There’s a storm brewing out there. You know it’s coming. You often know how fast it’s going and what the sustained winds are. You even have many, many predicted tracks. But, you just never know with 100% certainty where it’s going to hit and what it’s going to do.
Deciding what to do when a hurricane has its sights set on you is always a very tough call. The cone is so large (made even larger by varying predicted landfalls) and sailboats move so slow.
Even if you have purchased a hurricane haul-out plan, which Phillip and I have, deciding whether to haul-out or not is still a tough call. Being on jack stands among dozens of other boats propped up on what look like toothpicks is no guarantee of safety. But, even if you tie your boat up super secure in an anchorage or marina, that’s no guarantee another boat won’t come loose and come barreling into you. It’s just tough. As Phillip and I wait for Michael to make landfall, I thought I would share with you all some of our thoughts on hurricane preparation and some of the measures we took to (hopefully) keep our boat safe. Many of these are passed down from sailors much wiser than us, and you know me, I’m always happy to share. Here’s to the Kretschmers and Pam Walls out there who have taught us so much. We hope some of these tips help you all someday (if not today!) too.
Whether to Haul
The decision of whether to haul is usually difficult because it has to be made very early in the process, when the hurricane is out there with varying predicted landfalls. But, understandably, the shipyards have to be prepared to haul as many people out on their list that want out, so that takes 2-3 days to coordinate and schedule. They cannot allow all owners on the list to wait until the last day and then demand to be hauled out. For Phillip and I, if our marina requires a mandatory evacuation, then that makes the decision to haul-out easier. However, as with Michael, where the marina merely issued a “voluntary” evacuation—encouraging but not requiring owners to leave—that makes our decision tougher.
While it would be (well … nice isn’t really the right word as I’m sure the experience is a wet, wild adventure) but it would be reassuring to be able to stay safely on the boat in the marina during the hurricane constantly checking for chafe or other wind-driven problems, and watching out for other boats that may come loose. Staying in the water, however, does expose the boat to a potential sinking if something collides with her or strikes her in such a way as to punch a hole or cause a break that would allow water intake. Being on jack stands does give you peace of mind that she won’t sink. However, up and on jack stands does create significant more windage. Jack stands can fail, and other boats can topple over onto you.
While Phillip and I believe hauling out can be the safer option, it’s not guaranteed. Some friends offered us a mooring they dropped themselves (a 2,000 lb tractor axle) with a super hearty shackle up in a hurricane hole where they rode out Hurricane Ivan safely, and I would imagine that would be a safer option than the shipyard. However, it’s in a neighboring state where we are not insured. So that would be a huge downside if something did occur and our boat was significantly damaged during the storm. All of these pros and cons were weighing on us as we left Pirate’s Cove in Alabama and made our way home Sunday to our slip in Pensacola.
It was no surprise when the folks at our hurricane haul-out yard called us during our motor back asking us if we wanted to haul-out and, if so, when we wanted to be scheduled. They offered us a 5:30 p.m. slot the following day on Monday, or a 7:00 a.m. slot on Tuesday morning. Debating a not-so-ideal evening haul-out versus the benefit of earlier prep of the boat, we chose the 5:30 slot knowing that would give us all day Monday to watch the storm and make a last-minute decision on Monday afternoon.
Knowing we would strip the boat entirely whether we stayed in the water or hauled-out, we set to that job on Monday morning while we watched the NOAA reports during the day and waited for the final 4:00 p.m. full report that would force our hand. When the report showed Hurricane Michael moving faster, allowing it less time to hook further east before making landfall, Phillip and I decided to haul-out. We did the same thing last year when Nate was barreling down on us (I wrote a piece on that experience here), so we knew the process, we trusted the yard, and we felt it was best.
Photo from our Nate prep, October 2017.
But, the haul-out itself was just one step of the prep work. I wanted to share with you all here a detailed list of the additional work we did to ensure (we hope) no canvas or sails are damaged during the storm, no halyards or other lines come untethered and start slinging around like ball on the end of a chain, and that our boat stays as absolutely safe and undamaged as possible.
First, we start with Annie up the mast! Detailed list with photos below. Prep smart people, and best of luck out there!
Hurricane Prep on Plaintiff’s Rest
We send Annie up the mast to bring down our convertible inner forestay for our storm sail. We know we’ll have to send me up after the storm to bring other halyards and things down, so removing this just to ensure less “whippage” potential during the storm is a no-brainer. I will install it back when I go up the mast after the storm so it will be ready for our offshore sailing season.
And that video still came from our “How to Rig Your Boat for Heavy Weather Sailing” video where we share some other tips on rigging your boat for heavy offshore winds. Feel free to check it out here.
2. Drop, flake and bag the genoa, and put it below. We leave the sheets on it, so they are also removed from the topside as well.
3. Pull the furling line out of the furling drum on the headsail. It’s easy to re-install and it means one less line on the deck.
4. Remove the flag halyards. (Again, we know I will have to go up the mast again after the storm, so anything completely outside of the mast that can easily be taken down entirely and re-installed when I go back up, we remove.)
5. Remove the dodger and stow it below. (We’re getting a new one this year by the way; our old one is “played out!” as Phillip would say. Zippers coming off and falling apart. This might be the last time that old dodger rides on the boat! Sorry Charlie. See you later!)
6. Unhook the solar panels on top of the bimini (usually by marking the right connections with blue painter’s tape and Sharpie).
7. Carefully fold the bimini with the solar panels attached and stow it in the vberth below.
8. Remove the lifeline from the stern rail and stow it below. Now the cockpit is completely stripped and clean.
8. Secure the bars of the bimini and the remaining solar power cords with tape, line, and zip ties. Same with the dodger frame.
9. Remove all other canvas (hatch covers, hand rails, etc.).
10. Drop the Stack Pack and stow it below. I usually take a photo of it and make myself a little diagram so I remember how to re-install it. It’s not that hard at all. But, when it’s a wadded up pile of canvas and lines it looks a little intimidating.
