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The truth hurts: Storms just don't care

In a way, they’re like ticks. If you’re out in the woods long enough, you’re bound to get more than a few bites. I’ve been on the water in many different boats and in many different places for the majority of my life. So I’ve been bitten by more than a few hurricanes, and I’ve collected a lot of hurricane stories.

Andrew smashed into Florida more like a mammoth, ferocious tornado than a hurricane.

I’m sure you have some of your own. It’s fun to share them — when the storm is long gone. Here are four of the experiences I remember vividly.

As luck would have it, my first vivid memory came with my very first boat. Uncle Ernest built her for me, at my father’s request, when I was 9 years old. She was a 12-foot wooden skiff with decks along the sides and painted my favorite battleship gray. She, like all of my boats since, was my heart and soul.

A couple of years after we first launched her, when my consciousness was subtly pricked by the dawning realization of the approaching bad time of the year, I began to hear that something perhaps much worse, and far more imminent, was coming. That “bad time of the year” was the time when I would have to roll her up the beach on logs, get the help of my father and friends to put her up in the pickup truck, and take her home for the winter.

It was hard to imagine anything worse than that, but as it turned out, Hurricane Hazel was. Even in the mid-1950s we had plenty of warning. We sat around the big radio in the evening and listened to the tinny voices of the news people trying to guess when and where she was going to hit.

Although the official version might have disagreed a bit, it seemed to us that she came right up the York River to the small town of West Point, Va., on the peninsula where I was in the process of trying to grow up. I kept my boat at anchor off the small beach at the end of town. The fetch of exposure was pretty much the whole length of the York River, give or take a bend or two. Not a good scenario, but it was all I could afford, and it had worked so far. I knew it wasn’t going to work for a hurricane.

I found some friends and found some logs, and we rolled her up the beach just to the end of Main Street. When the storm came, we were all out watching it. No, not smart, but I was worried about my boat.

When I saw that Main Street was soon to be underwater, I pulled the boat way up into the street to where the houses were. Surely she should be safe there. But Mr. Browning had a wonderful dock. He was a nice guy who we kids knew as the town “rich man.” His dock stretched far out into the York, just down the tip of the peninsula. We all envied that dock. Hurricane Hazel did, too, so much that it ate it every board, piling and stick of it. But I guess the storm didn’t like it that much because it regurgitated the entire dock and spit it all out right on top of my boat on Main Street. My mother had corralled me back inside at this point, wisely knowing that no one should be out.

When the storm lay down a bit, I was back on the street running to where I had left my boat. Trees, power lines and other debris were everywhere. I saw the high-water mark well above the point on Main Street where I thought my boat would be safe. I looked down the street toward the spot where I had left it; I could see only a massive jumbled pile of huge planks, girders and pilings. It looked as if God had gathered up all the junk He could gather in one armful and dumped it on top of my boat. The top of the pile was almost higher than my head. It spread out for more than the 12 feet of my boat. And I couldn’t see the boat at all.

Frantically, I started pulling at timbers. Most of them were longer, thicker and heavier than I was. But I pulled and pushed and heaved, anyway. Soon, others who had come out to see what was left of our town pitched in to help me. After a very long time, we began to see the shape of my boat under the mess. I figured it was just a small part that had survived. But as we continued to pull more of the wreckage off, more of the little gray skiff emerged. Finally, as we began to see the clearness of the blue sky that often follows a hurricane, we unearthed the boat, surrounded by junk but mostly unscathed.

The Neales cruised thousands of miles aboard their previous boat, but she met her fate during Hurricane Jeanne.

The only significant damage was that one of the oarlock supports had been knocked off. I bolted it on the next morning, gathered some logs — they were easy to find now — and rolled her into the water for a few more weeks of boating. Mr. Browning’s boat had been taken by a professional captain way up in the marsh into a deep creek so she would be “safe.” She lay, no longer in the creek, but up in the mud, over on her side.

