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Whisky Rock Storm
By Bill Holcomb

Click for larger imageWhiskey Rock Bay is a small bay about 10 nautical miles from Bayview on the South end of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho (this link includes a map & photos of the lake, ed.). To get to Whiskey Rock from Bayview is an easy day sail - first east for about 2.5 nm and then a turn to port and due north for the next 7.5 nm. If the breeze is out of the Southwest it is a fun sail on broad reaches all the way. The bay itself is an open Northwest-facing cove that is about 1,000 or 1,200 feet across. This means that it is very protected from just about any weather except a storm directly from the Northwest.

In addition to being a fun day sail from Bayview and a mostly protected anchorage, there is an "L" dock to tie up to, two mooring buoys, and a dozen or so campsites. These facilities, plus toilets and fresh water are all provided by county and state agencies. The facilities make this a favorite camping site and for the past several years I've volunteered to help ferry Boy Scout Troop #393 from Bayview to Whiskey Rock on the first weekend in October each fall.

In the fall of 1994 there were four boats that were volunteered for the annual camping trip. These were: Jentim - San Juan 23 skippered by Mike Alfano; Wild Goose - Santana 525 skippered by Jim Johnson; Minnie - Catalina 25 skippered by Mike Leyden; plus Snickerdoodle and me. Aside from the four skippers, Mike Leyden's wife Donna was also along in the boats.

I'd gone out to Snickerdoodle on Friday evening to get everything ship-shape for the scouts and had a great breakfast on Saturday morning of blueberry hotcakes 'n coffee at about 5:30. The weather was perfect with mostly sunny skies and a neat 10 to 15-knot breeze blowing from the Southwest. The weather forecast was for mostly sunny and a high of about 70F. The scouts arrived at about 10 o'clock and started boarding the four boats. Since the two Catalina 25s were the largest, we got most of the camping gear, backpacks, etc. I also got two scouts - John and Beau - who were both great kids. With packing, and the general mix-ups that accompany this sort of operation, we finally got under weigh at about 11:30.

It was a glorious day for sailing. The breeze was steady at about 12 knots. Beautiful blue sky with big puffy clouds. We set the main and cruising chute and off we went. John and Beau worked out some dead reckoning on the chart and fixed out position every 15 minutes as we sailed along. They both got a chance to steer and trim sails too. With jibing and sailing around a bit, the trip took us about two and a half hours. When the wind piped up to about 25 knots, we doused the chute and proceeded with main alone the last mile or two, still making about 6 knots boat speed.

Over the next hour or so, the scouts disembarked taking all their gear up to one of the campsites about a half-mile from the dock and beach. The boats were left at the dock, and relative silence fell on the bay.

Each of us fixed something for dinner and the four boats crews got together on the dock for an informal "pot-luck" at about 6 PM. There was everything from ravioli to steaks. And for desert, a big peach pie came forth from somewhere.

At about 6:30 Steve and Kathy Tosath arrived aboard their Beneteau 38.5 (Chloe) and tied up to the dock as well. Since the county was doing their winter prep, the "L" part of the dock had been removed and now was floating along the East side of the other dock . So, we had a straight dock about 100 feet long. There was a pair of steel pilings at the far end of this straight dock. Two more steel pilings in from the end of the dock about 45 feet. And, two more steel pilings in from the middle two an additional 45 or so feet. Minnie was tied up furthest out on the outside of the dock with Snickerdoodle directly across from her. Chloe was next toward shore from Minnie and Wild Goose was right across from Chloe. Jentim was tied up closest to shore on Snickerdoodle's side of the dock with her swing keel retracted. Of course, Minnie and Chloe were on the unprotected side of the dock. And, it was about the same time as Cloe's arrival that we heard the first NOAA weather alert for a very strong storm progressing out of Northeast Washington into the Northern Idaho Panhandle in the Lake Pend Oreille region. The weather alert warned of strong winds to 35 or 40 knots close to thunderstorms.

At 7:30 we saw the first strikes of lightning Northwest of us near the town of Sandpoint - about 25 miles away. All of us proceeded to make sure that our boats were well secured in case the storm decided to blow down the lake. Snickerdoodle was moored with two 7/16" bow lines, two 7/16" stern lines, and 7/16" spring lines run both fore and aft. I'd also hung half a dozen fenders - some from cars on the toe-rail and some from the lifelines. I felt that she was pretty well secured. Everyone was at least double tied bow and stern.

At about 9 o'clock the waves from the storm and wind in the mid-twenties hit the bay from the Northwest. The lightning had quit, but as the waves drove into the shallower water of the bay, they grew in height. All the boats were really rocking and rolling; with Minnie taking the worst of it since she was on the front outside of the dock. Snickerdoodle was bouncing around allot too, but with the dock and piling acting as break waters my motion was considerably less violent than Mike and Donna's. And, by 10:30 or so the waves had diminished substantially and we all went to bed.