11. Drop the mainsail and stow it below (with the reef line at the tack stored with it).
12. Check the figure-eight knots on each end then pull Reef One and Reef Two at the clew down into the throat at the aft of the boom with the remainder of the lines in the cockpit.
13. Remove the Cunningham and stow it below.
14. Remove the whisker pole and stow it below.
15. Okay, we’re not quite through but in yesterday-time it’s now 4:00 p.m. and time to head to the shipyard. It’s haul-out time! Let’s go!
Last thing to deal with is the lines that are remaining on the boat. Pam Wall gave us some great tips on these.
16. We pull all all halyards in the mast up to the top so the lines are protected and the shackled end cannot come untethered and start whipping everything on the boat with a fury. This includes the genny halyard, the staysail halyard, the topping lift, the spinnaker halyard and the main halyard. (That’s one busy mast!) We run dyneema leads up with the spinnaker and genny halyard (the two lines we often use to raise me up the mast) so those can be pulled back down to raise me up to retrieve the others post-storm. At the shackle end of each line I tie a big figure-eight knot to (while I’m sure it already is, but just to be doubly-sure) it’s too fat to fall down in the throat of the sheave. I then fold the shackle back onto the figure-eight knot and tape it all securely with blue tape (that way the shackle can’t bang and beat itself to death). We then attach a dyneema messenger to those we will pull back down. I tie several knots in the dyneema and tape them with blue tape to prevent the knots from slipping out. (That dyneema is super strong but notorious for un-tying itself. It’s so slickery! Annie word of the day.)
18. The remainder of the dyneema (because we don’t want to cut it, it’s one piece long enough to replace any stay or shroud) I stuff into the boot cover at the bottom of the mast and tape it round and round (to ensure the Velcro doesn’t give during the storm).
17. Here’s the Pam Wall trick. We run the remainder of the genny and the spinnaker lines round and round (tightly coiled) around the base of the mast. The main halyard that is back in the cockpit we run the same way (tightly coiled) around the binnacle. And the other lines (outhaul, main sheets, reminder of the topping lift, staysail halyard, etc.) we stuff in a bag on a port wench and we tape the throat of it shut and secure it to the wench. You can see the bag here:
18. You tired yet? We were. It was a loooonnng day yesterday. Now that everything topside is as secure as it can be, it’s time to reinforce the bottom. We run seizing wire around the handles of each jack stand (a trick Brandon with Perdido Sailor taught us – thanks B!) to help prevent them from rattling themselves loose in heavy winds.
19. We then run chain or dock lines (chain is best) from jack stand to jack stand to create a sort of secure “cradle” for our boat. To make all of the jack stands work together to support our hull.
20. Okay, I believe that’s it (as I’m running through this mentally). We’ll always do one last sweep to make sure all hatches are closed and that we didn’t miss anything. I hope this list helps some of you!
And, we hope this sheds some light for those who do not own a boat on how much work really goes into preparing a boat for a storm. Phillip and I got this all accomplished yesterday and we’re hoping our baby girl is as secure as she can be for Michael’s fury, whatever he may bring. We hope all of you remain safe during the storm, too. We’ll be sending our thoughts to your hearts, homes, and vessels. Hold fast followers!
You’re out there. Nothing but denim blue water lapping the sky as far as you can see. The sun has just set, so each chop has a bright pink cap reflecting the magenta sky. Colors and senses are heightened. The boat is floating along nicely with 10 kts on the stern and you’re hoping it will stay that way through the night so you and the crew can make comfortable way during the oncoming night shifts. You hope …
Ahoy HaveWind followers! Bahamas Voyage Chapter Two coming at you! I wanted to share with you a little bit of what it’s like to hold a night shift alone offshore on a sailboat and tell you about two particular night shifts on our Gulf-Crossing: my best night shift ever and my worst. Some very fun happenings in here for you. Enjoy!
“I saw it,” I said to myself. Perhaps out-loud. I can’t even be sure at this point. During my night shifts, I talk, sing, whisper and think for two hours straight and I can’t easily differentiate which of those play only in my mind or which make it to my lips. But I saw it! I love it when I’m staring right at it when it happens. It’s one thing to catch a streak out of your peripheral vision and turn to see, yes, in fact a shooting star finishing its impressive blaze across the sky. But is an entirely different experience to have it happen to the very star you are staring at. At first it is fixated star in the sky. A beautiful white point. Then you see it. The very white point you were looking at light up, blaze brightly, and suddenly streak, screaming almost as if you can hear it, across the sky. “I saw it,” you’ll find yourself saying as if to confirm to whatever cosmic spirits are out there—the dolphins, your magnificent boat, Neptune, whomever—that, yes, you did indeed see it. “And it was beautiful.”
Shooting stars are one of the most mesmerizing parts of holding a night shift on a sailboat offshore, many miles away from the glowing shore. Just you. And a million stars.
But they are not the most mesmerizing. I did not know it until I first saw it with Yannick during our Atlantic-crossing back in 2016 on his gallant Soubise Freydis 46’ catamaran. I was holding a night shift alone somewhere north of the Bermudas and I really thought my mind was playing tricks on me. While shooting stars overhead were common, I truly thought I had just seen one in the water. I peered again, straining my eyes into the dark blue chop and there it was—a streak of glitter. I stepped one foot out onto the deck and looked over. This was as far as I dared to venture alone while holding my shift. Yannick’s very strict rule for our four-man ocean-crossing crew—and it was a good one—was that no one was allowed to go forward on deck alone while holding a night shift. But, from this arched-over position I could see it. Flashes and trails of glitter gleaming behind what appeared to be an ethereal outline of a dolphin. Then I saw others, all of them seeming to be making their way to the bow. We had seen pods of dolphins swim, romp and play in front of Andanza’s bow many times while on our ocean voyage, and I just knew they were doing it now—glowing in the dozens at the bow.
