“This is U.S. Coast Guard, sector Mobile, Alabama. We just received notification that your EPIRB went off. Is everything okay?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Sir, where is your boat?”
“At Palafox Marina.”
That was 0900 Wednesday, September 16th, by which time Hurricane Sally had already unleashed the bulk of her savagery—many boat owners in Pensacola, Florida, just didn’t know it yet, my partner, Phillip, and I included. Before that USCG call, all we knew was that when we had left the day before, Plaintiff’s Rest, our 1985 Niagara 35, was tied securely in her slip at Palafox Marina.
Rewind to five days earlier, Friday, September 11. Another pivotal call comes that day. The shipyard informs Phillip and me that if we are going to haul out for Tropical Storm Sally, today is the day to confirm. As our most extreme storm-prep measure, hauling-out is something we only do if it is likely a hurricane will make landfall. At this time, though, NOAA has Sally only developing into a tropical storm and shooting straight across the Gulf of Mexico to make landfall Tuesday at the Louisiana-Mississippi border, over 150 miles to our west. The decision of whether or not to haul, as with many when it comes to predicting storms and preparing the boat, sits on our chests like a lead vest. Taking into account the forecast and Palafox Marina’s decision not to order an evacuation, Phillip and I decide to stay put.
“You got this, baby girl,” I whisper to our boat as we button her up for Sally. “Just a storm,” I add, giving her a pat on the bow. It’s a bow I’ve seen crush into 8ft waves while thundering our way to Cuba. It’s a place where I’ve squealed at dozens of dolphins as she brought us gallantly across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. It’s also been the nook where I’ve curled up and watched a hundred golden sunsets, the place where I’ve repeatedly stubbed my toe on a hatch that has never moved, but which continues to take me by surprise.
As I look around the marina I see a few other owners fidgeting with fenders, closing hatches and, like me, patting bows. The bow is the tip of the spear that leads us to unprecedented adventures, to infuriating but uniquely-rewarding boat projects, to the freedom, youthful fun and occasional fear that sailing brings. It is a vast spectrum of incomparable experience that is only possible by boat. It is also the reason we all accept the risk of living and sailing in the troubled paradise that is the Gulf Coast during hurricane season.
Although we have taken most of our canvas down and tied extra lines with chafe guards, many other owners, unfortunately, have not. We Pensacolians are expecting only moderate winds, heavy rains and a possible 2ft to 3ft storm surge that is not exceptionally worrisome with our floating docks. Our neighbor to the south is, luckily, out having engine work done. To our north sits a tall Sea Ray. The next slip over is home to Cattywampus, an impressive Manta 42 catamaran, doted on by her new owners and our good friends, Stephen and Beth. Like us, they’ve taken the extra step of removing their dodger. This is only their second hurricane season in Pensacola.
“We tied umpteen hundred lines!” Stephen informs us via text. “Did we do it right?”
Our banter is light, as the track holds fast to the Louisiana-Mississippi border. We even see boats coming into our marina from Louisiana, fleeing Sally’s expected path. Although known for its hair-trigger in the past, Palafox Marina does not issue any evacuation order. As of Monday, September 14th, Pensacola is just outside NOAA’s cone of uncertainty, under a tropical storm warning with only a 50 to 60 percent chance of 35-74 mph winds.
Later that same night, though, Sally turns her Medusa head slowly toward the east, as if eyeing a new target. She has stalled on her once-steady path to the west, taken a terrifying right turn and slowed to an infuriating 2 mph. When the Tuesday afternoon forecast arrives, the heart of every boat owner in Pensacola lurches to a brief stop. It is now clear we are going to experience Category 1 conditions, with winds from 74 to 95 mph. Worse yet, we are positioned in the worst, most unforgiving, northeast quadrant of Sally’s path. Many boaters are calling each other, texting, asking if they should tie more lines, try to move the boat, bury their heads, pray, puke, cry? We only have a few hours of daylight left. Limited by boatspeed, bridge heights and the increasingly dangerous conditions out on the gulf, we have no choice but to stay put. The truth guts us. Sally is coming—and we are all tied to docks directly in her path.
Darkness falls. Winds beat the house with fury. Tree limbs the size of vehicles crash to the ground. Transformers explode like bombs. The power goes off. We check our phones for service and learn a number of the massive SKANSKA work barges used to construct the new three-mile, four-lane bridge to our neighboring city, Gulf Breeze, have broken loose in the storm. One has even ground its way into the new bridge. The news is another gut punch. Stephen forwards us a text from a dockhand at the marina: “Not good, man. I believe the marina is gone.”
My throat tightens, as I hear tears in Stephen’s voice when we call. “We just got a call from the Coast Guard…” he says. (It was Stephen and Beth who received the heartbreaking call at the beginning of this story.) Knowing that what once was sitting high and dry on a top shelf in your saloon may now be underwater can only be described as crushing. Stephen sends us a grainy photo he received from the marina. It’s Hurricane Ivan all over again. A mighty hand has come down and piled up the boats there like toys in a bathtub. It’s a slaughter. We do not think. We run. Phillip and I brace against telephone poles as we claw and wade the short mile to our marina, squinting through driving rain to try and spot tree limbs or metal scraps flying at us in the 40 mph gusts.
