Life Aboard LULU

November 19, 1999 (More Lenny)
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November 17, 1999, 2PM:

The winds have been vacillating, up to 48 knots so far. Earlier, at around 11, 12 and 1, winds were around 30, and we were out on the docks talking to people. From our experience in the Northeast, we expect storms with high winds and strong gusts to be cold. In this case, it’s tropical and balmy. The waves breaking beyond the reef are beautiful and the palms are flailing their long arms dramatically. The boat is rolling a bit from side to side but nothing like at sea.

As I look out the window and up at the masts, I see that several boats did not stagger their bows properly and they look to me like their masts could swing together and hit. Tara and its two neighbors, Nautilus and Relativity, are in a straight line, which is scarily close to our boat if masts do bang together and a spreader or winch or whatever get jet-propelled by the wind. But all our lines are set, as if in stone: criss-crossed and cleated off everywhere between boats and docks and fingers and pilings, so it’s far too late to rectify this.

Fear can be catching and travels quickly on a radio net like this. Nautilus just advised -- in panic mode --that on VHF International Channel 67, the local authorities were advising all mariners to get off their boats. Joan, based on that, was ready to jump ship and was enlisting Jackie, who seems to be more skittish (or maybe smarter!) than I about what could happen. Gary asked if this was meant for all boaters or the ones out at anchor. Joan didn’t know, nor was she quite sure where the information came from, whether Virgin Islands officials or the Coast Guard, not that we’d know who has greater credibility in these situations. But Davis’s wife, Margo, volunteered that it is always meant for people in hurricane holes or on moorings or at anchor. Not people in safe harbors. She feels that our boats are the safest place we can be. And we will still have the opportunity to reset a fender or pull in a line to right a risky situation. Still, she says, everyone has to do what their gut tells them to.

Winds are now 51.7 and gusting up to 58. More rain. Gary is listening to weather reports on the AM radio. It’s dark on the boat, like any gray, stormy day. It’s very silent except for the clatter of metal stays and creaking of rope lines as they get pulled taut. Masts are swaying side to side like a barful of inebriates. I can feel the water beginning to batter about the hull. Then suddenly wind speeds are back down around 32. (These figures are in knots: you have to add 15% to get the miles per hour.)

We have a bag packed with a change of clothing, power bars, peanut butter crackers, toothbrushes and the like. But, other than the idea of missing a potential onshore party, I am not anxious to desert our soft-cushioned, air-cooled nest for the smelly stalls and hard tile floors of a windowless men’s shower- and bathroom. Only if I get really, really scared. Or if I heard it has email access.

The problem is that by the time we might get nervous, the wind speeds will be too high to risk being blown into the water or hit by some projectile that’s been jettisoned from a boat or building or tree. So decisions probably have to be made before the winds reach, like 60.

Jackie feels that since weather forecasts are two hours apart, we won’t hear anything for another hour and by that time it may be too late to get out. It also may be that the winds won’t go much beyond what they already are and have been. It’s frustrating not knowing. This is one of those rare situations that, no matter how hard I stamp my feet, is not going away.

Endless Summer calls Legend -- Cathy and Paul -- who’ve lived aboard three years and traveled extensively in the Caribbean and in the South Pacific. Cathy’s report is that Paul’s having a doze and they’re just reading and trying to ride this out. She, too, listened to Davis’s wife Margo and tends to agree this is the best place for us.

To me it appears everyone’s just waiting for the first person to crack, and there’ll be a mass exodus to the men’s bathroom.

3:36 PM:

The storm is now, from being labeled a Category IV, approaching Category V, with maximum sustained winds having hit 150, and gusts higher. This is up from 140 two hours ago. Lenny has also turned north some, putting us more in its path. We don’t want to be sitting ducks, unable to reach the bathrooms, as Laurie from Endless Summer just announced, but, on the other hand, we don’t want to leave our boats. It’s clear the winds will increase here, because the storm is still some 70 miles away.

Winds here are now more consistently over 45 miles an hour and starting to make unpleasant noises. I have added a second bag – with more serious stuff: hot meals ready to eat, apricots, Fig Newtons. I’ve added my second computer battery to the pack and stuffed in 4 flashlights. My sea boots are ready and so are foul weather pants.

Davis, guardian angel to us all, appeared here about a half-hour ago, tightened one of our lines and added yet another. It worries me that we won’t be out or able to do this. Gary feels the boat is riding very nicely in dock, but how would he know for sure, and he’s always so damn optimistic. Still, he’s now checking the lines, looking out from inside each cabin.

