Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Major Hurricane Can Really Mess Up Your Weekend (Matthew)

We’ve dealt with hurricanes before, even major ones. But earlier this month, predictions for Matthew in our area suddenly went from tropical storm force fringes brushing us to a direct hit from a Category 3 or 4. Our marina was in the “mandatory evacuation” zone. We considered riding out the storm in the marina lounge, like we did in the marina in Annapolis during hurricane Sandy a few years ago, but even that sounded dicey given the predictions for Matthew. So we spent the day before the storm alternately looking nervously at the steadily worsening weather forecasts and preparing the boat for the coming storm and evacuation. We’d been through the hurricane prep drill too many times before, sails, bimini and all canvas off, dock lines doubled or tripled, boat moved to the center of the slip and bow turned into the direction of expected wind.

Screen shot of my phone at the height of the storm, showing the eye just off St Augustine

We had turned down our option for a haul out based on the earlier, milder forecast, and now it was too late; given the then-latest forecast of 100-115 mph winds, it was likely we’d return to find our boat-home and all of our possessions at the bottom of the bay. Having no car was a choice that had always seemed practical in the walkable historic downtown, but now it further complicated our evacuation, and left us stunningly vulnerable. No rental cars were available (we tried!) Several friends invited us to stay at their houses outside of the evacuation zone, and even offered to come pick us up to get us there. But that borrowed ride would have room only for the bare essentials, maybe a single suitcase or backpack each. That certainly wouldn’t let us save many possessions, sentimental mementos, family heirlooms, or even the comfort of familiar everyday items. We looked around at what we could take, and the many things we’d have to leave behind, and said a likely goodbye to our floating home of 15 years and everything in it. I never anticipated how scary it would feel to be so dependent, so powerless, as when I put out the panicky call for help to my Facebook friends.

We packed the things that were portable and critical into our backpacks: our passports, ship’s papers, medicines, laptops, the external hard drive with all our family photos and music. Bottled water, cans of tuna, energy bars, flashlights. And a few things for our aching hearts: grandpa’s fountain pen, our crew passes from our two summers on El Galeon, a crystal obelisk my mother had given me in the days before she died, hastily wrapped for protection in a tea towel with a sketch of a great blue heron on it, the towel itself a gift itself from our friend Cathy. Our coffee mugs. A small notebook of handwritten recipes. Toothbrushes and toothpaste, eyeglasses. I bounced back and forth between packing for a weekend visit to friends, and packing the only things we’d have for starting our lives over. I looked at the velvet pouch containing the ashes of our dog Mandy – she would have been frightened of the coming storm, but we had no room. I took photos of the artwork we would have to leave behind, much of it handmade originals, and all with deep significance and sentiment for us.

This photo from the Miami newspaper shows the north (breakwater) dock of our marina, protecting the interior slips from the worst of the storm's force. The breakwater did its job, sacrificing itself in the process, and will take months to fix. At the height of the storm surge the dock came up over the pilings.

We had planned to set sail for a winter in the Keys in less than a month, and the boat was almost ready to go. We had just loaded scuba gear and kayak and scooters out of storage and back aboard. I looked at the lockers full of newly laid-in provisions – foods that would never nourish us, wine we would never use to toast the sunset at anchor. Then I kissed the helm (the beautiful antique bronze wheel we’d found last year to replace the standard modern stainless steel one that the boat had come equipped with) and silently apologized for not having protected her better, adjusted the dock lines one last time, and turned away…

One of the first to respond to our call for help was Adam Morley, a marina neighbor who operates eco-tours from our dock, and is also campaigning for local office. “I’ve been thinking,” he said when he showed up at the dock smiling encouragingly against the blustery gray sky and already-rising wind. “I have a car that I need moved to higher ground for the storm. What if, instead of driving you to your friend's house, I drive you to my house and you can take my car? Solve both our problems at the same time?” I may never know if this was truly an elegantly-crafted win/win solution, or a gracious way to offer more help than we could have expected, while not having it feel so obviously like charity.

What kind of person lends a (rather new and nice) car to someone he doesn’t know well? Maybe someone who really believes people are good and can be trusted. Maybe someone who really wants to help every way he can. By “not know us well,” I mean he had seen us around the dock, we said hi when we passed, we’re members of the same Facebook group for local boaters, and that’s about it; he may or may not have even known our last name! Many people offered rides and places to stay, but the loan of a car was … different, in a rather gigantic way. More empowering at a time when we already were very vulnerable – and from a practical point of view, it allowed last minute errands to better prepare our home (extra docklines!) and the ability to bring more of our possessions to safety as we evacuated.

