PREPARE FOR NAMED STORMS

Hold fast

Hurricane season is here. Having ridden out several hurricanes, and having had a boat smashed by one, I feel qualified to offer a few suggestions on storm readiness.

In times past yachtsmen would be gone from the hurricane belt before the start of the hurricane season and this is still the only way to guarantee you won’t be caught in a Caribbean hurricane. However, for many of today’s cruisers, leaving the hurricane belt is not an option. I live in the Caribbean year round and therefore must deal with hurricane season. When my boat was smashed by hurricane Gonzalo, I fell into the trap of not preparing early enough. I also relied on the weather forecasters who later admitted that Gonzalo didn’t behave as planned. Although I can lambaste the met office for a dodgy forecast, the buck stops with me. My seamanship and judgment were at fault and I paid a high price.

If you can’t haul out, and plan to stay afloat for the season, then here are a few things to consider.

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Location

Choose your spot early and get as much ground tackle down as you can. Remember, other boats will be seeking shelter and will anchor close to you … this is a given. When I rode out Hurricane Luis in 1995, I was holding to a concrete mooring block and five anchors. I kept one anchor in reserve but didn’t use it even though I lost one anchor thanks to chafe. Lashing your boat to mangroves with anchors deployed from stern or bow is a proven way of surviving a storm. However, environmentalists in places like St. Maarten are trying to limit such actions. If you are in a so-called ‘Hurricane Hole’, then seek the advice of people who have sheltered there in the past. Coral Bay, St. John would be an example.

Chafe is your enemy

If you are lying to chain then you will need long nylon snubbers to prevent snatching. It is vital to protect nylon snubbers or anchor rode from chafe. Leading snubbers and rode through bilge hose works well but modern bow rollers are notoriously inadequate and there probably won’t be room for more than one hose and line. Where to lead everything is something you must work out for yourselves. During Hurricane Louis, I took extra snubbing lines back to the primary winches, and I had the bitter end of one anchor chain through a pipe and shackled around the base of the mast. ‘Belt and braces’ is your motto.

Windage

Try carrying a 4×4 sheet of plywood in ten knots of wind and you’ll quickly learn about windage. Strip your boat of everything that increases windage: Sails, awnings, spray curtains, BBQ, take off as much as you can; including external halyards (leave a couple so you can go up the mast after the storm). Stow the dinghy and never, ever leave the headsail on the roller furler, it’s a boat smasher.

Staying aboard in the blow

I have heard it said that there is nothing to be gained by staying aboard. This isn’t strictly true. There are lots you can do. For instance you can shake in fear, you can also tend the lines and keep chafe at bay. Before the wind really picks up, you might also be able to fend off should a small boat drag down on you, but if it’s an inter-island freighter, then good luck. At some point during a ‘monster’ storm you will find there is little you can do but hang on. And don’t expect anyone to come and get you, they won’t. Running the engine to maneuver is marginally possible and some skippers have reduced the load on dragging anchors and in this way saved themselves from going ashore. Be aware that the sea floor will be in motion and sand and debris might find its way into the water intake and the engine overheat. It happened to me. Dirt in the fuel tank will also be stirred up.

Moving ashore for the blow

I’ve ridden out several hurricanes both afloat and ashore. Ashore, I did nothing but fret about leaving the boat, afloat I did nothing but cuss for not staying ashore. If you do head for shore then take your valuables, electronics, money, papers and documents with you. Sadly, if your boat does break free and go ashore, you might not be the first person to arrive on the scene.

Fight or flight

Leaving an anchorage to outrun or out maneuver a named storm is fraught with danger. Lack of wind ahead of the storm, boat speed, crew endurance and unreliable weather forecasts are just a few of the factors to consider.

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If there’s a weak link in your preparations, the probing storm will find it. Skill, local knowledge, experience and good equipment all help. Common sense is vital.

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Refugees – Sinking to a new low

This is my first blog of 2019, in fact, I haven’t written a blog for months and what follows started out as a Twitter thread, the first one of those I have ever written.