We listen intently for the new weather, which comes every two hours, obsessively tracking the path of the storm. At around 3PM it took a scary northerly jump our way. We’d been looking for it to keep traveling east. Mesmerized and unable to switch off the weather, we listen to this same weather update as it is repeated every two minutes. We are awaiting the next -- 5PM -- broadcast from NOAA Radio Station Whisky-X-ray- Mike (WXM) -- informing us of Lenny’s most recent destination decisions:

Here it comes: "Hurricane Lenny, a dangerous Category IV hurricane is now located at 17.6 North, 64.3 West [we’re at 18 North, 64 West, so it’s almost at us, about 60 miles away] with movement toward the northeast near 9 miles per hour. In this track, the core of powerful Hurricane Lenny will be crossing the warning area (that’s us) later today. Weather conditions will continue to worsen. Maximum sustained winds 150 miles per hours, with higher gusts, especially over unprotected south- and west-facing harbors [luckily, not us]. Lenny is very close to being a Category V hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Hurricane-force winds extend up to 70 miles outward from the center [that’s us] and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 205 miles [this means we will continue to have heavy weather conditions for several days after Lenny passes us – if it pleases him to do so at all.] Rainfall amounts of 10 to 15 inches, with locally higher amounts in mountainous regions, are associated with the hurricane, as are threatening flash floods and mudslides. Isolated tornadoes are possible over the warning area [that’s us]. Storm surge flooding of 5 to 8 feet above normal, accompanied by large and dangerous battering waves, is expected near the center in the warned area."


Still, it’s no more north (that’s very good news) but it’s moving maddeningly slowly

After this update, the defections begin. It starts as a sort of feint. Pat, on Dragon, announces she is going to take some ship’s papers, passports and a bag to land in case she decides to abandon ship later in the evening. Then, Endless Summer contacts Feisty to say they are about to bring their "ditch" bag up to the men’s bathroom. In case they decide to go up later, they won’t have to make the trip to the top of the dock burdened with stuff. Feisty thinks that a good idea and calls to invite us to join them. (During 50-knot winds, there’s a feeling, however misguided, of safety in numbers.)

When we schlep our bags up, we find that the Endless Summer-ians, along with the Nautilus-ites, Ron and Joan, have decided to stay up there. Mel is wavering, and leaves to consult with Jackie. I decide to go back to add some wine and an opener to our small warehouse of food and drink. We leave our bags, figuring them well attended, and go back to the boat, where Gary and I (well really I) continue to debate the two unpalatable choices: one to stay on the boat and hopefully not crash into the dock or another boat, and face the unknown, potentially dire possibilities of the storm, but, on the plus side, to remain cool (in temperature, if not in temperament), well fed and equally well beveraged aboard the luxury liner Lulu.

Or, second possibility, to sit in a dark men’s bathroom with a bunch of sweaty, anxious boatowners, schlugging a shared bottle of wine direct from the bottle and passing around Power Bars. This looked to us like a triumph only for the provisions that our combination crew member/ quartermaster, Jane Petro, had given us: heatable MREs (variously known as Meals Ready to Eat or by their more affectionate nickname, Meals Rejected by Ethiopians).

Had we chosen to join the Bathroom Brigade, we’re certain everyone stationed around the stalls would have been clambering for a forkful of Chicken Unknown with Mashed Pringles and a Medley of Vegetable Surprise or Mystery Lasagne laced with Velveeta-Wannabe and Freeze-Dried Morsels of Animal Parts. (To be fair – or do I mean fare? – we did sample and enjoy these better-than-your-average-tray-full of airline food. To be really fair, these are special MREs, which probably set Jane back the price of a rhinoplasty or two. They come in your standard TV-dinner packaging, with the addition of a miraculous chemical packet that begins to actually sizzle, once activated by the enclosed salt water pouch, and in 14 minutes heats up a really passable, if petite, two-course meal. (Sometimes Gary lets me have two.)

So, anyway, while Mel and Jackie are up on land, Gary convinces me that we (all right, he) will be better able to take care of the boat, making adjustments to the lines and fenders as the winds whip around, if we stay. He only has to promise me a wee bauble, say a Patek-Phillippe (quietly platinum, no diamonds), if I comply.

Actually, by about 6:30, we hear the eye of the storm has shrunk -- as if, someone said, it had pulled in its horns. The tighter the storm center gets, the less it radiates out its most destructive winds. Still, Lenny has moved inexorably closer to Virgin Gorda. But it appears we will not sustain the direct hit that was a distinct possibility earlier in the day,.

