Riders on the Storm - Warm Creek Bay 2004

JFRCalifornia

Well-Known Member
This is not actually a hike, but the story of the most frightening storm our group ever encountered on Lake Powell...

Warm Creek Bay

August 20, 2004
Lake Elevation: 3575’

The sunny morning with all that promise slowly gave way to a lazy summer afternoon. The skies to the southwest soon began to darken, though, just as they had all week on almost every afternoon. But the waters remained calm. Finally, on reaching Warm Creek Bay, near mile marker 11, the away team of Nayyer and Shubber turned in to look for a spot to camp. They disappeared into the bay, where the sky overhead was black and heavy; the waves suddenly became choppy and harsh. A storm was brewing—it looked like a big one—and we were heading straight into its teeth.

Off in the distance, the little boat could be seen rocking in the swells that grew frothy white, some even crashing over the bow. But they had found a spot—not a great one, but good enough along a wide beach. The downside was that it was only 150 yards from the nearest houseboat, but at least it was an open anchorage. Any port in a storm.

The aerodynamics of a houseboat are similar to those of a cereal box. Ideal for floating, but not designed for much else. Put one of those things on a rough lake, and you’re in for a ride. We are feeling it now, up and down, straight into the growing gale. It looks like the motorboat is trying to guide us upwind of the space they have identified, then make a hairpin turn and run at the beach with the wind. With gales out of the north-northwest (the pattern all week), this maneuver would be tough, particularly considering the houseboat would be hitting the beach facing east—crossways to the wind.

Lightning bolts forked in the leaden sky, and the first fat drops of rain began to fall. Nayyer and Shubber bobbed like a crazy cork through the whitecapped ridges, the point of their bow digging in deep, water spilling into the boat. Their bilge surely wouldn’t keep up with this, not for long. On the houseboat, at least we had the advantage of size and an enclosed space. But maneuverability was something else altogether.

We kept the big boat steered into the wind and waves, now from the north, bouncing quite a bit, but at least stable for the moment. Who knows what might happen if we turned, and faced a broadside from that heavy blowing wind? But we had to make the beach, and that meant turning. Here we go. Cranked hard to starboard, we turned broadside to the wind. Not recommended in a storm, this maneuver fully exposed the shortcomings of a houseboat. Now violently rolling side to side against the waves, the boat rocked like a shish kebab on a grill, probably 20 degrees or more, a lot like extremely bad airplane turbulence. Then…a CRASH! Things were chaotically flying, and the multiple smashes suggested multiple problems. Was it the microwave? A computer? The generator (hopefully)?

“Chuck! What was that?”

Just twenty ceramic bowls, but now in 50 million shards on the ground. Couldn’t think about that for now, though Chuck somehow managed to find some shoes so he could work his way through the disaster area. What would be next?

I stayed put at the wheel, fighting the wind, gunning the engines to get the wind at my back; then I made a fast dash to the beach, trying to ram it high and dry on the sand. We’d only get one shot. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed through the chaos on the houseboat, the motorboat continued bobbing hard in the thunderstorm, all the while taking on copious amounts of water. Who knows what they’re thinking over there—were they in trouble?—but if it were to become critical, they could probably run it ashore before it sank. We’d worry about them later.

The houseboat groaned against the beach at full speed, both runners hitting the shallow gradient well. But the wind continued relentlessly, now harder than ever. Baber and Chuck immediately jumped out front with the anchors, no time to lose. I kept the engines at 2,500 RPM, almost twice as fast as a normal beaching situation while anchors are set.

Then the rain began to fall, real rain. First in pellets, then a downpour. The skies gave it everything they had, pushed hard by the fierce wind. Up on the beach, Baber and Chuck scrambled in the deluge with the anchors, but in the sand they’d have to dig deep holes to make them effective. From the helm, they looked exactly like they were in a car wash. The best I could do was try to hold position with the engines while they desperately dug.

Uh-oh.

