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Slow Dancing With Isabel -

 September 25, 2003 

This photo was taken a few hours before Isabel struck last Thursday. "Little Gidding" is trussed up with lines tied to pilings on the dock and to trees on the shore.

The worst part is waiting. You know you're going to be walloped, but you don't know precisely when or how hard. Like when you misbehaved as a kid and parental discipline was due. Except when it's a hurricane that's about to deliver the licks, a plea for clemency isn't going to help You have a lot to worry about as you wait.

When we wrote last week's entry, we were waiting for Hurricane Isabel to show up. We had been waiting for five days. And we were worrying plenty. Isabel had appeared on our dance card on Saturday, September 13th - a category five hurricane northeast of the Turks and Caicos, heading west. Over the next few days, the weather forecasters professed some uncertainty about her projected speed and strength, but exuded confidence about her predicted track: up Chesapeake Bay and right over "Little Gidding". Every six hours a new NOAA hurricane advisory confirmed Isabel's relentless progress along the forecasters' path. By Tuesday there was no question we were going to dance with Isabel. The only thing that wasn't clear was whether it was going to be a slow waltz or a fast tango.

In nine years of full time cruising, we had never experienced a hurricane. Every summer during hurricane season we aim to locate ourselves and our boat outside of the known hurricane zones. Our cruising friends Dave and Laura on "Follow The Sun", who shared the dock with us on Dividing Creek, had never been through a hurricane either. In fact, it turned out that most of the locals surrounding us were similarly inexperienced. Hurricane Hazel was the last hurricane to inflict major damage in the Chesapeake. That was in 1954.

A close-up of our chafing gear: two different sized pieces of vinyl hose, one inside the other. Anticipating the storm surge, David hammered together some crude chocks from pieces of 2X4 to keep the lines from slipping off the tops of the pilings.

On Wednesday, the day before Isabel's predicted landfall, we and Dave and Laura busied ourselves preparing our boats for the pending onslaught. As Eileen was cutting sections of vinyl tubing to use as chafing gear, an older gentleman came down to the dock to our immediate north. His little red day-sailor was tied alongside with lines the thickness of dental floss. He studied the web of 3/4" nylon lines that attached our boat to trees on shore, anchors in the creek, and every available piling within a hundred feet. "This is a great hurricane hole," he remarked. He spent five minutes stringing a few additional strands of dental floss between his boat and the dock. "Good luck," he said and sauntered up the dock. "I've got to go on a business trip and won't be back until Friday. See you then."

A little while later, the fellow who owned the big power boat on the dock to our south came down and checked his lines. He was tied off short to pilings on either side. Laura asked, "Are you planning to stay on board to adjust your lines? The weatherman is predicting a big storm surge."

"Are you kidding?" he replied. "I'm spending the night in my house where it's safe and dry."

Imagining 40 feet of fibreglass and metal colliding with "Follow The Sun" in the black of night, Laura persisted, "If you give me your phone number I'll call you on our cell phone if anything goes wrong."

Our neighbour snorted, "If anything goes wrong, I don't want to hear about it. Besides, this is a great hurricane hole."

High water Friday morning. The dock and pilings are submerged.

The next morning was overcast and strangely calm. That was a week ago, when we wrote our last log entry ("Aeolus Is Angry"). By the time we e-mailed the entry and checked the online hurricane advisory, Isabel's track was projected to pass west and north of us. It looked like we might be spared hurricane force winds. Fifty-five knots suddenly seemed to be a light breeze compared to what we had been fearing. But when you've been living and breathing hurricanes for five days, it's hard to adjust your thoughts and actions. The adrenaline keeps flowing.

Dave mentioned, "We've got twelve lines out now, so I think we'll be okay." David shot a glance at Eileen. "I only put out nine lines," he whispered and started digging around in the cockpit locker. He came up with three old halyards we had saved from the last time we replaced the running rigging. As gusts of wind scattered leaves on our deck, David doubled up three of our lines. "Now we have twelve lines, too," he beamed, rain dripping off his nose and chin.

By late afternoon the power was out in the houses on the hill above us. The boats on the opposite side of the creek, only 150 yards away, were being buffeted by violent blasts of wind. Overhead, small branches were joining the cascade of leaves. But in our immediate vicinity, the water was hardly rippled. The blades of Dave's wind-powered generator turned lazily (the blades of our wind-powered generator didn't turn at all; it was sitting in a garage at the top of the hill along with everything else we had stripped off the boat). As the night darkened, the fury at tree top level mounted; all manner of debris rained down on our deck. Then the water began to rise. And rise. And rise some more. By midnight the dock was submerged.

Throughout the night David was up every hour or two to check our lines. Most of them were okay because the attachment points were over fifty feet away; some of the shorter lines tied to nearby pilings had to be let out a few inches at a time. Next door, Dave on "Follow The Sun" was doing the same. Each time, he nervously surveyed the lines on the power boat beside him. He confided to David, "Those lines are tauter than the strings on Eileen's guitar." Finally, in the grey light of dawn, the power boat guy came down and released the tension before the cleats exploded off his deck. The water level peaked around 0730, by which time the tops of the tallest pilings were covered. The creek had risen a full seven feet.

First the wind subsided and then the water level gradually fell. We spent all Friday retrieving lines, removing chafing gear, and putting the boat back together. The older fellow with the little red sailboat came down in the afternoon carrying a broom. "I got held up in St. Louis," he told David, "they cancelled my flight." He spent five minutes sweeping the leaves off his dock. He studied the tangle of lines and plastic hose on our deck. "Hope you didn't sustain any major damage." There was only a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

We were lucky; others weren't.

After our neighbour had left, Eileen found David still staring sadly at all our extra lines. He looked longingly at the brand new oversized anchor we had bought four days before the storm. It was still in its box. "Well, at least we have all this stuff to use the next time," he said. Eileen's head snapped around. "What do mean, next time? she demanded.

We were lucky. Over six million people were without power because of Isabel. At least 23 people were killed. When we motored out of the creek a few days ago, we passed a lot of trashed docks and several beached boats. Eileen was scheduled to perform a concert at the Annapolis Maritime Museum last Saturday, two days after Isabel's passing. That morning there was a photo of the museum on the front page of the local newspaper. The picture had been taken at the height of the storm. The water was lapping the eaves of the museum's roof; its walls had partially collapsed. "I guess I won't be playing there for a while," she said soberly. "I'll play beside the water and on the water, but I refuse to play under the water!"

David & Eileen