And all of a sudden it is calm.
No movement. Not the slightest breeze. Not the usual cacophony of Reggeaton music, barking dogs and roaring power boats. Even the birds stopped chirping.
The world is holding its breath.
This happened so suddenly, like someone pulled the plug in the dance club. Subconsciously I want to stick my fingers in my ears to prevent my eardrums imploding from this deafening sound of silence.
After the hustle and bustle of the morning this abrupt hush is eerie. Am I the only soul left on this planet? Has a deadly virus come over us and killed everyone else? Or an alien invasion?
The good news is it is not a virus (ok, not only), and it is not an alien invasion either. The bad news, however, it is a storm.
It is the calm before the storm.
The Calm before the Storm
And it is not just a storm, it is a major hurricane, a category four hurricane according to the Saffir-Simpson Scale with top sustained wind speeds around 115 knots. Impossible to imagine unless you have already seen it and survived to tell the story. However, in their general description the National Hurricane Center in Miami leaves no doubt what category four means:
“Catastrophic damage will occur. Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage… Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed… Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
And their recent forecast bulletin for hurricane Delta reads like a horror thriller:
“… extremely dangerous category four hurricane Delta heading toward the northeastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula … expected to bring life-threatening storm surge and extreme winds … catastrophic wind damage is expected within portions of the northern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico beginning tonight. All preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.“
So if not now is the time to get shit scared, when else?
The “northeastern coast of Yucatán Peninsula“, this is exactly where we are. We, this is S/V Seefalke and I, are docked in the lagoon of Isla Mujeres, still licking our wounds from tropical storm Gamma, that swept over us just three days ago, pushing us on a sandbar.
And yes, we are rushing to complete our preparations to protect life and property. Because we were not granted much heads-up.
Not Much Heads-up
Yesterday at this time we were still expecting a category one hurricane passing us 300 miles in the east. Only in the evening, after the first hurricane hunter aircraft investigated the storm, we learned that it was upgraded to a cat-4 aiming right at us, becoming the fastest intensifying Atlantic cyclone in fifteen years.
In the night we were all hoping the trajectory would move somewhere else. Hope dies last. But we all woke up to a red alert hurricane warning this morning. The trajectory was confirmed. I guess we better batten down the hatches now.
The lagoon that I am docked in is Makax Lagoon. It is the only hurricane hole in the area. And a good one, too. In 2005 during hurricane Wilma, the last hurricane to hit Isla Mujeres, boats in the lagoon were the only ones still afloat after the storm whereas Cancún, just a few miles away, suffered immense damage.
So, no wonder, boats and ships from all over the place seek shelter now in the mangroves and in the marinas of the lagoon as long as their draft allows. Even the Ultramar passenger ferries come here. In the afternoon there is an endless line of boats passing through the narrow channel that connects the lagoon with the Bahia and the Caribbean. Even though it has been fifteen years since the last hurricane, everyone knows the drill and the preparations follow a strict choreography:
In the Hurricane Hole
The Port Captain closes the ports, ferry traffic is suspended. “Ley Seca“ is activated, which means alcohol sales is prohibited. Shelters are opened. Exposed areas are evacuated. Then stores and supermarkets close and everybody needs to go home. Police and navy soldiers make sure nobody is on the streets. Later the big ferries block the entrance to the lagoon to mitigate storm surge.
The lagoon is bustling. Boats are being anchored, tied up to the mangroves and docks, additional lines are being brought out until every boat looks like a fly in a spiderweb. Then the boats are stripped down, sails and booms, biminis and dodgers, solar panels and wind generators, everything that creates unnecessary windage goes inside. My estimate is 500 to 600 boats are now seeking shelter in the lagoon. It almost feels like you can walk across jumping from boat to boat.
But am I ready? Can you ever get ready for a category four hurricane at all?
I am going through my checklist again and again. And again and again I see something else that I have not seen before. A jerrycan on deck for example, or a boathook that was not lashed yet. In the past I would ask myself
“Can wind tear this off?“,
and mostly the answer was:
“No. Wind cannot tear this off.”
But then I remember the footage of that freight train in Louisiana, tipped over by hurricane Laura. So, I slightly adjusted that question to:
“Can something that can tip over a freight train, tear this off?“,
and now mostly the answer is: “Yes!!“,
and it slowly sinks in that nothing is safe from something that can tip over a freight train. Nothing.
I think my boat is ready. As ready as it gets. The big difference between a tropical storm and a hurricane is that if you do everything right in a tropical storm, you will survive it. In a hurricane you can do everything right and still not make it. Luck is a big factor.
Now the waiting begins. The waiting is the worst. Too much time to think. And every thought worries and scares me more. I am not ashamed to say I am afraid. I am shit scared, with my pants full to the rim.
I look at the wooden dock again that I am tied to. On the first glance it looks massive, but it looks fragile compared to the dock at Palafox Pier Marina in Pensacola, Florida that got annihilated during hurricane Sally. The slip that I used a few months ago when I was there, simply does not exist anymore.
I Don’t Trust my Dock
Also I remember footage from Orange Beach, Alabama, that I passed a few months ago. Docks similar to mine were simply erased, including the boats tied up to them. So, my head is bustling with what-if-scenarios:
What if the cleats on the dock come off? What if the poles collapse? What if the storm surge lets the water level rise over the pier? What if the entire pier gets torn to pieces? What if the neighbour dock goes adrift and plays wrecking ball?
I don’t trust my dock. The locals can say what they want. I drop my anchor. Just in case. And I bring out my stern anchor, too. Just in case.
