Our last post ended with our first night in St. Mary’s, GA. Yes, we were aground-ish for a stint, but the sun came up, the tide came in, and we moved her over a few feet to deeper water. No biggie.
We were so excited to venture on land and check out the town. St. Mary’s is a cute little town. We went ashore and played tourist for a few hours. We visited the Submarine Museum, the General Store, and the Cumberland Island & War of 1812 Museum. We had also heard from Alison, a friend from high school, that her parents live near St. Mary’s. Such a small world! So we all met for dinner. Dinner conversation turned to Hurricane Irma, which looked like it could head this way by week’s end. Eric boasts that if the storm does head this way, he’ll be staying on board. I, however, note that the girls and I will be getting off the boat & staying in a hotel. Alison’s folks offer to let us stay in their house too. We get back to the boat that night and begin our new, obsession by necessity, storm tracking. Here is Eric’s recollection of our hurricane experience…
Tracking the hurricane, it becomes apparent that we are going to get some portion of it. Preparations are not terribly complicated, but they take time. We basically have to remove everything off the deck, remove the jib, and put it inside the boat. Getting the surfboard and windsurfers into the boat isn’t going to happen. I figure it will be OK if I just lash them into the cockpit area. This seems like a lot of work for a potential storm, but it is good practice even if nothing happens.
As the storm destroyed the Virgin Islands (which we later learn totaled my parent’s boat) it becomes apparent that we are going to feel some of it. I think that it can’t be that bad – if it hits South Florida first, it will weaken a lot before it gets to us; however, we should move the boat further from the coast into a hurricane hold. I head into shore to see if I can get some information about up river because our charts have no data on the river’s depths. The wildlife department that runs ferries to Cumberland Island is all but useless in this matter. I note that there is a bait shop just off the boat ramp. They have some kind of kayak tour up river and may have some knowledge of the river.
I talk to a guy working at the bait shop. He tells me he doesn’t know anything about the area, but there is another guy who works at the shop who has been there over 10 years living on a boat. The guy calls himself “Doc”. It seems like a long shot, but I have to get some local advice, and whether I take it or not is up to me. I get into my dingy, which is still running stupid rich, but running, and head to talk to this Doc. I get within hailing distance and yell, “Ahoy”.
A guy in his mid 60’s pokes his head up out of the hatch and asks how he can help. I tell him that I’m visiting in the old catamaran and it looks like we’re going to have to weather out the storm here and was wondering if he knew a good hurricane hole. At least that’s what I think I say, but apparently Doc heard, “Hi, I’m new here and would like to hear your life story.”
Doc starts with talking about previous hurricanes. He has weathered a few in St. Mary’s. It seems that his job is to keep the bait shop open during the hurricane. He grabs a cot, and some provisions and sleeps in the shop. On occasion there will be a few inches of water on the floor, but never more than a foot. He brings a small generator into the shop to keep everything going. Our conversation is interesting, but doesn’t get me any closer to knowing where to set the boat for the hurricane. It turns out the Doc was also Army, and had several tours in Vietnam. We discuss some of the changes in the Army from then and when I was in. I always like to hear and tell stories of combat. When I am talking to another combat veteran I can talk about the some of the real stuff. It seems to comfort me, and I assume it does the same for them.
An hour passes like a flash. As the sun starts to get low, I’m able to extract that one can take a large boat all the way up river to the I-95 bridge, about 13 miles. Doc informs me that the best place to stay is in the second bend about 5 miles up river. It is shielded to the south by a large sand cliff. The river bends there and width is not so broad that waves can build. Doc tells me that there is a map of the river at the bait shop on which the back side shows all the way up to this hurricane hole. I part ways from Doc’s boat having found a new friend and head back to the shop for the map. Doc was right. The map shows depths of the river going almost all the way to I-95. This is just what I need. The clerk offers to make a copy which I gladly accept and buy a soda.
