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.
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.