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Pressure drop

Sunday, Oct. 23, North Miami Beach, Fla.:“Hurricane Wilma, at 23.9 N and 84.4 W, is moving northeast near 15 mph. Maximum sustained winds are 110 mph, and minimum central pressure is 958 millibars,” reports the National Hurricane Center.

Sunday, Oct. 23, North Miami Beach, Fla.:“Hurricane Wilma, at 23.9 N and 84.4 W, is moving northeast near 15 mph. Maximum sustained winds are 110 mph, and minimum central pressure is 958 millibars,” reports the National Hurricane Center.

The pressure has been rising, the wind speed dropping. It doesn’t seem like Wilma is going to be that bad. My boyfriend, Dan, and I have been getting our sailboats ready. My 1969 Columbia 28, Short Story, is secured in her slip with extra-long dock lines, tripled in each direction. The jib is in the trunk of my car, the mainsail lashed to the boom. Hatches are duct-taped shut.

Dan anchors his 1974 Ericson 27 in Maule Lake — right outside Loggerhead Club and Marina (formerly Maule Lake Marina), where I’ve been living aboard for three years — with a huge Fortress anchor borrowed from one of our neighbors and an all-chain rode. His second anchor is a smaller Danforth on rope and chain. We’d fastened the Fortress’ chain with a padlock after wrapping it around a cleat, and tied a snubbing line to it. There’s plenty of chafing gear.

“We’re going to stay on the boat,” I tell another neighbor, who has offered to put us up in her condo in Stuart. Other people are planning to stay. Rick and Teresa, our friends on a trawler down at the end of the liveaboard dock, are staying. Capt. Bob, who lives across from us, is staying aboard his ketch. Victor and Patrick, who live aboard a 39-foot cabin boat two boats down from Short Story, also are staying.

Then Dan tells me Victor has driven to a friend’s house in Tampa to ride out the storm, but Patrick is still on the boat. “And Rick and Teresa are talking about doing the same thing,” he says. “Rick’s going to stay with friends, and Teresa wants to stay on the boat.”

“What?” My stomach is starting to feel upset, the way it has lately when I’m stressed. “People can’t split up in a hurricane.”

“People can do whatever they want, I guess,” Dan says.

He looks past me out to his boat, then looks at the sky west of us, which already is darkening. There’s no rain with Wilma’s outer bands, just wind and circular trails of clouds winding out from over the Everglades. “Do you think those anchors are going to hold?” he asks.

“Yeah. That Fortress is a great anchor,” I reply.


Dan trusts me. I don’t know why, but I know he does. “Babe, your boat’s going to be fine,” I say. “There’s nothing else we can do to it.” Which is true. We’ve spent the last two days diving on the anchors, resetting them, checking everything.

We go to the Alehouse for dinner with Rick and Teresa, and order cheeseburgers. The televisions above the bar show Wilma’s cone of error, with Naples in the center and us slightly south of the cone’s center. People are speculating as to how much the Everglades will slow her down. Someone on television says she’ll be a Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. A weatherman in Key Largo looks hung-over and tired as he talks about where and when Wilma will hit. The burgers and company are good.

Dan and I hug our neighbors goodnight before climbing aboard Short Story for the night. My cell phone rings at 11 p.m. I’ve been asleep and don’t want to talk to anyone, so Dan answers. He says a few “OKs” and hangs up. “That was Teresa,” he says. “They’re leaving the boat. It’s a Category 3 now.”

Their boat is a 40-foot trawler, heavy and safe. I don’t understand why they would want to leave. “Do you want to go?” I ask. I suddenly wonder if Dan has been agreeing to stay just because I wanted to stay.

“No. Do you?” he asks.

“No, but we can if you want.” There are places we could go. A Florida International University grad student who has hired Dan — a copy editor at the Miami Herald — to edit his thesis lives nearby, and has offered his couch. Another friend from FIU has offered a place out in Pembroke Pines.

“At least they left together,” Dan says.

Monday, Oct. 24: The wind wakes us around 3 a.m. “The center of Hurricane Wilma is now located at 25.1 N and 82.8 W, moving to the northeast near 20 mph,” reports the National Hurricane Center. “Maximum sustained winds are 120 mph, and minimum central pressure is 954 MB.”

Stella, my 2-year-old beagle, is wedged in between us. She has her nose in Dan’s armpit and her front paw on my face. She’s awake, too; her brow is wrinkled. I try to push her away but she doesn’t budge. “Let her stay,” Dan says. “I think she’s scared.”

