Many bloggers have seen comments on their posts and on posts by others from an individual named “Paul” – his comments are often wittier than the posts they’re written on! Some of us have been encouraging Paul to start his own blog, but he says he’s not ready yet. We intend to change that.
I am honored that Paul has agreed to guest post for me today. Please join me in encouraging him to post on a regular basis.
By Paul Curran
Many thanks to Cordelia’s Mom for this opportunity to guest post on her site. I was reading an article on lightning recently, and the following experience came rushing back that I would like to share. At the time, I owned and operated my own temperature controlled tractor-trailer hauling from Newfoundland, Canada to the United States. Typically we hauled frozen fish to the States and produce back. As you will see, this was a typical night … until the storm in the Wreckhouse.
Pouring rain flooded the windshield of my Kenworth tractor, so much so that the windshield wipers were barely keeping up on high speed. The cleared sections sparkled with the white diamonds of light refracting from the yard lights of the approaching restaurant. The wind was howling with enough force to shake the truck. My 400 horsepower Cat engine could barely maintain 55 mph pulling the loaded trailer into the wind. I eased off the fuel and let the truck roll until I turned into the restaurant yard. Stephan’s cobalt blue Freightliner with his reefer (temperature controlled trailer) sat glimmering in the rain as I parked behind him. Pulling on the air powered parking brakes, I scanned the 22 gauges on the dash before flipping off the four light switches, turning off the key, grabbing my coat and jumping out of the cab. Struggling against the wind, I moved, doubled over, pushing my 225 pound, 6’3” bulk through to the restaurant doors. The air pressure slammed the door behind me as I stopped to wipe my glasses and check out who was already there.
The restaurant was empty at 2:00 am except for Stephan, who was sitting in front of a cup of coffee with 4 empty creamers on the table. I frowned a bit, and then walked over and sat across from him in the booth. With a sigh, I turned sideways on the bench and rested my legs on the seat. I greeted Stephan as a waitress ambled over and asked: “What can I get you tonight?” I just asked for a coffee and so did Stephan. The waitress went to get our order and Stephan’s eyes watched her walking away. She was aware of this and put a bit more wiggle in her stride. (Stephan is the consummate playboy with a French facial structure, jet black hair carefully combed and a lithe figure to match. The ladies love him and vice versa.)
The waitress returned with the coffee, and Stephan and I both chose two creamers from the dish on the table. As he opened his creamers, my suspicions were confirmed that this was indeed his third coffee at 2:00 am in the morning when the weather in the Wreckhouse would be so bad as to be impassable. He was not intending to wait out the storm here, and yet we both knew that to continue would be suicide. I waited for the other shoe to drop.
Stephan: So, how heavy are you Paul?
Me: About 92,000 pounds gross [we are paid by the weight loaded so it is a game to maximize our load – around 92 k lbs is the comfortable maximum], and you?
Stephan: 93,000 pounds [this with a smile – he wins tonight]
Me: What are you doing sitting here drinking coffee, when you know we can’t get through the Wreckhouse tonight?
The Wreckhouse is a 20 mile stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway just before Port aux Basques, Newfoundland where the ferry leaves for the mainland – our destination. It is a flat, scrub-covered plain with a mountain range on the East side of the plain and the ocean on the west. When the wind comes out of the southeast over the mountains, it picks up speed as it is sucked across the plain by the ocean. Wind speeds in the Wreckhouse are typically double the wind speeds where we were stopped, just outside the plain. So, that night, when the wind here was around 50-60 mph, the wind in the Wreckhouse would be between 100 and 140 mph. That is not navigable with any vehicle, and unsuspecting visitors often find themselves blown off the road. The trick is that as the wind hits the side of the vehicle, it goes both over the top and underneath. This provides lift, just like an airplane wing, and the vehicle – trucks too – will rise in the air off their wheels and then be blown into the ditch – seldom upright.
Stephan: Wellll, I was waiting.
Me: Waiting for what?
Stephan: I was waiting for you. You’re right, I can’t make it through alone, but if we run the two loaded trucks side by side, the wind will have to lift twice as much weight to throw us off the road – 185,000 pounds. What do you think?
