How to Survive a Hurricane
They say we Homo sapiens learn from our mistakes. That’s patently false – at least in my case. The only thing my history teaches me is that I don’t learn from it. This is sad. If I learned from my mistakes, I’d be a genius – because I make so many of them. But I do not. I merely repeat them, ad infinitum.
In fact, as I mature (well, get older) I seem to be attempting to “best” myself in terms of stupidity. This isn’t easy, as the bar is high.
Since this is September, let’s take hurricanes as a prime example. I’ve been through over two dozen during which the eye passed directly overhead. I don’t confine myself to any one particular geographical area. I’ve enjoyed hurricanes in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Mexico, Georgia and even South and Central America. Did I mention Tonga? Thailand? Philippines? New Zealand?
I was even threatened by a South Atlantic hurricane – a climatic event so rare I thought the weather dudes in Brazil were pulling my leg over the SSB.
Yes, I’m sort of a hurricane magnet.
The last time I waited for a hurricane to hit was in Egmont Harbor, on the south side of Grenada in the lower Eastern Caribbean. There was a green-horn guy attempting to stern-to his BendyToe into the mangroves next to us. He appeared flustered. “Relax,” I told him. “This is just how it is in the tropics.”
He seemed reassured. “Honey,” he shouted down to his wife belowdecks, “there’s a guy out here who says he’s been through a lot of these drills – and never a problem.”
“Err, not exactly,” I said, as his wife came on deck wiping her hands on a dish rag. “Yes, I’ve been through a bunch of Storms of the Century but always with, well, mega-problems! I, and my entire family, have almost been killed on numerous occasions and we’ve lost our vessel so many times, I really can’t remember how many. Our cruising boats are like yo-yos. You know, they are up, they are down.. so often I’ve considered painting our interiors with antifouling! I have my vessel’s name pre-lettered on my masthead for easy post-storm identification! At the very least, the storms bankrupt us financially, and morally, and mentally, even! I mean, you toast a lot of brain cells while sinking in a Category 5, me son!
Oh, yes! I’ve storm-sailed into the loony bin on occasion. I mean, I’ve been institutionalized with marine-related PTS syndrome so many times that I have a Helly Hanson strait jacket with my vessel’s name embroidered on it.
Sadly, I was never able to get to know these folks better – as the wife was air-evac’d off-island soon after our all-too-brief meeting.
I do remember the first time a vessel sank out from under me – when I lost my cyclonic cherry, so to speak. I was a mere lad of eight years. It was aboard the schooner Elizabeth, in the early ’60s. We were anchored off a small island in the Gulf of Mexico. Well, hard aground on it, actually.
Yes, it was just after midnight. This is the traditional time for such traumatic marine endeavors. There was no moon, of course, not that we could see. The barometer had dropped so low it was in the bilge. And, yes, the night sky was blacker than a politician’s heart. There was “a bit of breeze” as they say.
The captain’s wife (who just happened to be my mother, since the captain was my father) was sitting like Buddha in the middle of the galley table with all the lifejackets gathered around her in a death-grip. Funniest of all, she had our throwable life ring swaying wildly around her neck. She was screaming at the top of her lungs something about preferring not to die, if, of course, the option presented itself.
I remember thinking, gleefully, “Wow! Now this is fun!”
Soon thereafter, the wooden (1924) Elizabeth spit out her garboard plank. Waves pushed her water-logged hull higher and higher up the beach. She heeled sharply to port. The sound was awesome. Picture a 50,000 pound man-made structure of any type repeatedly tossed 10 feet up and 100 feet over and you get the idea. We never quite sank but weren’t floating either.
There was a little air pocket where the deck and hull met at the carlin. It was there my mother and I treaded water and discussed the situation.
The reality of sinking is this: lots of stuff floats. So do you. Thus you end up floating with more and more stuff in less and less space. That stuff – some of it hard and heavy and protruding – starts bumping into you, hitting you, pushing you, and squeezing you.
Since it is pitch-black, you can’t see what is happening. You can’t tell what is hitting you. It is a tad disconcerting, or at least that is how my mother found it. She was screaming, still. Once she paused and asked, “what is happening?”
I was young, feeling eternal, and hadn’t had time to work on my compassion, so I blurted, “we’re being tenderized for the sharks!”
My mother has always been a tad chilly to me since.
Of course, as a parent I wanted to make sure my own child had the benefit of such horizon-expanding maritime experience.
Fast-forward to Sept. 17, 1989, aboard the ketch Carlotta in Culebra, Puerto Rico. I’m duct-taping a Ziploc’d bag containing my seven-year-old daughter’s passport around her naked chest while praying the coroner won’t need it on the morrow. Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4, has stalled overhead. Trees torn from the ridge many miles away to windward have wiped off our spreaders. A motor yacht named Polaris was anchored next to us – still is, only now its twin props are pointed skyward and it is slowing sinking upside down with all its cabin lights crazily ablaze. Weird. Boston Whalers are cart-wheeling above my rig – spewing gas tanks, outboards and seat cushions as they whirl.
It is as if Mother Nature is finally wreaking revenge for all the cruelty we have heaped upon her.
