Surviving Sandy: The Moondust Chronicles
Surviving Sandy: The Moondust Chronicles
Thanks to Sandy, I have now nursed sailboats through two hurricanes (or hurricanes that were fading into the tropical storm category, if I am totally honest). One sailboat, a Bristol 35.5, was at sea, and we ran into Hurricane Mitch in 1998, after the storm surprised everyone by doubling back east and running over the southbound Caribbean 1500 fleet. And the other, my new-old Beneteau 36.7, Moondust, was sitting at a pier on the Rhode River on the Chesapeake Bay when Sandy roared through this week.
The big difference between protecting a sailboat from a hurricane at sea, versus at a pier, is, of course, that when you are at sea your own safety and life (along with your crews’) are in play as well. That is about as high stakes as any game gets. So Hurricane Mitch was a stressful series of days: trying to anticipate where Mitch would track and how to stay away from the worst of it, and then enduring the actual wind and waves (we hove-to for about 12 hours). One of my crew experienced something like PTSD and sat out of the watch rotation for a few days after, recuperating. After we finally made it safely to Virgin Gorda, I remember that it took a few weeks of Planters Punches and Caribbean relaxation before the knot in my stomach completely dissolved.
But the big similarity is that dealing with a hurricane requires a lot of planning, forethought, and trade-offs. And this may sound weird, but it is a challenge (me vs. the power and unpredictability of Mother Nature) that I actually enjoy. You are making complex and subjective decisions under pressure, with real consequences. That puts you deep into the moment and yanks you clear of all the normal life BS, which is easy to believe is important absent major hurricanes.
Sandy makes her approach to the mid-Atlantic.
When it comes to the Chesapeake Bay and hurricanes, the biggest question is whether the eye will pass to the east or to the west. The east will mostly produce northerlies, which tend to push water out of the Bay, minimizing storm surge (and also helping negate any flooding from rain). You are dealing with a wind event.
In contrast, if the eye passes to the west, you are in the danger zone that will be dealt southerly winds (that have the added turbo-boost of the speed by which the storm is advancing), which pile an enormous volume of water up into the Bay. You are facing a major wind event, PLUS a serious storm surge danger. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel made landfall on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and ran inland and to the west of the Chesapeake. That track put a lot of Annapolis underwater, and the high water wrecked both marinas and yachts.
Sandy was a fickle, indecisive storm. A few days out, there was little agreement between weather models on where she would make landfall. The southernmost model tracks had her coming up the Chesapeake Bay, and landing a direct hit (high winds plus storm surge) on Moondust. A pier offers iffy security with a 5-8 foot rise in water. Not only do you have to keep adjusting lines and think about wave action, but my pier in particular is not all that solid (plus, there is another sailboat that lies against it). If the entire thing was underwater, I could easily imagine it floating free of the soupy Chesapeake bottom. So I was thinking that I might have to go anchor Moondust around the corner in Whitemarsh Creek, which has 360 degrees protection. Of course, anchoring out then puts you at the mercy of your ground tackle, and there is always the danger of other boats around you coming free and smashing into your well-secured vessel. And do you stay with the boat—which is best to maximize the boat’s chances but also puts your own safety back in play—or throw out whatever anchors you have and come back after it’s all over, with your fingers crossed?
Happily, the computer models started to come to agreement, and push Sandy’s track north, as she approached the coast. Leaving Moondust on the dock seemed a viable and reasonable plan. To confirm my thinking, I called Alex Schlegel, who runs Hartge Yacht Yard in nearby Galesville. Alex has lived his whole life on the Bay, and his instincts about what wind and weather will do on his home waters are second to none. I asked Alex whether he was recommending to sailboat owners with slips at his yard that they haul for the storm. “I don’t really know why people haul their boats for hurricanes. They end up getting blown off the stands,” he replied. “The worst that can happen in a slip is that you rub against the pilings.”
I guess Alex has much more confidence in his pilings and piers than I do in mine. But, as usual, he made practical sense (and in fact a sailboat on jackstands at another nearby yard did blow over). He also said he thought Sandy would not end up being as hard on the Bay as forecast, and that was good enough for me. Moondust would stay at the pier in front of my house.