Ch. 2: Sally Wreaks Her Savagery, in the Dark

When the Tuesday 4 pm forecast hits, the heart of every boat owner in Pensacola thumps to a lurch.  What had previously forecast as a minor hurricane poised to make landfall on the Louisiana-Mississippi border, 150 miles to the west of us, is no more.  For whatever reason, the forecast is, unfortunately and unprecedentedly wrong.  It is now clear we are going to experience Cat 1 conditions in Pensacola and that we are unfortunately positioned in the worst, most unforgiving, northeast quadrant of Sally’s path.  Many boaters are calling each other, texting, asking if they should tie more lines, do more prep, try to move the boat, scream to the hurricane gods?  

Four days prior, when Sally was predicted to be only a storm and to shoot on a straight path across the Gulf to the LA-MS border, Phillip and I had been forced to decide on that day, Friday September 11th, whether we wanted to haul for the storm.  Our decision not to, as with many when it comes to predicting storms and preparing the boat, now sits on our chests like a lead vest.  Over the weekend we had seen boats coming to our marina from Louisiana trying to get out of the storm’s expected path.  Most owners had tied a few extra lines and removed some canvas anticipating we would see moderate winds, heavy rains, and a possible 2-3 foot storm surge that was not exceptionally worrisome with our floating docks.  In slip E14 on the west side of the marina, our dock neighbor to the south, a sportfish, is, luckily, in Destin having maintenance done.  Our dock neighbor to the north, a tall Sea Ray is buttoned up and removed his iso-glass.  The next slip over sits Cattywampus, an impressive, rare Manta 42 catamaran, doted on by her new cruising owners and very good friends of ours, Stephen and Beth.  They had taken down their dodger and headsail and tied what Stephen defined as “umpteen hunnerd lines.”   Is that the right amount? they had asked us via text the day before, when the banter was light.

Now, Tuesday, 4:00 p.m., the mood is much more somber.  We only have a few hours of daylight left before Sally is set to strike.  Most sailboats can only travel around 5-7 mph, tops, in the best of conditions, and Sally is 250 miles wide, on a shifting path.  Which way do you even go?  East or west?  In order to get far enough east to get out of Sally’s path, bridge heights force most sailboats out into the Gulf, were Sally is howling, chewing up the surf, and beating her mighty chest.  She would eat any boat that tested her.  The truth guts us.  Sally is coming.  And we are all tied to docks directly in her path.  

The last photo of our girl before Sally struck, taken Tuesday afternoon, September 15th.

Although it has been wrong up to this point, we cling desperately to whatever forecast that might get us through this sleepless night.  

Data from the reconnaissance aircraft indicate that maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 85 mph (140 km/h) with higher gusts.  Although little change in strength is forecast until landfall occurs, Sally is still expected to be a dangerous hurricane when it moves onshore along the north-central Gulf coast.  

NOAA Advisory 7:00 p.m 9.15.20

85 mph was the worst we expected.  That’s not what we got.

Wednesday, September 16th, 4:00 a.m.:

As Sally swirls around, winds now out of the south lash the wall of our house with such force I am afraid to stand in front of a window.  I don’t know what 85 mph winds should feel like on the blunt face of a house, but these feel stronger.  Tree limbs the size of small vehicles crash raucously to the ground.  Transformers explode like bombs.  The power goes on and off.  Our worry for the boat is overtaken when wind-driven rain starts to push its way in.  Phillip and I are, mercifully, distracted while pushing towels against leaking door and window seams, placing pots to catch drops.  There wasn’t really time to think about the boat, which was over a mile to the south of us.  Until we made the call.  

After Stephen sends us a text update he received from a marina dock-hand—“Not good man.  I believe the marina is gone.”—we call him.  My throat tightens as I hear the tears in his voice.  “We just got a call from the Coast Guard … our EPIRB on the boat went off.”  Every sailor knows what that can only mean.  The truth of knowing a device that was once was sitting high and dry on a top shelf in your salon is now underwater can only be described as crushing.  Stephen told us they spent the night watching the updates and watching footage of massive waves crashing over the Wahoo’s Stadium sea wall, which is just a couple hundred yards from our marina.   He then sends us a grainy photo he received of the marina.  It’s Ivan all over again.  A mighty hand has come down and swept and piled docks and boats like toys in a bathtub.  Already sickened, an impossible fact then settles on us.  Hurricane Ivan struck on the exact same day: September 16, 2004.  So much carnage created in what felt like a second.  The paralyzing thought strikes Phillip and I simultaneously: What about our boat?