I knew Adam as an environmental educator, someone who led eco-tours or trash cleanups. But now I was seeing a far more personal side, as we visited a neat, cozy tiny home on a secluded piece of property. The house is powered by 11 huge solar panels, which we helped him remove from the roof in preparation for the storm. The solar panels also charge the all-electric car he loaned us. Living on a sailboat and traveling primarily by wind power ourselves, we really noticed his small eco-footprint. It was inspiring to see him demonstrate how a low-impact lifestyle can work – truly “practicing what he preaches.” I had already appreciated his candidacy based on his strong environmental commitment. Now I could add his personal generosity and caring to the assessment. If it is true, as Malcolm S. Forbes put it, that “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him,” then Adam's help would be a perfect example of pure altruism, because as we joked when he arrived, we can’t even vote for him, because we're not in his district.

The independence and control that came with having access to a car was wonderful. In a few frantic hours we were able to save some of our precious things. We removed many of our possessions, clothing, tools, artwork, scooters, the brass ship’s clock and barometer that were a gift from the former owner, even our nesting pots and pans. Everything was hurriedly, randomly, stuffed into laundry bags, grocery bags, whatever came to hand, and wedged into every available space in the car. When one piece of artwork didn’t release easily from the wall I ripped it off, damaging the frame in the interest of speed. I pulled out my pocketknife to cut the line holding the conch shell we’d found on a Bahamian beach that now acted as a paperweight for a roll of paper towels. If the predicted 100-115 mph winds materialized, we’d feel a bit better with a few familiar things around us as we started over. It was still horrible to contemplate losing our home, but very comforting to realize that we were able to bring almost all of the possessions we valued most with us. This was a totally different frame of mind than when we expected to have only what we could carry in our backpacks, and gave interesting insights into my relationship with my “stuff,” the surprising importance of some possessions. Now that we have streamlined and downsized to fit on the boat and have very few possessions, almost every one of them is significant in some way. Even Mandy’s ashes came along, as we moved things to the car in the rising wind and rain.

One of the silly sentimental items we were able to keep: geckoes in the kitchen are traditionally reputed to bring good luck (probably because they eat the insects!)  This one, purchased when we visited Aruba with my parents in 1997, is glued to the cabin trunk in the galley.

Friend and fellow boat-owner Rachel had invited us to stay with her and her boyfriend in her large house just about 5 miles south of town. Her two sons and their friend would be there as well, as their school was also being evacuated. It would be a bit of a house party, although a stressful one, and we could keep each other’s’ spirits balanced. The three guys were deaf, and I’d be curious to learn about sign language and their way of communicating – another way of keeping my mind off the storm.

We piled our possessions in a sad little pile in the corner of her garage and she showed us to a lovely guest room so surrounded by branches that it felt like a child’s tree house. My logical brain was worried about limbs falling on the roof; my creative brain was enchanted. We spent the next 3 days drinking far too much beer, obsessively tracking the storm path on our cellphones, and (in my case) learning ASL. It was quite amazing! I learned basic politeness words (please, thank you, good morning, good night), and the priorities (eat, beer). They invented a sign for me that is my first initial (J, a pinky tracing a hook in midair), followed by a gesture invoking the lock of blue-dyed hair at my forehead. Oh yeah, and I also learned the sign for "hurricane" -- two "H"s swirling around each other. This hand language is half practicality and half pure poetry; Dan called it “ballet of hands.” I really enjoyed the chance to communicate with more humans, and get a different insight into their way of seeing the world.

In our private moments, chatting over coffee we were drinking from our comfortingly salvaged favourite coffee mugs, the two of us thought about what to do next, if we really lost the boat and everything but the small pile of possessions in the corner of Rachel’s garage. We talked about getting another boat, maybe a different kind, smaller and more agile; and then wondered if we’d always be making comparisons to Cinderella. We considered going back aboard the Galeon, where our truly homeless state would be an advantage. Nothing left behind to worry about while we travelled with them, and not paying rent or many other bills would let us rebuild finances quickly. Maybe we’d get an RV and do some land traveling for a while, the Rocky Mountains or the great American desert. Maybe we’d try house- and pet-sitting like our friends on Roaming About are doing. Or we’d just rent a furnished apartment. Where would we want to live? The possibilities were daunting in a way we hadn’t felt since choosing a major in college. What did we want the rest of our lives to look like, if we didn’t have our current track?

