Your Stories, From The Edge


When Isabel Came To Town

By Bernadette Bernon
Published: February/March 2012

There are moments in the boating life — and water over the floorboards is one of them — when problems can begin cascading, and every decision becomes crucial.

"Douglas!" I called to my husband, after looking below to see the galley carpet sloshing around. "We're taking on water!" On a boat making an offshore passage, nothing seizes the attention faster than water over the floorboards. Douglas leaped from the first real sleep he'd had in 24 hours and started checking the bilge and seacocks as I pulled up the companionway floorboard covering the packing gland.

Graph representation of Hurricane Isabel's path

Sure enough, as the prop shaft spun, our "dripless" gland was auditioning as a lawn sprinkler. I rushed back to the helm and turned off the engine, which stopped the influx. We eased the sails and Ithaka straightened up from her heeled position, as Douglas started pumping the manual bilge pump under the engine, where the water pooled before spilling into the deeper bilges under the main saloon. Our pulses calmed as we began emptying the water out and cleaning up our galley, which had looked like a lap pool.

It had already been a notable 24 hours. We'd transited the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal with the outgoing tide the night before. Then, still in darkness, and thick fog, we'd sailed more than 70 miles down the side of the choppy Delaware Bay shipping lane amid countless other boats, tankers, and tugs towing barges. Even after dawn, the fog was solid and visibility nil; and for hours we'd had to navigate with radar, use horn signals, and give securite position updates over the VHF, listening to similar updates from the other boats and ships, noting their positions, and making sure we were giving one another plenty of passing room. At the mouth of the Delaware, off Cape May, in driving rain, we'd finally motor-sailed around the shallow Prissy Wicks Shoal, and out into the Atlantic. Blessedly free of land and shipping dangers, and with a long night and day of hard sailing and motoring against tides behind us, we'd turned northeast toward home, Newport, Rhode Island, breathing a sigh of relief.

And Now This…

Ithaka trotted along at a slower but steady clip under sail as we checked the packing gland, and compared it to the pictures in the owner's manual. It looked like the seal was wearing out, after only three short years of service. Very annoying. We had a replacement seal already secured higher up on the shaft, so that a change could be made without pulling the shaft completely. The owner's manual had cheerful step-by-step instructions about how this could be accomplished with the boat in the water, which seemed a highly dangerous proposition to us. Prying the seal loose would send a fire-hydrant blast of water into our faces. We could see no way, even if one could get the old seal off, that we or anyone else for that matter, would ever be able to slip the new one into place against powerfully gushing water. We still had cell-phone reception, and actually called the company to ask for advice.

"WHAT!?!" the service engineer screeched into the phone when Douglas asked him about their instructions. "WE said that? I mean, I guess you COULD do it. But between you and me, man, you'd better be tied at a shallow dock, plugged in, and have a couple of mother bilge pumps honking that water out." But he told us what we needed to know, that the seal would be safe, albeit weepy, until we could haul out in a few days time — unless we used the engine, which would allow water to spray in through the rotating shaft.

Here's The Twist

We had several choices. One, we could relive the rigmarole of the night before, in reverse — but we'd have to motorsail all day against a wicked tide, back up Delaware Bay in fog, dodging tankers, then motor back through the 14-mile C&D canal, and look for a boatyard in the Chesapeake, taking turns manning the bilge pump every half hour — an unappealing option. Two, we could sail north up the Atlantic coast to New Jersey and put in someplace where we could arrange to haul out — an option we felt had too many unknowns. Three, we could carry on, sailing 220 miles home to Rhode Island without using the engine.

