Riding the Storm: A Personal Account of Hurricane Luis

Sue Dally

Saturday, September 2

Weather reports indicate Luis is continuing on a steady WNW track. Right for the Leeward Island chain. The likelihood of a hit in our area is high. By all reports, this is a "text book perfect" hurricane--very well formed and a clearly defined eye. It's already a category 2 (wind speeds of 96-110 mph). If it continues on this course, it should reach St. Martin on Monday night.

With a hurricane of this size bearing down on us, our first instinct is to get completely out of its path. This means scrambling to get Dalliance ready to go and heading directly south. We pull out the charts and plot the anticipated path of the storm and our potential escape route. It doesn't look good. Given the speed and direction the storm is traveling (WNW at 12-14 knots) and our speed and direction (South at 5-7 knots), there's a very strong possibility we'd still be within 150 miles of the storm as it passed. That could mean 80+ knot winds and very high seas. Not an attractive option. It's too late to leave.

Sunday, Sept 3

Looks like we'll stay in St. Martin and ride it out. We're currently in a marina inside Simpson Bay Lagoon. Popular opinion in a case like this is to leave the marina and head for a protected, uncrowded anchorage. Simpson Bay Lagoon is a huge, well protected lagoon with many anchoring possibilities. However, there are in excess of 500 boats anchored out, with more pouring in as the storm gets closer. Jack and Robert (from Cascade) take the dinghy out for a reconnaissance mission in the lagoon. There's a few good anchoring possibilities, but it is definitely crowded.

The only other option is to stay in the Marina. Initially, this is a very unpopular idea. There are a lot of potential problems--many boats in a small area, the boat is tied down to a single position instead of swinging on anchor, storm surge could raise the water level another 5 feet...the list goes on. Jack is one of the few who holds firmly to the marina strategy. We're staying.

Preparation on Dalliance gets serious. Everything is stripped from the decks. Luckily we had already removed the sails for Hurricane Iris last week (turns out Iris was a false alarm). Still, all canvas covers, the bimini, the barbecue grill, the SSB antenna, all MOB equipment, the spare outboard, cockpit light, scuba tanks--anything and everything that might come loose or adds to the overall windage has to come in. The V-berth gets smaller and smaller.

Securing Dalliance in the marina is the biggest task. Both Dalliance and our neighbor, Myst, have double width slips (they're each wide enough to hold a large catamaran) with half length "finger" piers on each side. Behind us is a fairly open area, and then a cement breakwall with a few smaller piers. We center both Myst and Dalliance in their slips and run anchors and additional lines out to the breakwall. On the other side of the breakwall is "Lucky Field". Lucky is the name of the pet goat living in the field. We plant our 65 pound CQR anchor in the field, braced against the breakwall. We can't depend on the dock cleats holding us, so we take one of our anchor chains and cut it into 10 foot lengths to shackle around each of the pilings on the dock. We tie our lines to these chains.

One of the biggest problems in a storm like this is chafing on the lines. After hours of rubbing against chain, cement, or anything rough, the line will eventually sever through. This is not a good thing. To prevent chafing, we added "thimbles" to each attachment point to the chains. A thimble is a smooth stainless steel ring that forms an inner circle on the loop where the line is tied to the chain. The stainless steel thimble rubs against the chain and protects the dacron or nylon line. Also, rags cut into strips and wrapped around any point on the line that will rub against anything is secured with duct tape.

The hours rush by as we scramble to get everything done. Luckily there's a marine supply store nearby so it was not difficult to get all the extra lines, thimbles, shackles, etc. that we needed. The credit card takes a beating, but we've got the extra stuff we need.

Monday, Sept 3

We're completely exhausted, but still frantically trying to finish up. We had decided early on not to stay on the boat during the storm. The storm was just too strong to risk it. In addition to getting Dalliance ready, we checked into a room at a nearby resort and did the normal hurricane prep stuff there. This meant getting a one week supply of food and water, flashlights, portable radio, etc. over to the room. We also brought boat documentation, insurance papers, first aid supplies, passports, cash, and the cat. She wasn't too happy about moving. Neither was I.