Now a map is good, but I need to recon this area. It’s getting to be sunset now, so the recon will have to wait until the morning. I drive the dinghy to the boat, but it is running so poorly. I can feel it lug as if it is running rich, then it goes well, but then stalls as if it is lean. I have found some success if I manually pump the fuel bulb just a little. If I pump it too much, it bogs as if rich, and if I don’t pump it, the engine stalls out lean. The good news is that there is definitely a fuel pump issue, though I don’t know if that’s the only issue. My new hand pumping strategy is fairly successful, but I need to order a fuel pump. When I get back to the boat I order a fuel pump to be delivered to the marina. On a two stroke there really isn’t a fuel pump, it’s just a diaphragm that uses the crank case pressure to pump back and forth. It’s clever design and I like it.
There are now about 5 days until the hurricane might hit. My job one is to recon up river to the hurricane hole location. The plan is to head up river with the boat, set the anchor, bring the girls back to shore, and I’ll go back to the boat to ride out the storm. Additionally my folks, who are in Florida now, will be coming to visit today and can help with preparations. This works out well because the generator that came with the boat is all seized up and the manufacturer is in Jacksonville. So I’ll borrow the car and head to them to get some parts.
I take the dinghy, fuel it up because it seems to go through a lot of fuel, and head up river. As any river, I stick to the outside of the turns, try to picture the flow and where the deep area are. One of the nice things that I notice is there are crab pots lining the river. The crab pot buoys show how much current there is, and fast current means deep water. I drive the 5 miles up river taking note of the current, the bends, and the shoaling areas and find my hurricane hole. It’s just as Doc described. There is about a 30-40 foot sand cliff to the south, the river bends a full 180 at the bluff and then turns another 90 degrees about 300 yards up. Waves don’t have much area to build. The only thing I don’t like about it is that there is little protection from the north and northeast. The river valley is that direction and there is only straw grass for about a mile to the north and even further to the northeast. However, the hurricane is coming from the south and we should be on the west side of it, so the major winds will all be coming from the south or southeast. This looks like a good hole, we’ll move up here in a couple days.
My folks come to town and I take the car off to Jacksonville to get generator parts. Another 2 grand disappears from our cruising fund. While I’m in Jacksonville Kelly calls to ask about our backup anchor. In all actuality we don’t have a backup anchor. The main anchor on the boat is an 88 lb Racna with 3/8 inch all chain rhode. I have seen that we have a backup anchor line, but no real anchor. The only other anchor that came with the boat was a 35 lb Bruce. Not enough anchor to hold the boat in anything. Obviously my dad has been talking to Kelly, and he’s right. We should have a backup anchor. I look on the internet through my phone and find there is a used boat parts house in St. Augustine. It’s a 45 minute drive south, so I give them a call. It turns out they have three Danforth anchors in the 60 lb range. I tell them I’m on my way.
By the time I get there, they are down to two Danforths. One of them is a 60 lb that has the “H” stamp for high strength steel. The other is a standard Danforth at about 1/2 the price. I ask the clerk if there is any negotiating on the price of the anchor. He tells me, “Three days before a hurricane, I don’t think so. Come back in two weeks and we can deal.” He’s right. I buy the high strength anchor. Further discussion reveals that they have sold 8 anchors that morning. I look around and get some other needed items and negotiate the price on those. In the end I’m happy with my work, and load up the car. We now have everything for the storm and we’ll move to the hurricane hole tomorrow, two days until the storm.
Amidst all the hurricane prepping, we had a great visit with Carl and Les. The kids showed them around St. Mary’s while Eric and I ran errands. After enjoying some of Eric’s great grilled meals, the girls learned how to play Rummikub and love it! It’s become their new obsession.
Continuing Eric’s hurricane memories…
We wake up and continue preparations needed for the hurricane. I lash the mainsail to the boom, and we remove the jib. My folks head back to their house. The tide starts to rise, and we head for the hole. I want to head there on a rising tide so that if we hit the ground we won’t have to wait as long for the water to lift us off. However my recon was good and we made it to the hole without incident. I assume that the hurricane will blow from the south east and south, so I set two anchors for the onslaught. We spend a quiet night in the river in preparation. Well we thought it would be a quiet night.
At midnight I wake up to a howling wind and rain storm. A Nor’easter has jumped ahead of the hurricane and is blowing 20-30 knots with gusts near 40. This is not good. I don’t have the anchors set for a northeasterly wind. The boat is entirely holding on our secondary anchor, at least it’s a good one, but the stern is only about 30 yards from the river bank. There is no way to safely reset the anchors at night, so I’ll just have to hope she holds.
