who live and work in and around Galilee. With Hurricane Bob we saw water breach the bulkhead of the ferry landing and flood across Great Island Road in front of the main ferry building. With Sandy, we saw the water run much higher at the ferry terminal. We saw the hurricanes but not the Halloween Storm or Perfect Storm, and that did a serious tap dance on the New England coast. This storm was unique in that it retrograded and whacked us twice over a forty-eight-hour period of hurricane force winds. It was a terrible storm causing millions in property damage and loss of life.
Then of course we have weather anomalies; things that just completely catch us by surprise and humble us. Especially if we happen to be on the water. By definition, an anomaly is a noun, and means, “something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.” I will cite two recent examples of specific anomalies that I recently witnessed. On 7 February 2020 the word around Point Judith was that there was some wind in the forecast. I had heard someone say there would be gusts over fifty m.p.h. We ran one ferry that day, and Matty Rooney told me to tell drivers of commercial rigs that they may not be able to get back. Something was coming our way. As the boat got back from the island, the crews were doubling up lines. The wind was blowing about 45 knots from the southwest. I figured that my sailboat would be fine because I had her strapped to her winter slip in Newport with bumpers and doubled lines. I went to write in a quiet coffee shop. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I was wrong. That day it blew from the west, at 75 knots — sustained — for 12 hours. My sailboat had ridden out Sandy, Irene and fifteen winters of nor’easters in her winter slip in Newport. But, she never, rode out that velocity of wind at that angle. My boat got hammered, as did everyone at the marina. This wind angle just doesn’t happen.
On 25 August just before 1900 hours, I had just got my boat to her mooring, I could see a nasty front coming from the west. I secured my boat and went below to eat supper. Before I sat down to eat, I felt my boat shift. I popped my head out of the hatch and snapped a picture. I went below again and I felt and heard a thump and thought someone had hit me. It was a wind gust from the picture I’d just taken. I spoke with a sailor and pilot named Shaun Hogan who was racing when the storm hit. “Our wind gauge went from ten knots to 70 knots in 30 seconds. We had too much sail out and couldn’t get it all in. We got knocked down in a 37-foot C&C.” Shaun and I figured this was a microburst that whipped across the bay, and sunk two substantial racing boats while knocking down several others. Finally, this anomaly which brought wind, hail, and zero visibility, was over, as Twain said, in a few minutes.