Tag Archives: Hurricane preparations

It’s Not Our First October Surprise

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…

An Unpleasant Encounter With Nate

It started out as just another week. Monday, October 2nd dawned warm and clear, and the weather news talked primarily about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and its just concluded rampage across Puerto Rico.

On Tuesday, the National Weather Service noted an area of disturbed weather in the Caribbean off the coast of Panama, and gave it a 40% chance of developing into a tropical system. It seemed too far away to worry very much about. Rhonda spent the day running errands with her sister, while I had a long lunch with my brother followed by beers at Pensacola Bay Brewery. Our canvas contractor was onboard Eagle Too templating our new dodger.

dodger

Wednesday morning, the area of disturbed weather had become tropical depression 16, with the forecast track taking it to the northern Gulf Coast on Sunday. That afternoon, our marina issued the first in a series of emails expressing concern and reminding us of their criteria for determining when to close and evacuate the marina. We really hoped nothing would come of it, as we didn’t want to have to implement our hurricane plan. Boats began to leave, however, because Pensacola Shipyard had implemented its hurricane haulout plan. Our anxiety level started to ratchet up.

Before closing for the day, the marina office informed us that a decision would be made the following morning regarding a mandatory evacuation after the 10AM CDT update from the National Hurricane Center. We started talking through the steps in our plan. We both slept poorly that night.

Thursday, October 5th began as another sunny, humid Florida day. The storm was now Tropical Storm Nate, and was forecast to make landfall to our west as a hurricane in less than 72 hours. I felt it would be too far away to do us much harm. We idly puttered around the boat waiting for word. When midday approached with nothing from the marina, we felt it was safe to go into town and do some shopping. At 1PM, my phone dinged notifying me of an incoming email. The subject was “MANDATORY EVACUATION OF MARINA.” It was a punch to the gut. I still didn’t think the storm would amount to much, but it wasn’t our decision. We had to go. We wrapped up our errands and returned to the boat, spending the remainder of the afternoon collecting the things we knew we’d need to take ashore.

One of the reasons we’ve returned to Pensacola the last two hurricane seasons is because we have options here in the event of a storm. The marina at the nearby Naval Air Station is tucked in the arm of a well protected bayou, and we have family here with whom we can seek shelter rather than have to try and find transportation and a hotel room. We hoped we’d never need to invoke our plan, but it was good to have one regardless. Some of our marina neighbors were at a loss as to what to do.

The evacuation order gave us until noon on Saturday to leave, but we knew that conditions would begin deteriorating Friday afternoon. So after another restless, anxious night, we were up early Friday to prepare to get underway.

nate1

An hour later, we were safely tied to the Transient Dock at the Bayou Grande Marina at NAS Pensacola. They put us on the inside, which is where we wanted to be. Less chance of being hit by another boat there in the event one broke loose, plus the strong southeasterly winds would be pushing us off the dock rather than hard against it.

nate2

We worked the rest of the afternoon and into the evening preparing Eagle Too for the coming storm. My first concern was to break down our solar panels and bimini. If you’ve read our More Power Scotty! series, then you know we designed our bimini mounted flexible panels to be firmly attached, yet easily removable in the event of a hurricane. In two years, this was the first time we’d had to test that process. Fortunately, it only took a little over an hour to remove the panels and wiring, unzip the canvas, and fold up and secure the frame. Everything stored compactly below.

removingpanels1 removingpanels2 panels

All loose gear was brought below, and we tripled up our lines, running additional “just in case” spring lines to take over if a primary line chaffed through and failed. I still didn’t think we’d see winds over 60 mph, which we’ve experienced in the past in thunderstorms, so instead of taking down the jib, I tightly wrapped it multiple times with our spinnaker halyard to keep it from unfurling accidentally. The marina confirmed that they would leave the power on, so we decided not to empty our refrigerator and freezer. With our solar panels offline, I knew our refrigeration would only be able to run for about 48 hours in the event of a loss of shore power before our batteries were dead, so I secured our power cord with bungee cords and duct tape to prevent it from shaking loose and unplugging itself.

Exhausted from stress and storm preparations, we headed to Rhonda’s sister’s house for the evening. We had another restless night.

Saturday morning saw us back at the boat to finalize our preparations. FInally, we stood back, looked everything over, and declared Eagle Too ready for a Cat 1 hurricane. We gave her a pat, wished her luck, and headed inland.

secure secure2

First though, we stopped back by Palafox Pier to see how the evacuation had gone. It looked eerie seeing all the empty slips.

slip

Although the storm was still 12 hours away, the surge was already starting. It was still hours away from high tide, but our floating dock was already higher than we had ever seen it. Normally the walkway around our marina is at about my head level.

surge

It was a long evening, as we sat at Rhonda’s sister’s house glued to the Weather Channel. For reasons I’ve never understood, hurricanes seem to prefer to come ashore in the dead of night, and Nate was no exception. Landfall occurred as a strong Cat 1 storm just after midnight.

weatherchannel

One thing in our favor was the fact that Nate obviously had someplace it needed to be. While a typical hurricane might rumble along at 8 or 10 miles an hour, Nate flew by at over 20. In just a few hours, the worst was over.

Sunday morning, I received a text from another boater who had ridden out the storm on his Lagoon catamaran across the dock from Eagle Too, informing us that she looked just fine. Whew! What a relief it was to receive that news. We’d left our wind instrument on when we departed, and found out when we returned that the wind had peaked at 44 knots, or about 50 mph, which really wasn’t that bad, merely tropical storm range.

And by Monday, it was all over and it was just another week. The weather was partly cloudy with a gentle south wind, and Palafox Pier emailed to notify us that they were open for business again. We took Eagle Too out of bondage and headed back downtown, having a pleasant sail for most of the trip.

returning returning2

By lunchtime, Eagle Too was securely back in her slip, and we watched as other boats began finding their way home.

slip2 slip3

We have a bit of work ahead of us, restoring everything back to its proper place onboard. As it happens, we were already planning to remove our solar panels and bimini so that our canvas contractor could attach a zipper to tie it to our new dodger, as well as fix a few areas that have gotten worn during our travels. Removing all our shades and covers also revealed that we have a bit of deep cleaning to do, which is something we’d want to attend to anyway before heading out next month. So I guess in hindsight, there was some benefit that came from it all.

But we hadn’t been back in our slip more than a few hours when Rhonda looked up from her phone and said, “So did you see that there’s a new Tropical Storm in the Atlantic?”

Her name is Ophelia. I hope she stays far away from us. It’s someone else’s turn now.