Now the wind took over. The houseboat, still mostly broadside to the steady blast, began to lose the battle and pivoted on the right bow pontoon under the force of the gale. Rocking hard anyway, now the whole boat swung parallel to the beach. A terrible position, and now the entire right pontoon and engine became immersed in beach mud…is the prop damaged?

“Kill the right engine!” Khawer realized the prop was now chopping through mud. “Turn hard to the right!”

This was, of course, impossible in this weather, especially with just one remaining working engine. Even more bad news: now the left pontoon and engine were in danger! In just seconds, we were now parallel to the surf, rocking furiously, pounded by the waves like a meat grinder. Both engines were dead.

“Khawer!” Put all the cameras and computers on the ground or under something!” He tried, but this was very difficult to do in all this rocking, especially with the glassy shards of cereal bowls all over the floor. He might have taken a few splinters in the feet.

Meanwhile, outside on the beach Chuck became a traffic cop. Yelling through the wind for us to turn, he knew it was useless; we had no engine power. Could we wait it out?

Khawer ran to the back of the boat to see what was happening on the nearly-forgotten motorboat. At first glance, things seemed under control. While it was bouncing hard, maybe 100 yards offshore, it could still maneuver. He had a thought: maybe it could drag the crippled houseboat off its precarious position against the beach, now seriously in jeopardy of rolling on its side. The pouring rain thundered hard around angry lightning strikes, no end in sight. But we knew better; these things can’t last forever in the desert, at least not at this intensity. Still, we wouldn’t last very long either, especially with rocks and shoals just a few yards downshore, with the wind blowing us in that direction.

Out on the lake, Nayyer moved the bobbing motorboat to the houseboat’s exposed and silent left engine. From the motorboat, Shubber managed to throw a rope to Khawer; somehow, through the rocking waves, Khawer was able to attach it to the houseboat’s rear cleat! But could the little boat pull hard enough to swing the left end off?

The motorboat strained in reverse, fighting the wind, the waves, and the weight of the houseboat. Not much progress…but then…slowly…

“Jimmy!” Fire up the left engine!” Khawer shouted through the open rear cabin door from the back deck; I could still barely hear him. “It’s free!”

I heard him. But would it start? It roared to life! Now steering hard in left reverse, with the motorboat doing the same, the houseboat slowly began to pivot, front end now nosing at a bit more of an angle to the beach.

“Start the right engine!”

This one caught too; how, I’m not sure with all that mud down there. But it did! Who cares how? Soon, we were safely off the shore, still rocking, but away from the treacherous sand and rocks.

The motorboat had done its job, but could the houseboat make the rest of the turn on its own? Swinging hard forward to the right, now with both engines, the boat plowed hard into the shore again at flank speed. This time, the angle was much better. And even better, the wind finally began to subside. The rocking slowly came to an end. Onshore, Baber and Chuck, who had plenty of time to dig deep holes while the rest of us flailed in the boats, began to ready the anchors. Now the situation began to stabilize.

But what about the beleaguered little boat? We couldn’t yet tie it to the houseboat in these conditions. It would have to ride it out for a while. But it had taken on so much water, nobody was sure it would even stay afloat.

Somebody on that boat took charge, and made the decision to pull it up on the shore, through the 3-foot breakers. So up it came, like a beached whale. Chuck re-tied one of the houseboat anchors, and held the swamped motorboat with it. Nayyer and Shubber abandoned ship, while the waves continued to crash and fill the doomed boat. The weight of the water in the boat for now seemed like a good thing, as it settled the little boat deep in the surf zone. Soon, it stopped moving altogether. It was sitting on the bottom, in 3 feet of water.

As the weather eased, we could finally catch our breath and assess the damage. On the houseboat, both engines operating normally(!), all anchors intact. All systems appeared to be working. Inside, only the ceramic bowls did not survive intact. How everything else came out okay, nobody is quite sure how.

