By the end of August, a storm named Dennis had drifted to within kissing distance of the mouth of the Chesapeake; and then lost its resolve. It sensed apparently that a plunge into land – for all the entertainment it would provide – would also mean the end of its career. So instead of hitting it like a log on the head, Dennis itched the continent like a fly on a hot day; an apocalyptic nuisance buzzing one hundred miles offshore.
And how the “weather experts” worked! …dramatically overstating the obvious while producing no information of real use to anyone. Of course it’s windy, of course the locals are frightened, and of course you are in danger: It’s a hurricane!
It isn’t so much that I dislike the folk at the Weather Channel. Mostly, I just disapprove of the notion that such a thing as a “weather-expert” is possible. It’s just that sort of idea that gets nice people involved in such questionable enterprises as building unsinkable cruise-liners.
As it happens, during those days, at least, my weather-folk-antagonism was somewhat justified. It was this week my girlfriend and I had chosen – long ago – for our sailing vacation. Now, stuck in Deltaville, besieged by wind and rain, we watched more wind and rain on the weather channel, and grew irritable.
Then suddenly, after having stared down the weather satellites with a lunatic’s eye, Dennis the hurricane shrugged its shoulders and fizzled.
I imagine a nervous tap on the shoulder: Hmmm…excuse me err, Mr. Dennis? This telegram just arrived for you. Says here it’s from Africa:
YOU’VE HAD YOUR KICKS / REQUEST YOU VACATE PREMISES / REGARDS / YOUNGER BROTHER / H. FLOYD.
This is the story of me, my boat, and Floyd…
Saturday morning, September 17th it was raining. After a hurried, unsatisfactory breakfast, Bob Farley got in his car and drove straight to the marina in Fort Monroe. He was – like every other sensible Chesapeake Bay boat owner on that particular summer morning – quite worried.
Getting to the marina did not put him at ease. The docks were now closed to all boat owners (liveaboards had been evacuated last night).
All he could do now was hope for the best. Resigned, he took his video camera out of the car and began filming. He might as well; it would be something to show the grandchildren one day.
All hell was breaking loose. Halyards stridently demanded attention. Rigging hummed. Masts scratched at the offending sky. Boats pitched and rolled and yawed in their slips, tugging at their lines. Struggling: to break, to crash, to sink! Waves splintered over the little bit of wooden seawall still above water (it was designed to deal with nothing more daunting than the occasional jerk-induced wake). In this shrieking, wet pandemonium, the marina awaited Floyd.
All hurricanes are killers. But where Dennis had been a twitching lunatic, Floyd was more a hit-man. In a graceful inexorable arch it advanced on its target. A mighty hook punch was only a few hours away from Fort Monroe.
After ten minutes or so of filming the chaos around, Farley got into his car and turned for home. But near the main gate something caught his eye; he pulled over and grabbed his camera again. It was a little blue sailboat at anchor, less than a hundred yards from the pretty waterfront of Phoebus.
In his video, you see the nasty, aggressive waves bullying the sailboat left and right. You can see evil boiling clouds in a low sky. You can almost feel the wind (you can certainly hear it). There is no doubt about it: that boat is the underdog. You want to root for it.
Or, at any rate, I want to root for it. Beyond a human hardwired friendliness towards tiny heroes making stands against dark towering forces (That’s why we love the Hobbits) I have at least three solid reasons for sympathy. First, as the avid reader has already guessed, that’s my boat out there. Second, it’s my – and my dog Mystic’s – home. Third, the cold, naked, wet, scared and exhausted fellow laying in the v-berth (if Bob Farley had but waited a few minutes he would have caught this strange apparition emerging from the cabin, leaning over the bucking bowsprit for a minute or two, then scampering back to shelter) is me.
Three days earlier…
Though I take her very seriously, my little twenty footer looks like a toy boat to many a yacht owner. Watch how the wonderfully lifelike hatches open and close, and how the propeller whirrs into life by the action of an amazing miniature toy engine. Batteries are included! Also included, a 25 lb CQR: the bower anchor, a 25 lb Danforth: the sits-awful-awkward-in-the-locker-but-will-fit-nowhere-else anchor, about thirty feet of chain, and two nylon anchor rodes, for the action figures – sold separately – to tangle with.
By the afternoon of the 14th my mind was made up. I would turn down the marina’s fickle promise of safety. Riding at anchor, in complete self-sufficiency, I would wait for the storm.
I was, in fact, heeding the advice of my heroes and heroines: Bernard Moitessier, Lyn and Larry Pardey, Ives Gelina, and a few others whose writing has found permanent residence on the bookshelf above my v-birth. I want to grow up to sail like these men and women do. You need only look at a photograph of any of them on board their beautiful white-winged homes to know in your heart that these are no fools.
