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Cruising Tales: Thirty-Nine Years Ago This Month

Thirty-nine years ago, a surprise storm hit the Virgin Islands in July 1969.  During that time one of the greatest American achievements was made.

It was a dull, grey sky when we left Yacht Haven in St. Thomas with our charter party, Senor Botti, his wife, and two little boys from South America aboard our sloop Avenir II. With main and jib up, we tacked out of the harbor toward Buck island. The southeast horizon looked evil – black, angry, menacing. Mike took the wheel and asked me to call the marine operator to see if there was a storm forecast.

Before I could move, the storm blasted us with a hard, cold, dense fist of air which drove Avenir II sideways! With all sheets flying we barely heeled but made two wakes, one at the bow, the other at the stern as the boat was shoved northward.

Chaos! Senor Botti and family hustled below, I started the engine and ducked low as the jib sheets flailed and pummeled the shrouds. Mike finally corralled the hanked-on jib which was doing its own jig on the bow. The mainsail fought to stay up too until Mike clawed it down with a heroic effort.

That was the easy part.  With the jib unhanked, Mike beat on the forepeak hatch for someone to open it so that he could stuff the jib through it. But Senora Botti below the hatch had forgotten all English in her terror, whereas we had forgotten what Spanish we had. Senora Botti thought Mike was yelling to her to keep the hatch closed down. Finally, after many shouts to those below, Mike bellowed out, “Open the g-d hatch!” That message got through!

Then we bounced our way up to Christmas Cove to anchor and calm our guests who were a tad traumatized, as you can imagine. We contacted WAH, the marine operator, to learn that the first gusts had hit at 65 miles per hour, that the wind would be in excess of 35 knots, and the seas high most of the week. Ugh! How do you explain that to a family with little children?  

The storm did not disappoint us. It blew hard and didn’t stop. We slogged our way eastward, stopping at the most protected spots. Snorkeling was a bust – too rough. Landing the dinghy on the beach was hairy but manageable only in the best leeward places.
Five days and it was still blowing. We hadn’t even gotten up to Virgin Gorda yet. Halfway there from Beef Island it seemed impossible to reach, so we turned tail and headed down with deeply reefed main and a small jib. Going down wind was such a relief that Mike decided to take a tuck out of the mainsail.

A big mistake! The dinghy started to disappear in the following sea. Reducing sail again, we headed for the one sure place that might give us shelter from these banshee-howling winds – Water Creek in the Hurricane Hole area of St. John.

Safely ensconced, it was amazingly quiet, even eerie. Senor Botti took Mike aside the next morning and plaintively asked, “Captain, do we have to go anywhere today?”

“No,” Mike said, holding his breath and hoping we didn’t have to move.
                           
“Thank God!” Senor Botti exclaimed. “Let’s stay right here!”

That afternoon, our much happier family gathered with us in the cockpit for a special broadcast. It made no difference now that the wind still whirled, that the seas crashed on the outside shore, that the Sun didn’t shine, for there, high above us, was Neil Armstrong, “taking one giant step for mankind” on the Moon!

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