Heavy Weather Sailing: Remembering Hurricane Mitch
Editor's note: Later this fall I'll be crewing on a boat in the Caribbean 1500 cruising rally, which departs from Hampton, Virginia, on November 7. The prospect has me recalling the last 1500 I sailed in, way back in 1998, when the rally fleet had a serious run-in with Hurricane Mitch. It was a very educational experience. I thought some of you, particularly those sailing south this fall, might find it interesting.
LATER–AFTER TWO BOATS HAD BEEN ABANDONED, after people had been hospitalized, after we finally (and gratefully) reached the safety of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands–Steve Black, who had organized the rally, held a "debriefing" session. This was attended by most of those who had tangled with the erratic, still destructive remnants of Hurricane Mitch. It was very heady stuff. A tent was erected on the marina lawn, and it quickly filled with sailors. Many had stories to tell. Stories of gale-force winds, broken gear, and enormous seas.
Just a few days earlier several of these same people had been neophytes with little or no offshore sailing experience. But now they were all, without doubt, bluewater veterans, and their pride in this–their sense of accomplishment–was very much a tangible thing.
But then one woman got up to tell her story, and for a moment the mood was broken. There was a bit of world weariness and also a trace of exasperation in her voice. "To tell you the truth, we were worried about Mitch from the very beginning," she exclaimed. "If we hadn't been in the rally, we would have never left in the first place."
There was laughter, but it was nervous laughter, for this was a not-so-subtle reminder. Somewhere back there someone made a decision. One man, Steve Black, had gathered all these people together and had ordained from where and when they should start sailing south. Steve was not deflecting any blame, nor was he embracing it. His attitude was clear: this was a risk you accepted when you pointed your bow toward open water, whether you joined his rally or not.
"This is not something anyone would go through willingly," he explained to the crowd. "It's important that sailors have short memories."
From Newport and Hampton
The Caribbean 1500 rally fleet in those days was divided into two groups. That year one fleet of 14 boats had set out from Newport, Rhode Island, which had been the rally's original and sole embarkation point when Steve first launched the event in 1990. These boats, as is customary for any vessel heading south from New England in the fall, stopped in Bermuda before continuing on to Virgin Gorda. The other fleet of 40 boats left from Hampton, Virginia, and attempted to sail there directly.
The great irony of the 1998 rally was that at the outset all the attention and concern had been focused on the Newport fleet. Sailors may have short memories, but everyone remembered well enough what had happened to the Newport contingent during the previous year's rally. For four days the Newport fleet had been caught in 30-knot headwinds. Though none were lost or injured, some very nasty conditions in the Gulf Stream en route to Bermuda had thoroughly demoralized the crews on almost every boat. Critics questioned whether it was wise to run the rally out of New England, and in 1998, as I recall, those of us sailing from Newport certainly cracked a joke or two on noting that Steve, a Newport resident, was sailing aboard his boat with the Hampton fleet.
Steve, of course, was anxious to avoid a repeat of the previous year's drubbing and took great care in deciding when the Newport boats should leave. Though we were scheduled to depart on October 28, he held us back three days to wait for a deep low that had stalled in the Gulf of Maine to start moving offshore. There was a lot of griping at the time, particularly among those who rather liked the idea of being blown across the Gulf Stream by a 30-knot tailwind, but in fact it turned out Steve made a great call.
Indeed, to this day I remember my passage south that year as being one of my best. After the low moved off to the east we had moderate northerlies to carry us to Bermuda, where we arrived in good time to shelter from Mitch. After that storm passed, we jumped out into strong northwesterlies that carried us quickly down to the trades, which filled in early from the northeast. My own passage times, on two different boats, were excellent–four days from Newport to Bermuda and about four and a half from Bermuda to Virgin Gorda. All told I sailed about 1,500 miles in less than nine days, with not one hour of engine time.
In the end all of us in the Newport fleet agreed that conditions had been ideal. Meanwhile, however, the Hampton fleet was having a very different experience.