In the morning the weather isn’t much better. The wind is still blowing in the mid 20s from the northeast. The boat moves with the tides and swings close to the river bank. When the tide has us pulling on the main anchor I take the dinghy in a long shot plan to move the secondary anchor. I start pulling up the anchor line and note that my plan sucks. What the heck am I thinking. The boat pulled on this anchor for most of the night. It’s probably dug it’s way to bedrock by now. The dinghy pitches in the wind and waves, more then once while I pull on the anchor line I lose my footing and crash into the hull. There’s no way I’m getting it up in the dinghy, this is just stupid. The anchors are going to have to stay where they are.
It’s about noon and the girls are ready to head into shore for storm. (All the hotel rooms in the area are already full with Southern Floridians who have evacuated, so we reach out to Allison’s parents and take them up on their offer to stay with them. They are Godsends.) I figure a quick dinghy ride in and I’ll be back out here to finish preparations. We all jump in the dinghy, and start for town. On a good day it’s a 20 minute ride. This is not a good day. I gun the engine and the dinghy won’t get on a plain, it just pushes the water with the bow up in the air. It’s running like crap. We get about 100 yards from the boat, and here comes the rain. Soaking wet, cold, and looking at a 45 minute dinghy ride, Kelly isn’t happy. (Ya got that right. ha!) We make about 15 more minutes in the rain and wind and a speed boat from one of the other boats that are in the hurricane hole comes along side and asks if they can take the girls in. I’d not seen my family move so quickly in some time. (Can you blame us?)
Once I had safely sent the family off, I went back to the boat. Alone I finished the rest of the hurricane preparations. The hurricane is heading across the west coast of Florida. It is supposed to hit us tomorrow night. The nor-easter continues to blow and rain all through the night. The wind is holding back the water, and high tides are going a foot or more above schedule.
When I wake up for the final day I see some work is needed. The secondary anchor has drug/dug in some more and at this point I can almost walk off the boat onto the river bank. One more tide change and we’ll be in the marsh. I notice one of the other boats that is anchored up river has already beached itself on the bank. Now how the heck am I going to move the anchors myself? The wind is blowing 25+, there’s just no way. I don’t think I’ve prayed this much since the war. Once again He comes through, and as the current slackens for the shift, the wind lulls to about 15 knots. I have to take the chance of getting the anchors up and repositioning the boat now, or succumb to the near certainty that my boat/house/life will end up on the bank. I have to give it a shot. I’ll have to let my secondary anchor go and then get the primary anchor up, and move the boat to the middle of the river where I’ll have swing distance. Once I let the anchor go though, there is no recovery until after the storm. I attach a fender to the secondary anchor line and let it go.
Now time is of the essence. I engage the engines to take some of the tension off the anchor and use the windless to bring in the chain. As I’m at the bow the boat starts to go terribly off course, that’s bound to happen when no one’s steering, so I rush back and neutral one engine. I scurry back up the the bow and bring in some more chain, then the breaker for the windless trips. I jump back into the salon and reset it, then back to the bow. I run back and forth from the anchor chain to the steering station, to the breaker for 20 minutes. The breaker trips 3 times in the process, but by the grace of God I get the anchor up.
I navigate the boat to the middle of the river where there is room and drop the hook. I have just over 220 feet of chain on the 88 lb anchor, and I let it all out. There’s no reason to hold anything back, we’re all in. I swear not 20 minutes after I get the anchor set in our new location the wind starts up again and now at 30+ knots. I feel the boat is safe, but I’m cold and wet. I peel off my clothes and place them into one of the heads. As I’m back in our “guest birth” which it piled up with stuff we don’t know where to put yet, I find my foul weather gear. Eureka, this won’t be that bad! This is the gear that was issued to me at the Coast Guard Academy some 20 years ago. It turns out though that foul weather gear has a shelf life. As I put on the pants, the yellow plastic disintegrates in my hands. What a mess. The pants are useless. The jacket is another story. It’s made of cloth with a plastic layer inside. The inside layer seems to have disintegrated long ago and piled up in the bottle of the jacket, but the cloth is still in tact. I put it on and head outside but I find the jacket about as waterproof as a wedding veil. This sucks.