We try to go back to sleep but can’t. It’s not the wind that’s keeping us awake, because Wilma is still far away. She hasn’t even made landfall on Florida’s west coast. It’s the pressure. My Weems & Plath barometer has been falling steadily all day. The pressure drop does something to your mind — unleashes a reserve of nervous energy like a float switch on an automatic bilge pump when you’re taking on water. We lie there petting Stella’s ears until neither of us can take it. We get up and watch Comedy Central on television, then switch to AMC for “Frankenstein.” After all, it’s almost Halloween, and all the good monster movies are on. I never watch television, but I make an exception tonight.

We get back into bed around 6 a.m., but by 9 o’clock we can’t stay there anymore. The wind is starting to moan through Short Story’s rigging, and the dock lines are squeaking as they chafe against her cleats and stretch against the boat’s weight.

“Wilma is centered over the southern Florida peninsula,” reports the National Hurricane Center.

“Was that lightning?” Dan asks. Another green flash lights up the portholes.

“No. Transformers,” I say. It’s green again outside, then blue. The air conditioner shuts off, and the power is out.

“Where?” he asks.

“Who knows? But that’s what it is.” I turn around in the V-berth so I can swing my feet over onto the cabin sole. As soon as I’m out of bed, we’re hit by a gust of wind so strong that the boat rolls over onto her side, and the coffee maker flies off the counter and lands on my foot. The wind is shrieking now, a high-pitched scream.

We sit on the settee that I’ve converted into a bed/couch in the center of the boat. Stella comes, too, and tries to bury herself under a blanket. Dan stretches out and closes his eyes. “Are you OK?” I ask.

“I’ll be fine” he says.

“Are you worried about your boat?”

“A little. I just want to go down there and take a look at her,” he says.

“Don’t go outside now,” I say.

I know he’s feeling bad. I dig out the motion sickness bracelets I bought a year ago for one of my girlfriends, and make Dan put them on.

I can’t sit still, so I brace myself against the galley counter and look out the porthole. Two boats down, Patrick is out in his yellow foul-weather gear. I see him doing something to his lines, and across the dock Capt. Bob is adjusting the lines on his boat. Bob and Patrick are cousins. They yell across the dock to each other and retreat into their cabins. I call Patrick on my cell phone.

“I’m nervous about the mast on the boat next door,” Patrick says. “The boat is rolling so much that I’m afraid it’s going to tangle with my hardtop. Other than that, I’m OK.”

“Good. I just wanted to check,” I say.

I call Capt. Bob, too, but he doesn’t answer. Out the porthole, more transformers blow, and the sky is gray and white and green. The spray coming off the lake is horizontal. The halyards have come loose on Patrick’s neighboring sloop, and they’re whipping through the air and catching on Patrick’s antennas and radar.

At 10 a.m. I talk to my mom in Virginia by phone, and she says the eye should be over us soon. We’ve been listening to a news broadcast on FM radio, and the newscaster says the eye should be over northeast Dade County in about 20 minutes. “Good,” I say to Dan. “We can go out during the eye and check on your boat and check our lines.” We wait a half-hour, but the eye doesn’t come.

One of my lines is about to part. I can see it through the porthole, the twisted nylon hanging by one strand. “Shit,” I say. “We have to go out now.”

Patrick and Capt. Bob are out again, this time checking the other boats on the liveaboard dock. We suit up and slide the hatch open. The shrieking sound cuts through my skull. On deck, we walk with our knees bent, hanging on to the stays. Patrick and Bob see us and hurry over to help with the lines. Two are about to part.

“I’m going to see if I can look at my boat,” Dan yells. Before I can say anything, he has jumped to the dock from the bow and is gone out the gate. I lose sight of him in the white spray. I’m not going below until he’s back, so I squat on the bow and hold onto the rail, waiting. Capt. Bob and Patrick go back aboard their boats.

When Dan comes back, we climb through the companionway and fall to the settee, dripping. “Well?” I say.

“She’s moved,” says Dan. “She’s about halfway across the lake. I hope she’s just dragging and she’ll catch on something. None of the boats out there are doing well.”

“I hope nobody stayed aboard any of them,” I say.

“I think someone was on that Hunter 34,” he says. “Look, Don over on A dock has been trying to secure Gil’s boat by himself. It’s broken loose, and it’s grinding up against the concrete pier. I need to go over and help him.”