I am relatively convinced about staying on board, but I do feel a real tug to shore when we stick our heads out, around 7:30 PM. Not only do I see palm trees dancing their frenzied frug, lit by the flashing blue lights of police cars at the head of the docks, ferrying some of our fellow 1500ians (including our fairweather Feisty friends) to the Catholic Church’s hurricane shelter. ****** (SEE IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE AT END, QUICKLY, OR JACKIE WILL KILL ME! AND SHE’S NOT THE SENSITIVE ONE!!! )

In truth, since Gary is ever the optimist and I’m never sure exactly how realistic he’s being, it helped me that staying is also the decision of some of the more seasoned sailors and mature, second-and third-time 1500 liveaboards.

We eat some dinner and drank some wine, and after about an hour, I get a sotto-voce, secret communication from Jackie (using our previously arranged password, "Snug Cove") to switch off the main listening channel to #72. When I inquire where they were, expecting to hear in the midst of some bacchanal at the shelter, I am surprised to hear that they’ve returned to their boat – along with other turncoats.

Seems when they got to the shelter they found it stunk of urine, like the Caribbean army had held a pissing contest there three days ago. So they all slunk silently back to their boats, with nary a word to the larger, and boat-bound, listening community on channel 74.

But, as it turns out, the Endless Summer-ians were still hedging their bets, hiding in the lee of the marina building, when their next-hull-neighbor announces over the radio net that an alarm is sounding on their boat. This necessitates a 50-yard run in 60-knot winds by Mel, not normally an endurance runner, to advise them of the possible peril to their boat. We have no idea if it’s a high-water alarm, or a fire alarm or an intruder alarm, but it turns out to be a MOTION alarm, of all things. Sure took its damn time, I’d say.

7:45: Bravado informs us there’s been a 32-degree shift in the winds from 90 degrees to their hull to 122. That wind shift indicates the storm is slipping passed south of us and east of our longitude, probably as close to us as it’s going to get. About 45 miles.

"Sounds like time for a mild cocktail to me," votes Michelle -- appropriately enough, the owner of Chianti.

In addition to taking her up on that suggestion, we email our children a reassuring note via PinOak, our onboard SSB link to the world outside this storm:


Hi kids:

It looks like this should be over for us in about 2 hours. Meanwhile, we're busy eating chicken wings and garlic bread and having a fine time. That's not to say it's not serious, but it doesn't seem to be life- or boat-threatening.

Try not to worry about us, if you are; and if you're not, why the hell not?

Love you all,

Lulu and Gary

(Mom and Dad)

PS. Some volunteer – whoever gets this first -- please call Grandma Diane.


10 PM:

The wind is whipping, whirling and howling, (yes, it really does howl; it also whines, whistles, hisses, whooshes, screeches, shrieks, squeals -- and that’s only its hurricane voices. What a case study in multiple personality!) With the lines groaning, with the boat clanging and vibrating like a New York subway, and with us unable to read or concentrate on anything but the storm, Gary and I finally tucked ourselves into bed, where it feels exactly like we are at sea again. The boat seems to be roaring forward, falling back and pitching again, though we are not quite on the same fingernail-bending, clawing-the-sheets heel. I have, at eye-level and immediately next to my head, an illuminated repeater instrument, which records the wind speed from the main computer. So I am able (luckily, I’m not sure) to watch the winds increase from a tolerable mid-50 range up above 79 knots (which is 90 to 100 miles an hour). Fortunately, I am near enough to pinch, and even punch, Gary, who otherwise seems perfectly able to slumber peacefully through my panic. An unfair advantage, I figure: we are, after all, supposed to be sharing this adventure. For better or worse, I remind him.

During this time, I also get him to admit that the storm precautions I had to nag him into taking – the myriad lines, the bimini and dodger removal, the securing of the boom – were all necessary measures. In short, that he had no idea a hurricane would be this fierce and potentially damaging, especially to him, Mr. Especially-Nice Guy.


November 18, 1999, 7AM:

The storm calmed down about 11, but it was real lulu, if I do say so myself. Bravado, with the tallest mast in the harbor, observed wind speeds in the 90s. We apparently missed the ones in the mid-80s that Mel and Jackie read on their meter around 9 PM, when we were eating -- probably the few moments I spent all day not glued to the wind meters. But we found this morning, as we woke to strong winds in the 30- and 40-knot range, that though Lenny had passed us by ever-so-slightly to the east, it was still just 55 miles away and appeared stalled. We have waited for about half the day, watching it move only by tenths of degrees off.