Consider the meteorological phenomenon that was Mitch. Born south of Jamaica on October 22, 1998, as Tropical Depression 13, by October 26, just four days later, it was the fourth strongest Atlantic storm of the 20th century, a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 180 mph and gusts to 200. Mitch stalled for two days off the north coast of Honduras before grinding into Central America, where it dumped torrential rains and caused flooding and mudslides that killed nearly 10,000 people, the third highest death toll of any Atlantic storm in history. But by November 1, the day the Caribbean 1500 fleet left Hampton, more than 1,800 miles to the north, Mitch had been downgraded to a tropical depression and seemed to be dying fast in the mountains on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.
Tom Allinder of Marine Weather, Inc., who provided the rally fleet with its weather forecasts that year, recalled later that the forecast he issued on November 1 made no mention of Mitch. There was, indeed, no particular reason why it should. "But in a phone call that day with Steve," Tom later told me, "I did mention there was a chance the storm might regenerate."
The next day, November 2, as the Hampton fleet pottered on toward the Virgin Islands in light air, Mitch was officially nonexistent. Then, on the afternoon of November 3, the storm suddenly reappeared over the Bay of Campeche on the west side of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, regained strength, and quickly moved northeast. Over the next 48 hours it covered a distance of about 1,100 miles, crossing the Yucatan, the Gulf of Mexico, and southern Florida. By the afternoon of November 5, when the last official National Hurricane Center advisory was issued, Mitch was extratropical, but still packed 60-mph winds. It was still moving northeast at about 30 knots and had the bulk of the Caribbean 1500 Hampton fleet dead in its sights.
As soon as Mitch regenerated on November 3, Tom Allinder started issuing warnings via e-mail to the fleet, recommending they immediately return to the United States or move to any point southeast of approximately 29 degrees north and 69 degrees west as quickly as possible. Though he received no responses for more than a day, Tom kept sending out forecasts and warnings.
"It was a very difficult situation," he recalled. "I kept wondering what was going on with all those sailboats out there."
Finally, on the night of November 4 and the morning of November 5, Tom started receiving messages back from the fleet. One of these noted that Mitch was starting to become "a source of great concern."
"I just about fell out of my chair," said Tom. "I realized then there was no way they'd get out of the way in time."
Casualties and Tactics
For those of us in Bermuda, Mitch was something of a holiday. We laid out extra anchors and docklines, monitored for chafe and displaced fenders, kicked back, and watched the harbor at St. Georges get swept by 50-knot winds. The storm center passed 60 miles north of the island that morning, November 6, and that evening we had a party at the St. Georges Dinghy Club. In the midst of this celebration, rally apparatchik Davis Murray delivered up the first sobering bits of news from the Hampton fleet.
Circe, a Kadey-Krogen 38, had been abandoned, purportedly because the crew was severely seasick. Kampeska, a Tayana 42, had been dismasted, and her crew was injured, waiting to be airlifted off the boat. At least one boat had turned back to the U.S.; several others were diverting for Bermuda. Only later, at the debriefing in Virgin Gorda, were we able to piece together a more complete picture of what had happened.
Mitch caught the Hampton boats starting at about 6 pm on November 5 and was the dominant factor in their reality into the early hours of the next morning. As the storm approached, boats scattered north and south trying to avoid it, but the bulk of the fleet was caught on the depression's south side, in the "dangerous" semi-circle, and suffered through 50-knot sustained winds, with gusts over 60, for about six hours.
A handful of boats were far enough south that they experienced top wind speeds of less than 30 knots, but the storm's swath was very wide. Boats as far as 180 miles from the storm's center at approximately 30 degrees north, 71 degrees west, experienced gale force winds of 35 knots or better. The storm in fact tracked farther south than forecast, and quite a few skippers who had worked southeast of Tom Allinder's recommended coordinates were surprised by the strength of the wind they encountered.
During the debriefing in Virgin Gorda some skippers complained of "confusing and inconsistent" weather communications, and Steve Black readily acknowledged that this had been a problem. Tom Allinder, as noted, was distressed at not receiving any feedback after he issued his first warnings some 60 hours prior to the storm's striking the fleet. "I can understand being reluctant to recross the Gulf Stream, but I was very surprised more boats didn't follow my advice about returning to the U.S.," he told me later. "I personally thought it was the better option."
Confusing weather information certainly seemed to play a role in the abandoning of Circe. Contrary to early reports, only two of the five people aboard were seasick, and an e-mail account I received later from the boat's owner, Chris Stevenson, suggested instead she was abandoned because weather communications led an already exhausted crew to believe they had been trapped by the storm.
