I’ve always been fascinated by hurricanes. My father’s tales of the devastating effects of the hurricane of ’38, and the subsequent witnessing of these tropically born monsters hitting the Long Island coast have drawn me ever closer to their fury.
Last August, when Irene came to Long Island, I drove to Smithtown where I keep Windchaser, my 30ft S2 center-cockpit sloop. As high tide approached, I hiked through the woods and over the dune, a mile or so to cross the flooded parking lot. There, I watched the gangways rise into the air like giant cranes lifted by the 4-foot surge. Windchaser was there, poised precariously between the pilings where I had diligently lashed her, swaying violently but weathering the storm. I climbed aboard and nestled into the starboard settee where I proceeded to nap through the height of Irene.
When Sandy came around this year, I was once again drawn to Windchaser. I recognize that plenty of advisors cautioned against this, but mariners have chosen for centuries to ride out storms aboard. Besides, my alternative accommodations were an 1833 carriage house with a 90ft rotting walnut tree beside it. The tree had been wired up after crashing into the cottage during Gloria in the early ’80s and it looked awfully ready to give the cottage another whack.
Venturing down to my little ship, I replayed these thoughts in my head to rationalize my seemingly unwise decision to stay aboard. Radio reports of the doomed HMS Bounty foundering off the Carolina coast brought plenty of doubt, but I marched on through the wind, sand and rain, as if on a pilgrimage. I soon learned that the Smithtown Bay Constable, Charlie, would be riding out the storm on the second story of the adjacent Harbormaster’s office, so I knew I’d have refuge if needed.
With all this in mind, I spent the evening along with George and Jimmy, two of my marina buddies, lashing and re-lashing the boats to pilings, the floating docks to the bulkhead and fenderboards to the sides, in hopes of beating Mother Nature. We removed all the sails and canvas, charged the batteries and calculated the tides so when Monday came there was nothing left to do but climb aboard, wait, watch and listen while Sandy rolled in.
But Sandy was no Irene. Forecasters predicted another “Perfect Storm,” with potentially the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in her eye as she approached the Northeast and collided with a Nor’easter coming in from the west. While only a category 1 hurricane, with sustained winds in the 74- to 80-mile per hour range, the storm was immense. “Sandy” had over a 500-mile radius. It would take a commercial airliner 2.5 hours to fly from one end of her to the other. The winds of this storm could last for over 16 hours and the tidal surge, due to the already astronomically higher-than-average full moon tide, was predicted to break records. Sandy would not soon be forgotten. Riding her out was likely to involve more than a nap in the settee. I needed to be prepared to hunker down for a rough ride, even if it meant abandoning ship.
Monday morning arrived with increasingly foreboding predictions of coastal doom. I had a morning business meeting that I could not miss, so I arrived at Windchaser in time for the first of the two high tides expected during the storm. Approaching the Long Beach entrance, I was confronted with several other ambitious salts attempting to get a view of Sandy as she built strength. One by one they turned back from the rising water’s edge, mumbling “You’ll need SCUBA gear to get anywhere near the boats,” or “Forget it. You’ll never get through.”
Undaunted, I donned my foulies and started through the woods. With the wind building and branches cracking, I made my way over the dune, while others shook their heads in dismay.
When I reached the top of the dune, I could see the frothy white foam of Smithtown Bay on one side and the boats in the Head of the Harbor mooring field being tossed about like toys on the other. The wind was building at a steady 30 knots with gusts to 50. Off in the distance, seeking shelter from the East behind Crane’s Neck, I could faintly make out a tanker through the rain and sea spray. I thought back to this hike last year during Irene, when I’d seen a small Piping Plover Tern struggling at the water’s edge. I wondered if the little bird had survived. This year, the tanker seemed equally as vulnerable. I lumbered down the beach, wind, sand and salt spray pelting my face, increasingly exhausted, but all the more enthralled.
Crossing over the dune at Little Africa Park, I was met with the harrowing view of the marina parking lot flooded with three feet of water. Gangways were rising and boats were above the rail. I braced myself for the inevitable trek through the water to the docks to access the boat. That’s when I saw another idiot. (I mean, who else would attempt such a foolish venture?) I had to meet this guy. We shook hands, discussed our boats’ predicaments and exchanged phone numbers. Steve would call me later for an update on his boat, as he was not about to stay aboard in his cuddy cabin.
