In Mark Helprin’s Novel, Winter’s Tale, the central characters Peter Lake + his white guardian angel horse, Athansor, both crash into a giant Cloud Wall just off Long Island, disappearing into it and emerging years later, no longer of this world, hearing and seeing things no one else can. One night, post cloud wall experience,Lake is carried on a tour of all the graves of the world, observing and remembering all the dead.
I was always obsessed with the content of Cloud Walls, which are defined by the weather service as are abrupt lowering of clouds from the parent cloud base, a cumulonimbus or supercell, with no visible precipitation underneath. Forming in the area of a thunderstorm updraft, or inflow area, they can often exhibit rapid upward movement and cyclonic rotation. It often develops before strong or violent tornadoes.
They also can sock in a harbor with a bone chilling mist, no visibility and no wind. Always where warm moist air and cold, cold water meet they are a mariner’s nightmare.
When I sailed regularly on the Great Lakes, and the cloud walls would appear on warm sunny days, when the water was still very, very cold. Appearing as if out of now where they would swallow up your boat in a thick soup of damp…at times wind blowing 20 knots and no visibility out to sea combined with very bright sun near shore. I’d stand on the deck of my Sea Sprite peering into nothing hoping with all my might there were no giant freighters active in the shipping lane; eyes tearing with the lack of focus, blasting the air horn every few minutes, as if that would somehow help. And of course as any sailor knows making while making headway at 6 knots I was frantically praying somehow this horrific wall of puce would lift.
At one point on the Bay of Green Bay, with the children on board, a cloud wall filled with lightning came bearing down on us, water sizzling a if with snakes from the rain pelting the surface. No wind, no sound, save the roar of the wall headed our way. Hair standing on end, we all made it eventually to shore, in awe, damaged electric system but safe and grateful for our return.
Cloud walls are truly amazing. One time as a student piloting a very old Cessna 150 I was swallowed by a cloud wall over Oshkosh, Wisconsin, flying VFR. It was a calm sunny winter day when we left Appleton: the cloud appeared out of no where. It consumed my airplane + immediately iced the wings, windows, everything in terrifying rime ice. Of course the poor little plane began to buffet wildly and my instructor, 40 year veteran pilot Howard Brown, took control, I hung my head out the banging side window (brrrr…) and we managed to blindly careen our way safely to the landing strip which mercifully was wide + long. When we landed Howard’s hair was standing straight on end…and the pump boys at the FBO voiced their dismay that we had cost them money in a wager (they had assumed we were gonners and betted on our demise.).
Sergio Roffo’s painting of the Cloud Wall shows Alerion + Beetle boats safely socked in the Straight Wharf harbor on Nantucket. They appear so peaceful and at rest. Today here in Charleston we are experiencing similar weather in the harbor only with the addition of about a 25 knot wind. Sergio’s painting reminds me so vividly of those times near and on Lake Michigan. Deceptively calm, eerie in the cloaked quiet, halyards softly clanking with the flat seas. Every pilot, every sailor, knows to disappear into such softness risks returning as a ghost like Peter Lake in Mark Helprin’s wonderful novel. I am charmed by the mystery cloaking this harbor, delighted by the nautical accuracy of the boats Ruffo depicts (two harbor socked sailors just ambled in the gallery to tell me the names + types of boats depicted in the harbor…and how rare it was to see such accuracy!).
Roffo a an elected “Fellows” member of the American Society of Marine Artists has won numerous awards including two prestigious “Grumbacher Gold Medals” and the “Yankee Sagendorph Award”; presented by Yankee Magazine. This work and several others by Sergio can be viewed on our website at http://www.mgalleryoffineart.com.