I can't even begin to explain how difficult it was to leave Dalliance. By sunset on Monday, the wind was kicking up--you could feel the storm approaching, but we weren't ready to leave! Maybe a few more lines? Another anchor? It's a horrible combination of exhaustion, anticipation and fear. Finally we secure the dinghy (partially deflated the pontoons, fill it with water so it won't flip up, set an anchor, and tie it to the stern of Dalliance) and blow up a little raft to get us back over to the dock. We're among the last to leave the marina.

The room at the resort is great. It's on the second floor, has a huge sliding glass door out to the patio, and is about 150 yards from the waters edge. Hmmm...maybe this wasn't the best idea. Anyway, it's a studio, so we have a kitchen. We cook a big dinner Monday night, enjoy the air conditioning and cable tv, and get some sleep.

Tuesday, Sept 5

By Tuesday morning, we're going nuts. The storm is raging outside and we're pacing around in our climate controlled little box. The power and water are still on. Cable is gone, but the radio stations are still broadcasting. We had brought our handheld VHF radio and already the calls for help from boats anchored out in the lagoon are coming in. It was only blowing about 60-70 mph, so we suit up in our foul weather gear and venture out to check on things.

The Marina looked pretty good. Dalliance and Myst were still in position and had the wind on the nose. Cascade was taking it across the beam, but she was handling it well. We ventured further down the marina and saw Barca bashing into the dock. After raising the owners on the radio (they were also staying at a hotel), we tightened up one of the stern lines to pull her back, and moved some fenders to help cushion the blows. It helped, but she was definitely in for a rough ride.

We drove a little way up the road that circles the lagoon, and immediately saw beached yachts. Nobody appeared to be on them, and there was nothing we could do to help. It was getting a bit dangerous with roofs and other debris flying around (why would anybody use corrugated metal for a roof???) so we figured we should head back to our room.

The storm intensity increased as the day wore on. We continued to track its progress via the coordinates relayed over the radio. It looked more and more like the eye would pass directly over us. Luis had also been upgraded to a Category 4 by this time. That meant the winds were in excess of 130 mph within about 30 miles of the center. If the eye passed over us, there would be a brief calm before we got hit from the other direction. We were hoping to get down to the boat again during the calm to re-secure the lines.

Jack and I suited up in our foul weather gear and harnesses three times before we actually made it to the car again. The first two tries we could barely get out the door and were instantly bombarded by flying palm fronds and driving rain. The third time, we made it down to the car and decided to give it a try. It was 10:30 at night. We hadn't seen the eye of the storm, but the wind had shifted direction.

To get to the marina, we had to drive up, around, and down the side of a hill. Twice Jack had to get out to move trees out of the road so we could squeeze through. Power and phone lines were all over the place. The phone poles and palm trees were at crazy angles. Luckily it was too dark to see that the roof had blown off one of the other buildings in our resort.

Even the simplest things were a major project. I couldn't open the car door by myself (it ripped out of my hands) so Jack had to get out first and help open my door. There was broken glass and roof tiles all over the ground, and quite a bit of debris flying around. We had to constantly watch where we were walking and watch for stuff flying into us.

When we first got to the dock, we could see Dalliance was still there, but we couldn't tell what her condition was. I watched from Lucky Field while Jack went out to get a closer look at Dalliance. I could see from the field that Myst was no longer in position and they looked pretty close.

Within a few minutes, Jack made his way back and screamed the news in my ear (it was nearly impossible to hear anything in the wind). Myst had broken her stern lines and had come forward over our port bow lines, severing the two major holding points for Dalliance's port bow. Myst was also now sharing Dalliance's slip area and bashing into her port side. Cascade was also in trouble--the sailboat next to her had sunk, Cascade was partially on top of the sunken boat, and their rigging was banging together.