The tide rose and I climbed aboard Windchaser knowing full well the worst was yet to come. The evening tide would be the killer. I hunkered down and watched the tide lower enough to dry out the parking lot, but dead-low went no lower than an average high tide. I texted George: “Docks level with parking lot @ dead-low. Not looking good.”
The building easterly winds were driving the surge into Long Island Sound and up Porpoise Channel right into the marina basin. The full moon was sucking the water to the shore like a vacuum. The lowering of the tide is usually 6 feet in this area, but today it had only receded 3 feet and high tide was at least 3 feet above normal. I was expecting the worst at around midnight when the surge would bring the floating docks over the poles if the lines we’d tied didn’t hold.
Throughout the day the winds built to 40 knots, then 50 with gusts to 70. There were 3- to 4-foot white caps in the basin. Sailboats were healed 10, 15, then 30 degrees. At dead-low I started the long walk back to move my car to the berm in Little Africa Park for the night. I was more concerned about trees falling on it than the tide rising that high, but I still wasn’t sure it would stay dry. On the way, I ran across a fellow my age evacuating his home east of the marina. He stopped and asked, “Would you like a lift, sir?” Though grateful for the lift, I felt taken aback by the “sir” reference. We were the same age. Was this an expression of respect for my efforts or did he just think I was an old guy?
Back at Windchaser, the easterly wind whipped up the basin, churning the water as it steadily rose. I adjusted my lines and checked Steve’s boat, too. His portside bow line, too short for the exceptionally high tide, was starting to pull his bow under. I feared it would rip out his bow cleat, pull his bow under or, worst yet, pull the piling out. I considered rigging a longer line, but refrained for fear of losing the boat under the force of the howling wind. I monitored the boat throughout the night. George’s starboard fenderboard had let go and his toerail was chafing badly on the piling. I re-rigged a new line and braced against the pole with my feet to jockey the board into place.
Around 2200 hours, I decided to pay Charlie a visit in the Harbormaster’s office. While wading around the flooded parking lot in the dark, unsuccessfully attempting to take pictures of the carnage with my cell phone, a searchlight from the office shone down on me.
“You’re making me nervous,” said Charlie, so I stomped upstairs soaking wet, where Charlie graciously welcomed me to dry off for a while. We chatted about the storm when Acting Harbor Master Gilligan called in to offer to relieve Charlie for the rest of the shift. Charlie explained that access was impossible and I ventured back to Windchaser in anticipation of the worst, as the docks neared the top of the poles and the winds howled even stronger. I checked the lines set to keep the floating docks from rising over the pilings and found them nearly taut as the docks reached within one foot of the top of the poles.
If they were going to work, the tide couldn’t rise much higher and we still had an hour and a half before the tide was to max out.
I boarded Windchaser and settled into the starboard settee while watching the weather reports of continued doom. The boat heeled and tossed in her slip, but never touched a pole. The rigging shook, sometimes violently, but all held. Occasionally, exceptionally large waves would slap the port side with a smacking noise and lines would vibrate as the dissonance worked their tautness, but only the slack leeward starboard line chaffed through, leaving the secondary to do its job. I struggled to stay awake for high tide to be sure to save Windchaser from demise, but the sea’s motion gradually lulled me to sleep around 2245, at the height of the storm. I awoke the next morning to waning winds, receding tides and absolutely no damage to vessel nor cottage.
It’s always amazing how Mother Nature selects her victims. Across the marina, a 40ft Irwin, ill-prepared for the storm, lost the furl on her jib, which flogged madly until it shredded. Other boats lost biminis. Yet the boat in the slip next to mine, a 35ft sedan motor yacht with fly bridge and full canvas and perhaps the loosest lines in the marina, barely heeled and suffered only minor damage from rubbing on the starboard piling.
It will be months, maybe even years, before Sandy’s fury will be resolved. I don’t know if it was wise to stay aboard Windchaser through the storm, but I couldn’t stay ashore. As I get older, this “sir” is drawn more and more to the sea. I feel compelled to see through the wind and water. I feel most alive when walking against the wind, salt spray and sand pelting me in the face. I would not have missed the opportunity to meet Sandy aboard Windchaser.
Photos by Capt. Gary W. Cassidy