“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain


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Smitty vs. The Two B#tches: How our Catalina pocket cruiser survived two category 5 hurricanes in the Northern Caribbean

Its 5:30 in the morning, the four sailors and a dog sharing this condo are sitting nervously in the living room. Close at hand are our “ditch bags”, backpacks with bare necessities like a change of clothes, cash, water, protein bars, flashlights, VHF radios and a machete. It has been about 20 minutes since the condo started losing its roof. The first chunk of terra cotta tiles went in one loud crash. Now it sounds like someone is beating on the storm shutters with a sledge hammer. The front door is bowing in from the wind and pressure, you can feel it vibrating, pulsing, but we don’t want to brace anything against the door as it is the only way out if the roof gives.

ZING! There goes another section of roof, the terra cotta tiles sounding like out of tune piano keys being played as they slide against each other.

I heard the tiles smash on something across the street. I reassure myself that my ditch bag is close at hand and I put my dog’s leash on. I think the time to make a run for it may be close.

The wind outside is howling. My ears are popping from the pressure. Pressure that is forcing the water from the toilets. I have been through storms before but nothing like this. The last thing we saw on the news before the power went out was that Palmas Del Mar, Puerto Rico, the very spot where we were, was to get the northeast corner of the eye wall and receive the most destructive forces. Later we would learn that the winds topped 170 knots (about 200 miles per hour). The forecast put the pressure at 908 millibars, making Maria potentially stronger than Irma, the storm that brought us to Puerto Rico to begin this latest adventure.

Photo 2

In 2015, my bride, Summer our dog and myself set off to do something different. We had grown weary of our corporate jobs working in small boxes every day while spending ours commuting in and out of Boston. We had sold the house, the cars and almost everything we owned. We replaced our fancy Ridel wine glasses with tin cups. We had lived on our Catalina 310 for a few years as we payed off debt and saved some money to leave the cold northeast for someplace warmer. That quest for warmth brought us down the US east coast, through the Bahamas and settling in US Virgin Island. We now call a mooring field on the northwest side of Water Island home and work on St. Thomas.

Photo 3 Smitty Mooring

Living in the Caribbean on a boat means you need to have a hurricane plan. Regardless of whether you carry insurance or not, you need a plan. We have insurance so our plan is also part of our insurance. Basically our plan consists of two options. First, RUN! Move the boat out of the path of the storm. Depending on timing and the storm’s path it can sometimes be possible to sail far enough out of the path to a different island or anchorage that won’t get as big of an impact from the storm. Running too late often results in serious loss of both life and boat.

The second option is to HIDE! There are two main places to hide: mangrove swamps and marinas. Both of these options have positives and negatives aspects. If done properly a boat gets pushed against the mangroves, which could result in some cosmetic damage, but the trees would act as a soft cushion to keep the boat from getting significantly damaged. The same can’t be said for hitting a concrete dock or pile. But being at a dock might allow you to get off the boat but while still being able to check and adjust lines during the storm.

Storm surge, wind direction and the changes in both as the storm passes are significant concern in finding a place to hide. However late arrivals, unprepared boaters and derelict vessels are the biggest risk to the able seaman during a storm event. Planning for this factor can be challenging and is usually best handled by hiding in a group of boaters you know will be prepared. For mangroves, go with those you know and treat the location of your hidey-holes like something you want to keep from WikiLeaks.

Some may have noticed that hauling out was not on our list. This option can be very expensive. We received quotes of $5,000 for our 31 foot boat to be on the hurricane haul out plan. Yes, just to be on list for a haul out, additional charges could apply if you actually needed to haul for a storm.

Also, sailboats stacked against each other with the masts up can topple like dominos. At least in the water the boat can heel in response to the wind. There are some places that have pits that a hauled out boat can be placed in and then secured with tie downs and fill around the hull. There are also some yards that have concrete pads with tie down anchors for strapping the boat down. But in this part of the Caribbean I was not comfortable with most of these locations. I felt they were too exposed and too low lying. We had also heard stories of the tie down anchors being old and rusted and being able to be pulled out by hand. The devastation of these storms showed that we made the correct decision in removing this option from our hurricane plan.

