Maybe it’s me, but I don’t get it.
It was Tuesday, October 23, 2012, and Tropical Storm Sandy was on her way to becoming a Category 1 hurricane. Already tearing up Jamaica and parts of Cuba, NOAA was predicting Sandy’s path to continue north, straight up the east coast.
Marlene and I were docked inside Silver Lake on tiny Ocracoke Island, tied to the National Park Service docks on Different Drummer, our 39ft Prout catamaran. Beautiful, remote, Ocracoke Island is the southern-most island of the outer banks of North Carolina, and the Village of Ocracoke sits at the southern tip of the island. Mainland North Carolina lies 35 miles to the west across the Pamlico Sound, and Highway 12 ends at the ferry. No bridges link Ocracoke to the outside world, adding to the island’s charm, but Silver Lake was going to be no place to be, on a sailboat, during the hurricane that was predicted to hit in four days. It’s called "The Graveyard of the Atlantic" for a reason.
Our connection for weather forecasts is crude compared to a lot of cruisers. We have VHF and NOAA. When we have an internet connection, we can use weather underground and such, and sometimes we can pick up local radio. I knew from what little info I had picked up from NOAA on our VHF, that it was time to act (read: run like hell).
Marlene and her best friend Melinda, who arrived on Ocracoke on the ferry from Cedar Island, had bicycled to the Atlantic beach in search of treasures from the sea, and returned beaming, carrying sea-horses, sand dollars and sea glass. They were disappointed when I told them we needed to leave Wednesday morning, cutting short our planned weekend celebration at the Ocracoke Pirate’s Jamboree (Ocracoke Island is where Blackbeard was killed), but neither of them objected after hearing the tropical weather forecast on NOAA. The Bahamas were preparing to get slammed by Hurricane Sandy.
We left Wednesday morning after the 1000 ferry, avoiding its wake, and had a beautiful 35-mile trip across the Pamlico Sound to our homeport at the River Dunes. There we tied Different Drummer down three ways, three times, stashed everything inside that we couldn’t tie down, and split for the western mountains of North Carolina. Sandy was on her way.
At the same time, a Lagoon 44 catamaran was heading south on the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis to St. Thomas, and the decision was made to turn east into the Atlantic Ocean and try to outrun what would become the largest hurricane on record for Bermuda. The weather-gathering capabilities on this cat were state-of-the-art and they were ignored. The safe harbors of Norfolk and Hampton Roads at the bottom of the Bay were left behind. For 800 miles, passengers faced sheer terror and a 1,000 mile-wide storm that jeopardized their lives, shredded the mainsail, ripped off one of the trampolines, tore open two hatches and caused multiple electronic failures in the middle of the night. One of the crew later told me he thought the next land they would see would be a mile-and-a-half under the hulls. And he thought this for every second of every minute of every hour for four days. The boat had to meet a deadline to be at a charter show in St. Thomas, but it didn’t make it. It just barely limped its way into Bermuda.
Maybe it’s just me, but what were they thinking? Was the deadline THAT important? Or did somebody think they were smarter than NOAA? Hey, NOAA’s forecasts have left me fuming when the wind switches in the middle of the night and suddenly you’re bucking what wasn’t forecasted; like when “light and variable winds from the east” turn out to be 25 knots on your nose all day. But when NOAA forecasts a HURRICANE, buddy, you better pay attention.
At the same time, the 183ft, three-masted legendary HMS Bounty, equipped with electronics worth more than the cost of Different Drummer brand new (hand-held VHF included), sailed for four days directly into the teeth of that hurricane. This, the same hurricane every meteorologist had been predicting for over a week to be the Mother Of All Storms. Now, the captain and a crew member are dead. Fourteen crew members have been traumatized for life and the Bounty is at the bottom of the graveyard of the Atlantic Ocean, less than a hundred miles from where Different Drummer is safely tied down. The Bounty sailed right past the inlet to Hampton Roads and safe harbor.
Were they not listening?
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t get it. I’m scared spit-less of hurricanes, even category ones. We went through Irene last year at the River Dunes, “once bitten, twice shy.” I will run and hide if one comes remotely close to where we happen to be, and I will run and hide as soon as I can. Hurricanes don’t sneak up on you in the middle of the night. They are forecast days in advance with amazing accuracy. Hurricane Sandy was a thousand miles wide, with winds well above a hundred knots, but NOAA gave us four days of warning to get ready and get off the boat. There is no acceptable reason why a hurricane warning should ever be ignored. YOU’RE ON A BOAT, FOR GOODNESS SAKE!!
Come on, folks. Listen. Pay attention. And seek safe harbor. We are no match for Mother Nature, and she’s pissed.
Photo courtesy of Dennis Mullen