The selection widens

One of the things Hazel taught me was that hurricanes can seem supernaturally selective. I felt that this hurricane, for some reason, especially spared my boat. But then, I was young. Some 50 years later I saw this “selectivity” on a much broader scale. It came in the form of a monster named Andrew.

We were aboard and heading south, so we watched it closely, almost minute by minute. We saw its path and development, and we knew it was different. Andrew smashed into South Florida more like a mammoth, ferocious tornado than a hurricane. Its winds were like those of a tornado, and its destruction was like that of a tornado, except in a broader path.

We had watched it as it cut across the Bahamas, streaking toward Florida. We had good friends who lived in Miami Beach. When we got that far south we were able to tie to their dock, where there was relatively little damage. Friends from farther south, down in Homestead, picked us up to show us their neighborhood. It was like the films you see from World War II of bombed-out cities. People walked around with stunned faces and glazed eyes, suspiciously eyeing anyone who came near the shattered open shells of their former homes. The path of this hurricane produced overwhelming devastation, yet it was amazingly narrow.

We set sail to the Bahamas and ran in, as we often did, between Cat Cay and Gun Cay. Cat Cay, an exclusive private island, was a shambles. We knew from talking with friends on the radio that the much more populated islands of North Bimini and South Bimini were relatively untouched. They were only about 40 miles to the north.

The small island of Cat Cay had been mostly evacuated by the time the storm hit. Most houses there were vacation homes, and the few people who had been there before the storm had no difficulty flying out in advance of the onslaught. Bimini, however, was a well-populated little island, and few would have had the opportunity to escape.

The next day, we sailed east. We carefully entered the surge-protected harbor of Chub Cay, our customary layover for this leg of the trip. We ghosted into the harbor, our engine in neutral, fearful of what our prop might find. A 70-foot mast was twisted around a tall solitary piling like a piece of spaghetti. The boat to which it had been attached was underwater. Other boats were sunk in their slips. The decking from the piers was gone, and pilings were collapsed over the sunken boats.

We found a place to tie up along the stone quay and carefully went ashore. Dead rats, dogs and cats were everywhere. They were well cooked, some to cinders. The storm had demolished all of the power poles, and the lines had fallen to the ground, where they now sprawled. The massive island generator had died during the storm, but the islanders had gotten it going again. They needed power, desperately, for the few places of habitation left standing. So the electricity coursed through the wires on the ground. Anything or anyone who stepped in the wrong place took his last step.

The new house of a very wealthy man was a shambles. All that remained on the now flattened cement floor were the toilets, obviously aerodynamic in design. And there was the window. It was a massive storm window with sliding doors, and it had been designed to withstand hurricane-force winds of 200 mph or more. It did just that, but not the house around it. The window stood alone.

The coconut palms were stripped not just of coconuts but also of their leaves. We were told that the customs officer, trying to ride out the storm in the small customs building at the landing strip, had been blown out the back door and survived by grabbing the trunk of a palm tree and hanging on.

The beautiful reefs off the island, where in past years we had spent so many pleasurable hours diving for conch, lobster and grouper, were now whitewashed and tumbled and dead. It would take many, many years for them to return to life — if ever they would. We spoke with friends there who had survived the storm. Like the beautiful island, they were devastated but not defeated. They were already making plans for a recovery — sometime.

The dry-stack building at Pineland Marina in Bokeelia, Fla., was destroyed during Hurricane Charley.

We sailed on to New Providence, where lies the ancient city of Nassau. We had friends here also, and we feared the worst, even though the reports we’d heard on the single sideband were not that bad. As we sailed the route of the cruise ships into the harbor, we viewed the shores. All seemed relatively well off, except for some damage here and there.

This island is heavily populated, with many homes built to little or no code. The majority of the population would have had neither the assets nor the opportunity to fly out before the storm. New Providence is only about 40 miles to the southeast of Chub Cay. But, by comparison, it’d been spared.

Did the storm have a soul? Did it have a kind streak? No, it was a monster with no separate mind or will of its own, created by the very essence of the forces that control the Earth and create, shape and steer hurricanes. And it was a killer. We will never understand the total complexity of these forces, no matter how hard we try.

