We’ve been living on the Florida Gulf coast long enough to know that you can’t turn your back on the Gulf in October. While the Atlantic hurricane season is wrapping up, with fewer tropical waves rolling off the coast of Africa and developing into storms, conditions in the Gulf are still ideal for cyclogenesis. Some of the northern Gulf coast’s worst storms have been October storms.
So here we are with a monster Category 3 hurricane named Michael roaring towards us. Three days ago it was just a blob of thunderstorms off the Yucatan. But as proud members of Drunk Donkey Nation (as the half–million followers of Mike’s Weather Page are now known), we’ve been following this system for almost a week and knew it was going to be something big.
What to do about it was the question. It’s easy to underreact to an approaching storm, but it’s equally easy to overreact. Our hurricane plan is to move Eagle Too to the very well protected marina at Pensacola Naval Air Station in the event that Palafox Pier and Yacht Harbor, where we spend our summers, declares a mandatory evacuation. We have access to the Navy base due to our military affiliation. But if Palafox Pier doesn’t force us to leave, we don’t, primarily because we’ve already paid for the slip here. Moving to the base costs us several hundred dollars for a three to four day stay, and as thrifty cruisers, we’d rather not spend that money if we don’t have to. Plus we’re really just moving from one marina with floating docks to another a couple of miles away, so it hardly seems worth it if we don’t have to do it. And a haulout? Forget it. We’re not full time residents here in Pensacola anymore. Since we spend seven months or more of every year somewhere else, we’re not going to pay the thousands of dollars necessary to get on Pensacola Shipyard’s hurricane haul out list. And if you’re not on their list, you don’t get hauled out, plain and simple.
Our frustration always comes from waiting to see what Palafox Pier is going to do. They finally declared a “voluntary evacuation” yesterday. I had to go to the marina and ask them what exactly that was supposed to mean. I interpreted it as “leave if you want, but stay if you’d like,” which is just another way of saying “business as usual.” But I guess maybe it gives them some liability protection if you stay and your boat gets broken by something in the marina. After all, they did tell you to “voluntarily evacuate.”
Regardless, if the evacuation was voluntary, we weren’t volunteering. Besides, as it just so happens, my first mate and lovely wife (that’s one and the same person just in case you weren’t sure) is up in Virginia visiting family this week. That means I’d be voluntarily evacuating by myself, which I’d rather not do. Not that I haven’t had several sincere offers of assistance, but I just don’t like moving Eagle Too without Rhonda at the helm, as I’ve grown accustomed to her hand on the wheel.
So here’s what I knew about Michael. Ever since he formed, the models were consistently taking it to our east. That meant we’d be on the “good” side of the storm, with winds coming from the north, off the land. The friction of blowing past trees and buildings would slow the wind significantly. Next, even though the predictions wobbled around a bit, it was pretty evident that there was firm agreement among the models. The eye of the storm was unlikely to get closer to us than about 75 miles. That’s a long way, even for a big hurricane. We’ve been though about a dozen of these in the last couple of decades, and my experience told me that the distance plus the wind direction probably meant we’d never see more than 45 or 50 knots of wind, even from a Category 3 storm. Possibly quite a bit less. Working in our favor is that we’re docked right below a three–story building that would block a lot of the wind, and our bow is pointed east, which means our dodger and bimini were at a good angle to shed the wind rather than catch it.
So what preparations did I make to hit the sweet spot on the under/over prepared scale? First, I decided not to take the sails down. Our mainsail furls inside the mast, so it’s basically impervious to wind. And we’ve ridden out 50+ knot winds in squalls with the jib furled and it never started coming loose. But just to add some extra insurance, I took about a dozen wraps around the furled jib with our spinnaker halyard, candy-striping the line down the length of the sail to keep it from trying to unfurl.
Eagle Too in her Ready For Tropical Storm Force Winds configuration
I also decided not to strip our dodger and bimini. I did take the sun covers off the dodger, because they were only loosely attached. But we over-engineered the dodger and bimini frame, using only steel rail rather than straps for support, and I knew it could handle 50 to 60 knots with no problem, especially with the wind coming from the bow initially, then shifting to the port side.
Not a good day for sailing
Next, I made sure our dinghy was well tied down with both ratchet straps and lines, and then removed all the loose gear on deck and brought it below. Solar lights, water hose, chairs and cushions, all the little things hanging around topside that could get torn lose got stowed.
I also doubled the lines and rigged all our fenders, and put bungees on several lines that I know like to slap in a gale. It’s hard enough trying to sleep during a good blow. It’s even harder when lines are slapping away like crazy.
We’d have naturally done more if Pensacola was Michael’s destination. We’ve been in a Category 3 hurricane; Hurricane Ivan back in 2004, and I have a great deal of respect for the power of such a storm. But my gut (and the data at spaghettimodels.com) has been telling me that Michael had other plans. So I feel good about our approach to this storm. We’ll see in a couple of days whether I chose wisely…
Some thoughts: this irked me a bit. The marina insists that all the boaters make sure they’ve removed any loose gear that can become airborne from the docks. But then they park their work barge just upwind of our dock, covered with loose gear that can become airborne.
Yes, that’s a machete sticking out of that sawhorse. A sawhorse that’s just sitting there, because I could push it and it would rock.
And it’s always a gut check when you see out of state power crews staging their equipment for the upcoming recovery effort.
I think we’ve adequately prepared. I really feel for the people in Panama City, Port St Joe and Apalachicola, because I think their lives are about to be profoundly affected. For now, here’s the calm before the storm…