Luck of the Draw
November 3, 2005
The Greek dramatist Euripides wrote, "The lucky person passes for a genius." Last week as we were pulling into the Florida boat yard where we had stored "Little Gidding" for the summer, we felt neither lucky nor particularly intelligent. For the second year in a row, we had left our boat on the hard in Indiantown, twenty miles inland from Stuart on Florida's Atlantic coast. Last year, two hurricanes passed directly over it, Frances and Jeanne (see our September 16, 2004 entry, "The Fates"). "Little Gidding" came through it all with nary a scratch. This year, we were driving south to the boat yard when hurricane Wilma began homing in on southern Florida; would our luck still hold?
We had stopped in Raleigh, NC, to visit our old cruising friends Jim and Shirley Kelley when Wilma suddenly loomed large on the weather channel television screen. The hurricane was in the northwest Caribbean, but its trajectory was expected to curve north through the Yucatan Channel and then northeast in the Straits of Florida for a landfall somewhere in Florida. In merely a day, it had rapidly intensified to category 5 strength and had achieved the lowest pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic basin. It wasn't overly hot in North Carolina, but we were sweating plenty.
We had reserved a rental car to take us the rest of the way to Indiantown. "What a coincidence," David remarked. "Taking into account the timing of our car reservation and the length of the drive to Florida, we should be arriving at the boat yard at just about the same time as Wilma. That will be exciting."
Eileen, who has a stronger sense of self preservation than David, said, "Cancel the rental reservation."
We spent the weekend alternating between the weather channel on the TV and the NOAA national hurricane center web site on the Internet. We felt sick as we watched Wilma creep over Isla Mujeres and the Yucatan peninsula, where we had cruised less than six months ago. Isla is one of our favourite Caribbean hangouts; will we recognize the place the next time we visit? Seeing the TV images of immense destruction put our own worries into perspective. Even if we were to lose our boat, we'd be far better off than our Mexican friends who were losing virtually everything they owned as well as their livelihoods.
The various computer weather models predicted different tracks for Wilma's Florida landfall. Some had the hurricane passing south along the Keys; others had it tracking further north, above St. Petersburg and Orlando. The averaged track put Wilma right over top of Indiantown and "Little Gidding". With the cyclone's counterclockwise circulation and northeasterly course creating higher winds in its southeast quadrant, we would be better off if it passed to the south of us. From our selfish viewpoint, a track over Miami was better than one over Daytona. We couldn't help ourselves; we wished ill fortune on those poor souls in South Beach.
As it turned out, Wilma DID pass to the south of "Little Gidding", wreaking relatively more havoc in the southern portions of the state. Prior to landfall, it did not weaken as much as originally forecast and slammed into Florida's Gulf coast as a category 3 hurricane. Indiantown was hit by category 2 winds, stronger than last year's storms.
We left Raleigh on Tuesday, the day after Wilma had trounced Florida. On the drive south, we passed convoy after convoy of utility vehicles heading in the same direction. Six million Floridians were out of power and electric power crews from 33 states and Canada had been summoned to help out. We stopped frequently to top up the fuel tank, not certain if and when gas supplies would get scarce. We encountered the first serious signs of destruction near Melbourne: uprooted trees, destroyed billboards, twisted road signs. It got worse. By the time we reached Stuart, virtually no signs were intact, debris was everywhere, and large tracts beside the road were flooded. Most of the power was off, meaning traffic signals (if they were still in place) didn't work and gas stations couldn't pump fuel. The few stations that had power (probably from private generators) had lineups several blocks long. We decided not to wait the better part of a day for a final top up.
We passed the car rental agency twice without recognizing it. Its sign was missing. "Too bad about your sign," David said as Eileen completed the paperwork to switch from an out-of-state car to a local one.
"You mean my new sign?" the rental man asked.
"New?" David responded.
"Yeah," the man sighed. "It took me until two weeks ago to finally replace the sign that last year's hurricanes destroyed. Now I'll have to apply for another permit and start all over again. I should get out of car rentals and take up sign making."
We were very anxious driving the final leg of the trip from Stuart to Indiantown. Fallen aluminum utility poles littered the side of the road. "A power pole looks a lot like a sailboat mast, doesn't it?" Eileen observed.
The marina's entrance was framed by boats lying on their sides. We drove around the first row of boats and held our breath. Looking up, we spotted "Little Gidding", still vertical. We had been spared.
The first people we met in the yard were our friends Pam and Oliver on "Dejarlo", a Beneteau 411 sloop. They considered themselves to be particularly fortunate. The sailboat in front of theirs had toppled and had wiped out the transom of the power boat beside them. The mast of the fallen boat was literally two inches away from their forestay. "It's like driving a car," Pam said. "It's always the other guy you have to watch out for."
We continued our tour of the yard. "Varuna 1", an Islander Freeport 41 ketch, was still standing. Our Montreal friends Bob and Viv had e-mailed us to ask if we would check up on it for them. One row away, things looked pretty grim. Several boats had fallen in dominoes fashion. In the middle of the carnage, our sister ship "Audrey Paige", had managed to stay upright. The mast of "Gesundheit", the Niagara 35 cutter next to it, had come down on its forestay, however, damaging the roller furling. That evening, we e-mailed Allayne and Dennis, our friends who own "Audrey Paige".
"The good news," we wrote, "Is that your boat is still standing. The bad news is that you've suffered some damage to your rigging." We attached a bunch of digital photos.
The next day Peter and Eva who own "Gesundheit" dropped by our boat. They were still in shock, having just driven down from Toronto. "We can't stay on the boat because it's lying on its side," Peter said. "But it's going to be at least a week before the yard can get a crane in here to start righting the fallen boats. Every crane in the state is busy erecting power poles. We'll have to stay in a motel until they get around to our boat." He paused. "And, unfortunately, our boat insurance just lapsed."
A total of 33 boats were knocked over by the hurricane, 50% more than the number toppled by last year's storms. All of the fallen boats were sailboats with their masts in place; all had been blocked on grass or gravel; all had been secured with tie-down straps. Unstepping the mast in Indiantown is made difficult by the fact that the marina's crane is not operating; few sailboat owners are willing to go to the considerable expense of arranging a private crane to come in to remove their masts. "Dejarlo" and "Little Gidding" had been blocked on asphalt. Only a very small portion of the yard is surfaced with asphalt. We hadn't planned our parking spot; that's just where the travelift had dropped us. "Bodett", the sailboat that had been hauled immediately before us at the beginning of the summer, had been parked on grass. It's one of the boats that fell.
"Little Gidding" has survived another hurricane season due to dumb luck rather than any stroke of genius on our part. After all, we chose to leave it in one of the most hurricane prone areas of the planet. Over one third of the hurricanes that have made a North American landfall in the past century have landed in Florida. Maybe it's time to take heed of the statistics and stop relying on chance.
David & Eileen