The best and the worst

I also remember Hurricane Edouard. At least, I think it was Edouard; there have been too many. This storm came during one of the summers when we lived on the hook in Newport, R.I. The harbor was a beautiful place, exciting and always with the smell of the sea, but it was no place to be in a hurricane.

We were accustomed to riding out storms where the banks were soft mud or at least sand, should we drag. In and around Newport, the banks were unforgiving rock. It was not a place to be blown aground. But there was a place we could go, if needed — the Kickemuit River. As “inland” goes, for Rhode Island it was well inland, and it was the place where we sought haven for quite a few hurricanes and storms.

To reach this river, we had to sail up Narragansett Bay, head to starboard into Mount Hope Bay, and then turn to port to negotiate a narrow channel twisting through a long stretch of shoals. But once in the river you are surrounded by high ground, with reasonable holding on the bottom.

We and about a half-dozen other liveaboard boats made our anxiety-filled pilgrimage to this anchorage well in advance of the storm. We knew we had a lot of preparation to do in order to be safe. All of us spent an entire day setting multiple anchors, carefully spacing the boats so that whichever way the wind blew we would all swing clear of each other and there would be good ground gear upwind. We helped each other in this process. We scuttled about in our dinghies, carrying out anchors and securing sails and gear on decks. It took hours of hard work, but we finally began to feel we were ready. As in so many hurricanes, the course — and therefore, the local wind direction — were up for grabs. We didn’t know what we were going to get or how bad it was going to be; we only knew we had to be prepared for the worst.

Docks are engulfed by storm surge at Blowing Rocks Marina in Tequesta, Fla., near where Hurricane Frances made landfall.

Toward the end of our preparations, a gentleman rowed out from shore in a small boat. He went from cruising boat to cruising boat, giving us all the same message. He told us where he lived on shore and pointed out his house and small dock. He said that if we felt we would be safer in his house ashore we were all welcome to come and stay there.

He told us that if we needed last-minute supplies he’d be glad to run us in his car into the local village. He told us that if we needed anything after the storm he would do the same.

Basically, this gentleman made it clear that he was there to help in any way he could. Waiting for a hurricane on a boat can be an immensely scary and lonely experience. This very kind man made it so much better. None of us took him up on his offer, but it was so very good to know he was there.

After we had all finished our preparations, we saw a tugboat and barge steaming into the narrow mouth of the river. Local commercial people, of course, also knew about this anchorage. We sat silently, hoping for the best. In a storm, when a steel tugboat or barge breaks loose there is nothing that stops it, except the bottom. They can roll right over fiberglass boats.

The crew set anchors that we knew would be way too small for the tug and barge and the windage they presented. But we all breathed a sigh of relief when we next saw the crew clamber about the barge and lower down huge steel spuds into the bottom. They lashed the tug tightly to the barge. This rig wasn’t going anywhere. But our pre-storm stress wasn’t over.

As the clouds thickened overhead and the light began to dim, some local sailboats made their way into the channel, coming in at the last moment from nearby towns. No surprise, in some situations careful owners often consider it better to leave open mooring fields or docks to ride out storms in more sheltered areas. But a few of these people were far from careful. We watched in horrified amazement as they came into the harbor and threw over puny anchors at the end of shoestring stretchy lines, with no regard to the position of other boats and potential swing as winds shifted. They didn’t even work to set their anchors. They used no chafing gear.

Several of us approached them in our dinghies and told them of our concern about changing wind direction, dragging anchors and boats sailing free with parted anchor lines. We volunteered to help in any way we could. They basically flipped us off and jumped into dinghies and went ashore to be picked up by friends or family, leaving their boats abandoned and leaving us and our boats at the mercy of their carelessness and indifference.

These boats, moored as they were, could have seriously damaged, even sunk, any of our boats. We brought on deck yet another hurricane tool in preparation: our machetes. Sometimes you can use these to quickly cut lines so you can, hopefully, fend off to avoid collisions in situations such as this, when untended boats break free and career down on you, their dragging anchors causing them to yaw wildly in the wind. This tactic would have been dangerous, but one has to survive.

