Hello, Gonzalo

“You must return to base.” And then, “This is mandatory!” With that, our crew of six was bound back for Oyster Pond in the Île de St. Martin. Our trip to the Leeward Islands celebrating my retirement was about to become even more memorable, as we were about to encounter Gonzalo, one of the few hurricanes of the 2014 season.

leewardWhen we began our sail three days earlier, we knew there were two storms brewing in the mid-Atlantic. Victoria, who provided a thorough briefing, explained the need to keep in touch with the Moorings base. Her prediction: Fay and Gonzalo would head north in the Atlantic and avoid the Leeward Islands.
On October 13, we awakened to stormy skies and learned that tropical storm Gonzalo had hit Antigua and was headed our way. NOAA told us that the winds were 60 ... 100, and Gonzalo was traveling at about 12 mph. Antigua was 108 miles away. We had nine hours.

The gentile French accent of the Moorings representative did not hide the urgency of her message. “You must be back by 10 a.m.” We were anchored in Marigot Bay, almost half way around the Island, and the only way back was through increasingly stormy seas. Jacques, the commodore of our six-boat fleet, had already attempted to exit the harbor once and had returned to pull into the protected docks of the Marina Fort Louis. But, there was no choice in the matter; all boats had to get underway.

The sailors of the self-titled “Jager” fleet were bound by adventure but were not bound together. Some boats had elected to travel to St. Barts and rendezvous there the day before the storm. They too were called back to base, but we did not know that, nor did we know if they would make it. St. Barts is an 18-mile sail, and their return to St. Martin would be to windward with high seas.

“Jager 3” followed “Jager 1” out of Marigot Bay and headed clockwise around the island. We had to reach the east side of the island where Oyster Pond is situated and initially dealt with six-foot seas and the wind 45 degrees off the starboard bow. We knew once we rounded the northern tip of the island, we would have the wind on our fourth quarter, with deep seas. By the time we were doing the downwind run, we mostly saw only the mast of Jager 1’s 48-foot catamaran.

The entrance to Oyster Pond, even in good weather, is very narrow and marked by big rollers. There are breaks in heavy seas, and the breakers by 10 a.m. were easily eight feet. We were met by a tender who led us in. After docking lines were tied and double tied, a toast went up for our safe arrival. The wind was definitely picking up, and our binoculars confirmed the breakers at the outlet were furious.
It was 2 p.m. Jagers 4, 5, and 6 arrived, and they spoke of high seas and a difficult time getting into the harbor. They related that Jager 2 had delayed their departure by at least an hour. Their whereabouts was unknown.

[caption id="attachment_15675" align="aligncenter" width="600"]web1 The tender leading the crew in before the worst of the storm.[/caption]

The dock bar was open for the returning sailors for a time, but by 2:30 p.m., we had retreated to our cabin to weather the storm. Initially it was a great adventure to travel to the cockpit to check the wind readings: 38.7 at 2:41 p.m.; 39.5 at 3:37 p.m.; 41.3 at 3:38 p.m. The captain and two crew ventured out of our cabin at 4:50 p.m. in foul weather gear and reported the torrent of rain was stinging. The wind gauge read 55, our last reading before the full force of the storm hit.

As Gonzalo neared our tropical island, it gathered enough force to be reclassified as a category I hurricane. Later reports confirmed that when Gonzalo was 20 miles east of St. Martin at 5 p.m., winds blew at 75 miles per hour. The center later passed within nine miles of the island.

The VHS and our binoculars became our only contact with the other boats. It was shocking to see the fiberglass awning over the helm of Jager 5’s boat slowly being ripped off. The noise of the storm was almost overshadowed by the noise of flapping sheets on our cabin top. Roller reefed jibs on nearby mono hulls slowly started to unravel and then shred in the wind. The crew on Jager 5 became frantic with the noise from their awning and even more concerned when the wind-swept rain started seeping through their salon doors. All we could do was offer reassurances that the height of the storm was supposed to pass by 6 p.m., which was a half an hour away. Through it all, our lines held tight. Our generator kept the lights on. Not so for Jager 5 as we watched with continued dread their lights flicker, and then, no lights at all.

It was between 6-7 p.m. when the ferocity of the storm heightened and then began to stutter. By 9 p.m., we were able to exit the cabin to survey the damage. Thecommodore’s dock line had nearly broken the cleat out of its base, which was set in cement. Jager 5’s helm station would remain roofless for the remainder of the cruise. The significant debris about the dock was illuminated only by flashlight. Knowing the VHS was line of sight, a call went out to Jager 2, with the hope that we had missed their entry into the harbor, but only silence responded.

[caption id="attachment_15676" align="aligncenter" width="600"]web2 Boats impaled on the rocks at the mouth of the harbor the next day.[/caption]

The next morning, Tuesday, October 14, under partly cloudy skies, the full extent of the damage was revealed. There were five boats impaled on the rocks at the mouth of the harbor, two of them catamarans. Trees had fallen on cars in front of Captain Oliver’s hotel. There was no electricity and no Wi-Fi. Several boats were sunk in the harbor. After making the necessary repairs and re-provisioning, the boats headed out for St. Bart’s.

Serendipity has a funny way of presenting itself. Once out of Oyster Pond, we prepared to set the main when we realized the wind had shaken free three of our batons. We were again forced to return to base. While waiting for them to refashion our batons, we were astonished and relieved to see the crew from Jager 2 walking down the dock. They had arrived by taxi, looking for the fleet. Only then did we learn of their harrowing experience.

Jager 2 had set a course for Oyster Pond, and by the time they reached the entrance, they were battling 10 foot or greater seas. No matter how much power they gave the engine they could not avoid tending toward the rocks. A decision was made to abandon that option, and they turned toward Simpson Bay, taking them almost to Marigot Bay where we had begun our exodus. They made it to Simpson Bay Lagoon just before the swing bridge was closed for the storm.

[caption id="attachment_15673" align="alignright" width="300"]The author at Deep Bay in Antigua at the end of the trip. The author at Deep Bay in Antigua at the end of the trip.[/caption]

They were led into their slip around 4:30 p.m. Within five minutes the local authorities boarded the boat. “You must exit the boat now!” they were told. Barely able to grab a backpack, the crew of eight was led to an elementary school. There they were given water and crackers and slept on cafeteria tables.

Tuesday morning they were notified they would not be allowed to sail their boat yet, as Simpson Bay Lagoon was strewn with submerged boats. Ultimately it was learned that 22 of the 37 boats destroyed on the island were in Simpson Bay Lagoon, and one man died there on his boat.

Our cruise continued onto St. Bart’s, Nevis, and Antigua. We were witness to sunken boats or damaged structures at every port of call. Nonetheless, the islands seemed to have a magical way of resting the soul despite the debris. We relished the sunsets, caught Mahi-mahi, and made memories at the Sunshine Grill, drinking “Killer Bees,” but we knew the most significant island adventure was our encounter with Gonzalo.

~by Lori Mayers