Hunkering Down for a Hurricane

12/30/2010

 

By Tom Morkin

Lat 12 30 N, Long 69 48 W
Aruba, Netherland Antilles Caribbean Sea

There’s nothing like the unexpected approach of a hurricane to make you re-prioritize your short term plans. We had only been one night in Aruba, anchored off the town of Oranjestad. We were looking forward to a week or so of playing tourists before heading to Cartagena Colombia when we learned about Tomas. He was a newly developed tropical storm passing through the Grenadine Islands of the southeastern Caribbean.

 
No big deal as he was far away and his projected path would take him at least a couple hundred miles north of Aruba. Within hours of hearing about Tomas, we learned that the ‘bad boy’ had changed course, increased in intensity and was heading west and maybe even south of west. One of the weather forecasting models showed Tomas skirting the Venezuelan coast. That would put us directly in its path!

Our lovely anchorage off the town was definitely not going to serve any south to west quadrant and would have us not only exposed to the winds but to the storm surge as well. Ugly visions of Feel Free unceremoniously parked in an Oranjestad downtown parking lot came to mind. We quickly went to the local fishing charter fleet and asked about the uncharted channel inside a long, narrow mangrove/coral island that parallels Aruba’s southwest coast. We knew shallow draft boats could get into this sanctuary, but could Feel Free with her eight foot draft? In fact, with a little careful manoeuvring, we could indeed; contentedly we lay there while monitoring Hurricane Tomas as he did his nasty little march through the southern Caribbean.


This scenario couldn’t help but bring to mind some other similar scenarios from our sailing past. Example: a long time ago, Liz and I sailed from Guam to Japan. Our departure date from Guam was postponed a week because Super Typhoon Andy developed in our neighbourhood and he wanted to go to Japan as well. We figured he’d be a lousy travel companion so we let him go ahead of us and hung out in a typhoon shelter tied to four blocks of concrete, each nine feet by nine feet by nine feet.


It was here where I learned that when a typhoon is big enough and the barometric pressure is low enough, women in their 8th month of pregnancy are put in hospitals out of concern that they may deliver prematurely. Apparently, a large pressure difference between the inside and outside of the uterus can induce labour. Super Typhoon Andy could deliver such a pressure differential and in the newspapers, women in late pregnancy were being advised to enter hospital.

 
As it turned out, Guam was spared a direct hit (the eye passed north of the island by 55 miles) and Hoki Mai, our boat at the time, was unscathed.

As it turned out, Guam was spared a direct hit (the eye passed north of the island by 55 miles) and Hoki Mai, our boat at the time, was unscathed.

At the time, we had no idea that Andy was to be only the first of about 12 typhoons that would visit us over the next 4 ½ years that we lived aboard Hoki Mai in southern Japan.
You might ask why a pair of nearly broke cruisers in their mid thirties on a rusty steel boat ended up in Japan. Well, because they had a rusty old steel boat and were nearly broke and they heard rumours they could use their marginal English skills to teach English for real money. Amazing!

Our one year working gig turned into a 4 ½ year stay. We fell in love with the country- great cruising in the southwestern islands off Kyushu Island, lovely, courteous people with a fascinating culture. What we didn’t know when we arrived was that it was a great place to learn about typhoons and managing heavy weather on your yacht.

It was during our first typhoon that I learned that when one needs to deploy an anchor during a storm, it may be easier and safer to swim the anchor and line out rather than carry it out in a dinghy. In our situation, our boat was Med-moored in the Meinohama fishing harbour. Hoki Mai was lying bow to a concrete wall with four mooring lines secured to bollards. Two anchors off the stern kept her from hitting the wall. Although our first typhoon was a small one, it brought an east wind which threatened to push Hoki Mai up against the wall should our anchors drag; and they did. We needed to deploy a 3rd anchor to windward, fast! Swimming it out was the only way.


I found it to be remarkably easy. We simply secured the head of the anchor to an 18 inch diameter spherical fender with ¼ inch line and lowered it into the water. I donned mask, snorkel and fins and easily swam the anchor and line 250 feet to windward and cut the ¼ inch line. Although it was blowing 40-45 knots, once I was in the water it felt as if the wind had died. This little trick saved our bowsprit from turning into kindling against that concrete wall.