The storm did us a favor; it changed course. That’s one of the most common characteristics of hurricanes that I recall over the years. And it happened this time. This storm did us an even greater favor. When it reached our area, it was no longer a hurricane. This was another common characteristic, one that’s saved us many times and one that’s so common I don’t worry very much about whether I should call it a “tropical storm” or “hurricane” when I talk about it afterward.

We had a lot of wind, and we had a lot of rain but not bad enough to cause any problems. The next morning, the gentleman from shore came out to see that we were all OK. We told him we were and again thanked him. It took hours for us all to retrieve our gear, but we eventually had it aboard and filed back out the channel, some heading to other harbors and some to the sea.

Again, it’s easy to personalize a hurricane here. But the storm wasn’t good or bad to us; the storm just did what storms do, steered by forces of nature. However, why try to personalize the storm? We had real “persons” to consider. The gentleman who rowed out offering help — I remember his kindness even today. The guys who didn’t care about their boats or ours are also people I remember.

The payback

In 2004, there were three back-to-back storms that hammered Central Florida with punch after punch after punch. They were Charley, Frances and Jeanne. We weren’t there at the time; we were up in the Chesapeake Bay on Chez Nous. But we followed them closely because you never know about hurricanes and tropical storms.

This merciless series of storms killed our previous Chez Nous. Mel and I had moved aboard her in 1979. Our first baby was born in the summer of that year, and she came home from the hospital to that boat. Our second baby was born two years later, and she joined us on the boat.

We cruised many thousands of miles on this boat during the following 19 years. Our daughters went to school on that boat, from preschool through high school. They also learned many things most kids don’t learn, including how to rebuild an internal combustion engine, how to free-dive and spear grouper and lobster, how to clean conch, and how to become fine young adults.

So this boat was a special home when we sold her to a nice couple because we wanted a bigger boat. They too, lived aboard and enjoyed her. She was in Fort Pierce City Marina when the storms struck. The first storm, Charley, crossed from west to east and only grazed the area. The second, Frances, slammed into the coast and demolished the marina, piling boat upon boat upon boat.

Chez Nous was one of the few boats that survived. She was in a corner packed tight with demolished yachts all around her, but she was safe. Insurance salvors began the difficult job of unraveling the mess, refloating boats and lifting them into a nearby temporary salvage yard.

There was a window between the last two storms, and many of the boats, including Chez Nous, lay at anchor or moored, waiting to be lifted by huge cranes, into the yard. Chez Nous was still floating proudly. The push boats roared, the cranes strained, and the operators eyed the broiling sky as Jeanne began to quickly build.

The straps broke as they were lifting the boat just before Chez Nous. That boat fell. Winds increased steadily, and the workers fled, leaving the few remaining crippled boats and our old Chez Nous to fend for themselves.

A huge floating dock broke loose and rolled over our former home, crushing it in and pushing it under. After the storm, the owners, who had been safe ashore, took a picture of the mast sticking out of the water and sent it to us. We all shared our sadness. Later she was raised and placed in the yard, where she remained for several years. We saw her as we passed up and down the ICW during each of those years.

Our oldest daughter, Melanie, went to see her once and snuck past the “keep off” signs and took some pictures. Mel and our daughters had painted eyes around her bow lights. They were crying. But it took three hurricanes to do that. It seems to me that perhaps I was being paid back for the 12-foot skiff that had been spared under the timbers of Mr. Browning’s dock.

I have many more hurricane stories, as I’m sure do you. One of the many things that strike me about them is that we, in our feelings of inadequacy, are so often tempted to personalize them, as I have perhaps done here. We even have the audacity to give them names, perhaps hoping that we can make them human and, therefore, somewhat controllable. The truth is that our efforts to see these things as personifications of ourselves ought to be focused instead on the people they affect. There lies the good and the bad. The hurricanes don’t care.

February 2014 issue