Yannick was sitting in the saloon below downloading a WeatherFax chart. He was often awake throughout the night, while the rest of the crew was holding shifts at the helm, researching issues, studying manuals, looking at the weather, doing any number of a dozen things that required his focus everyday all day across the entire ocean. I told him what I thought I had seen and, as stern and steadfast as he was a Captain, he was also an adventurer at heart. “Let’s go see!” he said and allowed me to follow him, clipping in along the way, as we made our way to the bow. And there they were. It had to be fifteen to twenty of them. The small, zippy little dolphins we’d seen throughout the Atlantic crossing, weaving in and out of one another, their bodies aglow, the disturbed water behind them forming a glistening trail. That was the most mesmerizing thing I had seen dolphins do. Until …
My second night shift during our Gulf-crossing toward the Bahamas. I finally saw dolphins in phosphorescence in the Gulf. These are the not the small, zippy critters of the Atlantic. No. As residents of the Florida coast, many of you may know how lucky we are to typically see dolphins just about everyday we venture out onto the water. And, how big and gallant their movements. The dolphins of the Gulf are much larger and more lumbering than those we saw in the Atlantic. And now, as I saw them during my night shift on our Niagara, they appeared so large, outlined in phosphorescence, it was almost as if they were small whales, slipping sleepily in and out of one another. The first one I saw that swim up toward the cockpit, his entire body outlined in a web of sparkles, he seemed so big and so close that I jumped when he dipped under the boat for fear he would touch my feet. I felt that connected to them. They were elegant and wondrous. Although the same “going topside alone at night” rule applies a bit more loosely on our Niagara (technically Phillip and I have a genteel agreement to wake the other if we need to go forward, but we’ve also both broken it when conditions are calm and we’re not going forward to handle some dangerous equipment failure or make a challenging sail change), I ventured forth. Clipped in mid-ship and watched them—majestic, glowing creatures bringing us across the Gulf. That. Was. Mesmerizing.
So, shooting stars and glowing dolphins. Can night shifts offshore aboard a sailboat be like this? Of course! I’ve often had many of my most memorable moments from an offshore voyage occur during a night shift, because there is simply nothing that can replicate the beauty of the dark, the overwhelming multitudes of stars and the gentle lapping of dark water on the hull. Night sailing is an experience all its own.
But, I have also often had my most frightening and frustrating moments of an offshore voyage occur during a night shift. It is amazing how different the conditions feel on the boat when you are robbed of the security of visibility. At night, you often cannot see how big the sea state is (or, more appropriately, how small). It all feels big because it can only be felt and heard, not seen. All of the sounds the boat makes are also amplified because your hearing takes over for vision. Sails flogging, rigging rattling, halyards snapping all sound infinitely more dangerous and harmful at night as opposed to day. Every adverse consequence of rough conditions—the pitching of the boat, the groan of her bending, flexing structure, the crush of water against her hull, the thunderous pop of a sail that fills with wind—sound and feel worse at night.
My third night during our voyage across the Gulf to the Bahamas was easily one of the worst night shifts I have held on our boat. Granted, it does not compare to some of the night shifts I held on Andanza, when we were battling a failing auto-pilot, hand-steering in heavy winds, navigating ships in the dark, but this was definitely my most challenging aboard our our monohull.
As many of you know, if you followed us via our Delorme posts across the Gulf or in the Gulf-crossing video we recently put out, Phillip and I faced a pretty gnarly front outside of Tampa while we were making our way down south to Key West. It wasn’t anything too daunting, 20-25 kt winds and 6-8 foot seas, all on the stern thankfully, but it did make for a very tiring 24 hours underway. And, the culmination of happenings combining to create a pretty hairy situation happens as it always seems to happen. Phillip and I call this the “onion theory.” A dangerous situation during a passage is usually not the result of one catastrophic event. It is usually a culmination of several unfortunate occurrences or situations that add on top of one another, much like layers of an onion, to result in a conglomerate bad situation. Let’s say you have a small equipment failure. The auto-pilot goes out. The transmission needs constant refilling. The engine overheats on the hour. Whatever it is, it calls for more attention and effort from the crew. This then creates added exhaustion in the crew. Then perhaps the weather turns, calling for a grueling sail change or rougher conditions on the boat which further tires the crew. Then perhaps a bad decision is made, to try and power through a rough front or handle a sail change alone, likely made because the crew member or captain is tired, irritated and this adds to poor judgment. You can probably see a pattern here: minor problem after problem, stacking on like layers, adds up to one nasty, dangerous situation. Phillip and I were operating under pure onion theory our third night crossing the Gulf.
To begin with, that morning, Tuesday, December 12th, started with winds that built to 20 knots right after we woke. Just as we were strategizing whether to reef down further—we were flying the Main at Reef 1 and “Wendy” (our 90% offshore jib) full out at the time—Phillip heard a “kachunk” at the helm and “Lord Nelson,” our hydraulic auto-pilot, then began his cacophonous peel of beeps letting us know he was giving up. Phillip grabbed the wheel immediately to keep the 4-6 foot building seas that were following us from smacking the boat off-course, threatening to backwind the sails. While we both didn’t want to ponder the thought, it was very possible our auto-pilot would be out for the rest of the voyage and Phillip and I would be hand-steering the remaining 2.5 days of our passage. This was simply one scenario. But one neither of us were ready to accept yet. While I wasn’t sure, we both did have an idea as to what may have happened. The best problem you can have on a boat is one you’ve had before—because then you know exactly how to fix it.