Gil owns a large houseboat — a flimsy piece of fiberglass with a ton of windage. Gil and his wife are in their 70s, and they’re riding out the storm at their daughter’s condo in Aventura, near the marina. They’ve lived at Maule Lake since before Dan and I were born. (I’m 26, and Dan’s 28.) Dan’s cell rings. He looks at the caller ID and hesitates before answering. It’s Gil.

“No, don’t come down here,” Dan says. “Don and I will see what we can do.” He hangs up and looks at me.

“Well?” I say.

“Gil thinks someone can jump onto the boat, start the engine, and back her around into the slip again,” Dan says.

“Maybe so, but you’re not going to do it,” I say.

“I told him I’d go see what we can do. And Don can’t do it himself,” he says.

“Then we’re both going.” I put Stella in her crate. She howls louder than I’ve even heard her howl when we leave. It’s almost louder than the wind, almost a shriek.

We hang on to the fence as we make our way out to A dock. “I can’t see my boat anymore,” Dan says.

Neither can I. But the lake is white with spray, and there’s only about 100 yards of visibility. We can barely open the gate on A dock against the wind. It takes both of us, leaning into it. As soon as we get onto the dock, a gust hits the gate and slams it back, except I’m not quite through and it slams into me.

I reach for the gate and for Dan, but I’m flying backward too fast and then there’s no dock under my feet. … I’m in the water.

I go under, and everything’s still and quiet. I open my eyes under water. The waves on the surface are inverted and bumpy, and brown light filters down from them. I move my arms and kick and reach for the surface, where I come up right next to the dock. The wind is pushing me away fast, and for a second I wonder what will happen if I can’t grab something. Dan is on his stomach reaching out for me, and I grab his arm with one hand and the dock with the other. He pulls me out, but there’s no time to think about it because all my body wants to do is keep moving. “Oh my God,” he says. “Are you OK?”

I can’t talk because I’ll cry if I do.

At the end of A dock, a man wearing a flannel shirt stands with his back to the wind. He looks at us, then stares out at the lake. I feel ashamed that he saw me go in the water, but I don’t know why. When we get down to where he stands, he yells, “Have you all seen that Hunter 34? The one that was next to your boat?”

“Not since yesterday,” Dan says.

“My brother’s on there,” the man says. “He stayed aboard …” The wind takes the rest of the words out of his mouth and across the lake before I can hear them. He lives on A dock, too, next to Dan’s old slip. Dan’s boat was in the marina for about a year before he moved it to the anchorage. That’s how we met.

The man in the flannel follows us to Gil’s boat, where Don is trying to pull in on one of the lines. But the boat is too big with too much windage, and even the four of us can’t budge it. A jagged hole gapes where the fiberglass is rubbing up against the pier. It’s obvious there’s nothing we can do.

Gil said he wanted someone to jump aboard and start the engine, but the only place to board the boat is from the concrete finger pier, which is crumbling under our feet. Dan and I retreat to Short Story, where another line is about to chafe through. We remove one of the spring lines to replace it.

Dan’s phone rings as soon as we’re back on board. It’s Gil. Dan tells him that it’s useless. Nobody can get aboard; it’s unsafe. He says we’ll go over as soon as the wind lets up.

“Don told him about the hole,” Dan says as soon as he’s off the phone. “And he’s coming down anyway. He thinks he’s going to get on the boat and set everything straight.”

“He’s going to kill himself,” I say.

“That’s why Don and I need to help. So he doesn’t,” says Dan.

“Did he ask you to help?”

“Yes,” says Dan.

There’s nothing I can do but hope that Gil doesn’t show up. I know Dan’s going to help him no matter what I say, because he can’t tell people no. The storm should be letting up, but it doesn’t seem like it’s lost any strength. We lie on the settee, foreheads and noses pressed together. I try not to think about the underside of those waves on the lake.

Lights flash in the parking lot next to Short Story. They’re yellow, though, from a car rather than an exploding transformer. “Oh Jesus, no,” I say. Then the sound of honking blares through the wind, intermittent against the shrieking. Dan’s phone rings. Gil.

I look out the porthole to see Gil climbing out of his white Cadillac Escalade, white hair plastered to his head. The crazy coot isn’t even wearing foul-weather gear. He opens the gate to B dock, and I can’t see him out the porthole anymore because he’s standing on the finger pier next to my boat, calling Dan.

Dan climbs out the companionway, and I follow. I don’t go all the way, just enough so that I know Gil can see me and hear me. I start yelling. “Gil, you’re a goddamned idiot! There’s nothing you can do right now. Go home and wait until the storm’s over.” I can’t believe I’m standing on my boat in the middle of a hurricane, yelling at a man old enough to be my grandfather. But I keep yelling until my voice cracks. “You’re going to kill yourself and kill everyone else along with you! Get the hell out of here and go back to the condo. You’re a crazy idiot.” I yell until Dan kisses me on the cheek, and he and Gil disappear though the spray to A dock.