Our ship's barometer shows the massive pressure drop at the eye's nearest approach.

The four of us spent the actual storm day on the patio, the sheltered side of the house, chatting idly and watching tree branches break. It was hard to stay focused on anything, reading was pretty much out of the question (or, more correctly, remembering what I read.) We all had our cellphones and tablets and checked the weather every time a hurricane update was issued. I was heartened when the newest prediction was for 70-90 mph winds. You know it’s bad when 70-90 is “good” news. Well, it was good compared to the previous 100-115! I was pretty certain that the marina could survive that level, and confident with the way we had prepared, that the boat would too.

Amazingly, by evening it was all over; the wind died down and the sun came out. We went for a walk through the neighborhood, not that anyone was leaving any time soon; a giant tree had fallen across the main road and we had no word on whether the flood waters had yet receded down town. Neighbors were coming out to their houses to chat and compare notes on damages; most initial assessments were that here at least, it was fairly minor.

No one's driving down this road any time soon!

The car that saved our sanity. I was so taken by the irony of the model name, "Leaf," surrounded by the fallen leaves and twigs.
The guys saw what I was amused by, and staged this photo, dragging limbs from all over the driveway to surround the car.

The next morning Rachel and Charles took their bikes to downtown to check on our boats. They sent us a text that set us cheering; a photo of our boat sitting quietly in our slip, lit by the morning sunshine as though nothing had ever happened. But our relief was quickly tempered when they told us that at the moorings where their two boats had been, was just empty water. An hour or so later they found the boats, washed up on land and damaged beyond repair.

The marina, the entire historic downtown area, was still closed to returning evacuees but even if it had been open we would have stayed the extra night at our friends’ house to hang out and just offer what support we could as they processed their loss. Not that there was much we had to offer, from our comfortable vantage of knowing our own boat had survived. We held what amounted to an Irish wake for s/v Polaris and s/v In2the Wind. Stories of past trips with their beloved boats were shared; we laughed, cried, and drank a lot of beer.

Finally, the next day we were allowed to return. We packed our possessions back into Adam’s borrowed car and set out for home. The weather was flawless, as though the hurricane had sucked all the bad weather out and there was nothing left but beautiful blue skies and mild, dry breezes. Damage was widespread, but unpredictable. One building looked nearly destroyed, the one next to it seemingly unaffected. Some houses were disasters, others were merely mildly inconvenienced. The same at the marina; all the boats were still floating, but damage was unpredictable. The strong wind (our neighbor clocked 85 mph) had blown our radar reflectors off the rigging and broken the anchor light at the top of the mast. Our short waterline length – at 33 feet overall and 25 foot waterline we are small for a cruising boat by modern standards – combined with waves of just the wrong period had us hobbyhorsing violently in the slip and broken two docklines. Our bow slammed the finger pier on the other side of the slip, but we did more damage to the dock than the dock did to us. Other boats that had done less preparation had no damage, different hull configuration, different location in the current, different windage, who knows? That’s luck. You can influence, but not control, everything in life.

The rest was, happily, anticlimactic. It all proved exactly what our sailing mentor David had taught us many years ago. “It takes four days to have a hurricane on a boat: a day to get ready, a day to have the storm, a day to rest up, and a day to put things back together. And that’s if there’s no damage!” It took us exactly that. On Day 4 we returned Adam’s car and gradually put things back in their places. We watched the flooded historic downtown come back surprisingly quickly, and had a celebratory beer at our local bar the moment they reopened. As for the damage repairs, a single tube of PC-11 and some paint fixed the damage to the hull, and three trips up the mast replaced the radar reflectors and rewired the anchor light. We decided to give it a few weeks for the Coast Guard and local captains to assess the situation on the ICW and the inlets, whether the channels had changed and where buoys were moved off-station by the storm. And studying those reports it seems that pretty much right on our original schedule we’ll be ready to sail south for the winter. Remember what I said earlier about luck? We had it!

Damage to Cinderella's bow -- good thing we have a very thick hull!

But as I mentioned, we did more damage to the dock than the dock did to us! This is the other side of our slip. The marina also had cracked concrete, twisted finger piers, broken dock boxes.

Putting things back together: Dan in the rigging replacing the radar reflectors


  1. Wow what a time it must have been. I know sign language and it is indeed a beautiful language. Glad you had the opportunity to learn some and interact with the deaf. So glad your boat was saved.

  2. Thank you! Our adventure continues...