One day when we were sailing our boat down in Key West after our voyage to Cuba the previous year, Lord Nelson gave the same kerchunk sound and thew up the wheel. We investigated down below and found his piston had simply come unthreaded from the ball and socket joint that attaches to the brass arm he uses to turn the rudder. Kind of an odd thing to happen, but it did seem possible with just the right amount of turns and spins, eventually he had turned 180 degrees enough times to de-thread himself. The best part about that problem, though, was that we were close to shore in very calm waters with no immediate need for auto-pilot to steer the boat. So, we hand-steered the half hour back and waited until we were sitting still at the dock at Stock Island, and I was able to—then, rather easily—remove the ball joint from the brass arm, thread it back onto the piston and reattach the joint via a pin and (what I call) a “bobby pin” cotter pin, because it’s shaped like a bobby pin. This was easy to do then because we were not steering at the time. The boat was not underway and the rudder and steering quadrant were completely still. Everything is a thousand times easier when you’re sitting at the dock and the boat isn’t moving.
Now, as we were making our way across the Gulf in building winds and seas, when I spilled the contents of our port lazarette where we mounted our hydraulic auto-pilot when we spent three months in the shipyard in 2016 and saw that the same thing had occurred, I was relieved to see it was what I had expected. This meant I knew the solution: thread the joint back on and re-mount it to the quadrant and *voila!* Auto is back. But, I was not 100% confident whether I would be able to do this underway, while the rudder was in constant movement, reacting to the wind and waves in order to hold a safe course for the boat. But, I undertook it anyway and was surprised to find with a little luck, good timing and patience I was able to remount the arm underway. So, Lord Nelson was then back in business, but we weren’t out of the woods yet.
My repair had taken about an hour and the winds were now holding steady at 22-23 knots. That is a lot for our 35’ moderate displacement boat. As Phillip and I both suspected, once we turned the wheel back over to Lord Nelson, he would hold as long as he could but in those seas and winds, the boat would often get knocked so far off course he didn’t have the ability to get her back on course and he would wail out in a series of beeps and, once again, give up the wheel. This might mean our auto-pilot would not be able to hold 90% of the time in those conditions and those conditions were expected to last at least the next 24 hours, which would mean virtually 24 hours of hand-steering. A potential scenario, but not one we were willing to accept. Yet. While Phillip continued to hold the wheel and handle the lines in the cockpit, I went forward to set further reefs in hopes this would enable Lord Nelson to steer the boat in those seas.
This was the first time we had hauled our Main sail down to the third reef. We had our local sailmaker put a third reef in before our voyage to Cuba but we sailed that entire passage primarily under Reef 2 and that worked well. Now it was time to re-configure the reefing lines in our boom to pull Reef 3 at the clew and we also used our Cunningham to pull the Main down taught to Reef 3 at the tack. Thankfully, our previously-broken Cunningham was one of the items on our very long list to replace before we shoved off for the Bahamas. It was not a piece of equipment we had used before as we’re not as much racers as we are cruisers, but good on Phillip as he added it to the list as a “just in case” and it proved invaluable here. While you can always tie a reef down in the main sail manually with sail ties, it is very hard to conjure the muscle needed to fight the wind in order to hold the canvas down while tying a knot. But, after 40 minutes of tugging, pulling and grunting, I was able to put a very flat, secure and satisfactory third reef in the Main. Phillip and I then tugged, pulled and grunted and were able to put a very satisfactory second reef in our offshore jib. This was very little canvas out, but our boat is not as heavy as other builds (Tayanas, Westsails, etc.) and she heels very easily in 15+ winds. A steady 25 knots was the most we had sailed in offshore for an extended period of time. But, with less canvas up, we were thrilled to see Lord Nelson was able to hold most of the time. But, because he was still susceptible to the occasional one-two wave punch that would send our Niagara careening off the back of a wave then pulling speedily on the next one back to weather and overpower him, Phillip and I had to hold these shifts sitting attentively behind the wheel ready to grab at any moment as the auto-pilot lost its footing approximately 2-3 times an hour during these conditions.
Again, not too bad of a situation. Many crews hand-steer all the time. So we were still living in luxury land with an auto-pilot that held the majority of the time. But, per onion theory, we had added one layer in having to maintain post behind the wheel with a constant eye to the wind and waves to allow us to grab the wheel and take over in the blink of an eye. Also, the additional effort exterted to repair the auto-pilot, reef down the sails and move safely around the now pitching and tossing boat, I would say our increased exhaustion would really put us two layers thick. A state in which remained all day as the winds held fast at 22+ and the waves built to a steady 6-8 feet, with the occasional 10-foot monster.
With that setting, cue my worst night shift on our boat:
We were tired. Not exhausted but generally worn down from the rough day and both Phillip and I knew holding night shifts in these conditions was going to require even more attention and focus than the day had mandated. But we settled in. Phillip was up first as I crashed hard down below. While it has taken us several years to build my sea skills and Phillip’s trust in my ability to single-hand the boat when needed, we are very much now an equal team. Phillip and I maintain a two-hour night shift rotation when underway offshore and when one is holding the helm the other goes down for a very much-needed and often very-deep sleep. I was so deep in mine, Phillip barely woke me when he clattered down below to clean up and shut the companionway hatch. He said I just grumbled something incoherent and rolled over when he told me he had just been swamped by a wave and “about a gallon of water” had crashed down into the cabin. Didn’t bother Off-Shift Annie. She went right back down. ZZZZZzzzzzzz.
But I would experience my own swamper. Just wait. For now, Annie you’re up to hold your first night shift in this mess.
Phillip and I had both agreed, that in these conditions, considering the pretty intense movement of the boat and our need to sit behind the wheel to take over each time Lord Nelson could not hold, that we would remain clipped in at the helm during our respective shifts. So, I clipped in near the binnacle and settled in. Our auto did great most of the time and I only had to take over a few times when a ten-footer would shove our bow violently to the east, leaving Lord Nelson shrieking in panic. Holding the wheel in conditions like those is actually calming. Pam Wall taught me this trick as she often tells her student sailors that when the seas feel rough and the boat feels out of control. It’s kind of like riding shotgun in a very fast car on dangerous, winding roads. It’s much more frightening when you’re not holding the wheel. “Here, steer!” Pam will shout to her students. “I promise. You won’t be afraid at all if you hold the wheel.” And it is so true. It gives you a much stronger connection to the boat, her stability and her capability to handle those conditions. For that reason, for most of that shift, I hand-steered as a means of maintaining focus and attention and a calm disposition in those conditions.
