September 16, 2020, 9:30 a.m.
Phillip’s eyes read back to me the exact thing I’m thinking: Should we be doing this? We’re gripped to a telephone pole, bracing against a gust, likely over 40 mph, but we have no idea. Whatever speed it is, it’s so strong we cannot stand up or lean into it. We have to hold onto something or we’ll be blown down. I think to myself that I’ve never felt before the weight of my body leaning forward, supported solely by the wind.
The gust that forced us to the pole is the worst Phillip and I have experienced since we received the devastating news from our dock neighbors, Stephen and Beth, that Palafox Marina is believed to be destroyed and that their EPIRB aboard went off which means their once-amazing catamaran, Cattywampus, is likely sunk. As soon as Phillip hung up the phone I knew. We had to go. We both had to know.
Hurricane Sally simply took every boat owner in Pensacola by surprise, taking an unexpected last minute turn the day before, building, slowing, and choosing Pensacola as the target for her most unforgiving northeast quadrant. So many owners had been pacing those early morning hours, hearing the wind howl at their house-fronts, praying their boat—out there in the elements—was somehow miraculously holding on. It had been a terrifying night for many.
“I think we’re okay,” Phillip answers the question my eyes had asked him. “Do you feel okay?”
I find it strangely hard to answer. More often, when you do something you might look back on and think Maybe that wasn’t the safest or wisest decision, you’re usually not thinking that in the moment. Often because whatever you’re doing is too fun or tempting to consider the consequences then. In this moment, however, I can feel the consequences all over my body. The wind exfoliating my skin. Beads of rain driving into my eyes. My hand gripped tight to the splintery wood of the pole to counter the tremendous push I feel on my body. While being in intense, tropical storm elements I can easily say is exhilarating, it’s heart-pumping, I’m not sure I could call it fun. And it was likely not the wisest or safest decision we have ever made. But, our desperate need to see the boat is beyond tempting.
“I feel okay,” I tell Phillip. I know we are currently in about the most wide-open, building-less portion of our hike—an open parking lot—and I know a litany of buildings lie ahead, which I am hopeful will provide us more shelter along the way. I believe, if we can just get to some better cover to safely endure the gusts along the way, we will be able to navigate the remaining three-quarters of a mile to get to the marina. The gust lays down, and Phillip and I march on. Wind-driven rain forces us to squint, which makes it harder to see anything that might be flying at us. While we haven’t yet seen anything airborne the first ten minutes of our trek, we can see evidence of it everywhere: big slats of metal bent around stop signs, pieces of house siding and roof shingles litter the streets. Thankfully, though, it seems Sally has already shaken everything loose that she could in the hours before, and she’s since laid her mass of projectiles down.
When we get to Main Street, two blocks from the marina, Phillip and I find it buried under water. We hike our way to the top level of a parking garage so we can get a better vantage point to see if we will even be able to get to the marina.
I’ve marked an X here on the parking garage where we were standing. The blue line indicates the water level, and you can see Palafox Marina just a couple of blocks south of us.
Here are some before and after photos showing the water level on Main Street where we crossed.
“Oh god, there’s the Nina!” I hear Phillip shout into the wind. La Nina is a rebuild of the ship Columbus actually sailed on when he crossed the Atlantic that had, sadly, come to Pensacola just one week before the storm to offer public tours. It was docked here on the Palafox Marina sea wall near the entrance to the marina.
Phillip points to a building just southwest of us and my mind simply could not process it. I could see the distinct masts of the ship for sure, but my brain told me if I was seeing La Nina there, it had to be in a parking lot. It was bewildering and also immediately humbling and terrifying. If Sally could pick up that heavy beast of a boat and put it anywhere she wanted, a parking lot, even, I think, how in the world could our boat have survived her? I decide in that moment—whether I have to crawl, climb, wade, even swim—I am going to cross that water and get to the marina. Whatever has happened to her, I have to see our boat.
We decide to let Phillip lead the charge, trudging his feet and stepping very slowly so we don’t fall or cut ourselves on whatever might lie beneath as we begin to cross Main Street. The water remains knee high most of the way with no obstacles. We get a bit worried at one point when I have my phone held up over my head and the water came to our chest. This was just north of the marina where Baylen street ends in a circle and is, so far, our deepest point of the journey. It is incredibly strange to see waves surging at us there. Waves? At a place I’ve walked a thousand times to and from the boat. It feels like an altered universe.
Until we make it to the marina. Then it all feels overwhelmingly too real. Shredded sails pop at alarming decibels. Fiberglass groans. Boats have been shoved in a seemingly impossible pile at the north end of the marina, stacked on top of one another, some have even been pushed up violently onto the concrete and sidewalks.
