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Liveaboard recalls riding out a hurricane

Joseph Savage wondered as Hurricane Charley’s winds roared relent-lessly across the docks: Had he made the wrong decision?

A licensed pilot, Savage knew from flying that you can make one bad decision, and then every decision after that seems destined to lead to a tragic outcome. Had he made a bad decision when he decided to ride out Charley with his wife, Mary, aboard their 44-foot Marine Trader?

“We had lots of chances to get out before it was here,” says Savage, a retiree who lives on his trawler at the City of Fort Myers Yacht Basin.

About 10 miles up the Caloosahatchee River and 30 miles southeast of where Charley came ashore, the yacht basin — along with other marinas on the river — offers protected upriver dockage.

“We were expecting a Category 2 [110 mph] 60 miles offshore headed straight up the coast for Tampa,” says Savage.

What they got was a Category 4 (145 mph) that veered east and almost hit Fort Myers. It aimed first for Tampa, then Bradenton, then Fort Myers — but finally jogged north at the 11th hour, hitting Charlotte Harbor and Punta Gorda with the brunt of its power.

The marina took a glancing blow. Sustained winds 80 to 90 mph buffeted the Savages as they rode out Charley on their trawler, but a Weather Channel crew measured one 143 mph gust in a wind tunnel created by two tall buildings standing near the marina.

Savage recalls three things most clearly. First, the roar of the winds. It was a relentless din, like an endless freight train thundering through the marina. The noise alone was so overpowering it sapped his strength and energy. Savage turned his television up full volume to follow the latest news of the storm and drown out the roar. Second, he noticed that for about a half hour the rain and water blowing off the river — about a mile wide at the marina — became so heavy that the 24-story Ramada Inn 150 yards away disappeared in a white fog of water driven horizontal by the wind. Third, he saw the marina crew venture out from time to time, and struggle through the wind and rain to re-tie lines that had ripped cleats out of the dock.

“We were not alone,” Savage says.

The trawler withstood the pounding in its slip. Savage had doubled and tripled lines fore and aft, setting spring lines to absorb the punishment. “It was a good ride, nothing to get scared about,” he says.

That was partly due to the fact that a predicted 17-foot surge never materialized — Savage thought it may have reached 3 or 4 feet max — and Charley turned just far enough north to spare Fort Myers its devastating force.

“I don’t know what would have happened if it had hit here,” Savage says. And therein lies the luck of the draw.

Had he known early enough that Charley would strengthen into a Category 4, he never would have risked staying at the marina, Savage says. “If I’d known we were going to get 145-mph winds, I absolutely would have been upriver,” he says. He would have gone up beyond the Caloosahatchee locks and anchored, but Charley morphed from a relatively benign Category 1 to a raging Category 4 just a few hours before landfall. At 11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 13, the storm was a Category 1 still aimed for Tampa. By 2 p.m., it was a 145 mph storm with a predicted landfall of Charlotte Harbor just north of Fort Myers. At 3:45 it landed at Captiva Island at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor.

The dockmaster advised the Savages to leave their boat and seek refuge in the lobby of the nearby Ramada Inn when Charley strengthened and change course, but Savage says he already was committed to staying with the boat and protecting his investment — their home — and he couldn’t move upriver on that short of notice.

“You make these decision days ahead,” he says. “You don’t change your mind. That’s when you really get in trouble.”

He moved his car from the marina to the Ramada Inn — a good move as it turned out because after Charley he found a tree fallen where the car had been parked. Then he and Mary hunkered down and waited.

“You’re in. You’ve bet it all on one roll,” he says. “But you’ve got company. You’re not alone.” Four marina crew- members and five volunteers stayed at the marina to tend lines, but dockmaster Leif Lustig says he had decided to send his crew across to the safety of the Ramada Inn as soon as the surge reached 1-1/2 feet in the parking lot, which never happened. Savage talked with the crew over VHF radio Channel 16, alerting them at one point to a boat that had broken loose from its bow line.

Savage envisioned worst-case scenarios. If his boat were holed and sank, they could stay on the boat and keep their noses above water because the harbor is only 6 feet deep. Upriver where they were, surge likely would come after the winds had subsided. If they had to abandon their boat in the surge, they could float to safety in their life jackets — maybe. But Charley left the Savages and their boat unscathed.

“There’s not a scratch on the boat,” he says.

At about 3 a.m. — many hours after Charley had passed — Savage’s body still was on alert and tingling with adrenaline. He couldn’t sleep, so he sat on the bow in the pitch black looking at the stars. With the power out, they were brighter than he’d ever seen them in Fort Myers. Suddenly, he says, the sky lit up as electricity was restored downtown, and he knew he and Mary were going to be OK. They had survived Charley. They had dodged the bullet. “But it could have gone the other way,” he ruminates. “That’s why it’s a decision.”