Then I lose it.

I sit on the settee and start hyperventilating. I catch myself and try to slow my breathing. But the boat rolls with a gust, and I imagine the rest of the lines snapping and Short Story slamming into the concrete sea wall. I pick up my cell and call my mom. I can’t believe I’m doing it, because I know it will scare her and I don’t want my parents to know how scared I am. I don’t want anybody to know. I haven’t even told Dan.

“How much longer do we have?” I’m crying over the phone, trying to make myself stop. I tell my mom about Gil’s boat, about falling in the water, about the wind. She says it’s almost over, that the storm should be weakening rapidly now. She tells me to call her when Dan gets back and not to leave the boat.

I get off the phone and realize I haven’t eaten anything all day, so I open a box of crackers and eat them faster than I should. I call a friend in Fort Lauderdale who I know is more paranoid than I am, thinking that maybe she needs someone to talk to. She doesn’t answer.

Then, just like my mom said it would, the wind starts to die. It dies fast, and I can see all the way to the other side of the lake when I go outside. I jump off the boat and head to A dock. I can finally walk without hunching down.

On the north end of the lake, Dan’s boat is sitting ashore. The jib is tattered, and she’s on her side, resting on the concrete seawall. There are at least six other boats washed ashore along the seawall with her. My stomach turns, and I start crying again, but I stop as soon as I’m close enough for Gil and Dan and the other guys to see me. There’s no sign of the Hunter 34. The man in the flannel shirt has left Gil’s boat, and he walks past me down the dock, staring at the jumble of boats on the seawall.

Gil’s boat is sinking fast, and Gil is inside trying to rescue his wife’s expensive clothes. A pile of clothes is strewn on the dock. Dan is in Gil’s dinghy, trying to get a line to one of the outside pilings. Gil’s daughter and Don stand on the dock, staring. The boat sinks faster the lower it gets, and Gil is still inside. “What the hell is he doing?” I wonder why my voice is cracking, then I remember yelling at Gil. I feel bad about it, but I’m still angry. And now he’s inside his own sinking boat trying to rescue his wife’s shoes. The water is halfway up the big windows now, and Gil is still inside. “Gil, get out of there,” I yell.

The wind has died down to about 40 mph, and the sky is clearing. It’s over.

The water is almost above the windows, and Gil is still in his boat. His daughter is about to panic, but she’s a tough woman and keeps her cool. “Dad, you’ve got to get off,” she yells.

Finally, Gil comes out of the aft cabin. The water is up to his chest as he wades toward the bow. Don, the daughter and I reach down and pull him up onto the dock as his boat lurches and settles on the bottom of Maule Lake. Gil opens his mouth to say something, but nothing comes out. As Dan and I carry Gil’s belongings down the dock, I look at Gil and tell him I’m sorry.

I’m sorry about the boat; I’m not sorry I yelled at him.

An hour later, the wind is still blowing about 40, and the cold air from the front that steered Wilma to us is moving in. Maule Lake sparkles, and the sky is sapphire. Dan and I drive over to Point East, the condo development where his boat has washed ashore. We take his truck so we’ll be able to drive through puddles. All the traffic lights on Biscayne Boulevard are down, and a few cars are creeping through the intersections. Branches and trees look like they’ve been twisted off by a thousand tornadoes, and all kinds of trash and debris is strewn about the road.

We park a little way down from the boat and walk through the community’s manicured lawn, stepping over twisted aluminum and broken glass. We’re both wearing boots.

People are trickling out of the buildings, walking down to the water, and staring at the boats. I recognize most of the boats from the anchorage, sitting in odd positions on the seawall. Most of these boats have been cared for and loved; few are derelicts. Wilma seems to have left the derelicts in the lake and moved the nicer boats ashore. A woman wearing too much makeup for right after a hurricane cranes her neck at Dan’s boat, and I want to slap her. I don’t know what’s gotten into me — first yelling at Gil and then feeling violent toward this woman I don’t even know. We ignore all the people and examine Dan’s boat.

There’s a hole in the bow, just below the waterline. It’s about a foot long, and runs up the stem. “Look how thick your hull is here,” I say. “It took a lot to hole her.”