(I paused for a few moments of consideration. In theory, this would work. With the correct gap between the trucks, the wind would rush between them from bottom to top, reducing the lift – like an airplane wing split lengthwise. Also, as Stephan said, the wind would have to lift both trucks simultaneously. I had heard this scenario spoken of before, but no one I had ever met had said: “I did that.”)
Me: OK, let’s do it. You want the inside or outside?
Stephan: I’ll take the outside. How much distance between us and what speed?
Me: I figure about 8 feet between us, the same distance as the width of the trucks. That way, we’ll present 8 feet of lift, 8 feet of open space and 8 feet of lift. And about 30 mph should be good.
We paid, exited the restaurant, jumped into our trucks and pulled out onto the highway. As we cleared the turn at the entrance of the Wreckhouse, Stephan pulled into the left lane, and I slid up beside him. There was no chance of ever meeting anyone at 2:30 am in this wind – they would be blown off the road before they ever met us. Plus we had a long sight line and could move over to let someone by if it became necessary.
When our mirrors were opposite each other I slowed to Stephan’s pace, leaving about 8 feet between our trucks. At this point the lightning started – small cracks and flashes at first. The wind picked up, and the truck began to shake side to side. Rain still poured down, now appearing to fall horizontally at a furious rate. Even so, the road was awash and dimpled with drops hitting like bullets. The lightning began to come faster and faster with the thunder booming simultaneously – indicating that the lightning was right on top of us. Still the wind rose and the trucks vibrated like a giant fist had grasped and was shaking us. I glanced out the driver’s window and could only see Stephan’s dashlights behind his side window, glowing in the dark. The mirrors were staying opposite each other, and we adjusted our speed in the wind as if we were communicating wordlessly.
My headlights started shining closer and closer to the front of the truck, and I realized my engine hood was starting to rise. The wind had gotten under the huge hood and was stretching the tie-downs so the hood was lifting on its front hinges, opening a gap in front of the windshield through which I could see the engine working. If the tie-downs snapped, the hood would crash forward and smash the headlights and block my view – not something I wanted to think about. Lightning was flashing almost non-stop now, and the roaring of the ever increasing wind drowned out the thunder. The two trucks were shuddering continuously, a sure sign that the air was travelling between them and keeping the upward pressure controlled. Hard to believe that the wind was shaking 185,000 pounds so violently. I was sure the wind now was over 140 mph and increasing, but at least it was almost steady and not changing directions.
Suddenly the sky lit up with blue sheet lightning from horizon to horizon. My engine glowed blue in the 18” gap where my hood was tilted forward. The world seemed to freeze in the midst of the tumult, each raindrop stopped in time while travelling at 140 mph. A continuous roar shook the trucks. The storm had done its very best to swallow us and had failed – letting out a giant scream of frustration. I blinked as the lightning dissolved and darkness once again moved in. The pounding rain and the howling wind were becoming common now, and the same scary effects we had first encountered now felt safer – we had not been even budged from the road. As we proceeded, the winds died and my hood settled back down on its mounts. Then Stephan accelerated and pulled ahead into the lane in front of me. We rounded the final corner and were clear of the Wreckhouse. The 60 mph winds and downpour now seemed pedestrian.
My CB startled me when it crackled and Stephan spoke: “Quite a ride, eh?” It took me a minute to answer: “Yeah, that was interesting.”
To this day, I can still feel the moment when the sheet lightning had stopped the world for a short time – a high moment like a cliff that then dropped off and left the blue flash and the memory suspended above in time while we continued along the highway.
HISTORICAL NOTE BY PAUL CURRAN
How the Wreckhouse Got Its Name: Close to the Port aux Basques end, there is a small old broken down house down over the bank beside the railroad track that used to run through the Wreckhouse. There haven’t been any trains in the area for decades (it all goes by road now), but the line was still there last time I visited. Anyway, the trains used to blow off the tracks too, so the railroad built this sturdy little house – more like a bunker – where the winds got high, and they stationed a flag man there. He had weather equipment and when the winds got too high, he used to go out to the tracks with a tether to hold him down, and wave down the trains. They would wait at the edge of the Wreckhouse until it was safe to go. Eventually the wind blew down the little house and its remains gave name to the stretch- Wreckhouse.
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Images by: Cape Treasures, and Betty Carter, and Christoph Kummer, and Bernadette Morris, and National Geographic, respectively