Staying on our mooring also wasn’t an option. Elephant Bay is a great place during the prevailing conditions. But even 20 knots of wind from the southwest can make it rolly and bouncy in the mooring field. There is a lot of rock along both sides of the West Gregory Channel and concrete from the commercial port that cause the swell to reverberate making it feel like waves are crashing on your boat from all directions. With the clocking winds from a hurricane the seas and surge in this area would be too much for the mooring or the boat to handle. Following Irma, only three of the over twenty boats that tried to ride out the storm on their moorings were left.

Pic 5

This was our second year living in the Virgin Islands during hurricane season. After lots of fumbling and being over anxious in our first season, experience and friends helped me develop a better weather strategy. Now I have my routine down and reliable sources for storm related information. My two primary resources are Mike’s Weather Page (www.spaghettimodels.com) and Windy (www.windy.com).

Mike’s Weather Page is a great collection of the various resource for hurricanes include links to view the major models. A quick look at the page will show you if there is a potential system worth looking at further. Diving deeper you can view the GFS, EURO and CMC models with a simple click. In addition Mike provides some great insight into what trends he is seeing in the models and how to interpret the information available on his Facebook page.

Windy, formerly WindyTY, is a graphical representation of the GFS and EURO models with some additional factors. On Windy you can look at sustained wind, gusts, precipitation and waves as well as other options. The GFS, EURO and CMC models have large time jumps (6-12 hours) in between each graphical representation, Windy helps fill that gap to get a better idea of the hourly progression of the storm. Based on the times of model updates I had cut my weather watching down to twice a day; once with coffee in the morning and once in the evening during sundowners before dinner.

On Monday, August 21st, I started to become concerned. Both the EURO and GFS models were showing a potentially strong low pressure system developing that could signal a tropical storm or hurricane. The GFS model had this system turning north before impacting the eastern Caribbean. This is the typical pattern that most storms that develop in the eastern Atlantic follow. However the EURO model was showing a high pressure system north of the Caribbean that would push this system further south and west before it turned north. I watched this development over the next couple of days. The potential storm started to become a more frequent subject among cruisers and live-aboards while enjoying the local happy hours or meeting at the dingy dock. But most were not too worried and expected the system to turn north. After all the GFS, the USA’s premiere model and the one used by NOAA, showed the system making the typical turn.

Meanwhile, the EURO continued to show this system making a direct hit on the Virgin Islands and then moving along the northern coast of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. My  wife and I had decided to take this storm seriously. On Tuesday, August 29th I began making preparations. I made sure our gasoline gerry cans were full so we had fuel for the generator and dinghy engine. I topped off the diesel in our tank and gerry cans. We made a list of supplies and provisions (missing one critical item that will come up later) and began acquiring the items on our list. Part of our hurricane plan is to always have several months worth of food on the boat. Since we are on a small boat that means most of those provisions are canned or dried food. I ran our watermaker to ensure our tank was filled along with our gerry cans on deck. I also topped off our two propane tanks.

On Saturday, September 2nd we headed for Culebra as part of a two day jump to Puerto Rico’s southeast coast. The winds didn’t cooperate and we were only able to sail part of the way and ended up motoring a large portion of what should have been a downwind trip. But something was off and we were not making a good speed under motor. Part of the issue was the equatorial currents were running in reverse of their typical direction and were against us. The other part was a yet to be realized issue with Smitty. After a nice dinner and some margaritas at Zaco’s Tacos we were off early the next morning to Puerto Rico.