At anchor, you can focus all of your survival drive upon one line. On a slip you have to worry about wayward masts. You have to consider the possibility of one of those cleats – to which your boat is secured by way of an assortment of nylon lines, chains, and moped tires – coming loose; transforming the dock from friend into enemy. Finally, there is the risk of the storm surge lifting the whole thing over and beyond the upright influence of those solid (hmmm?) pylons: a monstrous raft set on a killing path.
Two days before…
In the marina, if your boat sinks, you can run to a payphone and call whoever it is you’d call if your boat sank. It is worse than that even, because you will probably have to wait until the hurricane has passed before they let you in to see if your boat is still there. A liveaboard – like I am – waits homeless.
At anchor the possibility of failure narrows down, with almost complete certainty, to two scenarios: first, the anchor drags; second, the rode chafes through. The course of action stands clear before you: get the mightiest anchor, and install the toughest chafe gear.
Later that day I came out of West Marine with The Art of Staying Put and the toughest, thickest, piece of steel reinforced rubber hose I have ever seen: my hurricane-chaffing gear in the rough. I would cut it lengthwise, drill holes on both sides of the cut then slip it over the rode (itself wrapped in a beach towel to prevent chafing from the chafing gear), finally lacing it all up with small stuff, like an old fashioned lady’s boot, and securing the works to the bowsprit.
Now all was set: gear ready, mind clear. Unless the hurricane changed its course tonight; tomorrow I would head off.
That day – Friday 16th – I had duty. Normally, this meant I would work through the workday, stand a couple of four hour watches and sleep most of the remaining twenty four hours until relieved on Saturday morning. All this time, of course, must be spent within the confines of building 64 (USS Nimitz on dry dock).
Duty sections are serious business in the Navy on account of ships occasionally choosing to catch on fire or sink after normal working hours. But after I explained my situation to the Duty Officer, he let me slip out between watches to go take care of the little business of saving my home.
In the harbor master’s office everyone was beginning to look just a little bit stressed out. I informed them I was leaving. Theresa, the lady who runs the marina, and Floyd, the mechanic, looked on me with the look of parents seeing their son off to war. Suddenly Floyd motioned for me to wait. He left, and came back with a little anchor. It couldn’t have been more than ten pounds. He handed it to me wordlessly. I felt like Private Ryan.
At high tide with storm surge I motored toward the small beach between Fort Monroe and the Highway 64 bridge that connects Hampton to Norfolk. Later, I would likely be aground, but not until the storm had past. My plan was to tuck myself as snuggly as possible into the – ever so slight – concavity of the beach. I would squeeze out every inch of shelter land offered, it wasn’t much.
My hurricane hole left much to be desired. It wasn’t very holey. If I dragged north, I might be ok. That way was the beach. I might end up in somebody’s backyard: not pretty, but seemingly soft. If dragged east or west, I would head straight for one bridge or another. Either would – in the best possible scenario – swiftly destroy my rigging. If blown south, who knows, I just might land right back in slip B-22.
The ground tackle consisted of two anchors attached in tandem by fifteen feet of chain: the crown of the Danforth – nearest the boat – to the shank of the plow. This setup – in theory – ensured that the pull on the plow (the stronger anchor) would always be horizontal, which is ideal. Another 15 feet of chain and then two parallel nylon lines completed seventy feet of scope (at a depth of six feet or less). Both lines were made fast to the heavy bow cleat, one of them left slack to better absorb the shock from pitching. I led each to a separate winch where I put some tension – to relieve the bow cleat – then on to separate cleats in either quarter.
My work on deck complete, I went below and made a diagram of my setup, described my position, and scribbled some nervous thoughts onto the ship’s log. The last lines of my entry are: God, take care of her. 1530, I’m about to leave. I think this [anchoring] is the safest thing. Then I put on my swim trunks, mask and fins, slung my rigging knife around my neck and jumped in the water.
I went hand over hand down the rode and inspected the set of the anchors: both buried. Then I swam for shore after some reassuring words to my friend. You’ll be OK; I’ll be back as soon as I can. I walked a mile back to my car, and drove to work.
Misery followed. The hours dragged and the wind blew. The chaffing gear must be working itself lose. And the anchors, of course, were not heavy enough. A puny fifty pounds was no match for a hurricane, what was I thinking! I didn’t sleep well. Outside, gray rain lashed at grey metal.
Finally morning came and with it, duty-section four. I was off like a greyhound after a terrified electric bunny. To succor my boat, but first: to West Marine.
A thirty-five pound Delta Fastset – rated for boats up to 52 feet – is a beauty: brute honesty, fierce simplicity, an insane sense of duty. Not on my watch, it says; all fang, and no moving parts – moving parts are for sissies.