My first shift turned out to be fairly uneventful, albeit tiring. However, when Phillip and I changed shifts, he (wisely having checked our battery state before coming topside) decided we should crank and motor-sail for a bit to give the batteries some much-needed juice. On our boat we have a 450 hour bank, but we have always been told (and we always try to follow the rule) that you should not draw the batteries down below 50% to preserve their lifespan. At that time, with the cloud cover that day and added energy drained by Lord Nelson’s impressive efforts holding the wheel, we had pulled off about 160 hours and, if we continued through the remaining six hours of the night without putting juice in, we would easily exceed our 50% mark (i.e., 225 hours off). Hence the need to crank. So, Phillip cranked and I fell deep into slumber. That is, until I heard a piercing wail from the engine. Not ten minutes after Phillip cranked, our Westerbeke 27A (“Westie” we call him) had overheated. As you have probably noticed, we have names for most of the crucial systems on our boat because, trust me, calling them by name makes them fight harder in the clutch. And we were definitely in the clutch.
I shook my head to try and flail off the fog of sleep, and unfortunately the first thing I saw, after I heard the loud beep, was the light indicating the bilge pump was going off. A leaking boat and a faulty engine are not a combination you want to have on any boat anywhere, but especially not 100 miles from shore in some “stuff.” That’s one too many onion layers for me. I decided to wait to tell Phillip about the bilge pump light, though, until we handled our first emergency: Westie. I checked around the engine, as Phillip manned the helm, for leaking raw water, coolant, etc. anything that would indicate our engine was struggling to cool himself. Nothing. We cranked again. Waited and watched as the engine quickly came back to temp. Phillip shifted into gear and not a few minutes later, Westie rang out again in protest, his temp needle quickly passing 180 and broaching 190. Phillip shut the engine down, shaking his head. We didn’t really have a good answer for it. And, in the darkness of night, with most of our efforts geared toward handling the boat in those conditions, it didn’t seem we were going to be able to solve that particular puzzle right then and there. We hoped the batteries wouldn’t drain to a life-threatening level before we could get sun once again on our solar panels and troubleshoot the problem the next morning in daylight.
I also then told Phillip about the bilge pump light I had seen go off. “I saw it, too,” he responded. I think both of us had momentarily withheld the information from each other hoping perhaps what we had seen hadn’t really happened, but now that we could both confirm it, it had to be true. We considered the “rocky rolly water,” which on our boat is the water that accumulates in pockets unseen—we have yet to find them or find signs they are damaging anything in their accumulation, we hope and suspect it’s above the headliner—but it comes “rolling” out in various places only when the boat is “rocking” while underway. Hence the name. It’s a fairly harmless amount and, as I mentioned, we haven’t seen any deterioration in any critical area because of it. Nothing like rotting our mast-step stringers or anything. Ha! What, too soon? ; ) And, while our boat is farily leak-free, it is not 100% in heavy rains and a heavy sea state and it’s likely it never will be. There are just far too many tiny little screw holes and entry points to keep all water, when coming forcefully from all angles, out. So, I checked the bilge. The water was sitting below the top of our center keel bolt—a very low, non-alarming level—and didn’t seem to be rapidly increasing. The bilge pump was also not going off frequently enough for either of us to even try to time it. It must have been once every 45 minutes to an hour if I had to guess. So, we attributed this, too, to a non-crucial issue and one we were similarly not going to be able to thoroughly investigate and solve in those conditions at night. So, a little water intake and an overheating engine. C’est la vie, for now.
After assessing the bilge situation, Phillip settled in to hold the rest of his shift and I headed back down below to indulge the rest of my sleep-shift. The first few days of the voyage, and particularly during this 24-hour period, Phillip and I had been sleeping in full foulies as it took far more energy to get out of those nasty things than we needed to exert towards it. And, if something were to occur topside that would require our immediate attention (a line chafing, a sail blowing out, etc.) it would be best if we were able to jump from the settee and immediately spring topside to handle it. The loud crinkle and discomfort of sleeping in full third reef gear in no way hindered our ability to fall out of consciousness for two hours at a time, trust me. Case in point: the minute my salty body crashed back on the settee I fell into a dead sleep. When Phillip shook me to, I felt like it had been another mere ten minutes and he had unfortunately ran into another wake-the-crew-worthy problem right at the commencement of his shift. Boy, was I wrong.
“It’s time for your shift babe,” he said as he continued to shake me. I literally felt like I had been asleep for two minutes. An hour and forty-five slipped by in an alarmingly-small spec of time. As I sat up on the settee, I could feel that I was tired. This was confirmed when I slipped on my pfd, dragged my body up the companionway stairs and sat down heavy behind the wheel. It was going to be a long shift. But we did have good news.
During his shift, Phillip had stolen downstairs on a quick calm spot to grab Nigel Calder’s engine book—the holy grail of diesel engine maintenance manuals. If Nigel ever reads this (Ahhh! Such flattery!), or if any of you out there know him personally, please send Nigel our forever thanks. He has enlightened and saved us more than once out there. Thank you Nigel! Phillip is a great Captain and a tenacious student when it comes to our boat and her many complex systems. He had spent the majority of his shift both watching the helm and reading Nigel’s book to try to glean some knowledge into why our seemingly fully-operable engine was overheating. And, he told me he had read that sometimes in heavy conditions, i.e., big seas that pitch and toss the boat, the extra pressure and energy exerted by the prop to churn and propel the boat in those conditions can cause an engine to overheat. Aha! Phillip had potentially found our battery-charge solution. Perhaps we could not put a load on the engine in those conditions, but we might could run her without a load (in neutral) just to put juice in the batteries. This was the theory. Cross your fingers.
