Beating the Odds
Hurricane season is upon us, and early indications are that we are in for a big one. In these pages we look at ways in which you can prepare for the strong winds and storm surge that come with a hurricane, and a couple who rode out Hurricane Ike in Galveston last year share their story.
Hurricane Ike was supposed to be just another in a steady parade of hurricanes forecast to strike the Gulf of Mexico and track westward during 2008. My wife Cory and I had carefully monitored many of these storms during our three-year stint in Texas, during which we have refitted our Pearson 40 Silver Cloud in preparation for a long-term cruise. It always seemed each storm just missed us. Hurricane Gustav, for example, came ashore a few weeks before Ike as a Category 2 storm in Louisiana, but we hardly felt any of its effects. Ike, however, had already wreaked havoc in Cuba and Haiti and was much larger than Gustav.For six days meteorologists warned that Ike would make landfall about 200 miles west of Galveston, but each day it tracked closer and closer to Galveston, and to Silver Cloud.
Cory and I considered leaving Payco Marina and going east, but we didn’t know of any safe spots in Louisiana. Ike was also so large, more than 450 miles across, that any small “wobble” along its vertical axis could put its center directly over Louisiana. We knew that Payco
Marina had excellent protection from almost all sides — except due west — and had survived several Category 3 hurricanes hits relatively unscathed. So we decided to stay at Payco, prepare as best we could, and ride out the storm aboard. We were confident in our skills and in Silver Cloud’s seaworthiness. She is our home and we knew she would need our help to survive the ordeal.
First we removed all we could from the deck and rig—all canvas, sails, jerry cans, extra sheets and halyards, and so on. Then we filled the water tanks and bought extra provisions. Since most other boatowners in the marina had hauled their vessels, we were able to move to an isolated slip where we wouldn’t have to worry about other boats. Or so we thought.
Our next move was to secure Silver Cloud with 5/8” dock lines to the eight pilings immediately surrounding her. We drilled large-diameter screws partway into the upper section of each piling to prevent our lines from slipping free as the water level rose. We made sure the lines were long enough so that we could add extra scope when the forecast 15- to 20-foot storm surge hit. We also put 3/8” chains around pilings two slips over to either side of Silver Cloud and shackled 5/8” dock lines with thimbles to them. These would serve as our spring lines when the water rose.
In all we had 15 lines securing Silver Cloud to surrounding pilings, and we took care to slip 1” braided water hose, and then fire hose, over each line for chafe protection. Cory and I rested well that night, believing we were well prepared for the tremendous blow that was coming our way.
The day before Ike was forecast to hit Texas, a Thursday, we parked our truck on a nearby bridge and scampered back to Silver Cloud to find the water was quickly rising in Payco Marina. In its computerized monotone voice, the VHF weather channel informed us the storm had shifted again, and that the eye would now pass directly above Galveston and Payco Marina.
Friday morning dawned with a kind of spooky, suspended energy. The wind was already blowing, and we watched as debris started blowing around the marina entrance. Soon we were fending off errant pilings, telephone poles, and even stray boats as the wind grew more intense. For Cory and I, protecting Silver Cloud was our most important mission and we were careful to keep the detritus entering the marina from fouling our dock lines.
According to the VHF, Ike was blowing at hurricane force over a 150-mile radius and was traveling at 10.5 knots. We therefore calculated we would see sustained, very high winds for 18 to 20 hours.
I went topside every half hour to check for chafe and pay out extra line once the wind topped 40 knots. I used our winches to make adjustments when necessary. These trips quickly became physically exhausting, but they were successful in preventing chafe. I continued this drill as long as we still had dock lines.
That evening the anemometer was reading 95+ knots. Looking through the companionway toward the entrance channel where the foot of the Intracoastal bridge normally rises some 25 feet above the water, we could see waves breaking over the bridge. We knew that these waves had only about a 4-mile fetch over a smaller bay on the bridge’s other side. Thankfully, the bridge kept most of the seas and surge from entering our marina, but we knew things were getting serious.
Ike’s eye passed over us at about 0100 Saturday. The already-high water was pulled up about three additional feet by the eye’s low pressure (about 935 mb, according to the radio) over two hours of dead calm. While we were happy to have made it this far, we knew there was an equal amount of punishment waiting for us on Ike’s other side. We were still confident we would emerge from this ordeal relatively unscathed.
When the eye finally passed, the wind surprised us. Instead of clocking to the south — and then to the southwest— as the radio had predicted, the wind now blew hard from the west. This was our worst-case outcome, as we were staring down 17 miles of open water in that direction, with only a thin spit of land to protect us. Sadly, this spit was already under 12 feet of water, and the water level in the marina itself was rising fast.
Ike took less than 15 minutes to build a vicious, breaking chop over a smaller, shallower spit situated 12 feet in front of Silver Cloud’s bow. The waves began smashing boats, docks, vehicles, and buildings. Ten minutes later, all 50 boats that had been orientated westward — excluding Silver Cloud —had either sunk or broken free. The boats that broke free were bulldozed by the 8- to 10-foot seas into massive piles of mashed-up fiberglass, metal, and wood. We still held fast, but the seas were coming over the bow and our dock lines were aggressively sawing away at their chafing gear. I literally couldn’t replace the chafing gear fast enough.
Soon, a 44-foot wooden schooner sank and dragged astern of Silver Cloud, fouling our wind generators and bimini top in its top spreaders. The waves pounded Silver Cloud’s rudder atop the schooner’s deck so violently that we were terrified our rudderstock would break or that Silver Cloud would be holed and sunk.
I decided to deploy two anchors I had prepared prior to Ike’s arrival. This took a full half hour, as I could only crawl along the deck due to the sustained 107-knot winds (according to the anemometer). The air was so thick with flying saltwater breathing was nearly impossible. Once I was confident that the anchors were set
I cut the remaining dock lines. The chains snapped hard as the anchors bit into the bottom of Payco Marina. Mercifully, they gripped and Silver Cloud’s bow was held fast into the wind’s onslaught.
But this wasn’t the end of our trials. Silver Cloud now swung on her anchors into a melee of large trawlers that immediately started bashing against our hull. This continued for the next few hours. As we listened to boats slamming against us, I wondered whether our chain stopper, windlass, and deck would get torn away. I figured now we were goners. Boats, thirty-foot pilings still connected to docks, and big sections of tin roof were smashing into us so hard and so violently I was certain we’d be killed if Silver Cloud sank.