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Old 10-07-1999
John Kretschmer John Kretschmer is offline
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An Encounter with Hurricane Mitch

Deciding when to take off and when not to remains a fundamental problem in sailing. No matter how much we study the weather, listen to expert forecasters and try to get a handle on what the weather is likely to do, the fact remains: You never really know if you've made the right decision until you get out there. Here is a passage I made last fall in which I, once again, learned this lesson.

As most people who live near the coast, I had been closely monitoring Mitch, a mean-spirited, category-5 hurricane that was marauding through the Western Caribbean. Finally, on November 2, after raining death and destruction on Central America, Mitch was downgraded to a depression. His disorganized remains appeared headed for the Gulf of Mexico, which thereby cleared the way for me to cast off.

Lessons Learned from Storm Sailing

1. Remember, the boat does count.
Sound engineering, sturdy construction, and a design that is not too extreme are the most important features in any blue-water boat.

2. Don't assume that weather reports will be accurate.
Forecasting is better than ever but if you are contemplating blue-water sailing, you must get it into your head that weather vagaries are a big part of the equation. Sooner or later you will be caught out and you will need to be able to deal with it.

3. Make your own decisions.
There is no strength in numbers of opinions. The problems that struck the Caribbean 1500 fleet which also encountered Mitch proves that every boat is truly on its own.

4. The most important aspect of storm management is not to overreact.
This goes for both physically and mentally. Once the boat is prepared, i.e., everything is lashed down, make further changes incrementally as conditions dictate. If you reef to the point of bobbing, the sitting-duck mentality sets in and panic is usually not far behind. Keep sailing as long as possible. I know it is hard to realize, especially the first time, but if yours is a well-found boat, a 50-to-60-knot gale is more of an inconvenience than anything else.

5. Be prepared for crew breakdowns.
Seasickness and fear are likely. The skipper's job is not only to keep the boat safe but also to keep spirits up.

6. Guard against chafe.
Nothing causes trouble faster than a chafed furling line. Small adjustments every 30 minutes will usually prevent chafe from becoming a problem.

7. Prepare your boat for heavy weather.
Practice heaving-to before you encounter storm conditions and carry alternatives, like the Gale Sail, to roller-furled sails.

I was delivering a Hylas 46 down island from Ft. Lauderdale. My initial course would be east for a couple of days with a gradual turn to the southeast—my well-worn, 1,000-mile track to the tropics. My crew consisted of her new owners, a husband and wife, who were making their first offshore passage, and a friend from Chicago.

I was certain that the then rapidly weakening storm wouldn't impact us in the slightest. So we cleared Port Everglades on the afternoon of November 3. But when we headed into the Gulf Stream, we found the famous current in an unusual mood, as if on Prozac. It was eerie as we motored across its flat water.

What was going on, I wondered to myself, while not allowing the situation to register the obvious. My friend was back. Like the creep in the movie Dead Calm, Mitch refused to die. A trough of low pressure in the Bay of Campeche had reenergized the system. Mitch had regained tropical storm status near the Yucatan Straits. He had changed his itinerary, veering to the northeast while picking up speed, and Mitch had hastily decided to visit sunny Florida.

On the morning of November 4, boats in the Key West anchorage clocked winds at 60 knots. Later that day, a 73-knot gust was recorded at Fowey Rocks Light off Miami. Then Mitch churned across the Straits of Florida and took aim on the northwest Bahamas. On the morning of November 5, we were northeast of Eluethera Island and just below the track that Mitch would follow that evening.

Seas are the wind's messengers. Soon a pronounced swell rolled in from the south. By noon the winds turned up, as we felt the first outer bands of Mitch. A couple of hours later the winds were blowing at a steady 30 knots with higher gusts. Things were getting interesting. We were flying east under a deep-reefed main and headsail. The ride was becoming progressively worse, as the seas were quickly transformed into powerful ocean rollers, which were impressive to behold.

I got out my trusty short-wave receiver and tuned in the NOAA broadcast. But, in a scene that might have come from a cheap TV movie, at that vary moment a sneaky wave rose up from out of nowhere and sluiced over the receiver. It was just as the forecaster was uttering, "Tropical Storm Mitch has "

I never found out just where Mitch was, and that was probably good. Later I learned that the eye of Mitch had actually passed 65 miles north of us.

The Hylas was not equipped for heavy weather sailing. There were no storm sails, little in the way of spare parts or running gear, no weather cloths above or leecloths below. Most importantly, there was no self-steering system. This translated into long, exposed tricks at the helm.

By 4 in the afternoon, we had steady Force-9 and occasional Force-10 conditions. I continued to shorten sail until the headsail looked like a hand towel. Every time the sail was shortened, we had to readjust the headsail leads. It was tough. Because the seas were predominately beam-on, we kept up a bit more main, mainly for stability. And I prayed that the in-mast furling system would hold up.

While the boat seemed to be handling the conditions, the crew was struggling. One of the owners was seasick and unhappy as she tried to stay put in the aft, centerline, queen bunk which had seemed so appealing at the boat show. My Chicago friend, a fine sailor, had a bad leg from a recent accident and couldn't cope with the wild conditions in the cockpit. The husband did his best to spell me at the helm, but with the steering was tough. It required absolute and total concentration, with no margin for error. Not used to it, he quickly became exhausted.

We had to take advantage of the southerly and the continuing east-southeaster that we had. Despite the conditions, I was determined to make use of the southerly and continue east southeast. Fending waves 60-70 degrees off the starboard bow, we plugged to the southeast.

Chafe is the number one enemy in a blow. Every 30 minutes I adjusted the furling lines of the sails, easing them in or out to prevent chafe. The last thing I wanted was the sudden unveiling of a full sail.

As darkness descended, our heading became more and more difficult to maintain. The deck was often completely awash. I just didn't want to run off. That would have meant losing ground and prolonging our exposure. But we didn't have the energy to steer through the night. Steering off the wind in storm conditions is more demanding than upwind slugging. I decided to heave-to on the starboard tack. After a bit of fine tuning of the sails, we came to lie about 50 degrees off the apparent wind. We created a nice little windward slick, while slowly sliding toward the Virgin Islands. The ride actually became manageable, enough so I could prepare a batch of spaghetti for supper.

The winds peaked around 10 p.m. By midnight the worst was clearly past. The saving grace of tropical systems is that they tend to blow through quickly. At 2 a.m. we were underway again, on course and making seven knots.

At day break, I inspected the boat, the standing and running rigging. We'd lost a clevis pin on the rigid vang. But that was it. We survived our ordeal with Mitch without a scratch.

The Boat Matters

I found that the Hylas 46 demonstrated good seakeeping abilities throughout the storm. I didn't think I would be impressed; but after this experience, I have to admit that I was.

The boat kept her feet in difficult cross seas. In the wild seas, the boat didn't pound as we came onto the wind. With an experienced crew, we would have been able to maintain our course through the night without heaving-to.

When we heaved-to, the boat balanced well, despite the fin and spade underbody. A boat that can heave-to effectively is critical to a blue-water passage-making sailboat.

The boat was not set up for storm sailing, but the standard equipment, from oversized rigging, sheets and winches to Furlex furling systems, stood up. One excellent addition to the boat in our circumstances would have been a Gale Sail (a storm jib manufactured by ATN), which can be flown over a furled headsail.

Despite a lot of green water on deck, there were not many leaks. The galley, which lines the starboard side on the walkway aft, proved very workable in rough conditions. That's important to me because I can put up with just about anything as along as I have a cup of hot coffee waiting for me.

When you trust the boat, you can make better decisions. The Hylas didn't shudder in the blow.