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As many as 70 boats were damaged or lost when hurricane Gonzalo hit St. Martin. Photo: OceanMedia
As many as 70 boats were damaged or lost when hurricane Gonzalo hit St. Martin. Photo: OceanMedia

The Wrath of Gonzalo: Lessons Learned

For the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, sitting astride the hurricane belt, October 13 2014 will be remembered by the Caribbean sailing community for years to come. The way some commentators took to social media to berate boats caught in the storm will also be remembered and hopefully not repeated should similar circumstances arise again.

Regular subscribers to All At Sea will have read my entreaties to head south for hurricane season, haul the boat ashore or, failing that, prepare extremely well if you intend to face a storm while at anchor.  While preaching these things, Gonzalo tore our boat from her moorings and smashed her almost beyond recognition.

I can’t say we weren’t warned that a storm was coming; the weather service tracked it as a tropical wave when it came off the African coast and issued regular updates as to its progress. When the wave became a depression and then a tropical storm, they announced that too. For boats in the northern Leeward Islands, that’s when the science of modern weather forecasting began to wobble.

As marine interests in St. Martin prepared for what was then tropical storm Gonzalo to pass 100 miles south, it changed course to the NW and was upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane.

In Antigua, where they received the first hammer blow, people were already questioning the official forecast. Replying to a post on my blog (garyebrown.net) George Bridger, on checking his boat in Jolly Harbour, wrote, “We had been told to expect maximum winds of 50mph. Within 20 minutes we were having 100mph winds in Jolly Harbour. How does one prepare when the WX man called it so wrong?”

George Bridger’s comment was one I heard repeated over the next few days.

As the eye-wall went over St. Martin, the wind took on a fury I found hard to explain, and here I speak as someone who rode out Hurricane Luis, a Category 4/5 storm, at anchor in St. Martin in 1995.

When dawn broke on October 14, the damage ashore and afloat seemed totally disproportionate to the forecast wind speed.

This brings us to the question of why boats were spending the summer months in the northern islands. Boats lost or damaged included commercial vessels, fishing boats and day charter boats that must make a living in these waters all year round. A couple of boats were left in the lagoon because of family emergencies and the need for the crew to fly home. For some people the boat is a home that allows them to live and work in the islands … we call it ‘living the dream’.

To say that many of us were caught out by Gonzalo is an understatement. I got it wrong and paid the price, others paid far more. Comments posted on social media sites by some in the sailing community saying that sailors who lost, or had their boats damaged in Gonzalo, deserved all they got because they shouldn’t have been there or their seamanship was at fault, were incredibly hurtful. More so for the family and friends of the sailor who didn’t survive the storm. The majority of people who lost their boats prepared as best they could, or knew how. They fought like lions and deserve respect.

The sailing community, especially those who live in the Caribbean year-round and for whom hurricane season is a fact of life, learned much from Gonzalo. We learned to treat tropical weather forecasts with extreme caution and prepare for the worst early on. We now understand that wind strengths don’t always tally with the prediction. I prepared for the eye of the storm to pass south, it didn’t and this was a factor in the damage to our own boat and many others.

Hurtful comments aside, I learned the most important lesson of all and that’s how wonderful the Caribbean community, ashore and afloat, can be and I am proud to be part of it.

 

Gary E. Brown is the Editorial Director of All At Sea. He is and the author of the thriller/sailing adventure Caribbean High. For more information visit: garyebrown.net

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