Apparently it was being held in this vicinity, attracted by another smaller low that had developed. But Lenny is predicted to be swept off by the Jet Stream. Finally around 3 PM, it seems headed away finally to wreak its wind devastation, particularly on Dutch St Maarten, which has already suffered a significant damage from those big water surges associated with the hurricane.

We were, indeed, protected from surge, as predicted, by a natural and an artificial reef at the entrance to the marina. Lenny reached sustained wind speeds here of 150 mph, but it hit even stronger on St. Croix, where it was closer. I heard over 200 mph, but that may be a rumor.

Ken Ewart, the harbormaster here, who lives on land here in an all-concrete house, told me he actually felt this bastion shudder. He also lost 3 venerable (and valuable) turpentine trees, plus four very large specimen cacti, which crushed his 40-foot fence as they blew off and flew away.

A witness told us that a crew member on one of the 1500 boats, who spent the night in a local hotel, walked outside and up a nearby hill to view the harbor activity. He was literally picked up by the wind and thrown across the road, suffering several deep gouges on his legs.

Never having lived through a hurricane, especially one on a 60-foot boat, secured but only to a dock, with other masts swinging wildly just a few feet away, I was frightened not only about what I might not know, but even more by what I didn’t know I didn’t know. (We were told and we read that it’s actually safer for a boat to be at sea, though that’s hard for us to believe.) So, we were happier being at a marina, with people around us. Around 10, while we were in bed, 62-foot Legend put out a call that one of his lines had broken and felt he might be in trouble. Gary, among others nearby, ran out to help, despite the 60-knot winds. I watched Gary’s white-jacketed form, hovering and stretching from the side of our boat to get off and lend assistance. Since he is not gifted with the longest legs, ultimately he had to wait for the boat to be moved by the wind closer to the pier.

We knew if we needed someone to retie lines or add them, they’d be there for us as well.

We had all 10 fenders and 21 lines spider-webbed about the boat, which prevented it from breaking away or banging into the dock. (Gary, of course, told some people this morning that he’d tied the boat to me, because he’s never woken up and not found me there.)

One of our lines did break during the night, but it was a relatively inconsequential one. A hurricane- preparation book that we read before the storm recommended, indeed insisted, that owners should leave their boats because there would be nothing they could do to rescue them in high winds. But this turned out not to be true. There were people constantly out on their decks, at their bows, adjusting lines, even putting out anchors. Gary was out many times moving fenders up and down as the boat bounced around, testing and tugging at lines, winching them in as they stretched from the Herculean load being put on them. We had some thick rubber mats that we’d cut and taped under several of the lines to protect the teak toerail. One of the thickest actually chafed right through the rubber.

But other than that, the lines held, the fenders took the pounding necessary to keep the boat off the dock and she’s now just fine – no damage. In fact, probably the biggest problem we sustained is that a container of toothpicks had heeled over and spilled. Most of the other 1500 boats are fine: certainly none suffered any serious damage. Some toerails were crunched by the cement dock fingers they either crashed into or were swept briefly under when rocking back and forth at precipitous angles.

Frightening as it may have been, the landscape was surrealistically beautiful. During the day, when the winds were in the 30-knot range, we were out and about with a lot of the other nervous boat-bound. We could see the surf jumping in the air and crashing down, with the lumpy islands beyond as backdrop. We watched, breathlessly, the wildly swaying 70-, 80- and 90-foot masts, suddenly reduced to mere lollipop sticks. We could not only see, but hear, palm fronds thrashing. And the quality of the light was simply spectacular: a dreadful sort of clarity, crisply delineating aqua seas, gray islands and a pinky-yellow sky. Truly I’m at a loss for words to describe it. (And you readers may be quite happy about that.)

It’s now 5:30 PM of the day after; the winds are down to a tolerable (and probably normal) 22 knots. We can’t decide what they might possibly bring next, but we do anticipate whatever will happen.

And, no, Jay, we haven’t been bored for an instant, yet.


****** I am duty bound (unless we want to lose our traveling companions the Cohen’s) to report that I found out this afternoon that Jackie and Mel did not, nor did they ever seriously contemplate, leaving the area and the boat to go to the Catholic Community Center’s hurricane shelter. Also that they thought WE were staying up there. So THEY were (by their reckoning) joining US on land.



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