We got a hold of Robert on Cascade so he could work on his boat, and we all made our way out to the dock. Jack climbed on Myst (her port side was hitting against the finger pier) and jumped from Myst onto Dalliance. It wasn't a big jump--they bashed together with every gust of wind. By readjusting our stern lines, Jack was able to pull us further away from Myst. In the meantime, I added more lines to keep Myst where she was (and pulled her far enough off the dock to keep her from continually smashing into it). We also added new port bow lines to replace the lost ones. By the time we were finished, Dalliance and Myst were separated, but still close. However, they were no longer close enough for Jack to jump back, so he was now in for the duration on Dalliance.

By about 3:00 a.m. we had the boats reasonably secured. I had spent the majority of the time dockside, while Jack and Robert were on the boats. I was getting pretty good at hearing the stronger gusts of winding coming and bracing for them. Often this meant squatting down and holding onto a dock box or cleat. Sometimes it meant laying flat out on the dock, holding on, and praying. The rain had really started to intensify, so we were also soaking wet and were having trouble seeing. Jack and I were communicating via VHF (he was using Dalliance's radio and I had the handheld). It was the only way we could talk to each other. Unfortunately my batteries were fading fast.

In the confusion, we had also lost the car keys. It was impossible to walk back to the hotel (plus at this point, I didn't want to leave), so I stayed on Cascade with Robert. We had just gotten a little dried off and were trying to catch some sleep when a call came over the VHF from Jack.

He said something like "Sue, get over here, somebody is sailing into us". Robert and I rushed over, pulling shoes and jackets on as we climbed off Cascade. Jack was right, there was a 35 foot sailboat with a tattered jib sail flying, aiming right for Dalliance's midsection. I couldn't believe it. There was nothing we could do, we just had to watch and see what would happen. It came closer and closer, and then the big miracle--it suddenly stopped, turned, and drifted over towards the small piers across from us!! Turns out it caught on one of our anchor lines. Jack threw me a huge line and I ran down the dock and across Lucky field, tossed a line around the bow pulpit and pulled the Ghost ship close enough to shore to secure.

It was after 5:00 and starting to get light. The winds had diminished somewhat, and it was getting easier to walk. Sleeping was out of the question now. As the sun came up people started to appear. It was time to see what really happened.

Weds, Sept 6 and on …

Of the 80 boats in the marina 13 had completely sunk, most sustained some type of damage, many were holed (but still floating). Barca was badly damaged, but still afloat. Very few had no damage. The marina fared extremely well.

Of the 845 cruising boats we knew of in the lagoon area (including the marina), 101 were beached, 40 were on the rocks, and 78 had sunk. A total of 278 reported major damage or total loss. Many reported they were "okay" but often this meant damaged but afloat. There are still 144 that have not been accounted for. These numbers do not include the 65 charter boats that were sunk or damaged (most of them dragging the cruising boats along with them). There's talk of a class action suit against the charter companies--the charter boats weren't properly secured and caused an incredible amount of trouble.

The extent of the destruction is something you absolutely have to see to believe. I see it every day, and I'm still in awe. Thousands of people are homeless, much of the island is still without reliable power and water, the debris is everywhere.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of very ugly politics going on as well. This island is half French and half Dutch. The French side seems fairly well organized, but the Dutch side is still arguing over who's in charge--local Antillean government, Curaco (regional control), or Holland. They've refused much of the outside help offered from other islands, the States, and Europe. While the official casualty rate was released as 80 injured, 5 deaths, we know it was significantly higher. Already 4 bodies were removed from sunken vessels. A friend in a local hospital said there were hundreds on the French side alone.

Overall, Dalliance survived the Myst bashing very well. We need to replace a section of the teak toerail and touch up the hull (the gelcoat is chipped in some places, but the fiberglass is fine). It may be a good opportunity to haul her out and paint her. It's actually a bit embarrassing to be one of the lucky few who weren't devastated by the storm.

We're fine. I've been helping out with compiling the list of boats that were here through the storm and making sure everyone is accounted for. There are still many listed as missing. Jack is also working full time trying to put the pieces back together.

We were hit by Marilyn a week after Luis. Same drill. Not as bad. Virgin Islands got it worse. Luis was a much stronger storm than Marilyn.

We'll probably head down island (maybe to Venezuela) soon. It's outside the hurricane belt. Blender drinks and a peaceful anchorage would be a welcome change right now.