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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Random musings in the aftermath of hurricane Irma

Now that I have a set of wheels I can, for the first time, travel the island and see the devastation wrought by hurricane Irma and find it’s on an epic scale. Few buildings escaped damage, some simply no longer exist. The shock factor of the early days, when we woke to a changed world, has been replaced by one of creeping sadness. Not one person, one family, went untouched.

Life amidst the wreckage goes on. Last Sunday dawned cool and fresh, and at 6.30 the waning Harvest Moon was high in an azure sky. I still see the beauty in these things though sadly they’re diminished when your gaze falls back to earth and you take in the smell, the millions of flies, the mosquitoes, the uneasy feeling of a population facing a bleak future of mass unemployment. We try to stay positive, to spin events so that they don’t invade our subconscious, but there are days, perhaps like today, when it is difficult.

For the first few weeks following the storm people oozed confidence. “We are strong, we will rebuild,” was the rallying cry and a feeling of optimism prevailed. Now, reality is beginning to sink in and with it the knowledge that thousands face an uncertain future with the locals taking the brunt.

The authorities on both sides of the island are working diligently to return things to normal, whatever normal will mean in the months ahead.

Hundreds of tons of scrap and debris have been removed, trucked to temporary sites and piled five stories high. Around our own apartment block, teams of workers have scoured the debris from the gardens, hauled zinc from the bottom of the swimming pool and carved up the trunks of once magnificent trees that lay dead along the ground.

We have water 12 hours a day, the electricity supply is stable, some supermarkets are open and there’s plenty of food for those with funds to buy it. On the French side families in need are still receiving aid, something that is vital if authorities are to avoid civil unrest.

The island has been knocked on its ass and, like a punch drunk boxer, is staggering to its feet. As we become yesterday’s news and the expat community considers fight or flight, those most severely affected have it within their power to make or break the recovery.

We live in hope.

— French St. Martin, October 8 2017

 

 

 

Scooters, Hooters and Hurricanes

I have wheels but it meant having to move to the dark side—Quadraphenia and Pinball Wizard, Noddy Holder and The Who. The long hair will have to go, as will the Crocs, now its Bovver Boots, long woolen scarves, parkas and plaid pants.

Yes, I have bought a scooter.

It’s just another indignity forced on me by hurricane Irma, the Wicked Witch of the East. We were desperate for transport, having lost the Jeep and my beloved motorbike in the tidal surge. A neighbor was leaving the island and his 125cc scooter was for sale.

The scooter is the ‘Agility City’ model and I think they misspelled City and it lacks a P as its first letter. And Agility is a bit too close to Mobility … Mobility scooter. Ouch!

The thing is automatic, no gear shifting, it does it for you. Riding the motorbike, I always felt like part of the machine. The acceleration, the quick rev between gears when you’re chopping down through the box … Born to be Wild running through my head (well, sometimes).

Riding the scooter is like riding a child’s miniature train around in circles. There’s nothing to do but sit on it and twist the end of the handlebar and a way it goes with the sound of a wet fart. You can’t make it roar because there’s no clutch. You can’t drag your knee close to the road in a tight corner like the Isle of Man TT racers do because your knees are up by your ears. All it’s short of is armrests and somewhere to put your pipe and slippers.

There is a center stand, but you need to be Man Mountain to use it. The daftest thing of all is the horn, which would do credit to 16-wheeler truck. The first time I pressed the button it almost gave me a heart attack. One blast cleared Marigot Main Street and had the gendarmes drawing their guns and diving for cover.

The guy who sold it to me swears it does 75 miles on one liter of gas and I think most of that goes through the horn, which sure as hell doesn’t run on electricity.

So, there you have it, I have joined the local loonies, the back wheel riders, the buzz brigade, the in-and-out traffic zippers whose total aim in life is to piss everyone off. Give me a wave as I go by, I’m the guy with the paper bag over his head …

 

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HURRICANE IRMA

Midnight, September 17th 2017

Thank you.

Jan and I are overwhelmed by the thoughts and prayers you sent our way during our tussle with hurricane Irma.  Religion has never been my thing but oddly enough I do believe that prayer is powerful. Perhaps it’s a throwback to my hippy days when things had good vibes and dreamers were out to change the world. And how does change come about if not by dreams.

The reason it has taken so long to thank everyone is that for over ten days we have lived without power and only now has it returned along with access to internet although the connection isn’t mine, I am taking it from the apartment below.

My date with Irma wasn’t what I expected, she was more woman than I could handle.

Jan and I have lived in the Caribbean for over 20 years and have survived all the storms and hurricanes including Luis, which I rode out on the boat. Previous to living in the Caribbean we survived a Bay of Biscay storm that twice rolled our boat and left us adrift for seven days, so I guess you could say we know a little about storms. A message I received today from a friend said: “Gary, you are going to live forever,” by which she meant I am not destined to die in a storm.

Irma, the strongest hurricane to hit the Caribbean since 1926, was powerful beyond belief, a living, breathing malignant bitch that left parts of the northern Caribbean looking like Trump had finally lost his mind and unleashed nuclear Armageddon. I hope he saw the videos coming out of the islands because that is just a taste of what the world will look like if the button is pushed … Cold, stark reality, not false news.