I can honestly say I did not “fear the worst” in that moment.  I couldn’t comprehend “the worst.”  The reality of that having just happened, without us even there to try to stop it, to help her, to save her!, was a truth my mind simply would not entertain.  Our baby girl?  The boat we spent three filthy, itchy months on the hard repairing, the vessel that galloped us to Cuba, the Keys, the Bahamas!  Our girl?!  We have to know.  

Phillip and I do not think.  We just run.

Hurricane Sally Ch. 1: The Forecast

It’s time to talk about Hurricane Sally.  And, I believe the best place to start that discussion, because that storm was such a shock to many lifelong sailors in Pensacola, is with the forecast.  After Sally ripped through, so many people asked Phillip and I—along with I’m sure just about every other boat owner in Pensacola: Why didn’t you leave?  Why didn’t you haul?  Why did so many leave their canvas up?  I even overheard a guest at a restaurant overlooking the wreckage of our once-beautiful Palafox Marina ask her friend: “Why didn’t they just go out in the Bay and ride it out there safely?”  

‘Ride out’ 15-foot seas and 120+ mph winds pushing you to shore … and do it … safely?  Psshh!  

But, I understand people who do not own a boat or who do not sail or cruise, simply don’t understand a few unfortunate truths about marine weather forecasts and storm prep:

  1. A forecast is just that, a prediction, an estimate. Nothing is truly certain until 24 hours out.  
  2. The decision to haul must be made 3-5 days in advance, when nothing is certain.
  3. Moving the boat in the last 24 hours is dicey, dangerous, and no guarantee.  

Why?  Because hurricanes are generally a few hundred miles wide, traveling on unpredictable paths.  Even if you think you should move the boat in the final hours, deciding which direction to go is incredibly difficult. And, most sailboats can only go 5-7 mph, at their top speed, which requires the winds and seas be favorable (conditions in a storm are rarely favorable).   Sailors can’t get anywhere fast, much less travel the likely hundreds of miles it might take to get out of the cone of uncertainty, which is constantly shifting anyway.  But, the cone and the NOAA forecasts are the best predictions we have to go on. In our opinion, even if you are in the cone of uncertainty, choosing to leave the dock to sail in a storm when you don’t have to (i.e., when the only goal is to save the boat) is just an unnecessary bodily risk.

While I’m on the topic, I’ll include a word about NOAA’s cone of uncertainty, a bit of which I learned myself in researching to write this piece. The cone (sample below) represents the probable track of the center of a tropical cyclone and is formed by enclosing the area swept out by a set of circles (NOAA has calculated over decades) along the forecast track (at 12, 24, 36 hours, etc.). The size of each circle which forms the cone is set so that two-thirds of historical official forecast errors over a five-year sample fall within the circle. The cone has been enlarged over the years to reduce the error rate. Thus, despite the name of the cone, its highly calculated and time-tested goal is to be as certain as possible. You can learn more about NOAA’s Cone of Uncertainty here.

Sample NOAA Cone of Uncertainty

Unfortunately, NOAA’s prediction for Hurricane Sally in the final days before the storm was the most inaccurate many of us sailors in Pensacola can remember. We were never encouraged to leave our marina, under even a voluntarily evacuation or a mandatory one, which is very telling. We had several boats in our marina who had travelled in the 3-4 days before the storm from Louisiana east to our marina in an effort to get out of Sally’s expected path. The bottom line is, Hurricane Sally just stunned us all.  No one expected it to come to our shore, our marina, with such ferocity until it was simply too late.  It wasn’t until within 12 hours of her vicious landfall that we realized where her sights were truly set and that we were about to be hammered by her most unforgiving northeast quadrant.  What was an expected tropical storm brought us 120+ mph winds in our marina and 15-foot waves in the Bay crashing over the marina seawall. It was an attack the boats and docks in the marina simply could not withstand.

