Editorial July 2008 Issue

Trying to Reason With . . .

The article on hurricane gear starting on page 26 brought back memories of one of my most terrifying cruising experiences. In 1997, Super Typhoon Paka tore through the island of Guam while my wife and I were huddled on the cabin sole of our 32-foot ketch Tosca with our dog, Coco. Peak sustained speeds were later estimated at 100 miles per hour. Our boat was spider-webbed to trees, poles, and buried anchors along a shallow canal in Piti, a former Navy service area on the island’s east side. In a basin nearby, a couple dozen sailboats were closely arrayed on four-point hurricane moorings. About five of those boats also had crew on board.

Enhanced Satellite Image
Photo courtesy of NOAA

An enhanced satellite image shows the well-defined central eye of Hurricane Katrina as it bears down on New Orleans in 2005.
Winds hit 50 miles per hour in the early evening, and didn’t drop below that again until the next morning. Hurricane-force winds lasted for more than six hours. At the peak of the storm, the air was dense with debris, a scouring mix of sand, gravel, and leaves. Corrugated tin roofs, lumber scraps, and coconuts added to the potentially lethal rain. Several times, the empty CT 40 ketch to port would slam to starboard, and its rigging would scrape ours with a groan. At some point, hot wax from our hurricane candle dripped on Coco’s nose. His howls added to the bedlam.

The decision to stay on board was not easy. Five years earlier, we’d been inside a house near Homestead, Fla., as the eyewall of Hurricane Andrew destroyed the neighborhood. We knew what to expect and felt we were ready.

Shallow and well protected, the canal is regarded as one of the best refuges on the island for a boat. Guam has mostly deep water all around, so storm surge was not a serious threat at our location. Tosca, built in 1937 of 2-inch cedar planks, is a proverbial brick house. So as long as we stayed below, we figured, we’d survive.

By midnight, the casuarina trees lining the canal came crashing down. Our lines were tied to these trees (the only available), but they held. So did our buried anchors.

Near morning, an abandoned boat nearby struck Tosca with a thud and began grinding away. We did not dare leave the boat to put out more fenders until the worst was well past.

Around midday, an ambulance arrived to pick up a crewmember from one of the boats in the hurricane hole. His shirt was bloody, and he was barely conscious, having broken some ribs while trying to add a line during the storm. At the height of Paka, there was very little a sailor could do but pray. Some people may have saved their boats by using their engines to ease the strain on their mooring lines, but there were too many projectiles to do anything on deck without risking your life. Given the same situation and the same location today, I would secure the boat as best I could and seek shelter elsewhere. As much as we care about our boats, our lives are worth far more.

Darrell Nicholson
Editor

On the cover: Sailboats pile up along the shores of Lake Ponchartrain, La., after Hurricane Katrina. (Photo  courtesy of BoatU.S. Insurance)

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