It was about 4:30 in the morning when I was wakened by a loud noise. The sound that I heard was similar to a hunting rifle being discharged inside Snickerdoodle. The loud "BANG!" was still in my mind as I awakened. My next sensation was of a really big pitch followed by a roll. Then a substantial jerk as Snickerdoodle came up against the mooring lines. I turned on the cabin light and got out of bed. The boat was rocking and surging so much that I couldn't stand with out hanging on to something. I got a flashlight from the drawer under the galley sink and poked my head out the main hatch.

The night sky was crystal clear. The stars shown as if they were bright lights only a mile or so away. It was cool, about 45F; and the wind was really blowing and shrieking though the rigging of all five boats. The waves that I'd though of as pretty large last evening were miniatures compared to the waves rolling into the bay now. I jumped out onto the dock and was nearly knocked down by a roller flowing over the dock. Minnie at that point was above the dock and trying to float over to Snickerdoodle's side. She came down on the dock with about 1/3 of her hull on top of the dock and slid back into the water. Mike and Donna were on the dock trying to physically hold Minnie off - impossible. I ran back and woke up Jim Johnson and Mike Alfano for help. Steve and Kathy were up and were in the process of cutting their mooring lines in an effort to motor out and away from the pounding against the dock……Which they successfully accomplished with little help from the rest of us.

It was obvious that we had to get Minnie away from the dock and the pounding waves. But where should she go? Mike didn't feel confident in motoring into the storm in the dark and Donna didn't want to get back aboard in this storm at all; so another plan had to be "hatched" and fast. Just in the few minutes that had gotten Chloe away and Mike Alfano and Jim Johnson up, Minnie had tried half a dozen times to climb the dock again. Each time there was a terrific crash of dock meeting boat. Meanwhile, I'd gotten another bow line secured………The rifle shot sound that I'd heard was one of my 7/16" bow lines breaking about half way between cleat and dock. Can you imagine that - a 7/16" dacron line breaking in two because of the surge. So, now I was back to two bowlines like before the storm had started.

We knew that we had to use the dock as a breakwater for the four remaining boats. But, how were we going to get Minnie secured on the protected side of the dock? Here's what we did. I got out my 200 feet of 1/2" anchor line and tied one end to the starboard side aft mooring cleat. The rest of the anchor line (including anchor and chain since we didn't want to take the time to unhook all that) I gave to Jim Johnson. He took that all around both his boat and Jentim and then to the shore on about a 45 degree angle to the dock. I took two more 7/16" lines and tied them to the towing ring on the bow of Snickerdoodle. As soon as Jim was ready, we untied all of Snickerdoodle's lines and tied the new bowlines (from the towing ring) to the second steel piling. Jim took up on the anchor line and Snickerdoodle floated free from the dock but still tied to the piling. The dock broke the waves and Snickerdoodle road perfectly. Now, Mike Leyden started Minnie's motor and Mike Alfano jumped aboard her with a 100 foot 1/2" line in hand. The 1/2" line was made fast to the port side bow mooring cleat and Mike stood at the bow with the rest of the line ready to heave. Jim, Donna and I helped push Minnie away from the dock as Mike Leyden gunned the motor - timing was critical. If we did it wrong, the motor would come down on top of the dock along with the boat. To our relief Minnie moved away from the dock and then did a quick circle to starboard. Mike Alfano heaved the 1/2" line and we caught it on the first throw and brought Minnie up on about a 15 foot bowline tied to the front most steel piling. After securing the first 15 feet of line, we threw the line back to Mike so that a second bow line could be secured. A stern line from Minnie was passed over to Snickerdoodle's starboard primary winch and cleated there. Now Minnie too floated in the lee of the dock with a MUCH KINDLIER motion. All of this took about half an hour or 45 minutes. We all went back to our boats to ride out the rest of the storm.

Like most high mountain storms, this one didn't last too long. It had blown itself out by about 7 in the morning. I'd drifted off to sleep and when I woke up I couldn't believe what a mess there was in the cabin. Anything that could have come loose - did. There was stuff thrown all over the place. In addition; at some time, one of the fenders that had been tied to my lifeline must have gotten caught under the dock. When the boat rose up, the fender didn't let go right away; and this placed allot of strain on the lifeline. The aft stanchion ended up getting bent about an inch forward from vertical by the strain on the lifeline.

By 8 o'clock the wind had died to nothing and the whole lake was like a millpond. I fixed breakfast of sausage and fried eggs with hotcakes. It was chilly so besides the stove, I also had the cabin heater on. Got the temperature inside Snickerdoodle up to 68 degrees. The scouts showed up at about 9:30 to head back to Bayview. They'd had a cold night in the woods and were really happy to have some hot chocolate and a nice warm cabin to snuggle into. With the wind at less than 3 kts, we all decided to motor back to Bayview. I think we all felt that we'd had enough excitement for one day already.

Bill Holcomb
Submitted:  August 25, 1999