According to Stevenson, during radio chats on November 3 the fleet was urged to move southeast as quickly as possible. On the morning of November 4, Circe and other boats in the northernmost part of the fleet were advised by Steve Black to keep pressing on in that direction. But then that evening, via a secondhand VHF transmission, Stevenson was told he must sail northwest to avoid the storm. Circe, at that point, was beset by strong winds and seas from the northwest, the crew was tired from handsteering, and Stevenson did not believe the boat could make significant progress to windward.
"I considered continuing southeast," Stevenson wrote to me, "but I assumed the advice not to continue that way was well-founded. I went below and tried without success to raise someone on the SSB radio. I then asked my crew to think over our situation and offer independent judgments about our options. No one offered a solution, so I reluctantly introduced the possibility of seeking rescue."
Stevenson lit off Circe's EPIRB that evening, and by 2 am on November 5 he and his crew had abandoned the boat at 32.57 degrees north, 71.05 degrees west, and were aboard National Prestige, a freighter that diverted from the north to meet them. Circe had suffered no damage, and her position at the time she was abandoned was more than 120 miles north of the storm's track, in the "safe" semi-circle, when it reached the area 16 hours later.
Meanwhile, most boats in the fleet chose the much less drastic alternative of heaving to during the worst of the storm and survived in good form.
"It was like a parking lot out there," said Bob Brickman, owner of Peregrine, a Morris 40. "We all just stopped our boats, lay down to rest for a while, then picked up and started sailing again when the wind went down."
A couple of skippers who had no experience heaving to elected not to try it and continued sailing, though they found this tiring in the extreme conditions. Some went ahead and tried it for the first time and were very pleased with the results. The most experienced offshore sailors–Steve Black aboard his Hunter 54 Caribbean was among these–preferred to run off with the storm and pick up easting.
Crews on a handful of boats decided to deploy parachute-style sea anchors, but evidently none were able to recover them again.
"It worked great," said Jim Hagy of the ParaTech gear he used to anchor Blue Devil, his Caliber 38. "Only they never told me when I bought it that the damn thing is disposable."
Hagy explained to me that the small dinghy fender he used as a float on the end of his sea anchor's retrieval trip-line did not have enough windage to blow it downwind of the anchor. Hagy was unable to reach the float from his boat, and in the end had to cut the anchor free to resume sailing. On another boat, Endymion, a Freedom 40, efforts to set a sea anchor were abandoned after the trip-line failed to deploy and the anchor's rode wrapped around the boat's propeller.
The crew on Kampeska, the only boat in the fleet that suffered serious damage, chose to lie a-hull during the storm. This was successful through the worst of the weather during the night of November 5, but at some point the next morning Kampeska was rolled by a rogue wave and dismasted. The skipper, Roy Olson, suffered a severe back injury, and two of the other three crew suffered lacerations and broken ribs. The boat's EPIRB was activated at 6:06 am. Northern Progress, a tanker, and another rally boat, Elixir, a Bristol 41, diverted to her position at 30.75 degrees north, 69.10 degrees west, and stood by until the morning of November 7, when a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter finally arrived to evacuate the crew to a hospital on Bermuda.
One other boat that lay a-hull during the storm–Perseverance, a Tayana 42–fared significantly better. Her owners, Jack and Abbie Fassnacht, decided to adopt the tactic only after they failed to get the boat to heave to, but reported they were relatively comfortable and suffered no damage. During the worst of the storm, Abbie even managed to bake a cherry pie from scratch, an accomplishment that drew vigorous applause at the debriefing in Virgin Gorda.
The Prize List
Somewhere in there, Steve and his staff also managed to keep track of everyone's times. The fastest boat was Aquila, a Santa Cruz 52 belonging to Ken and Janet Slagle of Middletown, Pennsylvania, who took line honors and covered the distance from Hampton to Virgin Gorda in 7 days, 10 hours, 20 minutes. They also won the Tempest Trophy for "best exemplifying the spirit of the rally." Taking first place overall on corrected time was David Heaphy in the Hampton fleet aboard Slow Dancing, an Island Packet 44 hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, and Dick Carleton in the Newport fleet, aboard Smiles, a Caliber 38 from Barrington, Rhode Island.
