Sailing Sense: Take Precautions Early

When Hurricane Omar passed between St. Martin and St. Croix in mid-October last year, we found ourselves right in the middle of it. I like to think we are a little different from many of the other cruisers who were in St. Croix’s Christiansted Harbor when the storm went through. My husband, Dave, and I have raised our three boys on our Creekmore-designed 34-foot cutter, Eurisko. We always sail
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When Hurricane Omar passed between St. Martin and St. Croix in mid-October last year, we found ourselves right in the middle of it. I like to think we are a little different from many of the other cruisers who were in St. Croix’s Christiansted Harbor when the storm went through. My husband, Dave, and I have raised our three boys on our Creekmore-designed 34-foot cutter, Eurisko. We always sail when others are motoring, and we always put out two or three anchors when others are content to hang on one. We don’t pay attention to those who say a storm will dissipate or perhaps change direction. Rather, we always prepare for the worst, because sometimes that’s what happens.

When we heard the Caribbean Weather Center forecast that Omar would arrive in two days, we went to the local cruisers’ hangout. The first person we talked to said, “That storm? It’s already gone by.” When we offered a second cruiser our extra anchors and said we would help him set them, he laughed and said he would borrow just one. Omar put both those boats up on the rocks.

During each of the past seven years, we’ve worked for six months to fill our cruising kitty and then sailed to a safe port for the hurricane season. But this year, because we’d decided to work for a year and then cruise for a year, we stayed on in St. Croix for hurricane season. We hauled the boat in June and put the hull up against a 11?2-story building that was also Dave’s temporary boat shop. We built a wooden cradle, hired a crane and truck, and lived aboard Eurisko all summer.

Two days before Omar’s forecasted arrival, Dave lashed Eurisko’s port side to the building and tied the starboard side to the base of a nearby telephone pole. We had more lines out than most of the boats in the harbor. The day before the storm was forecast to arrive only a few cruisers bothered to put out extra anchors. Even fewer stripped their boats. We removed all our deck gear, including our awning, dodger, weather cloths, and solar panels. We put our dinghy inside the building and packed a ditch bag to take with us in case we had to head to higher ground. Included in the bag were our passports, boat papers, birth certificates, marriage license, cash, and photo CDs. I also put in my camera and the memory sticks that contain all our computer files. We refilled the boat’s interior kerosene lamps and the kerosene anchor light. We would take it with us if we had to leave the boat and seek shelter inside the building.

Even though we knew we had prepared Eurisko as well as we could, nervous energy kept us looking for other things to do. We covered the boat’s two hatches with 5-inch foam and secured the foam with small line that we ran across the deck.

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The afternoon before the storm’s forecast arrival we cooked a big pot of chili before securing the propane tank. Then we went over to the cruisers’ hangout to offer help securing other people’s boats. No one was there, so we sat and studied the anchorage. We pointed out the boats we thought probably wouldn’t be there the next morning; they were easy to spot because they still had their sails and canvas gear rigged, no extra anchors had been set, and a number were still at the dock with no one looking after them.

The wind began building at around 2000 hours, and the forecast upgraded Omar to a category-two, possibly a category-three, storm. At dinner Dave reminded David, our 15-year-old son, and me, “I can fix whatever happens to the boat, but we are not going to get hurt.” All of us put on long pants and shoes so we would be protected if we decided to move off the boat to the building.

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At 2200 we decided we would be safer aboard Eurisko than we would be in the shop. The building’s corrugated-metal roof was making noises already. When the first piece of debris landed on Eurisko’s deck, we moved close to the boat’s bulkheads. When small bits of debris started to bombard the deck, Dave tied the settee and dinette cushions under the saloon hatch and companionway. “Put a knife in your pocket,” he said. “If you have to get out of here in a hurry, cut the line.”

We watched the barometer fall for several more hours while the boat continued to shake in its cradle. We thought about what might happen if the cradle failed. We couldn’t see out the ports or hatches, but we certainly heard the shrieking wind and the banging and crashing noises outside.

We knew the worst was over even before we heard the 0100 weather update. Dave tapped the barometer and then let out a whoop. “It’s rising,” he said. “We’re going to be okay.” Less than 30 minutes later we were opening the hatches. We could see that a large tree had fallen on top of our son’s 15-foot daysailer, his last Christmas present. That brought tears to my eyes, but Dave was more philosophical. “Looks like you get to learn how to repair fiberglass, kiddo,” he said.

At dawn the sky was clear and the storm surge was receding. Many of the boats in the harbor were damaged, and others had gone up on the rocks. The lesson was clear: Those who had done nothing to prepare had lost everything, while every boat that had been stripped and secured with extra anchors had come through untouched. Boats that still had their sails bent on had been dismasted, and every boat left on a dock had been badly damaged.

One cruiser pulled a perfectly good anchor from the anchor locker of his wrecked boat. It was bigger than the one that had allowed his boat to drag across the harbor and onto the shore. Two other boats on the rocks still had anchors in their bow rollers. We could see that several boats had gone ashore because their anchor rodes had chafed through. Where the owners had tried to lengthen their rodes by tying two lines together with bowlines, there had been tremendous chafe. The lines should have been tied together with a sheet bend or, better, a double sheet bend.

Clearly, better preparation could have prevented many, if not most, of the problems. Luck played a small part with at least one boat. A friend on a 42-foot ketch had done everything he could. He had removed his awning, his mainsail and its cover, his mizzen sail and its cover, and his headsail. He’d secured the boat to two sand-screw moorings and also put out a large Bruce anchor with plenty of chain. Just before he was leaving the boat to go ashore, his 15-pound Danforth with its -inch rode caught his eye. “It’s not going to do anything if I leave it on the boat,” he said, and he tossed it overboard.

Both his mooring lines chafed through, and the chain rode snapped when the links were stressed at the welds. In the end, the boat was held by only the small Danforth, even though its rode had almost chafed through. But by doing everything he could, our friend had managed to save his boat.

When a storm is headed your way, you have two choices. You can fool yourself into believing it won’t be that bad—and pick up the pieces later. Or you can prepare for the worst and then help others who didn’t. F

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