Hurricane Floyd conducted many a sailmaker's symphony on its way up the coast—a nerve-wracking sound accompanying the demise of a sail flogged to pieces.
We cruise for pleasure and adventure and dislike being cold, wet, and frightened. During our 70,000 miles of voyaging in our Beneteau First 38 Bagheera
, we have never been in risky areas during the dangerous weather season; but the memory of two near-misses with cyclones during the supposedly safe season in Australia and the Indian Ocean always keeps us on the alert. Hurricane Floyd first came to our notice in early September 1999 when we were cruising the Atlantic coast of Canada, preparing to head south to the Chesapeake. Hurricane Floyd was soon showing the potential to be one of the biggest hurricanes in years, forcing us to keep a wary eye on the weatherfax pictures of its progress.
A pleasant, 12-knot northwesterly breeze met our departure from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia for Marblehead, MA. Hurricane Floyd was then still west of the Bahamas, but growing into a category-four hurricane three times larger in area than Hurricane Andrew, which had devastated the Florida coast in 1992. Massive evacuations along the US East Coast heightened our concerns, as did the predictions that Floyd would turn north and east, threatening the entire coast from Florida to Nova Scotia.
After an easy, 60-hour passage we arrived in Marblehead and cleared with customs to find the harbor crammed with yachts on their moorings. There was no room to anchor, and the anchorage was exposed to the northeast. By this time Floyd was punishing the northern Bahamas with winds of 135 knots, gusting to 165 knots, producing towering 36-foot seas. We asked around for a good hurricane hole. "Don't worry," the local sentiment went, "We never get hurricanes here." Given the unpredictable nature of these storms, we were not entirely convinced, and noticing fishermen pouring into the harbor with their boats piled high with pots bolstered our sense of urgency. With two days left to find a suitable haven, we left Marblehead and headed for Boston Harbor.
A cat's cradle in a well-constructed marina is one way to ride out the storm.
Our confidence that there would be ample room for visitors was soon put to the test. Marinas were trying to clear boats out rather than check in transients, and every travelift in the area was working overtime. We moored downtown and rushed to the offices of SAIL
"A hurricane hole in Boston?" exclaimed editor Patience Wales, "That is not a usual request!" Instantly rising to the situation, she called Webb Chiles, four-time circumnavigator and liveaboard at the Constitution Marina. He went to bat for us at the marina office and, with some reluctance, the marina allowed us in.
By now, Floyd was continuing to create havoc up the coast. There was some speculation that the hurricane might turn out to sea at Cape Cod, but if it continued on its present course it would hit Boston the following night.
Boat owners and marina staff went into a frenzy of activity. Bagheera was on the end of the dock so we set two large anchors—our usual 33-pound main anchor, which had 300 feet of 3/16-inch chain, and a 45-pound CQR on 80 feet of chain and 300 feet of 3/4-inch octoplait line—from the bow to the north and east, the most exposed directions. We also carry a 44-pound storm anchor and a 22-pound Danforth kedge weights. Being in a double slip with no neighbors, we were able to weave a web of nylon lines that kept us sprung from the docks all around. These docks were secured by heavy chains and anchors rather than piles, so there was plenty of give to the swell and no danger of the floats being lifted off the piles by the expected storm surge. We remembered well the damage inflicted in Bundaberg, Australia, where a cyclone had created such a surge—over twelve feet high—that docks, complete with boats, were lifted off the piles and driven ashore.
There's plenty to set and stow in the face of a hurricane.
The morning was spent removing sails, lines, cockpit cushions, and gear and stowing everything below. Halyards were wrapped around shrouds, flags were struck, the bimini came down, bilge pumps were checked, and the steering gear was locked.
The local TV station was broadcasting information on Floyd's destructive progress on a full-time basis, and it appeared that the eye would pass right over Boston at about 2:00 in the morning. During the afternoon, the atmosphere in the marina became tense as the barometer plunged and teeming rain caused an instant flood in the parking lot and surrounding roads. The winds continued to rise and it became increasingly difficult to walk safely down the slick, windswept dock.
It's a lot easier to take down the genoa before it is blown to tatters and wraps around the headstay in hurricane-force winds. Plus, you can still use it later.