The more interesting prizes, known as the "Spam Awards," were tongue in cheek. As was the tradition, these were bestowed with great relish by Davis Murray. The most intriguing of these was issued (in abstentia) to Charles Butts, owner of C'est Si Bon, a Peterson 46, "for forgetting to bring food and water and for storing water in his fuel tanks."
According to one crew member who flew down to join the post-rally festivities in Virgin Gorda, C'est Si Bon failed the safety inspection in Hampton, had leaky water tanks on setting out, and was provisioned with only "a couple of bags of groceries" before sailing. During their passage (they sailed independently and were not officially part of the rally fleet), the crew blew out their genoa, lost their engine and generator when the fuel tank was fouled with seawater through a vent, ran out of food and water, and ultimately had to be towed into Bermuda.
Interestingly, Steve Black also received a Spam Award "for forgetting to bring along a chart of the Virgin Islands."
The 1998 Caribbean 1500 rally not only provided the skippers and crews who sailed from Hampton with invaluable heavy-weather experience, it also offered all participants who attended the debriefing in Virgin Gorda a very unique opportunity to compare notes with a large number of sailors who had just experienced the same storm. Here are some of the most important lessons learned:
Tactics: In conditions like these–strong gale force winds that do not rise to "survival" levels–the most successful tactics were to heave to or run off with the storm. Deploying a sea anchor is probably most appropriate in situations where sail cannot be carried at all.
During the debriefing several skippers stated that they wished they had practiced heaving to, or deploying and recovering their sea anchors, prior to the storm. Every boat heaves to differently. Many designs, for example, cannot heave to with a headsail up. It is very important to learn how your boat behaves before you are hard-pressed in heavy weather.
As Kampeska's experience vividly illustrated, lying a-hull entails certain risks. Kampeska's position when she was rolled was close to the track of the storm center, where seas were most confused and most likely to generate breaking rogue waves. In situations like this more active tactics should be used if possible.
Self-steering: By far the most common equipment failure cited at the debriefing were dead autopilots. Only one skipper was able to repair his pilot; the rest were left hand-steering. Electronic autopilots are much more reliable than they used to be, but they are still vulnerable in heavy weather.
Some skippers had installed back-up windvane steering systems, but a few of these had never actually been used prior to the storm. Circe, for example, had a Monitor steering vane, but it was not rigged, and the crew felt unable to set it up in the rough conditions they were experiencing. Obviously, it is best to learn to use your equipment, and to have it prepared for service, before you go offshore.
High-modulus halyards: Many skippers reported problems with badly chafed and broken high-modulus halyards. Several felt that high-modulus line was more susceptible to chafe, especially when run over sheaves with small burrs and imperfections on them, and stated they would inspect their sheaves much more closely in the future.
One skipper claimed his Spectra halyard parted with no evidence of chafe whatsoever. He speculated the failure might have been caused by a "harmonic vibration" created when the line was under tension in high winds.
Full-batten mainsails: A few boats with full-batten mains experienced what their skippers felt was an unacceptable amount of sail chafe where battens rubbed up against shrouds while sailing off the wind. The performance benefits of full-batten sails are undeniable, but it is important to remember they do have some drawbacks. Those with full-batten mains should always consider "tacking downwind" on a series of broad reaches rather than running dead downwind, so that sails can be more easily kept off shrouds. This is particularly important if you have a modern rig with long swept-back spreaders.
Crew selection: Several skippers, particularly less experienced ones, stressed the importance of selecting competent crew. "If not for my crew, I wouldn't be here," was a common refrain. One skipper, meanwhile, complained of a "geriatric crew" that was more a hindrance than a help once the weather turned foul.
Careful effort when choosing shipmates is always rewarded. Try to sail with potential crew before you head offshore, and resist the temptation to fill the boat with inexperienced and unfit friends who are familiar only with the romance, rather than the reality, of bluewater sailing.
Pre-prepared meals: The cooks on many boats prepared meals in advance, and without exception this greatly increased morale aboard when the going got tough. Don't count on being able to bake pies from scratch in heavy weather. It it is easy to serve good hot food in bad conditions, it will be much easier to keep up the crew's strength and spirits.