Boats are severed, cracked, stacked. Shredded sails pop at alarming decibels. The memory of that scene sickens me to this day. Not seeing a white and green sailboat in the pile, I take off, sprinting to the end of the pier believing—perhaps insanely—that I see Plaintiff Rest’s mast still upright in her slip. By some miracle, our girl, among absolute wreckage, is afloat! I scream through tears, “Hold on!” But my words are swallowed by the wind. A powerboat has sunk directly behind her pinning her in. She heels with every blow, but she’s holding on! Broken boats and docks lunge at her with every wave and gust. I fear watching her demise would be even worse than arriving to find her already wrecked. However, in that same moment I can’t really define what “worse” means, as Phillip and I now see—no longer grainy, but abrasively clear—Cattywampus already gone to the bottom, submerged. Not 60ft from where our own boat is still fighting for her life, Stephen and Beth’s beautiful catamaran is already lying in her grave. Later on, Stephen would describe, in detail, what it was like discovering what had happened:
As Beth and I slowly made our way to the marina, we strongly suspected we’d lost our boat. Between the texted photo and the call from the Coast Guard, we knew Cattywampus was deeply submerged and was likely never coming back to us. We took a deep breath and hugged each other tightly before we walked onto the dock to survey the cataclysmic damage to the marina. We thought we were mentally prepared to see her—but we were not.
Cattywampus, a whimsical name we gave our “dream” boat before we ever saw this Manta 42, was nearly unrecognizable. Her starboard hull, cockpit and saloon were completely underwater. Her port hull, cabintop and mast were her only identifying characteristics. But, they laid witness. It was her. And she was gone.
Beth and I collapsed into each other’s arms and let out a flood of emotions we’d been suppressing throughout the onslaught of the storm. It was finally over, and our hearts were broken.
Cattywampus was the result of over six years of planning, dreaming, and saving and—for two newbie sailors—we couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful first boat. As we sobbed, we thought of the many sunsets we’d enjoyed from Cattywampus’ cockpit and the different anchorages we’d shared with friends as they helped us learn the cruising ropes. After nearly three years of owning her, we knew we were sailors now. Sailing would continue to be a part of our identity. But at that moment, we felt—lost.
Meanwhile, as Hurricane Sally continues to rage, Phillip and I move in a kind of wordless state of shock as we crawl over the butchery that was our beautiful marina to assess the gouges, bangs and rudder damage on our boat. We tie more fenders around her from foregone vessels. It feels funereal doing so. While trying to push her farther into her slip to avoid her rudder breaking off on the boat sunk beneath her stern, I hear an unsteady voice behind me.
“How can we help?”
It’s Stephen and Beth. With tear-streaked faces, their hearts sunk behind them, they have come to offer us help. I think that moment is even more deeply burned into my memory than the sight of seeing Plaintiff’s Rest still afloat—such solidarity, such generosity in the face of such tragic loss. We later learned many who stayed aboard their vessels during the storm tried to save any other boat they could, even in winds of 120 mph, “before my anemometer blew off” one liveaboard told me. Owners with sunk vessels cheer when they see our brave girl still afloat. “Sally didn’t get us all!” they say.
As more Pensacolians emerge, we find 22 SKANSKA barges scattered like wrecking balls across the bay. Some of them demolished docks and other boats. Many landed in peoples’ yards. The fact that SKANSKA, a multi-million-dollar, global contractor with a fastidious eye for the weather, was caught off-guard, tells you something. As SKANSKA explained:
“The sudden shift in the intensity, direction and duration of the storm was unprecedented and entirely unexpected by the entire Pensacola community. Unfortunately, it was neither safe nor feasible to attempt the removal of barges and other equipment in the brief period between the storm’s sudden intensification and its ultimate landfall.”
Sadly, in the days that follow we learn of all too many other boats in Pensacola that have met this same terrible fate.
“She’s wrecked,” one sailor tells us.
“She sank,” says another.
“The insurance company totaled her,” says a third.
Still, our losses bond us as well. People help one another remove everything salvageable from their lost vessels. They scrub slime with steely determination. They save sails, winches, dinghies, tools and, of course, sentimental items as well. A laugh escapes me when I see Stephen in his self-proclaimed “survivor hat.” It’s more gray and frayed than I remembered, but the logo is unmistakable: Cattywampus.
Within weeks, most of those same sailors whose boats were a total loss are already starting to look for their new “forever boat.” The exciting task of finding their new girl is a salve to their wounds. No one even thinks of giving up. Move away from the coast, stop with this hurricane lifestyle that to some may seem to boarder on insanity? Never. As hard as it might be in the face of storms like Sally, it’s also our deeply rooted love for sailing that keeps us sane, keeps us bleeding and cursing through boat projects, keeps us gripping to the helm on a frightening, but secretly thrilling, night watch.
Sailing is the tip of our spear here in paradise, in the path of destruction, even. Storms are going to come to our part of the world whether we sail or not. Letting them take everything, including our love of sailing, is out of the question. It’s precisely our passion for sailing that keeps us plunging ever onward, compels up to tack our way into the next chapter of our lives, even in the wake of a catastrophe.
Ed note: It was only this past summer, around the beginning of the 2020 North Atlantic hurricane season, that Annie Dike wrote an article on lessons learned after having survived another recent pair of hurricanes. To read more about Dike’s insights on storm prep, see Jacks versus Slacks in SAIL’s August/September 2020 issue