Sunday, January 22, 2017

1979 (7) - Hurricanes

Hurricane Hole

To go to the beginning of this book, Tropic Moon: Memories, click HERE.

We spent our first hurricane season in the Virgin Islands.  It's a time when people keep a careful ear tuned to the weather reports.  With plenty of warning of a major hurricane making its way across the Atlantic, we left Tortola in the British Virgin Islands to sail to Hurricane Hole on St. John in the U.S. Virgins.  Hurricane Hole, divinely designed with yachts and hurricanes in mind, goes well inland with several small, narrow inlets.  There are no beaches in the inlets.  The deep water goes right up to the shores, which quickly climb into hills covered with cacti, and footed with mangrove trees.  Because of the protection afforded by the bay, the water stays calm; seas and waves are little problem.  Boats need only safeguard themselves against the strong winds, which some people felt were intensified by a funneling effect through the inlets.

We awaited our first hurricane with justifiable nervousness.  Hurricane David, reported on hourly over the radio, was being billed as "the worst hurricane of the century."  Yachts arrived from all the nearby islands.  We estimated over 100 boats sharing the anchorage with us.  On arriving at Hurricane Hole, we followed the example of those who had gotten there before us.  We picked a spot close in to the shore in one of the inlets.  We set out three anchors, as well as a couple of "tree anchors" (commonly known as "lines to shore").  The bay looked like giant spiders had invaded, spinning great white webs, trapping the boats with strands that ran to the shores, and every which way through the water.

There were times when I felt it a rather ominous place, especially when Ed went into shore by dinghy to set our tree anchors, and disappeared into the bushes for what seemed an eternity.  Once he stepped on a spiny sea urchin that imbedded two of its quills into Ed's ankle.  We followed some advice we had heard, and treated it with a home remedy - urine.  Despite dire warnings, his foot didn't swell, and gave him very little pain.  Another time Ed returned to the boat with his back covered with scratches.  I asked him if he had met some wild woman in the bushes.  He attributed the scratches to a run-in with a cactus.

Hurricane David passed 110 miles south of us with winds at the storm center of 150 mph.  We had gales in our area with winds of 70-80 mph.  David was due to be its closest to us at 2:00 a.m. - naturally it would be in the middle of the night - so we stood watches during the night to make sure we didn't drag anchor, or get into any other trouble.  I stayed up till midnight, alternating between two good viewing spots, and eating a bag of Hershey's chocolate kisses to help keep me awake.  Ed got up at midnight and stood watch till 5:30 a.m.

With David moving off to the west, everyone tuned in to the weather station for an 'all clear' - only to learn that Hurricane Frederick was on his way.  We all stayed put, did some visiting between boats, and waited expectantly for our second hurricane in less than two weeks.  Hurricane Frederick did most of its damage as it passed over St. Maarten.  Philipsburg, the capital of St. Maarten, is a long, narrow town of three streets, bordered in front by Great Bay, the principal anchorage, and in the rear by the Great Salt Pond.  During Frederick the two bodies of water merged, flooding out Philipsburg with water, mud and sewage.  The situation was worsened by the fact that the Salt Pond was the local garbage dump with landfill as an aim, and all the garbage moved back into town.

Sunnie, a friend from home in Ann Arbor, who had visited us in Grenada, was living and working on St. Maarten at the time of Frederick.  She later told us how she and a friend, Joanie, abandoned the houseboat where she lived, and moved up to a house in the hills belonging to a fellow named James.  In the middle of the night, at the height of the hurricane, after several Bloody Marys, when the electricity and water had both stopped working, they decided to test the phone lines and called James, who was in Antigua.  The phone connection was excellent (a rare occurrence), they passed out after the call, and James stayed awake the rest of the night worrying about them.

Hurricane Frederick, by the time it reached the Virgins - while it apparently went by right overhead - was a weakening storm that got degraded from "hurricane" to "tropical storm."  It was carrying 65 mph winds.  Balancing the strength and distance of David, with the nearness and lesser strength of Frederick, they both had pretty much the same effect on us.  We had gales with heavy gusting winds, the storms themselves followed by a couple days of torrential rains.

Kalizma (the fancy motor yacht we knew in Grenada), showed up at Hurricane Hole.  Kalizma had to stay out in the larger bay because she took up so much room.  We monitored the doings around the anchorage by listening to our VHF radio.  Kalizma had more trouble with the winds where she was.  She was also having trouble with one of her engines, which she had kept running to avoid putting too much stress on her anchors.  She left after David; we don't know where she was for Frederick.  The only damage we heard about was one boat, Arabelle, who must have broken free.  She was across the bay on the rocks, a total wreck.  She went during David.

When the last of the bad weather had passed, we took a day to dry out before returning to Tortola.  Tropic Moon looked like a floating laundry with carpeting draped over the cockpit table and wheel, foul weather gear swinging from the mizzen boom, and towels and clothing pinned to the safety lines.  It was a relief to be able to open ports and hatches again, and air and dry out the boat after being cooped up for so many days.

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