When Isabel Came To Town

By Bernadette Bernon

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. 

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.

— Published: February/March 2012

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