Phillip passed the key up to me and we both watched wearily but eagerly as the engine roared to life and begin to increase in temp. 140. 160. Then right up toward 180 where we always like to see Westie’s needle broach this point then do a little light hop back and hold just under 180. Without shifting the transmission into gear and running Westie under no load, it did the trick! Westie was purring and holding temp and our batteries, currently nearing 180 amp hours drawn off, were now getting a lifeline of juice pumping in. Thankfully we also have a high-output alternator on our engine that pumps in about 70-80 amps/hour when the batteries are really low. “Go Westie, go!” I whispered from the helm as he held full on during my shift. So, things were looking up. Lord Nelson was doing a fabulous job, again holding 90% of the time without so much as a squeal or complaint. The sails were in excellent shape, holding flat and firm with the 23 knots of wind on our stern. We were still tossing about in some pretty big seas, but the boat was handling it very well. It seemed like I was going to have, all told, a pretty uneventful shift (considering our prolonged run in those conditions), but just when you start to think that, and you’re on your last 15-minute stint, that’s when it happens.
I was holding the helm, thankfully strapped in and thankfully attentive to our heading and wind direction in case I needed to grab the helm at anytime, when I heard it. This thunderous crush of water over my left shoulder. While visibility that night wasn’t ideal, the cloudy sky had obscured our ability to see the horizon and visually spot waves before they assaulted the boat, there was definitely enough light for me to see this monster. I can’t tell you how big it was. Maybe ten feet, maybe twelve, but she was crumbling and churning toward me, taller than the bimini. I instinctively put my hands on the wheel knowing I would likely soon have to take over when she lifted our stern as if our boat weighed nothing and came crashing in over the stern rail. I was astonished at how much water could come in instantaneously.
I was sitting just like this and where I had once been perched high and dry, now an entire bathtub of water sloshed, well up to my thigh in the cockpit.
I didn’t have time to think about it though. The wave had caused our boat’s stern to kick out severely to starboard as our bow jumped over to port. The boat was turned now almost ninety degrees, with the other 8-footers behind her threatening to hit right at the beam. Lord Nelson threw his hands up and screamed in revolt. I clicked auto off and flung the wheel hard over to starboard watching for probably a good 5-10 seconds while the boat steadily charged her way back on course. I was shocked to see when I finally had the boat back on course and could allot the mere seconds available to take my eyes off the compass to look around the cockpit and the water was still draining. The cockpit was still filled up to my ankle which was propped up on the bench, serving as my brace for the heeling.
At that moment I had to just laugh. What a wonderfully-powerful thing. The Gulf. To be able to completely fill the cockpit anytime she wanted to, but what a wonderfully-capable boat to take it, drain it and keep going. It was just … uncanny. While I can say it was a little frightening, sure, it was, but mostly it was thrilling. And I’m not an extreme sports, risk-my-body-for-fun adrenaline junkie. All evidence to the contrary with the silks and kite-surfing and all, I’m really not. I ski very slowly because I worry about injuring my knees … again. I don’t do silks drops because I fear injury or another wicked skin burn will result. And, while I love to kite-suf, it’s rare I attempt the many and numerous ten-foot launches Phillip will throw down in one session because I’m afraid of busting an ankle on the landing or crashing my kite. I’m never thrilled at the threat of bodily injury or a life-threatening adventure. But this felt nothing like that. We have a very capable boat and crew and while a rush of water in the cockpit isn’t ideal, it didn’t feel threatening in any way. It was just … thrilling.
And Phillip cracked up laughing when I was reliving my whole “cockpit swamper” to him during shift change, trying to convey how much water had actually come into the cockpit, and he assured me his own swamper was “Waaayy bigger” because it had actually tumbled into the cabin below. “Remember?” he said. And I did vaguely recall him clattering around down there trying to sop up water and seal up the cabin while I was in half-zombie mode. “Whatever, my wave was way bigger.” It was kind of fun having a wave contest out there.
But, last fun event of this night shift saga. I know, there’s more? Of course there’s more. The onion theory, remember? We still have one. Wait, no … two more layers to add on before this storm would let us out of its grip. Toward the very end of my shift, after the cockpit swamper and after it appeared Westie had put in enough juice (not under load) to allow us to make it safely to morning on batteries with only about 90 hours now pulled off, I went down below to check our battery status one more time and then headed topside to kill the engine, which I thought would be nice for Phillip to at least have a shift where he didn’t have to listen to Westie’s constant rumble and—on top of everything else we were closely monitoring—also watch the engine temp to make sure it stayed at 180. Ha. Thinking. I should just stop doing it out there. The minute I killed the engine, I heard an awfully-dreadful noise. An intense straining of some sort. It sounded like cables perhaps being pulled against something they shouldn’t be or straining under too much effort? I thought immediately of the steering cables and—for the first time since this troublesome night began—fear pulsed like electricity through my nerves. If the steering cables were about to be sheered through, we really would be in some serious danger out there in 6-8 footers. There would be nothing thrilling about waves that constantly thrashed and swamped us broadside eventually threatening to tip us if we couldn’t steer in them.
I immediately jumped up and begin toppling the contents of the port lazarette out to look at our steering quadrant and the steering cables. As I did, the sound intensified which worried me more. I didn’t want to be right on this one. After a few minutes of content-spillage I was finally able to lean in upside down and get a look at the cables. They appeared fine but the sound was definitely coming from somewhere near the quadrant and definitely sounded steering-related as it seemed to intensify at certain times when Lord Nelson was working hard to get the boat back on course after a monster wave. But the cables on port looked fine.