Category four means wind speeds up to 135 knots. In words hundred thirty-five!! „Catastrophic wind damage“ it echoes in my head. Ok, we are in a hurricane hole, protected by mangroves and higher grounds toward the east where the main blow will be coming from but what will be our number? How much of the catastrophic winds will we see? Will the docks withstand these enormous forces? The locals are confident. They tie up their boats and go home. They have survived Wilma and in their eyes it cannot get any worse. Many cruisers leave their boats, too and go into a hotel for the night, or get drunk or stoned or both.
I can’t. I can’t leave my boat. Not now. I pack my grab-pack just in case but I have trouble to imagine what had to happen for me to use it. It would break my heart to abandon my boat in the hour of need. And – a little superstitious – she could do the same to me one day.
More waiting. It is pure torture. Now bring it on already! I have done my move, and the opponent is taking it slow. A mind war. I am sure it is not giving it justice but I am feeling what I imagine that the WWI soldiers felt in their trenches waiting for the assault.
Now Bring It on Already!
Still not the slightest air movement. The silence is overwhelming. I am exhausted but there is no way I can sleep now. So, I am preparing an excel sheet to record wind speeds, wind direction and pressure every half hour. At least this keeps me busy. Before nightfall I check the docking lines and the deck one more time. Looking good.
Finally the wind is picking up. In normal days not worth mentioning. Sustained winds are around ten knots now, gusts around eighteen knots. Hope is coming up: Maybe we get spared after all?
The system is strong but relatively small and fast moving, so maybe it tacked in the last moment? Sometimes hurricanes do the weirdest things.
But then, all of a sudden, long after midnight, the barometer starts falling: 1010 hPa, 1005 hPa, passing 1000 hPa. The sustained winds are surprisingly low, but relentless gusts unload their explosive charges like bombs. The noise is deafening. The docking lines creak and groan, the stays and shrouds scream and howl. The movements are brutal now, every gust makes Seefalke list and shiver when the wind hits the resonance frequency of the rigging. The lightning show is spectacular, for unbroken moments at a time it is bright as day while in my steel-sheltered cabin-cage I get beaten and shaken like riding the Niagara in a barrel.
I remember what the locals said and try to relax. Evert, my friend in Switzerland, is texting me and provides me with updated weather information. That helps. My mom calls with the last cell service we have. That helps, too. Then the phone is dead.
We pass 995 hPa, the barometer is in free and bottomless fall now, the gusts are deep in the 50-knots range. I doubt that we will be able to survive twice this or even more. How much more can we take? How much longer will it last?
Around 05:00 in the morning we pass 985 hPa, the wind is now gusting up to 70 knots. On the other side of the lagoon a headsail comes loose from one of the sailboats in the mangroves. Slapping in the wind it bangs like machine gun fire. Not much they can do against it now, if they even are onboard.
Then a bang that makes my blood freeze and my eardrums burst, like a hand grenade explosion in direct vicinity. A lightning strike maybe? I have to get out and check on it. The rain is torrential and I can hardly keep my eyes open against the wind and the rain that feels like needles. Then I see it. One of the docking lines snapped. But there are two more, so we are ok. I am also relieved it was the line and not the cleat or the dock. Pheeeww…
I also see that the water level rose by almost one meter in the last hour. I just hope that the eye will pass soon, making the wind shift and drain the lagoon again. If not, we will get a completely different problem soon. Completely soaked, I crawl back into my confined bunker of steel. And while I am rubbing myself dry, Seefalke is jerking and yanking like a rodeo bull. Poor girl!
We Are All in This Together!
Then, in the heat of the fight with the elements, the radio starts cracking, first some upset screams mixed with static, full of panic and fear, I cannot understand a word. Then a fatherly voice:
“Keep calm, boys! We are all in this together, amigos!”,
then another voice, stumbling that two boats just got loose and are headed for the mangroves. All radio discipline is gone to hell.
And then, in a break of all this chaotic radio chatter, a calm but trembling voice starts praying:
“Padre nuestro que estas en el cielo…”,
obviously hailing heaven on VHF channel 16 in sheer despair. The screams on the radio, this man’s prayer and the relentless soundtrack of the storm are burnt into my memory for the rest of my life.
And ironically now, at the peak of the storm, as the locals start panicking, I calm down. I analyze the wind speeds, the pressure, the wind direction and I understand the eye already passed us, it will be over soon. The worst lays behind us.
After a short break, when the eye came closest to us, the pressure stabilizes and the wind kicks in again, strong, yes, but more constant on the storm’s backside without those terrible gusts. I know we are on the ramp down, we have made it!
In the morning, cell service is still gone and power on the island is out. It will take two days until cell service will be operational again. We have a few torn-up headsails, some flipped dinghies, a few fender benders and some coconuts left their marks like big-bore bullet holes on decks and hulls, but no major damages.
The maximum recorded winds on the island were 85 knots, too much for many trees and some roofs. Later I learned that hurricane Delta was downgraded to a category two hurricane just before making landfall at Puerto Morelos, 15 miles south of us, with wind speeds of 96 knots. The minimum pressure in the eye at the time was 953 hPa, on Isla Mujeres the official minimum recorded pressure was 987 hPa.
How good the hurricane hole at Isla Mujeres is and how lucky we all were I saw first hand two days later when I visited Cancun. Just five miles away it looked like a war zone, hardly any marina or boat survived on the unprotected shore there. The prestigious marina Hacienda del Mar for instance was wiped out.
So, after my first hurricane on a boat, I understand that maticulous preparation, a good hurricane hole and a great deal of luck are the ingredients for hurricane survival.