Dan’s not saying much of anything. He feels the rudder to see whether the post is bent, and it won’t budge. The forward hatch, which was bolted down, has been ripped off. He climbs aboard and begins to flake the mainsail, which has come loose. “I just want to keep it from getting any worse,” he says. I stand ashore, because I don’t know how stable the boat is, and I don’t want it to move or slide back into the water.

While Dan is inside, the man from A dock in the flannel shirt approaches us. He’s walking fast and pushes past the people the same way we did, a feral look on his face. He comes straight to us and shakes his head at the boat but doesn’t say anything about it. He touches the hole in the bow.

Dan comes out of the companionway, holding a stack of books. “Any sign of your brother?”

“No,” the man says. “Are there more boats down there?” He points to the northeast end of the lake where a canal leads out to the ICW.

“I see some masts, but we haven’t been that far,” I say.

“OK. I’m going to keep going until I find him,” he says.

He wraps the shirt around himself, even though it’s not cold yet. “I’m sorry, man,” he says to Dan, and he pats one of the stanchions.

“Can we help you look?” Dan says.

“No. Take care of your own stuff right now,” he says. “Maybe later when you’re done.” He continues east, walking with his head down, scanning the murky water along the edge of Maule Lake.

We stay for about an hour. Dan calls BoatU.S. to file an insurance claim. They say they’ll get to it in a few days, that they have a lot of work to do. We tape a garbage bag over the hole where the forward hatch should be. Dan goes below again. “I just want to get a few more books,” he says. The books he piles in the cockpit are soaked. While he’s below, a van marked “Police Divers” drives past us through the condo community.

We carry a few things to the truck, not sure what to take and what to leave on the boat for the insurance people. In the end, we just take the VHF radio, an expensive set of binoculars, and the books. “Are you sure you want these? I have most of them on my boat,” I say. I’m carrying wet Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

“I can’t get rid of books,” he says. “I’m not as unattached to my stuff as you are.”

He’s right. The only things I’ve ever really been attached to are boats.

In the evening, the marina fills again. People are back aboard their boats, the air is crisp, and we’re turning down glasses of wine because we can’t drink as fast as they’re being offered. As the sun sets over the Everglades, the silhouettes of trees in Greynolds Park stands against the orange sky. Usually, they’re washed out by street lights, but now they’re black and skeletal. Halloween is only a week away, and they look well-suited.

We still have water, so I head to the marina bathrooms. I have to carry the Maglite with me so I can see in the dark while I shower. On my way back, I see Dan, Don and the man in the flannel shirt standing in a tight circle in the parking lot. They are talking to a woman I don’t recognize. Dan breaks away from the group and walks to B dock with me.

“What’s going on?” I say. As I open the gate, my mind flashes to the A dock gate slamming into me in the middle of the storm and knocking me into the water.

“That woman lives at Point East,” Dan says. “She had pictures of the brother. His boat’s broken into pieces over there, and he washed up completely naked.”

“Dead?” I ask.

Dan just looks at me. “I guess that’s what the police divers were doing,” he says. “She thought the pictures would help identify the body, but his brother won’t look at them.”

“Did you?” I turn on the 12-volt lights inside Short Story. Power is out in the rest of South Florida, but we have light aboard my boat.

“Yes,” he says.

We sit on the dock for a while, drinking wine with our neighbors, huddled in sweatshirts and jeans. It’s gotten cold, and the night is perfectly dark. Patrick turns his spreader lights on so we can see. All around, where North Miami Beach and Aventura and Sunny Isles are usually lit, darkness blankets us. It’s the first time I’ve seen stars in Miami.

Later, I open a can of clam chowder and fix grilled cheese on the alcohol stove, while Dan sits on the settee with Stella on his lap. It’s early for us, but I’m ready to eat dinner and sleep for a week. Stella eyes the food on the galley counter.

“That’s a comforting smell,” Dan says.

“What, beagle breath?” I ask.

He laughs. “No, silly, stove alcohol. We can cook, and most people can’t.”

The radio says power could be out for weeks. My battery won’t last that long, but I’ve plugged the charger into Patrick’s generator so we’ll be able to run the 12-volt refrigerator and the lights.

I don’t believe in the healing process and self-help and all that stuff, but I know it’s going to be a long time before I can swim in Maule Lake again, and I know Dan is going through more than he’ll share with me. We won’t know what’s going to happen with his boat for a while. But B dock feels like home right now, and that’s a start.

Melanie Neale, 26, is a media specialist at Bluewater Books & Charts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Before moving aboard her own boat, she lived aboard and cruised with her parents for 18 years. Her father, Tom Neale, is technical editor for Soundings.