A Cruising Sailor's Waiting Game for Hurricanes

A Cruising Sailor Prepares for the Next Storm

It started the second week of June as a small yellow X on the National Hurricane Center (NHC) map. Morning visits to the NHC website are ritual in my world as a cruising sailor from June to November, steady like strong coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. Consistent, also, is my reaction to the map—the highs never get too high, and the lows never get too low.

sailing cruiser hurricane watch
The author's sailboat Ave del Mar tucked away at anchor in the Caribbean waiting for a storm's arrival.

I was less than thrilled on that June morning as I sat in the salon of Ave del Mar, my 1967 Rawson 30 cutter, staring at the NHC map. I was in Culebra, in the Spanish Virgin Islands, en route to Florida with no particular schedule to keep. The Cape Verde storm season doesn’t typically begin with any earnest until late July, but typical and weather seem to be drifting further and further apart with time. The familiar dull ache of foreboding began.

Watching, waiting, and wondering can take a toll on you if you don’t know how to manage them; fortunately, I’d had more than my fair share of experience with all three. Soon, this tropical disturbance became an invest which grew into the depression that would eventually be named Brett. The morning ritual of map checking became an every-six-hour ritual. My phone began to repeatedly ping with messages from friends, a hurricane ritual in its own right. While I was less than thrilled with the whole affair, things could have been a lot worse.

The spaghetti models spewed their usual madness across the weather pages as I, along with hundreds of other boaters in the Caribbean, kept watch. No one really knows, I reminded myself, where this storm may go or what it may do, so you take in the whole of the forecasts, examine the worst-case path, and formulate plans.

It its early days, the weather model consensus was that Brett would pass me to my north, leaving me in the favored southwest quadrant of winds. Compared to the rest of the anchored boats in Culebra, I was in good standing for this—anchored in 10 feet of water and somewhat close to what would be a windward shore. One day my phone pinged again with a message from my friend Carolyn Shearlock.

X marks the hurricane spot“Have you looked at the map this morning?” she wrote. “What’s your plan?”

Sure enough, the forecasting models had all changed. Brett was now slated to pass right over my anchorage, maybe even a bit to my south. I was now anchored in the worst possible place, and my windward shore had become a lee shore.

“Move. Claim your spot early,” Carolyn lectured me, “because every boat in the area will be coming in to join you.”

I knew she was right. I scanned the charts and scoped out what I thought was a brilliant small lagoon on the southeastern side of the bay. A quick trip in the dinghy confirmed that it was an ideal spot for the southeast winds that might come with a hurricane, which Brett was now predicted to become. Back to the boat I flew. The engine warmed up as I raised the anchor. Boats poured into Ensenada Honda, Culebra’s idyllic anchorage. I glared suspiciously at each as they came through the inlet, confident each time that they had a target on my spot, that they were racing in to unseat my plan. But none did.

Ave did her best to speed across the cove. All of the threatening boats passed right by my target, heading to where the crowds were. I will never understand this; although I sure did appreciate that they did it. I puttered in through the mouth of the lagoon and dropped my anchor in 10 feet of water. There were six to seven feet of water right up to the mangrove-lined shore’s edge, and hills blocked those winds that I anticipated from my east. The icing on the cake was that I was the only boat there.

There I sat, far from the lights and noise of town and far from the lights and noise from other boats. Day by day, Brett tracked consistently more south and in several days’ time was far enough away that I didn’t even bother to prep the boat for storm conditions. As the tropical storm’s potential impact faded, so did the messages asking me of my plans. Things clumsily returned to normal.

It’s early yet in this hurricane season, and Brett won’t be the last yellow X that I will be forced to follow. The Cape Verde season is upon us. Of this we can be sure. If a storm comes to me, I will do everything within my powers to be fully prepared for it. Meanwhile, with coffee in hand I will check the NHC website every morning.

As my friend Carolyn so often reminds me, “The only thing you know for certain is that it is unlikely to go where they first predicted it to go.”

With any luck I’ll get to stick to watching and wondering, and we can leave worrying tucked safe away for another day.

~by John Herlig

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