I’m not going to put wet clothes back on, and I’m not going to get all my clothes wet, so this is the point I give up on clothes. I only have to go outside to check on the anchor and my surroundings, so I’ll just be naked. Then I only have to dry myself off, brilliant! Time for dinner, two spam sandwiches, that will take care of my sodium intake for the week.
The wind and rain continue. I get out about every 20 minutes and look at the anchor and make sure it’s holding. I check the other three boats that are near me and the one that is already on the bank. As night falls the wind starts to pick up and the hurricane is coming. The night goes by slow. I set my watch to go off every 1/2 hr. I get up, check the hatches and portholes, go out check the anchor and the other boats if I can see them, then I dry off, go back to bed and listen to the howling of the wind.
At around midnight the wind really picks up. The gauge shows that the gusts are getting to near 80 knots, and the rain hits like a BB gun and hurts my face, among other sensitive areas. My only illumination is a headlamp so I can’t see that far into the fury. The drill continues through the night. By 1 in the morning every hatch and porthole is leaking at some level. I decide that if I need the engines I should have them ready, so every hour I start the engines and let them run for the 10 minutes while I check the other stuff. The watches go on without change until around 4:30 in the morning. While I stand in the doorway cold and wet, I look over at the town hoping that my family is doing better then I when all the lights in the town go out. (We were fine. The Benson’s were so kind to us.) Now I’m completely surrounded by darkness.
The boat continues to pitch in the waves that are building from the 70+ knots of wind. Finally around 8 in the morning it’s light enough to see. I liked it better at night. This is crazy. I didn’t know how bad it was. The wind has blown up 3 foot waves in the little river bend that I’m at. The white caps of the waves are being driven off the waves and into the sky, while the rain is blasting in horizontal sheets. I can only see about 100 feet in any direction, it’s like a wall of water that is surrounding me. It finally dawns on me the risk this whole thing is. My job is to make sure that little problems don’t become big problems. My job isn’t over. After one of the sheets of rain goes by I can see another boat that was anchored down river has drifted up onto the bank. At about 10:00 in the morning the wind starts to subside. You know you’ve been through a storm when you think that 50 knots of wind isn’t that bad.
By the time the sun went down the wind had calmed to less then 10 knots. I had some spotty cell coverage and was able to call the family. They would coordinate to get a ride out with Tom who had helped bring them ashore, however, Kelly didn’t know when that would be. Now that the storm is gone, I’m ready to collapse for some well deserved sleep.
When I wake in the morning the calm is beautiful. I start the ‘get our ship back into cruising’ configuration. Kelly gives me a call with some bad news. It appears that the town was hit bad by the hurricane, and the boat ramps are closed. They are looking for an alternate place to launch the boat to get out here. It may take a couple days. Not much I can do.
Two days go by before the family can get back out to me. It is a great feeling to see the girls unable to contain themselves when I see them. The other boaters tells me that the town hasn’t faired well. Both the marinas have been wiped out. Almost all of the docks are gone.
We all raise anchor and head back to town. As we make the last turn I see masts of sailboats scattered all over the waterfront. Once we get close, the devastation is incredible. There are 40+ boats that have been destroyed. There are no docks left at the waterfront. The boats are piled up on top of each other. In one corner there is a commercial fishing boat on top of a 45 foot sailboat. There’s a sailboat at least half a mile into the marsh, he’s going to have to dig a new canal to get it back afloat. It appears that Doc’s boat has made it unscathed. I decide to anchor around the bend from the town, there’s just too many sunken and broken boats in front of the town to anchor back there.
The next morning the town isn’t any better. I dinghy over to Doc’s boat to get a situation report. It’s not good, the waterfront is closed dawn, and there is nowhere that we’re allowed to dock the dinghy to even get to town. Well that’s disappointing, so I guess we won’t be staying around much longer. It looks like we’re heading north.
St. Mary’s really is a cute town, and with time, we’re sure they’ll rebuild and be a great cruising spot again. Last we heard, they had pulled 40ish boats off of the bottom of the harbor. Thanks to Eric, we faired with zero hurricane damage. This was a heck of an experience, through which we met a lot of great people.