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HURRICANES: A LOOK AT THE 2014 SEASON AND PAST YEARS

Monday, 01 June 2015

In the 58 years that I have been in the Caribbean, the tracking of hurricanes has changed dramatically. When I first arrived, hurricane hunting was with a couple of converted six engine B36 long range bombers. They did a good job but they could - and sometimes did - miss hurricanes forming, which meant that when it happened there was little time for preparations. For example, in 1960, the hurricane hunters misinterpreted the course of Donna and thought it would pass well clear of the Virgins. 

However, a radio message was sent from St Bart where, the sender said, a hurricane was approaching. When asked why he thought this was the case, he replied “it is blowing so hard that my transmitting tower is about to blow down”. Transmission ceased mid-sentence, and word was spread in St Thomas that a hurricane was approaching. All of the yachts in St Thomas harbour immediately upped anchor and headed to hurricane holes in Coral Bay, St. John’s. Some did not make it, and were driven back to St Thomas where most successfully rode out the hurricane that just brushed St Thomas, but did not hit it.

As noted in my 1966 guide, in those days St Thomas harbour was a fairly good hurricane hole. Neither the entrance channel nor the harbour had been dredged, most of it was 12/15 deep, sand bottom, good holding, and total fleet was only about three dozen boats.

Today, with satellite tracking of weather systems, the hurricane hunters based in St Croix flying into hurricanes gathering data, and the knowledge that when approaching the islands of the Eastern Caribbean hurricanes (or circular storm cells that can develop into a hurricane) never alter course more than 5 degrees in 24 hours. Because we are also aware that the alteration of course, if any, is always to the north, the landfall of the hurricane and its danger zone can be fairly accurately predicted. 

As a result of the massive destruction in the Northern Caribbean as a result of Hugo in 1988, I wrote ‘Reflections on Hugo’. It was written in 1989 and reprinted in all of my Guides which are still available today. These can be ordered direct from iUniverse.com or Amazon. I have re-read it while writing this article and I stand by everything I wrote in 89 and updated in 1992, and again in 2002. I advise everyone that is spending the hurricane season in the Eastern Caribbean, or leaving their boat either ashore or in the water to buy one of my guides. If you are on your boat, note that I stated that there were no hurricane holes, they are all too crowded (even more so today than in 1989!) Pick up the anchor, go to sea, head south and be below the hurricane. 

That this is a viable option was proved by Bill Skold, owner, skipper and builder of the 42’ Media, a scaled down version of Tradition, a 65’ gaff rigged Alden schooner. Hugo was obviously going to hit Puerto Rico butt end first. Bill wanted to go to sea to head south and be clear of the hurricane, but could not find a crew. Everyone said he was nuts, but he took off single handed, under storm trysail, reefed foresail, and reefed staysail, and motor sailed south. He never encountered more than 40 kts of wind, big long seas, no problems. When he returned to Fajardo he found nothing but death and destruction, but amazingly he found the dinghy he left behind undamaged, up in a tree. 

Normally there is a three or more day warning before a hurricane hits, but there have been two hurricanes that popped up, and hit yachting centres before any preparations could be made. 

In 1984, Klaus formed south of Puerto Rico and headed north-east. It was only the second hurricane in known history to do so.

Klaus hit St Thomas in the middle of the St Thomas Charter Boat Association meeting. A cruise ship entered the harbour, discovered that her bow and stern thrusters could not overcome the windage of Klaus, and drifted down on anchored boats as she backed out of the harbour. Those boats that were damaged and were insured, their insurance companies’ heavy weight lawyers went after the liner, whose insurers promptly paid for the damage caused. But the boats that were damaged, that were uninsured, collected nothing as they could not afford to hire admiralty lawyers to go after the cruise ship companies. Admiralty lawyers demand money up front, and will not take on cases on a contingency basis.

Iolaire was anchored on the north side of St Martins. When we heard of Klaus forming, and heading north-east it was too late to run as it was blowing 25 kts out of the South. As Klaus approached, our nice sheltered anchorage under the lee of St Martins became a deadly lee shore. We used six of our seven anchors and stayed afloat. When the hurricane passed we had no problems picking up the anchors as we did not have a single crossed hawse, but no yachting magazine would publish the article as to how we stayed off the beach, choosing instead to publish articles of boats that ended up on the beach. 

During hurricane season, tropical waves regularly form off the coast of Africa and move across the Atlantic. These sometimes develop into a circular tropical storm, then on to a hurricane or sometimes remain only a tropical storm and even sometimes simply die out.

One such tropical wave developed into a circular tropical storm on October12, about 150 miles East of Antigua. It was named Gonzales. Warnings went out to expect winds of 40 to 50 knots, but when Gonzales hit Antigua it is claimed that it was a full blown hurricane of 100 kts. Luckily, it was a fast moving hurricane and moved on before it did massive damage.

When I arrived in Antigua in March no one was talking of massive damage, except Carlo Falcone. When Gonzales hit, Mariella was alongside the AYC marina dock. The breasting out anchors were not enough to hold her off the dock when the wind was in the north. Starboard side rigging was damaged, and massive chafe damage on starboard side planking. In one place the planking was chafed all the way through. The insurance company decided that she could not be repaired in the Caribbean. Carlo organize a temporary repair and she was shipped to Italy to undergo repair and refit.

Gonzales was, for Mariella, probably a blessing in disguise as she is of composite construction, steel frames, teak planking. The last major refit was after Mystery of England T-boned her in an early St Tropez regatta in the late 80’s. Chicco, the project manager of Eilean’s magnificent refit, is also project manager on Mariella’s repair and refit.

St Martin had warning that a tropical storm was approaching. As per letter of the month in the December Compass, the governments on both sides of the island did little or nothing. Obviously, boats in Marigot that were not in the marina should have been urged to move into Simson lagoon and extra opening hours arranged for the bridge.

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