Expecting to have a sleepless night, Andy catnapped for much of the afternoon. I phoned friends in Annapolis, MD. Winds there were at 50 knots, but all was well in the marina in Back Creek. After a final check on the boat, we went to bed after sunset. Minimum winds were at 25 knots, with strong "bullets" that whipped through at 40.
Years aboard have made us very sensitive to changes in conditions, so we were not concerned that we would be caught asleep if the wind increased to dangerous levels. Prepared for the worse, it was with surprise that we woke at 2:00 in the morning to find that, while the wind was now blowing a full gale, few gusts exceeded 50 knots, and there was no wave action. The next time we woke it was dawn and the storm had passed. What had happened?
It appeared that our haven was in a great spot. The eye did indeed pass right over Boston, and the steep drop in pressure displayed on our barograph had been followed by an equally steep rise, displaying an impressive 33-millibar spread. Exposed areas close to us, particularly at the nearby airport, had experienced storm-force winds. We were lucky that our marina was directly downwind of downtown Boston, so we were sheltered by its high-rise buildings as the hurricane approached, and subsequently by the industrial and residential buildings to the north of the marina when the wind switched around behind the eye. This, coupled with being at the bottom of a nine-foot tide at the time of maximum wind, gave us complete shelter from damaging wind and wave forces.
The following morning we spent recovering anchors and replacing stowed gear. Our plan was to find an anchorage for the night some miles away at the entrance to the bay in readiness for a dawn departure for Cape Cod. While we knew that there was still some strength in the wind, we were surprised nonetheless by its vigor when we cleared the shelter of the inner harbor and found ourselves surfing under bare poles from gusts exceeding 50 knots. It was a relief to tuck in behind an island at dusk and find good holding ground.
When Bagheera headed out the next morning, all signs of the storm had vanished and we motored south on a glassy sea. As we stopped at various anchorages, it was obvious that most boat owners had taken Floyd seriously. Everywhere we found boats hauled or stripped of gear as a precaution, although we did see several sunken dinghies and many furling genoas in tatters.
In spite of satellite surveillance and many years of research, meteorologists are still unable to predict with certainty the path and strength of one of these super-storms and largely rely on the historical behavior of previous hurricanes. As several of the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean have proved, these storms can follow erratic paths. It is therefore important that cruisers make an early decision to sail to a good hurricane hole or out of the hurricane belt.
When winds associated with a tropical depression reach gale force, 34 knots or more, a name is given to the depression. Above 48 knots the depression graduates to a tropical storm, and at 64 knots it becomes a hurricane, categorized from one to five, the latter being the strongest.
The term hurricane is used in the Americas. In the China Seas they are called typhoons, and in Australia and the Indian Ocean they are known as cyclones. They are usually seasonal: in the Northern Hemisphere, between June and November, and in the Southern Hemisphere, from November to June. It is unusual to encounter them within five degrees of the equator.
DANGERS AT SEA
The dangers to vessels from hurricanes are mainly from the huge, breaking seas built up by the winds that can engulf small craft. A storm surge, seeming like an abnormally high tide, usually accompanies a hurricane as it approaches land. Surges of over 10 feet are not uncommon and can cause huge flooding, especially if they coincide with a high tide.
If threatened by hurricane-force winds while at anchor, it is prudent to leave the boat and seek refuge ashore. A common danger in a crowded anchorage is boats dragging, damaging other vessels and putting lives at risk. The extreme flooding is also of significance to the safety of cruisers, whether at anchor or at the dock. After Floyd, the Neuse River, located in NC, was reported to be 28 feet above normal.
Although in our case extreme preparations had proved unnecessary, it was a good exercise in stripping the deck and also a reminder that one can never ignore the possibility of strong winds, or expect facilities to be available, even in a major center.
Experts now predict an increase in hurricanes due to global warming. "We lived in Antigua for nearly 40 years with no hurricanes," friends told us recently, "and now in the last 10 years, there have been direct hits from three and a close brush with a fourth, well after the Caribbean hurricane season should normally have ended."
Hurricane Floyd reinforced the need to be out of the hurricane area during the bad weather season (something most insurance companies demand) and the necessity of a long-distance radio (or at least a short-wave receiver with SSB capabilities) for receiving weather information.