There was another option, of course, to call the local TowBoatUS operators, and ask their advice in recommending a place to haul out; they were always helpful. This would have been the sensible move under normal circumstances, but there was another significant factor at play. Within 48 hours, a major hurricane was forecast to start hammering the Chesapeake with 120-mile-per-hour winds and flooding rains, which meant the local marinas and boatyards were already filled with regular customers who'd lined the docks, or were hauling out. We and many other transient boaters had nowhere safe to haul or tie up. We all wanted to get our boats and ourselves out of harm's way fast, which meant as far from here as possible, by the time the hurricane hit. For Ithaka to do that, we'd need to average at least five knots to Newport.

This is the stuff of boating decisions — nothing clear-cut, every solution carrying its own potentially heavy price. Douglas and I agreed that we just couldn't risk wasting this crucial escape day trying to find a place to secure our boat, and then either have that place get hit full force by the hurricane, or even worse, fail to secure a place at a marina at all, and then have to find a decent hurricane hole in which to anchor — with a packing gland we couldn't trust, gushing seawater every time we used the engine. Not good.

The newest forecast had the wind in the hurricane strengthening, and the clock ticking. The freshening wind helped us make the call. It was strong and getting stronger, from the southwest, and forecast to stay that way for at least 24 more hours, which would put it at our backs if we sailed northeast. Ithaka would fly at eight or nine knots in those excellent sailing conditions. We talked it over, then trimmed the sails with determination and headed 220 miles toward home.


Forty hours later, on September 17, 2003, Ithaka made safe landfall in Newport harbor, soaring in under sail. The following day, September 18, Hurricane Isabel, clocking 105 miles per hour, hit the mid-Atlantic states with deadly force, bringing with it a devastating storm surge that flooded cities, and carved Hatteras Island in North Carolina up with new inlets.

Isabel had been identified as a Category 5 hurricane only three days before it hit land; the hurricane warning had not been issued until two days before its landfall in North Carolina. Isabel resulted in 16 hurricane-related deaths, $3.6 billion in damage, hundreds of thousands of evacuations, 6 million households without power, the closing of 19 major airports, and the U.S. Navy evacuating aircraft carriers, submarines, and dozens of aircraft from Norfolk, Virginia.

The BoatUS Marine Insurance Hurricane "Catastrophe Team," which set up their mobile operations immediately after the hurricane in the hardest-hit regions, to help its insurance clients, reported 24,000 boats damaged due to Hurricane Isabel.

Douglas and I were lucky. The strengthening winds had carried us home, and away from the greater danger. We were able to sail Ithaka through the busy Newport harbor and to our mooring without the engine. By the time the highest winds hit New England on September 18, we'd stripped the boat of all her canvas and windage, reinforced her mooring lines, and were in our house watching the news coverage on television, knowing how close we'd come to having a far different ending to our story.End of story marker

Bernadette Bernon is an award-winning journalist, Consulting Editor of BoatUS Magazine, member of the advisory board of the BoatUS Foundation For Clean Water & Boating Safety, co-founder of the Safety At Sea Institute, and the former Editorial Director of Cruising World and Sailing World magazines.

Online Extra

For information about preparing your boat for a hurricane, and up-to-the minute news on any active storm development, visit the BoatUS Hurricane Resource Center at

The BoatUS Marine Insurance Hurricane Catastrophe Team includes insurance adjustors, crane operators, truck drivers, surveyors, salvage workers, subcontractors, and other professionals brought into a hurricane-damaged area by BoatUS to help our BoatUS Marine Insurance clients rescue their boats, and to deal with their insurance claims on the spot. Visit For a YouTube news report on the Cat Team, watch

Photo of Bernadette and Douglas Bernon Bernadette and Douglas Bernon

Visit "The Log Of Ithaka" on our BoatUS Magazine's website to read about the voyages of Douglas and Bernadette Bernon, who sailed their 39-foot sloop Ithaka down to South America and back to Rhode Island. The Bernons filed stories every two weeks for BoatUS during their six-year live-aboard adventure, and these entertaining logs include plenty of how-to information, great photos, lessons learned, and planning tips.