 
Over the years I’ve used that same technique to deploy a second anchor when a blow is expected. Here I am wondering if I’ll have to do it again here in our Aruba anchorage after unearthing a second anchor along with chain from the bilge.

 

 
After the first couple of typhoons we learned the importance of dressing appropriately for the occasion. Since it was necessary to be on deck to make sure everything was properly secured, lines were properly tensioned and not chafing, we discovered that proper attire consisted of a wet suit complete with booties (provide good traction on deck), mask and snorkel.This ensemble was superior to even the expensive foul weather gear which flaps and flails when winds top 50 knots, whereas the skin tight wet suit keeps one warm with minimal wind resistance. The mask protects one’s face and eyes and secured to your face, won’t get ripped off your face.

As strange as it sounds and I must have appeared, I look back with almost fond memories of sitting in the cockpit decked out in my diving regalia, the wind blowing over 60 knots, in awe of nature’s magnificent violence while sipping coffees and hot chocolates that Liz would pass up to me from the companionway.


Twice during our 4 ½ years in Japan we were lucky (or unlucky) enough to have the eyes of hurricanes pass directly overhead. On the first occasion, we were so ill informed about hurricanes that when the center approached and the wind almost completely died, we thought the typhoon was finished. We even had scotch and water to celebrate. We weren’t long into our drinks when we noticed that although the cloud ceiling above us appeared to have lifted, there was a wall of very dark clouds that encircled us. It was as if we were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. Inevitably as the typhoon advanced, we were slammed by the approaching dark wall, the winds shifted about 140 degrees and went from 10 knots to over 60 knots in no more than four seconds and all hell broke loose. And of course, it was just coming on dark.


Since we thought the storm was over, I had removed my wet suit and since the wind shifted and intensified, I needed to be on deck to adjust lines and secure gear. While on the foredeck I foolishly turned away from the driving wind and rain. Immediately my glasses were ripped off. Half blind and feeling more than half stupid, I screamed to Liz to suit up and help me outside. I needed her to bring me a line from the cockpit. Groping around in the cockpit in the dark, she nearly stepped on my glasses, miraculously not breaking them. Above the din I could barely make out the expletives she levelled at me for “leaving your glasses in the cockpit for me to step on!” I was never so happy to see her so angry.


For the next 30 minutes Liz was called upon to sit on an unsecured, unfinished forehatch using her 115 pounds to ensure it didn’t blow away while I created a cat’s cradle with lines to hold it down. I still have a vivid image of this koala like figure sitting on the hatch with both arms embracing the main mast for dear life while 60 to 70 knots of wind and a torrent of horizontally driven rain mercilessly pummelled her until the job got done.


Despite the ferocity and intensity of these Japanese typhoons, there was never a question of leaving the boat. Although we worried about security we never feared for our own safety. Our fishing harbour in Meinohama, like virtually all Japanese fishing harbours, has experienced typhoons for countless generations and was built accordingly. During the typhoons, the fishermen took shifts and patrolled the boat basin. They even had a typhoon tower from which they could monitor the entire harbour and its 60 boats.


Although my advice to anyone contemplating leaving their boat in a hurricane prone area during the storm season is- Don’t do it!, if you must, Japan is as good a place to do it as you can get.

Meanwhile, back to Aruba, Tomas did approach within 100 miles of Aruba- that’s the bad news. The good news is he lost his hurricane status and became a lowly tropical storm.

Tomas was a conflicted character. He sprung up as a tropical low, then quickly morphed into a hurricane, passing through Barbados and then St. Lucia. He didn’t have the energy to maintain his hurricane status as he rolled past the ABC islands but as he headed north to Haiti he regained his hurricane status to inflict more pain and suffering on those folks before losing his status yet again as he pushed through the Bahamas and then on to Bermuda. Aruba was again spared. There’s no doubt about it- there’s a lot to be said for spending hurricane season within 12 degrees of the equator.