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Hurricane Sandy: Come Hell and High Water

The wind was howling, the tall, young trees outside the motel window roared as they whipped from side to side, and the sturdy building shook nervously.
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The wind was howling, the tall, young trees outside the motel window roared as they whipped from side to side, and the sturdy building shook nervously. With no television or radio to tell us of the storm’s progress, no heat, no lights, no hot food or drink, we sat on the grimy bed, trying not to imagine what a beating our 40-foot Van de Stadt aluminium pilot house sloop, Folly, might be suffering. It was a long vigil during which we had plenty of time to reflect on how we’d ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Narragansett Bay had proved to be a pleasant enough place to cruise in early autumn, but Folly is a warmwater girl, and when the frosts nipped, we hastened our way west. Early on we were able to breath a sigh of relief as Hurricane Rafael headed east of Bermuda. But soon afterward, as we were sailing toward Long Island Sound and looking in vain for a weather window to make an offshore passage direct to the Chesapeake, we were dismayed to learn of yet another tropical depression named Sandy. 

The following morning we made sure to check in with the National Hurricane Center for a forecast before setting sail from Atlantic Highland, New Jersey. We also checked in with passageweather.com, which gave us an extended outlook for the area’s wind and seas that didn’t look good. This hellcat was definitely coming our way. Still at anchor, we scoured our charts and cruising guides with a growing sense of desperation, searching for a place to ride out the storm.

First and foremost, the Chesapeake would have to wait, since Sandy was predicted to make landfall just north of the mouth of the Delaware River. Already, a strong southeasterly swell was building around Hatteras, and the calm weather before the storm would mean a 250-mile motor trip, during which any kind of engine failure would leave us a stationary target. We also dismissed a number of other alternatives as either too exposed or impassable due to fixed bridges or shallow waters.

Ultimately, Great Kills Harbour, on the southeast side of Staten Island, looked like our best bet. In the western part of Raritan Bay, below New York Harbor, its circular basin with a shallow, twisting, southwest-facing entrance would offer considerable protection.

Over the next few days, the forecasts vacillated between predictions of 30 to 60 knots of wind, a landfall anywhere from the Delmarva Peninsula to Nantucket, and seas of three to 30 feet. Some of the forecasts even showed Sandy heading back out into the Atlantic, deflected like a pool ball off Cape Hatteras. Every few hours, we updated and refined our plans as the National Hurricane Center broadcast a new position, strength and track.

By Friday, we decided it wouldn’t be realistic to try and ride out the storm at anchor or on a mooring. We had also walked around the marinas the previous day and decided that Nichols on the east side was the most protected. When the staff told us they were no longer taking transients, we hastily phoned our Plan B, Atlantis Marina on the west side of the harbor, which had plenty of room. It wasn’t our first choice, but our options were slim. 

In the calm of early Saturday we took Folly into her allocated berth. “I’ve been here 16 years, and the water has never come over the dock, even in Hurricane Irene,” one of the staff reassured us as we prepped Folly. At the next high water we measured the height of the pilings to which the floating docks were attached—seven feet of clearance before the docks would float off. The marina was relatively new, well-organized and well-maintained. This was the best we could do. We would just have to prepare Folly as well as we could, and then see what happened.

We worked busily securing Folly and stripping her down, removing the furling genoa, bimini and dodger, and pulling the mainsail completely into the in-mast reefing slot. Next, we stripped off anything that could be whipped away by the wind, and taped cables and stowed sheets. We also made sure that Folly was full of food, water and fuel. Many boats were urgently being hauled and a local who had lived aboard for 20 years brought his 42-foot sailboat to the lee of the dock a few slips down from us for protection from the expected north-easterlies. 

On Sunday morning, the forecast put Sandy’s landfall a little south of us on the New Jersey coast late the next day. Hurricane force winds extended 175 miles out from her center—the storm was now huge, more than 1,000 miles across. We had withstood 70 knots when we stayed onboard through Hurricane Isabel in the Chesapeake in 2003. How we wished we were there now! 

Our dock was alive with activity as sail and powerboat owners alike secured their vessels. We doubled our lines, re-checked our preparations and talked to the neighboring owners who were planning to stay on board, many of whom had homes ashore to which they could retreat. New York City’s mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation of all coastal areas because of the expected major flooding. The more we saw of “Frankenstorm” Sandy, the more we were convinced that we would be risking our lives if we were on board when she hit.

As the day progressed, the wind built steadily out of the north-northeast, until it was blowing a sustained 18 knots. We were now hearing storm surge predictions of 11 feet. In a daze, we began a search for a nearby motel that would not be at risk of flooding. 

As we did so we also had to decide what to take from Folly, knowing we might very well lose her. In the end we took not what was most valuable so much as what was irreplaceable—journals, sketchbooks, photographs, our record of the 13 years and 54,000 miles of voyaging around the world. Knowing we might soon be isolated in our motel with no power and no access to food or water, we also took important documents, warm clothes and flashlights. After that we turned off the propane, closed the seacocks, switched off the battery and engine isolator switches, and secured all the hatches, portholes and dorade vents. Dogmatically, we followed our must-do list, at the back of our minds hoping we were being overly cautious and that in a couple of days we would be able to get back on board Folly and head south. Finally, we locked Folly’s companionway, checked her lines one last time, and lugged our supplies to the waiting taxi. 

Monday felt endless as we waited for Sandy’s landfall, which was predicted for 2000 hours. We watched news of the devastation on the television until the power went off. It was almost a relief to not have to listen to anything more than the wind and rain. Never has a night of pure darkness, whipped up into such a frenzy, seemed so interminable.

Early Tuesday morning, the frustration of being isolated got to be too much, so we set off to walk the five miles to Great Kills Harbor. Surprisingly little damage was visible until we reached the shoreline road, where sightseers were driving the length of the island, gaping at the wrecked boats thrust upon dry land.

“Great Kills Harbour—you have a boat there? Sorry mate, there aren’t hardly any boats in the water there now. Best of luck to you,” we heard somebody say.

As we numbly made our way toward Atlantis, we spotted a familiar mast reaching skyward at a strange angle. Twin backstays, swept-back spreaders, Nexus wind instrument: it was Folly, we were sure. Scrambling through a makeshift barricade of trestles and yellow tape, we clambered over debris until our boat came into view. We were horrified to see that what we later learned was a 15-foot storm surge and 90mph gusting winds, had picked up the whole marina dock complex, complete with boats, and deposited it on the neighboring marina’s hardstanding grounds, bowling over the vessels like ninepins.

Folly was now lying at a 45 degree angle on her port beam, and while we had initially assumed she was a wreck, a quick check showed remarkably little damage. We looked inside—she hadn’t taken on any water. John examined the hull and found a small hole where she had landed on a boat stand. She also had damage to the aft edge of the keel and possible damage to the steering cables. Beyond that, though, she looked pretty good. The cost and complexity of building Folly in aluminium had proven to be a good decision. 

“We built her, we’ll fix her,” John said, as we both resolved to ultimately make this tale one of triumph over adversity.

 Eight months later, Folly is afloat in Georgia, although our resolve was tested yet again in Staten Island when she slipped in the lift cradle, breaking her mast beyond repair.

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