The start of hurricane season reminds me of one of the stupider things we have done during our years on the water – one of the stupidest things any cruiser can do. Back in 1994, when we still thought we knew what we were doing, we stayed on board our floating home for a brush with hurricane Gordon. It was definitely one of those “You Will Not Repeat This” experiences.
The morning of Nov. 16, we moved from Oriental down to the historic Beaufort Docks. Tropical Storm Gordon was churning around down south, but the weather guessers predicted it would track north offshore. Coastal North Carolina might get a few days of windy weather and Beaufort seemed like a good place to wait it out.
Our slip was inside behind the face dock and at high tide we had a wonderful view of Taylor Creek, Carrot Island, Radio Island, Fort Macon, and the Morehead City Channel. At night, way off to the east, we could see the lighthouse on Cape Lookout. Today the Beaufort Docks have high-quality floating docks, but in 1994 the docks were mostly fixed and, in the section we were in, fairly tall. Walkabout, our Mariner 36 ketch, was a low-sided boat. At high tide our deck amidships was a foot or two below the finger pier. At low tide, four or five feet further down, our deck was five or six feet below the finger pier and getting on and off the boat was a struggle. The Taylor Creek current running through the docks was fierce – much worse than any we had experienced on the Chesapeake.
Despite the high docks, Beaufort lived up to our imaginations: we visited the N.C. Maritime Museum, bought books and charts at Scuttlebutt, and collected wooden nickels at the Dockhouse Restaurant. The wooden nickels were good for a half-price beer at a later date.
The marina and the anchorage in Taylor Creek were full of cruising boats, many of them large well-equipped vessels, their crews were waiting for good sailing weather before heading offshore. I felt like a novice cruiser.
The last marine weather forecast for the 16th was a little ominous. Gordon was over Florida, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, still moving northeast with peak wind gusts of 50 mph, but Gordon’s minimum central pressure had dropped from 999 to 995 millibars. It was getting stronger. All day on the 17th, report by report, Gordon gained strength. At 1 p.m., approximately 220 miles southeast of Cape Lookout, Gordon turned to the north. Peak winds strengthened to 85 mph making Gordon a category one hurricane.
We spent the rest of the day preparing Walkabout for what NOAA and everyone on the docks thought might be a close pass. We stripped off all four sails, the dodger and the bimini, bagged them and put them below. We deflated the dinghy, bagged it and put it below. All fenders, jerry jugs, etc. were put below. I dug out every dock line we had and put them on the boat. Then I added our old jib sheets. Everyone on the dock was doing the same thing with a remarkable amount of cooperation. If someone needed help, help arrived. The dockmaster and his assistants worked tirelessly to ensure that everyone was well tied up.
At some point, the Forbes family’s motor yacht, Highlander, tied up on the face dock in front of us. I looked up and there it was, with the crew doing the same things we were doing. I remember thinking that the large yacht would provide a good wind break for us and our neighbors.
What I did not think about, and to this day I don’t know why, was just leaving. As late as 1 p.m., when Gordon became a hurricane, we could have run inland, through Core Sound and the Adams Creek Canal, to somewhere that might have been safer. But we didn’t and, as far as I remember, none of the boats on the Beaufort Docks or out in Taylor Creek left. We could also have prepared the boat, packed some clothes and our critical papers, and gone to a motel or a B&B several blocks from the water. We didn’t do that either, and neither did any of our neighbors on the dock. We all stayed on our boats and waited for whatever was coming.
By 7 p.m., Gordon was 140 miles southeast of Cape Lookout and all of the boats on the dock were as secure as possible. Rain bands were coming through, the wind was building, and large seas were starting to come up the channel, hitting Carrot Island and Radio Island and surging into Taylor Creek. The governor of North Carolina ordered a partial evacuation, mostly of the Outer Banks. The Coast Guard locked down the Morehead City-Beaufort bridges.
Boats on Taylor Creek and the Beaufort Docks were where they were going to stay for whatever was coming. Except for streetlights and a very few lighted windows, Beaufort was dark. The stores and restaurants along Front Street were vacant, windows taped and boarded, sand bags piled in front of the doors. There was little to do but wait, worry, and monitor the VHF.
At 1 a.m. on the 18th, Gordon was approximately 105 miles east-southeast of Cape Lookout and moving west-northwest. It looked as though the area was now ground zero for a morning landfall. The wind at Cape Lookout was gusting to 70 mph and the noise from the wind, the dock lines, the water around the boat and the big seas hitting Carrot Island and Radio Island (we could hear them) was incredible.
I went on deck several times to check our lines. Once I tried to climb onto the dock over the bowsprit to adjust a too-short line that I could not adjust from on board. I found myself hanging onto the bow rail, in chest-deep water, my feet just touching the dock. I was able to get back aboard, but if I had let go of the boat I would have had a problem.
At high tide the day before, our deck had been below the dock and I am six feet tall; I don’t know if it was high tide when I tried to climb onto the dock or not, but the water was way up. I cut the offending line and I have never again used a too-short dock line. I have also tried not to run any line from the boat to a dock that could not be adjusted from both ends.
My overactive imagination invented another thing for me to worry about: the Highlander, that great big motor yacht in front of us. I started thinking about the force of the wind and current on that yacht, and the resultant strain on the dock. Mental images of the dock collapsing and Walkabout being squashed under the Highlander, with us inside, floated around in my mind.
Sunrise on the 18th was the worst. Gordon, still a category one hurricane with winds of 80 mph, was centered just 60 miles from Cape Lookout. Then Gordon began to turn to the southwest and weaken. By 1 p.m., Gordon was 90 miles south of Cape Lookout, had been downgraded to a tropical storm, and was headed south for a third rendezvous with Florida. That was just fine with us. Not that I had anything against Florida; we were hoping to get there too, eventually.
None of the boats on the dock suffered any significant damage. The water rose high enough to cross the dockside parking lots and reach the sidewalk on the far side of Front Street, but there was no real flooding.
A few boats that had been left anchored or on inadequate moorings dragged, several lost their sails, and two were up on the beach on Carrot Island. But the beached boats were floated with minimal effort.
For us Gordon was history: a few interesting notes in the log and a copy of NOAA Chart 11009 with the storms track plotted on it.
Time cruises by, people age and hurricanes keep coming. Last fall we drove our current boat, a Nauset downeast type, from Hyannis, Mass., (Cape Cod) to Florida and in late October as we were chugging south through Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, it began to look as though Hurricane Sandy might be thinking about visiting North Carolina. This time we stopped at the New Bern Grand Marina in New Bern, N.C., 30 miles up the Neuse River from Oriental and the ICW. The clean, well-run marina featrues strong floating docks immediately adjacent to a Double Tree by Hilton Resort Hotel. We prepared the boat for storm conditions and settled in to enjoy the fine old colonial town of New Bern while we waited on Sandy.
We waited on board. The forecast called for Sandy to make a close pass on the outer banks, but to continue north and possibly re-curve out to sea. This time, if the forecast was wrong and Sandy strengthened and came ashore in southern North Carolina and it looked like things were going to get rough … well … this time we were fully prepared to grab the computer, our papers, some clothes, kiss the boat good-bye and march 50 yards to the check-in desk at the Double Tree to get a room. Preferably a fourth floor room on the lee side. It annoys me when the windows blow out.
Partially excerpted from chapter 4 of “Into the Land of Coconut Dreams: A Travel Log, A Sea Story and a Passage in Time; Mostly True” by Bill Hezlep. Available from Amazon in print and e-book editions.