I spilled the contents of the starboard lazarette. The cockpit was beginning to look like the front yard at Sanford & Sons. I can’t count on two hands all of the stuff we fill in those lockers and it was scattered everywhere—our life raft, dock lines, bungee cords, our bail bucket, our fishing gear, snorkel gear, various hoses for washing the boat and deck, our grill, our wash bucket, a crate of cleaning fluids, you name it. It was all splayed out on the cockpit floor and benches. I crawled over all of it to drop upside down into the starboard lazarette and look at the cables on that side. Thankfully they appeared fully intact, but the sound was even worse on the starboard side. It groaned and shrieked out with each turn of the quadrant one side to the other. I looked at the wheel stoppers, the pulleys for the cables, the saddles clamps that attached the cables to the quadrant, anything I could think of and then I saw it. There on the back of the quadrant, the hind curve of the quadrant was actually touching the fiberglass brace that supports our rudder post. The quadrant was, very vocally, grinding a notch into the fiberglass. I hung there limply for a moment pondering the oddity of it.
That’s the kind of crazy stuff you can’t even dream up that occurs out there.
It was a problem I couldn’t fathom. One we’d never thought would occur for sure. One that just baffled me. While I was a little relieved to know the steering cables weren’t shredding and tearing their way into pieces, the fact that the quadrant was dropping was not very comforting either. What if it continued to drop? What if the pressure became too much and neither Lord Nelson nor the crew could steer. What if the rudder dropped right out. What a crazy stupid thing to happen. ”Holy crap!” I kind of thought I was dreaming.
I popped back up to the helm and took the wheel to see what the pressure felt like. Surprisingly it was almost imperceivable. Almost nothing at all. But you could definitely tell when the quadrant made contact because the squeaking grind would ring out and would hold while you went back and forth on that portion of the quadrant. But, Lord Nelson was still holding just fine so it definitely wasn’t too much pressure for him, which was a good sign. All told we had solved a couple problems and added a few more. It seemed our onion was waxing and waning. One other thing I saw when I was upside down in the starboard lazarette was a hole on the forward side of the fiberglass support for our rudder post. Phillip later told me it is a packing hole. Whatever it was. I saw it leaking. Not terrible, but definitely a little 2-3 driblet gush when the boat took a particularly-hard turn to starboard. At least this provided some answer to our “Why is the bilge pump going off every hour?” quandary and, again, didn’t seem to be life-threatening. Just a little gush every ten-or-so seconds. “C’est la vie, for now,” I told myself as I headed down to wake the Captain. Well … the other Captain (I can now say! : ).
“Phillip, wake up babe, it’s your shift,” I said.
“What? Wait … now? It’s my shift already?” Phillip groaned.
Clearly he was suffering from the same I-just-fell-asleep-10-minutes-ago syndrome I had when he had woke me two hours ago. Ha! Get up babe! It’s your turn.
“Yep, it’s your shift. And the rudder is dropping and the boat is leaking. Have fun!”
Aren’t boats great. We did figure out that quadrant issue. What a freak thing to occur, right? We’ll share the very simple-but-odd solution soon. If any of you know what happened and how to fix it, feel free to leave it in a comment below.
Next up on the blog – BV3: A New Breed of Geckos in the Keys. Stay tuned!
I’ll have to admit, this is one part of being a cruiser I really don’t like. You thought I was going to say docking, didn’t you? Admit it! While that is definitely one. That and de-docking (Annie term). I also loathe the threat of hurricanes. As a cruiser, you don’t just own a boat. You love her. She’s not just fiberglass and wood to you. She’s a friend, a member of the family, your home, your ticket to world travel. And she holds so many memories.
I remember the day Phillip and I shoved off the dock, April 17, 2013, with our new-to-us Niagara 35 and saying goodbye to her previous owners. Jack and Barbara had spent twenty-four amazing years sailing her along Florida’s west coast, as well as the Keys and Caribbean, Jack even single-handed her in the Mackinac race several times, and now they both had tears welling up in their eyes as we waved goodbye. It was like they were sending a child off to college, a mix of hope for an exciting new chapter in her life, but also the pain of watching her leave. Seeing how tough that decision was for Jack and Barb, I cannot even begin to imagine what it feels like when that precious element of your life is ripped from you without choice, and not to set sail on a new adventure, but smashed to bits, never to be enjoyed again. By anyone.
My chest aches writing this and thinking of all those, many we know, thousands we do not, who lost their boats in the recent storms. Hurricanes are just a horrible reality cruisers and boat-owners have to deal with. And, while many can plan to stay outside of the hurricane box during the season, or haul-out every time a tropical storm watch develops, many simply cannot get out of the path due to other obligations: work, family, money, time, etc. So, they have to strap their baby down as best they can, say a prayer, and hope for the best as a hurricane barrels down on her, whispering “Hold fast, girl.”
Others find their only option is to try to sail away from the hurricane. Many—who are unfamiliar with offshore sailing and the impact weather, wind and gear failure can have on the speed and success of a voyage—when they see hundreds of boats destroyed from a hurricane think: “Why didn’t they just sail to somewhere safe.” It’s not always that simple. Hurricanes often form quickly and can cover a span of hundreds of miles. Irma was 400 miles wide. Four. Hundred. Even in favorable conditions, sailboats just don’t go that fast. On a boat like ours, if you’re averaging 5-6 knots an hour, you’re doing great. But, that still means you are only traveling roughly 130 miles a day. If a hurricane the size of Irma is set to hit you in three days, that doesn’t give you a very comfortable window of time to get out of the path, and that’s assuming the path holds, which is always a gamble. You may find yourself out there in 10-20 foot seas and winds over 120 mph. It’s rare any live-aboard sailboat can survive that.
Phillip and I recently watched a fellow cruiser and friend from Marathon, along with her boyfriend and dog, who had tried to sail north away from Irma, and they had to be rescued off the coast of Clearwater by the USCG. (Article here, and I hope to be able to speak with Pamela and Sebastian once they have more fully recovered and learn what happened so we can all benefit from this harrowing, but thankfully life-saving, event.) Phillip also told me I needed to read John Kretschmer’s At the Mercy of the Sea, before writing this. While it is the next book on my list, I felt too strongly about this now, while we’re all bracing for, and still recovering from, so many vicious storms. But if any of you have read that book and would like to share, please feel free to do so in a comment.
