Trying to Reason With . . .

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Our 2008 article on hurricane gear 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 islands 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.
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 41 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 Cocos nose. His howls added to the bedlam.

The decision to stay on board was not easy. Five years earlier, wed 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, wed 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 of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

2 COMMENTS

  1. How did the boat itself do in the canal? I am in a canal just like the one in the photo in Miami Beach. I would never stay on the boat, but I have considered tying off in the middle from both sides. There are no other boats tying off in the canal…most are up on lifts.

    Does this work? What are the best methods of tying the lines (slack, etc.)?

  2. Richard, as we understand the skipper had permission to use the cleats ashore. Arrangements such as this could potentially get you into legal trouble without permission of the property owners. You have to check the rules in the state where you live — and your insurance policy. And even if the law is “on your side” that might not protect you from a frivolous lawsuit that could be a real headache. Should your boat cause harm to adjacent property, liability might be an issue. In the past, mariners have been protected from lawsuits if their action was to preserve life and property. But these laws are always changing. I would also suggest checking with your insurance company. Another option is to keep your boat tied to your property, fender the heck out of your boat and put out anchors, or shorelines with permission. Here is our report on side tying to bulkheads or docks. https://www.practical-sailor.com/safety-seamanship/fenders-and-lines-for-seawalls
    You might also be interested in inflatable fenders. https://www.practical-sailor.com/sails-rigging-deckgear/inflatable-boat-fenders-test

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