A friend had mentioned we check out the Yacht Club at Palmas Del Mar. It was on the way to Salinas, our original destination. Based on the topography of the area, the mountains of Puerto Rico would be between us and the soon to be named storm Irma. The storm was not forecast to hit Puerto Rico until late afternoon into the evening on Wednesday, September 6th so we figured we could checkout the yacht club and if we didn’t like it we could head to Salinas on Monday with time to prepare the boats for the storm.

On the way to Palmas Del Mar Smitty began experiencing fuel issues. Several times we dipped in RPM but then it would resume running normally, although still slower than we typically motor. At first we had attributed the slow speed to a fouled bottom. But after the dips in RPMs we knew the issue was fuel related. I went below and checked the Racor filter. Sure enough the bowl was filled with water and debris (most likely microbial growth brought on by the water).  Remember that critical item I mentioned above? It was the on engine fuel filter. I forgot to check my stock and I didn’t have any new filters. I had several of the Racor filters but none of the on engine ones. I began changing fuel filters but that would only buy about two hours of motoring per filter. The wind was now on our nose, probably affected by the hurricane behind us. We limped into Palmas Del Mar before the sunset but were down to one fuel filter in our inventory.

After arriving at Yacht Club we checked the weather again. The EURO still showed the path of the storm heading directly over the Virgin Islands and then along the northern coast of Puerto Rico. Using Windy we predicted that we would be in a good wind shield thanks to the mountains. Further the strongest winds were to come from the north clocking to the west then southwest. Palmas Del Mar is exposed to the southeast but fairly well protected from all other directions. Salinas was most exposed from the southwest to south. Also, the strongest part of the hurricane is the northeast portion of the eye wall. We would be southwest of the eye, in the most favorable area of a hurricane. Given the forecasted track of the storm and the wind directions we were likely to see, we opted to stay in Palmas Del Mar for Irma. Our friend Kendra had made the run on her boat Sea Frog and decided to stay as well.

We spent the next couple of days prepping the boat. We stripped the canvas and anything else on deck. Spread out lines in different directions. We rented a hotel room with Kendra and moved many of our valuables and important things up to the hotel and we waited. In the end most of our preparations and worry would be unneeded.

In the afternoon on Wednesday, September 6th, Irma began being felt on Puerto Rico. The hotel was less than a half mile from the Yacht Club. There was satellite television and we saw some of the awful footage coming out of the eastern Caribbean and the Virgin Islands. Through Facebook we began to see pictures and observations posted by our friends. The reported damage was horrific. The islands we had come to call home were devastated. Irma was the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history and likely one of the most damaging ever to pass through the Caribbean with winds over 230 knots (265 miles per hour).

By the late evening the majority of the storm had passed by us. I walked down to the Yacht Club and there was little to no real damage observed. I doubt we saw winds beyond 70 knots. Our run strategy had worked and we had picked a spot that was safe for our boat.

In the days following Irma we began to put our boat back together. We rented a car and went around Puerto Rico looking for fuel filters and sourcing parts to build a fuel polishing system. This took way longer than it should have because many of the parts I needed had been bought up by people with generators before the storm. About a quarter of Puerto Rico (from Fajado to San Juan) was without power. It took many stops and many fruitless attempts over two days to finally get all the parts I need. I was never able to find a replacement on engine filter. I constructed the polisher and spent several days polishing the fuel that was in the tank.

This whole time we were watching hurricane Jose. The models showed it turning north and avoiding the islands but it was still a concern. And all of our friends back in the Virgin Islands had no way to get weather reports. So we watched the weather and texting people about the storm.

With the fuel problem fixed, we put the headsail, bimini and solar panels back on. Long hot days working in record setting heat in Puerto Rico. We began collecting lists of needed supplies from friends on the islands. The requested items were things you would expect like generators, chainsaws, pressure washers, mosquito netting, etc. We also joined the group Sailors Helping formed by several cruisers in Puerto Rico and other islands to help bring relief supplies to the islands hit impacted by Irma. Sailors Helping had already been organizing donations and getting them on boats heading for the Virgin Islands. Our plan was to stuff Smitty full of supplies and sail back to St. Thomas to help our friends. We setup a rental car and then I checked the weather as I always do….