Twelve Lessons That Could Save
Your Life

Isabel NOAA image

1. When a hurricane is forming, assume it will change course several times as it approaches landfall. Do not wait; take evasive action immediately to secure your boat, and then get yourself to safety.

2. It's critical to be able to follow the NOAA marine weather forecasts whenever you're aboard your boat. You can't rely on your smart-phone apps. Make sure you have a DSC-enabled permanently installed VHF on your boat, and a backup handheld waterproof VHF.

3. One bilge pump is not sufficient, no matter the size of your boat. You need two electric bilge pumps (one large-bore), and one manual bilge pump. Ithaka had all three. Plus, installing a bilge alarm will alert you to water rising in the bilge before you can see it.

4. When there's a leak below the waterline, time is of the essence. You must be able to find it by checking the shaft and every seacock and thru-hull fitting, in the dark, by feel (also the keel bolts, if applicable). To ensure that you know exactly where the seacocks and other potential breaches are, so you can find and close them if water already has covered them, practice this to gain confidence. You should have a soft-wood bung (plug) of the correct diameter tied by a string to every thru-hull (you can buy them cheaply at West Marine). If water is flowing in through a failed thru-hull fitting, or especially through a thru-hull impeller, hammer this bung into the hole to staunch the water. Seacocks must be lubricated every year to make sure they open and close easily. (Some lube products work poorly underwater, so check to see what the seacock manufacturer recommends.)

5. It's more likely that a ruptured hose will be the cause of a leak. Maintain your hoses and regularly check your hose clamps for rust. Use two marine-grade stainless-steel hose clamps at each end of a hose, instead of one. If one corrodes, the other is a backup. A good choice is Awab clamps, which have rounded edges, no holes, and are fully stainless. Rescue tape can temporarily repair most hose leaks, and can be applied while wet or while water is coming in.

6. Keep owner's manuals for all major systems aboard your boat so you can refer to them immediately when things go wrong. Use common sense; if something feels dangerous, trust your instincts. If you can wait to fix something until you're safely at a dock or hauled out, that's often the best approach.

7. Ithaka always had a GPIRB, liferaft, and ditch kit at the ready, and her crew always wears inflatable lifejackets/harnesses while on watch from dusk to dawn. Harnesses have strobe light, whistle, and solid light.

8. While it's not mandatory, it's an excellent idea to have radar on your boat if you operate in the dark, or areas prone to fog.

9. According to both inland and international rules, boats operating in close quarters, in restricted visibility, should use horn signals. Motorboats must sound one prolonged blast every two minutes. Sailboats must sound one prolonged blast plus two short blasts every two minutes.

10. When it's dark, or the fog rolls in, eliminating your visibility in a busy shipping lane, you can use VHF channel 16, which is used only for hailing, to give a safety message, called securite (se–CURE-i-tay) to other boats within close proximity. Here's how. Speak clearly into the microphone: "Securite, securite, securite. This is the XX-foot (power, sailing, fishing) vessel (boat name) traveling (direction) at XXX degrees, in (zero, limited) visibility at X knots just off (location). My position is XXXXX latitude, XXXXX longitude. Standing by for any concerned vessels on channel 16 and 13." Then switch to channel 13, and repeat the same message; 13 is the commercial bridge-to-bridge channel. Nearby vessels who follow you to the new channel can answer you. Then you both can determine your courses and headings, and discuss how you'll pass each other safely. You'll need a chart of the area, and GPS, to accomplish this.

11. When you have a mechanical problem, as soon as possible issue a securite as described above, and state your problem, so that other boaters, and TowBoatUS, will become aware of it, and learn your location. If you take care of the problem yourself, great. If the problem worsens, however, or if you lose the ability to communicate, you've identified your position — a crucial first step in case help is needed.

12. When making a voyage, or taking your boat out of sight of land, give your float plan (your planned route and ETA), to someone responsible who'll know right away if you're overdue. Also, make sure your registration information for your EPIRB or GPIRB is up to date.



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