In Nettle Bay, French St. Martin, where we live, an eight foot tidal surge breached the main road and the ocean poured into the lagoon. The sea entered beachside homes sluicing them clean leaving nothing behind but crumbling breezeblocks and buckled roofs. The torrent smashed the roadside wall, cascaded down the grassy bank into our parking lot sweeping cars and trucks before it. We lost our Jeep, our motorbike and our friend’s car. As the water receded with the passing of the eye, peoples’ lives were laid bare, personal possessions, appliances, clothes, children’s toys, paperwork, food, furniture, personalities …

In our second floor apartment the roof was holding but straining to maintain its grip. Metal window frames bulged and cracks stippled the walls. In the calm of the eye, we took stock. We had some water damage but across the way, as far as I could see, homes were roofless, giant palms were down and the parking lot resembled a madman’s chess board of piled up cars and trucks.

Then it got really bad.

With the passing of the eye, the wind came from the opposite direction and what little protection offered by the building opposite was lost. The first wind gust was powerful; the second came with Irma’s full fury. Our roof began to moan and wail; the death throes of a creature in agony. It trembled and shook and plaster from the walls fell to the floor.  The ceiling fan swung from side to side, doors rattled and the world, our home; our heads were filled with a million screaming banshees.

We jammed ourselves into the tiny bathroom – myself, Jan, our friend’s Goldendoodle, Jesse, and our old cat Moggie. That’s when we realized our young cat Buster wasn’t with us but still cowering under the bed upstairs. The groans from the roof intensified and the bulging windows were on the edge of letting go. Should they collapse then Irma would be amongst us and no amount of concrete, wood and friction could stop her, the roof would lift and everything in the funnel of our open rooms would go with it including the bed and Buster.

Dragging a crazed cat from under the narrow opening beneath a bed at the height of a 185mph storm isn’t something I recommend. First I had him by the front paw, then the back paw, then by his neck until finally I had him out. I made it to the safety of the bathroom just has he raked me with his back claws and sent blood dripping from my finger tips. That’s twice we have saved that cat’s life, you’d think he’d be more grateful.

Jan sat on a duvet squashed in the corner next to the sink with Moggie and Buster pressed into her side and Jessie against her legs. She wrapped her arms around the three of them and whispered to keep them calm.  I sat with my back pressed against the door as Irma fought to get in. Nothing I could do would stop the incessant machinegun rattle of Irma clawing her way in. Time had little meaning beyond the awful bang, bang, banging against the door … and then the pressure eased, the period between hammer blows grew shorter until finally, defeated, Irma hoisted her malignant skirts and went off to plunder the Virgin Islands.

The aftermath of hurricane Irma has shocked me as much as the storm. Mass looting, gunfire, and lawlessness stripped away the thin veneer that separates civilized behavior from total every-man for-himself anarchy. Not everyone turned into a scumbag, many rose to the occasion doing everything they could to help those less fortunate at great risk to themselves. In a crisis you always get the angels. The authorities need to hold the looters to account but hey, it’s the islands, mon, and I’ll believe it when I see it. If it was down to me, I’d rip off their heads and spit down the hole. They are above contempt.

Ten days since the storm and on the French side the military have restored some kind of order although nights are still dangerous and patrols few and far between. We have no running water and flush the toilet with water carried from the swimming pool. Aid organizations bring us bottled drinking water and a little food for which we are thankful.  We are better off than many.

A few days ago the aid organization, escorted by French paratroopers, gave those living in our apartment block a huge bag of partially frozen food but without electricity we had no way of cooking it or keeping it cold. The food included piles of half frozen fish and meat, all destined for the dustbin by morning. In order to eat some of it, a group got together and built a fire in a large concrete flower box. They got the fire going with gasoline and fueled it with toxic wood. Jan and I took two massive tuna steaks back to our apartment and by candle light and using a blowtorch on the bottom of the frying pan cooked the fish and opened a warm bottle of wine. Gazing at the beauty of the stars in a blackened sky, we dined like kings overlooking an ancient battlefield which, in a way, we were.

Throughout all this, Jan has been my strength, keeping our little family fed and healthy. The number of storms I have put her through I wonder why she stays with me. Our love is strong.

Buster survived the trauma of the hurricane … just. He is eating, drinking, peeing and pooping and seems to be happy but after ten days we still can’t get him to leave the bathroom. He won’t go further than the door. We hope in time he will heal. The other animals are fine.

Today, for the first time, I was able to view videos of the devastation wrought on the islands and finally emotion took over. I cried. If climate change is responsible for these super storms then each and every one of us bears some responsibility for the death of the baby snatched by Irma from its mother’s arms as she clung to a palm tree and Barbuda disintegrated around her. The destruction is on us and the politicians we voted into power.

What does the future hold for the Caribbean? Well, it will rebuild and become a beautiful playground once more. There will certainly be no shortage of work. As for us, we could have evacuated but we decided to stay, at least for now. We are taking things a day at a time, keeping out of the shadows and walking with a big stick. I have an outboard to fix, which will give us transport, and All At Sea magazine to edit, which will help pay the bills. We are blessed.

So many people helped us get through this; you with your thoughts and prayers, and those of our neighbors who are still camping amongst the rubble. On the island of St. Martin, Martine gets a special hug along with Garth and his crew. JL, we are connected.

A special mention goes to the team at Laser 101; the radio station became the voice of the storm. They did a superb job of broadcasting, keeping the island informed and up to date even though many of the presenters had lost their own homes.  Shortly after the storm I listened to their banter until midnight and they had me in stitches. True professionals, thanks guys … shame about the music, but I tried.

Irma and now Maria. The Caribbean rocks.

Stay safe.

Luv Gary & Jan