So this is where Maria came into the mix. Instead of getting almost two weeks of warning like we did with Irma, we only had five days notice. It was Friday night, September 15th. The EURO had the track going just to the south of us with landfall near Salinas. The GFS had the track going just to the north of us with landfall near Fajado. If you split the middle you would hit us dead on.

We wanted to run but where?

Based on the track, Virgin Gorda would have been a good option. Tuck in close to the island in North Gorda Sound and we would have some good elevation between us and the storm. But there was floating debris from Irma: roofs, docks, damaged boats, etc. All that made transiting that area risky and there would be no support once we arrived in the Virgins Island. No water, electricity, food, fuel or internet to get information on the storm. The rest of the Virgin Islands were out for the same reason. We didn’t want to run to Salinas or Fajado because it looked like they might get more of the storm.

It was five days out. A run to the Dominican Republic would take two days. Bonair would be three to four days. We hadn’t been out to test the motor since we polished the fuel. And Summer’s international health certificate expired on September 3rd, so we could possibly get turned away at either of those ports. In addition, Kendra is sailing solo, so a multiple day run is something she has not done and would be extremely difficult on her.

So we stayed…

We spent the next few days redoing the work we had just undone. Sails and canvas were taken off, lines were put back out and all steps were made to try and keep Smitty safe. Some how I found more places to tie lines. Including making sure our guardian Wonder Woman was well secured to face Maria.

Pic 6 Wonder Woman

Each successive run of the hurricane models changed the projected track. First it would go further west away from us, then it would go right over us. Then back west. This was all EURO. The GFS had it going north still with its own variations. All of the model changes gave me a bad feeling. We were still dead in the middle between the two. I felt it in my gut that we would get a direct hit.

As we walked away from Smitty to head towards our shelter for the storm I felt as confident as I could. Maria would be our seventh hurricane since owning Smitty. However, most of those were in the northeast where we typically didn’t see actual hurricane force winds in the protected harbors. The forecast now had us getting winds well over 100 knots. After seeing all of the devastation in the Virgin Islands from Irma it was really hard to have a positive feeling about what would come next.

We headed to our rented condo. We were again joined by Kendra from Sea Frog. We also invited another sailor to join us. Todd had been nicked named “Spider Man” by the other boaters in the Yacht Club. Somehow Todd had managed to get 38 lines on the Lagoon 37 to hold The Cool Change in place.

As we all settled in at the condo I opened a bottle of Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum and we toasted to our boats that they be strong in the face of Maria. Several more toasts followed with chants of “Fuck Maria!”

Nervous anticipation kept most of us from sleeping. By four in the morning the wind was howling and no one could sleep.

It was 8:30 in the mooring on Wednesday, September 20th, and we were about to come out of the worst of it. The roof had held for the most part; more terra cotta tiles had gone flying but the roof sheathing below had held. We had water dripping from the ceilings in several locations and it was coming under ever door including the sliders behind the storm shutters. By 10 in the morning the wind was still blowing and it was raining but it was not as fierce as before.

Todd and I ventured outside for a look. From the top floor of the condo building you could see part of the marina. Todd’s boat, The Cool Change, was perfectly center in the view between two buildings that partially obscured the Yacht Club. She was floating with her mast up. The same could not be said for other boats. We saw masts gone, boats out in the middle of the fairway barely hanging on by one or two lines and masts tipped in a way that could only result from a sunken boat. One of those tipped masts was in the area of Smitty and Sea Frog but the buildings blocked too much of the view to know if it was one of our boats.