I ran out of West Marine, Delta slung over one shoulder, a five-gallon plastic jerry-can over the other. Remember, yesterday I swam out. That – though it probably sounds sketchy to a sensible reader – was easy. Swimming a thirty five pound anchor to my boat and doing so – if at all possible – without the inconvenience of drowning, was the challenge today.
No problem: you tie anchor to jerry-can, then swim pushing the floating contraption before you. A dinghy? Technically, I had one: a Sevylor inflatable kayak, a purple one. Imagine ferrying anchors in thirty-plus knots of wind through a nasty chop on that! At once, the anchor would plunge through the floor and to the bottom. Then I would be whisked away to Oz.
The water, I knew, would be warm. I only wished I had remembered my swim trunks.
I sat in the driver’s seat in my uniform, cursing. I searched through my jeep (on which, to be sure, one is as likely as not to find anything, including – on any other day – a stray pair of swimming trunks). But no other clothes were found that Saturday. Outside, through diagonal rain, I could see my boat beyond someone’s yard.
Had circumstances been other than they were I might have considered knocking at the door and explaining to the nice, dry people therein why I was traipsing about their yard and walking into the ocean like some creepy sea-creature from a bad science fiction flick. Now, that was out of the question. I had to walk through that yard – carrying an anchor, swim fins, bright red jerry-can. And as luck would have it, I had to do this in my underwear.
There were – as I saw it – two options. The first was stealth which, when one considers the underwear, might have disastrous consequences if it failed. The second option was to adopt the just-another-day-of-hauling-weird-objects-through-people’s-backyards-in-my-underwear look.
I went for option two and two minutes later I was safely floating in hurricane stirred waters. Advancing slowly. On the surface: wind and chaos, and gagging on saltwater jet-blown into my mouth. Below: peaceful darkness and muffled womb noises. So I made my way forward underwater poking my head out only for the occasional quick breath and to check my bearings.
I swam to the bow where my own boat, pouncing, threatened to crush my scull. I grabbed the nylon rodes and followed them out to where they met the chain. There I shackled the Delta. Then, to help it set, I stomped on it a bit – which, of course, is impossible to do underwater, but so what? Finally, I swam back to my boat, already exhausted.
Onboard, I first checked the chafing gear: It was in place and in good condition. I checked the fittings: solid. The lines: fast. I looked around: the overnight blow did not seem to have moved the boat. I went below, climbed out of my wet underwear, curled in bed under a blanket, and found that I was quite thrilled. The hardest part – the part where I could do nothing at all – was over. Then the wind really began to pick up.
My survival plan was simple. Every ten minutes I would come out and check everything: line, chaffing gear, fittings, position. If the boat dragged, there was one more resource: the engine. If I could motor forward against twenty knots of wind – I reasoned – then I could subtract as much from the wind-force acting on my anchors. If that too failed, my fins waited in the water, hanging from a rope. I would swim to shore.
So it went. Ten times – or maybe one hundred – I came out into stinging rain, checked everything, went back down and spent a few minutes in the fetal position, listening. Sometimes I slept a minute or two. The anchors held.
Then at about 11:30 the boat pierced through… the fabric of the hurricane. I stood on deck in awe, naked, looking up. At 11:45 I wrote: So this is the eye! The wind died almost completely 20 minutes ago. A position of 38.06N 76.00W for 11:00 puts it near VA beach. Makes sense. Winds are picking up now as she moves on... And yes, they are swinging to the west... We have met the enemy. I have been inside her mind. You can almost see the sun. In the distance, all around, black clouds.
And here – in the climax – I end my story. What follows is… well anticlimactic. The wind and rain returned, but not the fury. Later, after having kedged my boat out of the mud, I motored into a washed out and tired marina. I tied up. And went to sleep.
Before Floyd, Captain Chapman – my boss – had harbored some doubts about my judgment: that I lived on a twenty foot boat with a Siberian husky and drove a jeep were to him all symptoms of a deficient mind at work. After the storm, he no longer doubted: I was a hopeless fool. He attributed my survival to a merciful God and to the fact that it wasn’t a real hurricane that struck that day.
According to the National Hurricane Center webpage Floyd was, in fact, demoted to tropical storm on the 17th, but late in the evening, after having crossed over the Chesapeake, and Nin˜a. A curve of maximum sustained winds shows a steady drop from 90 knots at the start of that day to a mere 50 at its end. The Casualty and Damage Statistics section attributes 57 deaths to the storm, which – it says – makes Floyd the deadliest hurricane in the United States since Agnes of 1972. Most of the deaths – Captain Chapman would no doubt submit to you as conclusive proof – were due to drowning.
As for my debt to divine leniency: I find no difficulty in believing that as I stood in the whispered light of the eye, the One who spins up hurricanes and galaxies – and inexplicably suffers me to live – was looking down, sighing and shaking His head. But I recon He knows that I am thankful for my life and for my boat, and – of course – for the Hurricane.