Every vessel is gouged, split, cracked, some are still tied to broken-up pieces of dock. It is carnage. The wind continues to rip through mercilessly, shoving and heeling boats that are just barely floating. I recognize a beautiful Tayana, Distant Drummer, owned by a friend. Its once beautiful velvet blue hull is now scored and scraped all over. It seems she’s been pushed aground and her anchor has lodged on the outer deck railing of building on Palafox Street.
I recall Distant Drummer was once on a dock several rows to the south of where our boat was and the realization guts me. If all of those boats have come this far … We then see Stephen and Beth’s gallant catamaran, Cattywampus, is just as they suspected: submerged. She’s gone. Already! Sunk in her own home? How … why … my brain tries to make sense. A huge sport fisher that had been tied up just across the way from us in our slip I now notice is the furthest boat shoved into the pile, its scratching its once glistening hull into the concrete steps that used to lead to the beautiful walk along our marina. Then I make out the fuel dock. The fuel dock? my wayward brain asks. The fuel dock was on the first row right by the sea wall! Now it’s here?
Here are some overhead views of our marina showing where Plaintiff’s Rest’s slip was before the storm and the condition of the marina after the storm.
Paralyzed by the impossible wreckage, stunned by seeing things that shouldn’t be, my brain simply didn’t have time, when we first arrived, to look anywhere other than at the devastating oddities right in front of me, but now she realizes what she might see with just the shift of an eye. A white monohull? Green canvas? Plaintiff’s Rest? I immediately begin scanning every boat in the pile as Phillip and I start to make our way south on the Baylen side of Palafox Marina, hoping not to see our baby girl in the pile of bodies. And, each time, it’s not her. I see a sliver of white hull, but that’s not her stern. Some green canvas, but it’s a Beneteau. She’s not there!
I start to jog down the sea wall as the gusts keep pummeling us, then I see it! I’m either insane or I see it! “Her mast!” I shout to Phillip as I take off in a full sprint. It seems unfathomable, but it looks like she is sitting afloat in her slip. My feet pound the pavement as hard as my heart on my chest wall as I tell her, or myself, I’m not sure, over and over: Be okay, be okay, please baby girl, be okay. I will admit I was not aware before you could cry over a boat. I thought I would if we ever lost her, or the day that we sold her, but it was just a thought. I had never done it myself. I had never been attached to a boat before we bonded with our Niagara 35. But, now I know. You can absolutely bawl over a boat.
Tears wet my lashes as I scream when I see her. Plaintiff’s Rest is afloat! She’s heeling and groaning, and fighting for her life with every gust but she is, from what we can tell, seemingly okay. “HOLD ON BABY GIRL!” rips painfully out of my throat, although the wind is so strong I don’t know if she hears me. I crush my wet face into Phillip’s shoulder as he makes it to me and we grip one another. We both stand stunned looking at her. Plaintiff’s Rest is one of only two boats on the Palafox side that remains tied to her original dock in its original location. How … why … I’m still confused. Happy. Overwhelmed. Sad. And confused. But, it was terrifying to watch her strain with every wave and slap of wind while a pile of boats and docks jumbled to the south of her roll and lunge at her. They could break free any second I know and demolish her. And, Phillip and I might be standing here to watch, powerless to help her from across the way. I can’t imagine then what would be worse: coming to find your boat sunk or watching, powerlessly, her demise.
But, I can’t think those things as I see her heel and buck in her slip. All I can do is pray those other boats hold until the damn wind finally dies and we can get to the other side to try to help her. Until then, Plaintiff’s Rest fights for her life, holding onto a dock that may fail. I know, even at the time, this is one of those moments I’m going to relive on my death bed. I just cannot believe it. How … why … But I clear those thoughts and channel to her again. Hold on baby girl. You’ve got this. Hold on just a little bit longer.
We later learned the heroic tale of La Nina and why it appeared to me to be in a parking lot, as it just about was. Unfortunately, winds over 110 mph and 10-15 foot swells broke up the docks she was tied to on the sea wall in Palafox Marina. The Nina was sucked out of the marina with the crew aboard, still attached a great length of broken dock. The crew deployed her anchor in the basin. Although it broke, it did slingshot the vessel past the treacherous rocks surrounding the condominiums (while several owners looked on from above, watching her brave journey) and sent her into the soft mud just behind the parking lot of the building we were facing when we noticed her from the parking garage. Captain Stephen aboard the vessel published this write-up about the events of Hurricane Sally and La Nina’s courageous journey and crew.