On the motorboat, things weren’t so good. Swamped with 3 feet of water, covering the battery, the only thing preventing it from sinking was that it was resting on the bottom of the lake, in very shallow water. But the bilge pump, which depended on the submerged battery, surprisingly worked, and it furiously began to bail. But as long as the rear end was riding low in the water, the bilge couldn’t keep up with the incoming water from the lake breakers, now pouring in by the outboard motor. So a bucket brigade, using pots, pans and pitchers, attacked the problem. Slowly, with the combined force of the bilge pump and bucket brigade, the water level inside the boat began to drop. Now burdened with less weight, we dragged the little boat higher on the beach to keep the subsiding waves from refilling the boat.

A grizzled man and his young daughter soon appeared along the beach. They had apparently been watching for a while. Curious and concerned, they wandered in from our nearest neighbor, the houseboat “Sedona”, a green and white job from the 80s that had safely moored long before we arrived. Probably in his early 40s, with his weathered face and transparent blue cockeye, the dad looked 10 years older.

“Everything okay here?”

They had come to see if they could help. It probably didn’t look too good from their vantage point, with the desperate bucket brigade and general mayhem, but we assured him things were fine. Like a battered wife tells a cop everything’s okay through the keychained front door. His daughter looked very concerned. She may have seen this sort of behavior before.

Downshore, the line of refugee houseboats stretched out ahead, some at crazy angles to the shore. We were not alone.

“You know, in 25 years of coming to Lake Powell,” the dad said to no one in particular, “I’ve never seen a storm like that.”

Neither had we. Hope we never do again.
 

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birdsnest

Well-Known Member
My last call after a very long day put me midway back of West Canyon. A rental HB customer had relayed a call to the HB dock at Stateline concerning a 12.5k westerbeke gen that quit running. After diagnosing the problem I found the intake lake water tube was clogged which caused an overheat shutdown. I spun off the strainer and found a small fish to be the culprit. After clearing the tube, I started picking up my tools and noticed the wind had really picked up and it was getting dark. It had been blowing all afternoon but now it was getting serious. By the time I got to the mouth of West it was dark and the wind was howling at least 50 coming out of the north. Last Chance gave the wind all the room it needed to build waves that started breaking over the bow of my chase boat, a 23' aluminum work boat with an enclosed cabin. Twin 150s provided all the power it needed but as I got toward the main channel the waves started breaking furiously over the bow. I knew I had to make a decision and the thought of Padre Bay creeped me. Warm Creek and Wahweap bays weren't even on my radar, they were so far away. I couldn't see the waves in the dark, making it harder to navigate them correctly. By the time the waves were breaking over the cabin I knew the potential of a bad decision. The self bailing design of the boat may not let the water out fast enough and once the boat got to heavy that would be all she wrote. At that moment one of the lens of my glasses came out due to a loose screw on the temple. That was it for me. I radioed the HB dock to let them know I wasn't coming back and call my wife. I turned around and went back into West. After a couple miles I saw the lights of a HB and pulled to the back deck. A couple came out and I explained my predicament. They were so gracious.. I had ribs and fixins for dinner and slept in a real bed. I left real early in the morning and got a ration of crap from the mechanics when I got back to the dock. Apparently I was the first guy to spend the night on the lake. I could care less and just wondered what may have happened if I had tried making it home. That was the 2nd worst storm I was ever in on Powell. She is a lady that will take you to the bottom if you tempt her. That is who the Lady of the Lake is and I promise you, you do not want to feel her pulling your ankles.
 
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JFRCalifornia

Well-Known Member
Great story, but very scary... and well told... definitely can picture the waves out there thinking about rounding the corner around Gregory Butte, with Last Chance breathing down your neck... especially bad with night coming on...

And to think it was all caused by one small fish...

On the other hand, I bet those ribs were good...
 

T.kidd

Active Member
what a great story ! having boated Powell for 36 or so years , have seen some doozies., well done on the writing.
always take a back up to the back up.
 
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