What brought this on was the awful comments on Twitter about the refugees crossing the English Channel with some people calling for their boats to be sunk along with their cargo of men, women and children. It’s also in response to the British government’s posturing and the reaction by Home Secretary Sajid Javid who everyone knows is using a few dozen unfortunates to boost his career and shore up Theresa May’s corrupt government ahead of the crucial Brexit vote in Parliament. British politics and politicians have never been mired in such filth as they are now. The two largest political parties grapple in an ideological race to the bottom, while stripping the people of a once great country of their rights and freedoms. All of this is, of course, is grist to the mill for the Tory press: Sun, Mail and Telegraph, whose incendiary, divisive reporting of a few desperate people risking their lives to cross one of the most dangerous waterways in the world, keeps that all-important xenophobia bubbling nicely.

And so back to the reason I wrote this blog.

I was there when they brought an empty refugee boat to a dock in the Caribbean during the days when boats were crossing from West Africa to the Canaries. The occupants of this boat never made it. When it was recovered, the boat was knee-deep in water. The engine cover was off and the engine broken. Rudimentary tools were scattered around the bilge: hammers, chisels, screwdrivers, and the carburetor had been stripped down. It was obvious that a desperate attempt to repair the motor had failed.

Children’s shoes and baby clothes, adult clothes, men’s and women’s, sloshed about in the filthy water. Two 45 gallon fuel drums, one empty, were lashed to a thwart. Containers that once held fresh water now held nothing.

It was one of the saddest and most heartbreaking sights I have ever seen.

Perhaps they were driven mad with thirst, or starved to death. Who knows what horrors the boat’s occupants endured towards the end as they drifted west across the wild North Atlantic Ocean.

An inquiry of sorts was held but it was assumed the inhabitants of the boat had been taken by the sea and after a few inches in a local newspaper they were quickly forgotten.

When I read about people saying they should sink the refuge boats in the Channel, or shoot the people as they come ashore, I wish I could make them look down into that empty boat alongside that Caribbean dock.

Perhaps they would pick up a pink baby shoe and laugh, or perhaps the reality of what those people suffered would sink in and, like me, they would weep.

I’m saddened that British politicians are using the plight of refugees for political gain and I’m ashamed that so many of my own countrymen are willing to turn their backs on those seeking sanctuary.

My hope for 2019 is that the world will be a kinder place.

… And then I look at leaders like May and Trump, and thank my lucky stars that at least for now, I’m not a refugee.

 

Keelhauled

We launched the boat last Friday and put it on our mooring in Nettle Bay, French St. Martin. She’s been undergoing repairs for three years, three months, after she was damaged by hurricane Gonzalo. We use our 11ft Boston Whaler as a tender, but the hurricane stripped the beach outside our apartment block of sand and dumped it all just off shore. Depending on the state of the tide, that means we have to drag the Whaler through the shallows before it will float and we can lower the outboard. The shallows are uneven and there are deep holes all over the place. Also there’s lots of debris such as twisted zinc sheets from the roofs, bits of railings and chunks of boats half buried in the sand. These are really difficult to see in low light, and this was in the evening. I managed to drag the Whaler through the shallows but needed to pull it sideways towards me to clear a really shallow patch. As I walked backwards, I tripped over a twisted pipe on the bottom and began to fall backwards. My instinct was to hold onto the Whaler and pull myself upright, but just then the Whaler slipped off the sandbank and came at me in a rush, knocking me off my feet and backwards into a deep hole. I went right under and my legs came up under the back of the Whaler, which was covered in barnacles. The Whaler went over me and the blood began to flow. Fortunately there are no Great Whites in the lagoon. My wife and a friend helped me out of the water. On the plus side, my iPhone, in its waterproof case, was fine. My mp3 player was not so lucky. I showered, bathed the wounds in Dettol solution, put on fresh clothes and relaunched the Whaler, carefully. The next morning, when I came ashore, we got a good look at the physical damage and my wife went into nurse mode with dressings and antibiotic cream. Eight days have passed and only one, a deep gouge not a cut, is causing a little concern. That injury, and one on a toe, will leave me with a couple of permanent scars to add to the rest. In effect, I keelhauled myself! 🙂