I will also admit, having grown up in the middle of New Mexico, I am, thankfully, very new to the horrid reality that hurricanes bring to living on the coast. Ivan was the first hurricane I experienced. I was married at the time and my husband’s parents lived in Perdido Key. He kept watching news footage of weathermen and women, shouting in the spitting rain, picking up twigs and overturned road signs, and satellite image after satellite image for two days, and I really didn’t understand why. How is watching that going to change anything? You just board up your house and leave, right? Then come back and assess the damage. Little did I know. Hurricanes do not just cause damage. They decimate. I did not know houses could be leveled to mere slabs, with not a scrap of wood or even a personal belonging in sight. My husband and I drove far west through Mississippi, then down south—literally rounding the west wall of Ivan as it came up through Alabama—to get to Perdido Key.
We waded through water in thick underbrush to try reach his parents’ neighborhood from behind because the roads were blocked. I did not know at the time the dangers of wading in open water after a hurricane. Had I, I would have never followed him. But, I did, and I cringed each time I saw a snake drop from a tree near me while I carried my small black lab, blue heeler mix, Dixie, in my arms. It was a horrible experience. When we reached his parents’ street, we found two feet of water in the house, four in the garage. It was a mess. Soiled, filthy, wet remains of what once was a beautiful, warm, welcoming home. And this was just a house with water in it. Over the course of the next few days, we walked the streets along Grand Lagoon and Perdido Beach Boulevard and that’s when it really hit me. Washers, dryers, chairs, pillows, and framed photos were piled up on the street in dunes of debris taller than me. Houses were slabs. Huge pine trees were mulch. Condos on the beach looked like they had been eaten. Whole floors bitten away by some giant monster. Entire swimming pools, surrounded by concrete and tiled patios and gates were literally gone. Only sand was left. That’s when I learned what hurricanes can really do and how easily the ocean, if she’s angry enough, can take whatever she wants. It is a simple and undeniable fact. You cannot predict or control the weather and sometimes she’s just going to win. She’s just going to take.
This is the risk you sign on for when, knowing this, you decide to still buy a boat and set your sights on exotic locations. Everything has its risks and nothing is guaranteed. If you drive a car, you risk an accident. If you buy a home, you risk losing it to a fire or flood. If you fall in love and give someone your heart, you risk getting hurt. But you do it anyway. Why? Because that’s life. Not going or giving because you are afraid of loss is not a way to live. The one thing that is guaranteed in life is that you’re only going to be here for a certain period of time. It’s finite. And you’re going to suffer loss, whether you try to avoid it or not. You will lose things, pets, and people (even the boat equivalent) whether you decide to live your life fully or not. So do it anyway.
This is at least what I tell myself when I see so much devastation and loss recently from Harvey, Irma, and Maria and when I feel, now, Hurricane Nate bearing down on Louisiana and the panhandle and it knots my stomach. While I hate the feeling, I try to remind myself it is only because I have such wonderful things in my life to lose, which makes them worth all of the stress, work, blood, sweat and money. So, with that in mind—as I sit and type this on Friday morning, October 6th at 9:42 a.m., waiting for the 10:00 a.m. NOAA update on Nate and deciding whether we are going to haul-out today or not. That is such a heated question.
No hurricane plan is a guarantee. No matter how well you secure your boat, if you’re not there (which you shouldn’t be in any storm too dangerous to ride out), you will not be able to stop another boat, (or barge or tree or a hundred other things that are tossed around like bath toys in a hurricane), from colliding with your boat and causing damage. You can tie up ultra-secure in a hurricane hole, but your anchor may fail or your boat may begin to take on water and eventually sink. If you haul-out, your jacks could fail, the boat next to you could topple over, or they can even drop your boat while in the straps. If Plaintiff’s Rest can stay in the water, Phillip and I would prefer it.
Currently, however, we have a mandatory evacuation from our marina and with not a lot of time or hurricane holes around here that are not probably full already, Phillip and I decided to use our hurricane haul-out option and at least schedule a haul-out for 2:00 p.m. this afternoon. We also got some great advice from fellow boaters on how to secure our boat even further once she is on the jacks which we’re happy to share with you:
Tie all of the jacks together with wire, chain, or strong line to form a reinforced cradle rather than independent jacks.
Tie seizing wire around the cranks for the jacks to ensure they are not able to rattle loose in the intense vibrations from the storm.
If possible, e., in a non-paved marina, embed earth anchors and strap your boat down to those as well.
If Nate’s path continues to track east and our prediction holds as merely a tropical storm warning and if the marina lifts the mandatory evacuation order, we would like to stay at the dock. If we did, we would secure extra dock lines with chafe guards (we use strips of fire hose, with little dyneema tie-downs to keep them in place in the chalks). I also did a post recently on Facebook showing all of our prep (including Pam Wall tips!) on dropping all of the canvas and pulling all of the lines up into the mast with photos, which you can view here. Whether our boat rides out Nate at the dock or on the hard, she will ride with as little windage as possible.
We welcome anyone else’s tips on best hurricane prep measures and best practices you have found in the past to make your boat more secure for a storm. Feel free to share.
Phillip and I will be as ready as we can be. After that, we just have to remember how awesome and fulfilling this lifestyle is and hope for the best. We hope you, and your boats, all remain safe in the eye of this storm. If Mother Nature decides it’s our time to suffer a loss, Phillip and I will bear that and be thankful we’ve still got very full lives ahead of us to live and we will rebuild together. We’ve done it before.
UPDATE: We hauled Plaintiff’s Rest out this afternoon. She’s stripped, tied down and as ready as she can be. It’s all we can do. I gave her a kiss and told her good luck. Hold fast girl.