At one in the afternoon we felt it was ok to venture out. We put on fowlies, grabbed a few supplies and started to head for the Yacht Club. Upon stepping out of the condo the seen was chaotic. Trees were down everywhere you looked. Pieces of terra cotta tiles were thrown about. The roads were impassible to cars and barely walkable in some locations. The stucco had been stripped from the buildings by the winds. All of the palm fronds had been removed from the tops of the palm trees giving them a look of a tree that had been decapitated.

Continuing to make our way we found flooded streets and more carnage. Eventually we made it to the Yacht Club and we could see that both Smitty and Sea Flog were still floating! The tipped mast was from a boat that had been next to Sea Frog.

Pic 7 sunken boat in front of sea frog

The Yacht Club building had been pummeled with water and flooded by a storm surge that appeared to be 10 feet or more based on the damage to the building. This would have put the fixed concrete docks six feet under water during the height of the surge. A small rental car building that had been in the parking lot was completely gone and only remnants of the building would later be found in drainage ditch. One vehicle, a Hummer H2, that was left in the parking lot was pushed several parking spots over until it had come to rest against a light pole. Several boats had been dismasted. Many of the boats that didn’t remove their sails had them blow out and were shredded by the wind. Other boats had bashed against the docks or piles and some were holed. And several boats had sank in their slips. It didn’t appear that many boats escaped damage.

It was still blowing about 70-80 knots with gusts up to 100 knots. Todd and I cautiously made our way down the dock and out to our boats. The gusts were so strong that at times we had to drop to a knee and make ourselves into a tight ball to avoid being blown off the dock. We first passed Todd’s boat and there did not appear to be anything wrong or any lines broken. Next week came to Sea Frog’s former neighbor, he had broken free, smashed two piles until they toppled and sank in the fairway.

Unfortunately this caused some damage to Sea Frog. Sea Frog was tied to one of the piles that he smashed and the loss of those lines let Sea Frog rub against the dock. In addition, the tilted mast had hit Sea Frogs forestay damaging the foil to her roller furler.

Smitty appeared fine. She had lost several lines, all of which were double braided lines that appeared to have exploded in the middle of the line! We had lost six out of eight stern lines and a couple of springer lines.

We reappropriated (fancy pirate word for steal) as much line as we could find. Todd climbed aboard Sea Flog and secured several of the newly acquired lines to cleats, winches or any place he could find. Together and slowly we moved Sea Frog away from the dock. Todd would “pump” the line and when he let go I would pull in the slack and secure the line to the cleat or bollard. Inch by inch we moved Sea Frog against the wind. Eventually we had here five feet off of the dock and firmly secured by several lines. We used some of the new to us lines to add some stern lines to Smitty. We used the same technique to move Smitty further from the dock. With nothing left to do we returned to the condo to wait out the rest of the storm.

In the morning we headed back down to the Yacht Club. We started looking around at the damage and talking to the others boaters about how they faired during the storm. There were 40 boats in the Yacht Club for Maria. Of the 40, six had sunk, six had been dismasted and 25 others had some damage ranging from cosemtic gelcoat scuffs, bows missing from pounding on the dock, damaged sails and rigging and holes through the hull that put the boat at risk of sinking if quick repairs aren’t made.

Getting in the dingy and traveling out into the private docks in Palmas del Mar the damage only got worse. As the surge pushed into the canals it became concentrated and more destructive energy was present. Large Viking cabin cruisers were lifted up and but down on top of piles. Sailboats were pushed up onto docks and left resting on their rudders. Boats were sunk in tangled masses. Out riggers were bent and broken from the force of the wind. There was no pattern or reason to the damage. One boat was damaged and sunk while the boat at the next dock was untouched with canvas carelessly left up still intact.

In the end Smitty’s damaged was limited to a shorted out control module for our refrigeration. The compressor is located below a vent that was installed to allow the heat to escape. But salt water spread into the vent soaking the control module that subsequently failed.

There was a lot of luck and a lot of preparation that went into keeping Smitty safe through these storms. Its hard to say which was the bigger influence in surviving the storm. But we are proud of our tough little boat.

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