I have to wear a dive mask to see forward and a snorkel to breathe easy – as the wind savagely rips my mouth agape with its force. Once an hour I crawl forward to tend to my seven anchors. This isn’t easy. Returning aft is the worst. I feel like I’m going to be suddenly-peeled off to loo-ward (and certain death) like a leaf.
Each time I pass our daughter Roma Orion sitting on the starboard bunk, I tell her not to worry. So does her mother. Besides the passport duct-taped to her soft flesh, she is wearing a lifejacket and a safety harness. In one hand is a coil of heaving line, in the other a bright strobe light. Afterwards, she tells us, “…about the hundredth time you guys told me not to worry – I knew we were in deep doo-doo!”
I can’t help but grin as I glance at her – I can tell she is having the time of her life, just as I was at that age in that situation. Chip off the ol’ block.
The 68-foot schooner Fly Away does (from her anchors), and gets jammed athwartships across our bows. The boats are eating each other, smashing each other into dust like demented, careening rhinos.
The sound they make as they heavily collide in the hurricane force winds is enough to make you want to rip your hair out.
“Twang!” goes the shrouds as they snap. “Crack!” go the planks as they break. “Bang!” goes the hull-to-deck joint as it suddenly rents open and water starts pouring into Carlotta – directly on top of Roma Orion’s head as she says excitingly, “Can I worry now? Huh? Can I worry now?”
Gilly, the owner and skipper of Fly Away, is crying on the deck of his floundering vessel. I can’t hear him above the wind roar, but I can see him sobbing as if in a silent movie. (I think he is crying because he is losing his boat, and only later learn that his wife Kaye has just died moments ago.)
There is a mentally-dazed grin on my excited face. It is so awesome, so awe inspiring! I can’t stop grinning. We, mankind, are so puny! I feel as if I’m aglow with some intellectual purity, as if the light from a bright fire is reflected on my eager countenance. Our egos make us think we are important, but we are not. Anyone who has ever been in a major offshore gale or a hurricane afloat will tell you this.
My anchors are snapping from the added strain of Fly Away. Suddenly, she disappears. And, amazingly, we are underweigh. We are moving. I grab the helm. The wind gusts are between 120 and 140 knots, according to reports. My engine RPM gauge says my diesel is red-lining, but I can’t hear it or feel any effect.
My speed through the water is 8.4 knots. I have no idea what is around me – only that I am going, going, going. I try to remain calm. Few people get to experience this. I am one. Mother Ocean is in a grand mood. What will be, will be. Fate awaits. The only question is what will be the price?
Suddenly, the port quarter and transom of a huge gleaming mega yacht appears directly in front of me. I throw my body into the tiller and almost miss – almost-but-not-quite.
My 20,000-pound vessel pushes slowly, insistently into its soft aluminum plate, and then rudely inserts itself like a can-opener. The wind catches my transom. I’m levered out. I peel a giant plate out of the portside aft.
She is holed. The mega-yacht is sinking. I see a face through a rain-streaked portlight and we’re gone again into the gloom. I’m giggling. “What was that?” my wife Carolyn is shouting through the companionway. “It’s nothing. Just a $10 million vessel that we just sank.”
Visibility is spotty. Sometimes it is only a few feet; other times many yards.
I suddenly see the line of breakers. Faint at first, they are soon all-too-vivid. They are ugly. The water at the cliff base froths and surges. Rocks glisten. The surf thunders.
Wait! There’s a tree. I steer for the tree and we slide all 20,000 pounds of hull up on the manicured lawn of a condo. Waves are exploding all around me. I feel like I’m in a cinema graphic battle. This must be a movie or an HBO Special. Great effects! I’m watching TV, a silent movie of a too-hokey typhoon.
I grab my daughter. We smile at each other. I hold her in my strong arms and jump calmly into the warm, turbulent water.
We are tossed and turned and tumbled, and suddenly crawling dizzily by the side of an asphalt road.
We watch my wife Carolyn make her way ashore as well.
I promise myself, “Never-ever, never-ever, never-ever again.”
Never again! Never!
And I keep that promise for 20-some years as I circumnavigate the planet twice.
It is easy. Each time hurricane season approaches in one hemisphere, I sail across the equator/Intertropical Convergence Zone to the other. It is dead-simple. My weird storm-strewn past – losing those boats in hurricanes – seems almost impossibly dumb.
I must have been nuts. I’m a sailor, so I sail to safety. I will never, ever make the mistake of being in the hurricane belt again at the wrong time.
Only an idiot would. And I’m not an idiot, right?
But wait a minute. I need a new boat, and boats are really cheap in the Caribbean, especially as the height of storm season approaches. Prices drop daily. I’m right in there, bidding and bargaining and wheeling and dealing.
Great new! I have purchased a new boat for peanuts! I mean, I have gotten an incredibly good buy – or is it?
Once again, I’m in the Caribbean as the height of hurricane season approaches. My new boat isn’t ready to flee. My partially-dismantled old boat isn’t either. I’m stuck. Just like before. A sitting duck – smack dab in the crosshairs of cyclonic fate once again. Only this time, I have TWO uninsured vessels under my command!
And every penny I have ever earned tied up in both.
Like I said, some people never learn!