I write this to share with you all and let you see what Phillip and I, along with virtually every other boat owner in Pensacola (many now devastated by the loss of their beloved girls), saw as Sally approached.  This was our weather timeline in the days before the storm:

Friday, September 11:

Sally is a tropical depression only, rolling over the southern tip of Florida.  She is predicted to turn into a tropical storm in the Gulf and go straight toward the Mississippi-Louisiana border.  If Phillip and I are going to haul Plaintiff’s Rest out for Storm Sally (which NOAA did not predict at any point to become a hurricane), this is the day it is offered under our hurricane haul-out plan.   The option is: confirm we will haul tomorrow or stay in the water.  As our most extreme measure for protecting the boat from a storm, hauling out is something Phillip and I are inclined to do only when there is a likely threat a hurricane will make landfall. As that was not the forecast at the time, we decided to stay put.

Saturday, September 12:

At this time, Storm Sally is predicted to become a Cat 1 hurricane and strike the LA-MS border, almost 200 miles to the west of us, on Tuesday evening.  Pensacola is in the far east edge of the cone of uncertainty and is under a tropical storm watch (not warning) only.  A Tropical Storm Watch is issued when sustained winds of 34 to 63 kt (39 to 73 mph) or higher associated with a tropical cyclone are not certain but possible in 36 hours or less.  You can learn more about the National Weather Service’s storm warnings here.

Sunday, September 13:

Storm Sally is still on track for the LA-MS border as a Cat 1, showing a hook to the east after she makes landfall.  At this point, Pensacola is entirely outside the cone of uncertainty.  The city is under a tropical storm warning. In increasing from a Watch to a Warning, the National Weather Service changes the prediction from a possibility of tropical storm conditions to an expectation. Meaning, at this time, we are to expect winds of 34 to 63 kt (39 to 73 mph) or higher that may be accompanied by storm surge.   Some boaters expect we might get winds of 40-50 knot winds in the marina, perhaps.  Phillip and I spend the afternoon taking down the dodger and tying additional lines.  We leave our bimini on as the marina typically shuts power down for a storm and we wanted to make sure the bilge pumps could perform in case the unexpected happened.  Our head sail is already down. We secure the halyards and the main sail in her stack pack.  We fasten chafe guards on our additional lines and help other friends in the marina prep their boats for an expected tropical storm.  Although Palafox Marina is notorious for urging owners to leave the marina with just the slightest hint that a storm may come (they are very conservative in their weather predictions, with a strong desire to evacuate in the event of a possible storm to preserve the docks), we receive no encouragement to leave, not even a request for voluntary evacuation.

Monday, September 14

Storm Sally is still on track for the LA-MS border, predicted to hit as a Cat 1 and then hook to the east and travel to the north of us heading northeast.  Pensacola is just outside the cone of uncertainty and under a tropical storm warning only.  No additional prep is undertaken as we are expecting only heavy rains and winds of potentially 30-50 knots in the marina, at most.  Several feet of storm surge is expected but does not worry us as we are on floating docks.

The wind prediction for Monday shows a 50-60% chance of winds between 35-74 mph (tropical storm) in Pensacola. 

Tuesday, September 15:

Sally slowed down considerably over Monday night and is now crawling at 2 mph, no longer moving on her predicted track toward LA but sitting in more of a stall pattern in the Gulf.  The 4:00 p.m. NOAA forecast was the one made every boat owner’s stomach in Pensacola drop like a seventy-pound stone.  

The rapidly-changing forecast has us all concerned that this storm may come with much more force than we had anticipated.  Sally was now predicted to hit as a hurricane on the MS-AL border followed by a sharp turn to the east.  For the first time since Sally’s development, Pensacola is put under a Hurricane Watch, which means hurricane force winds in excess of 74 mph are not simply possible but expected.  Hurricane Sally was then 250 miles wide poised to strike anywhere from Gulfport, MS to Fort Walton Beach, FL, a span of 180 miles.  

Everyone was worried.  Many boaters were calling each other, texting, asking if they should tie more lines, do more prep, try to move the boat, bury their heads, pray, puke, cry?!  Pensacola only had a few hours of daylight left with no place any sailboat owner could safely move their boat to in that timeframe.  In addition, many of us have to travel in the Gulf to go east (because of bridge heights), which wasn’t even an option with Sally out there churning.  With fifteen-foot tall waves that came to our marina early the next morning, we can only imagine what ferocious conditions would have awaited any sailor in the Gulf at that time. Winds in excess of 80 mph? Waves twenty-five feet tall? Whatever the condition, it was not a situation many of us could or would put ourselves in in order to move our boats east. The marina did not issue an evacuation order Tuesday evening as it was simply too late.  When the Tuesday 7 pm advisory was issued, it was clear: Hurricane Sally was coming, and we were all tied in our slips and locked in her path.