“This is U.S. Coast Guard, sector Mobile, Alabama. We just received notification that your EPIRB went off. Is everything okay?”
“I … I don’t know.”
“Sir, where is your boat?”
This was such a cathartic and therapeutic exercise writing this article for my friend Adam Cort at SAIL Magazine. It even includes a personal account from some close friends of ours who unfortunately lost their boat on that terrible morning. But, my goal was to emphasize not just the storm and how much it surprised us, but also the community’s response, and how much that surprised me as well, in the best way possible. I have been honored and humbled yet again to be included in the magazine, and I was grateful for the opportunity to tell Pensacola’s story. I hope you all had a chance to get a copy of the magazine and read the article. Phillip chuckled when he saw it, saying he was finally famous because he “made the front page.” Many thanks to the SAIL Magazine team for putting together such a great piece. Enjoy the read!
It’s a weird feeling to fear water recession. With the huge influx of water that surges in during a hurricane, often the boats simply float, to the extent they are unencumbered. However, when the water starts to recede, often the boats have moved and they are now liable to sink down on any number of precarious surfaces: pilings, land, docks, other boats, etc. that could damage, if not impale, them. After Sally startled and shell-shocked Pensacola and the storm surge receded, Plaintiff’s Rest was left, mercifully, clinging to a broken-up dock with a 34-foot power boat sunk beneath her that had likely damaged her rudder. All we knew at the time was: we were not currently taking on water (thank god!), we believed the rudder was still in place and intact, albeit damaged, and we needed to get Plaintiff’s Rest out of that boat-strewn battleground and hauled as soon as possible. Captain Annie, and her full bladder, to the rescue!
Monday, September 21, 2020:
It was my job to be Captain that day. While I do have the official license and title (I received my USCG Captain’s license in 2017), that slip of paper doesn’t always make me feel 100% capable of handling the boat on my own every time, at least not without issue. Although, deep down I know I can. It may be scary and we may bump a thing or two, but I know I can, and I know she can handle it. There is a great benefit to having a two-member crew where each person is fully capable of handling the boat independently. Particularly on this day, when we got word from the marina they were planning to move Plaintiff’s Rest from her battered and barely-hanging on “slip.” With the other finger pier to the south of her tattered and devoured, I’m not sure you can call the sliver of wood she was holding onto a “slip,” but it was the best reference at the time.
Phillip was covered up that day with a number of other hurricane-related emergencies that would not allow him to work idly at the boat while awaiting our move time—which was in no way defined—so it was on me. I didn’t know where they would be moving our boat to or whether they would want us to move out of the ravaged marina entirely. They don’t really give you a manual for this kind of situation, and so many factors are at play: safety, preservation of boats or docks where possible, insurance, liability matters, weather conditions, alternative slip availability, etc. After the storm, Phillip and I had simply been walking down to check on the boat every day to make sure she was not taking on any water and trying, when possible, to gather intel from the dockmaster and other laborers who were occasionally motoring about in their workboat—removing broken docks and boats in no particular order—when they might be moving ours. It was pure luck we heard from a friend that morning who was at the marina who heard the dock crew say they were planning to move our boat that day. We did not know when, but I darn sure wanted to be there when they did move her to make sure, to the extent I could, that she stayed safe and afloat. This was her situation at the time:
“I don’t want to turn the rudder,” I told Phillip over the phone after I texted him the news they would be moving our boat that day. I couldn’t really explain the impulse, but I just felt, deep down, that if whatever was going on with her rudder and within the rudder post was holding now, meaning no water intake, I certainly didn’t want to be the one to un-do that currently-working situation. Not without back-up. If you find a friend impaled in the abdomen by a rather large stick, but he’s not currently bleeding, do you want to be the one who pulls the stick out without anyone else around? What if he starts gushing? For whatever reason, and whether it’s accurate or insane, that’s how I viewed our rudder at the time. If anything was going to change with our precarious but currently water-tight situation, I didn’t want it to happen when I was aboard alone.
“Then don’t,” Phillip said. “Don’t let them make you do anything you don’t want to do,” he added firmly. And, I say “firmly” because Phillip knew that’s how he had to give it, otherwise I would cave. While there are many things I am good at—creating, working, fixing, learning, following orders—there are also many other things I am terrible at, like standing up to people, talking over others, negotiating, taking charge, and telling others what to do. I’m just not good at being forceful, short, or dominant with people. My people-pleasing desire sometimes makes me a pushover. Phillip knows that. That’s why he is always solidly our leader, and I make one hell of a loyal and obedient soldier. But, not today. Today I (a young female, sorry, but you just can’t, as a young female in an older male-dominated environment, unsense that) was going to be telling these old salts, long-time sailors and deck-hands, as well as the marina owner, what I would not be told to do.
But, I squared my shoulders and prepared for it. It was on me. And, of course, it was the first biting-cold, spitting-rain day of the winter season. Immediately after the day of the hurricane the weather had turned infuriatingly beautiful. Sunny, warm, a light breeze. Brilliant gold sunshine blanketed our debris-strewn streets like Sally had never even happened. But, on this day, move-the-boat day, it was nasty and cold out. Of course! I donned my full foul weather jacket over a pair of sail pants for the day with many layers under including hat, gloves, and my rubber rain boots. It was annoyingly frigid out and blowing enough to matter, 10-15 knots. Just enough to make moving the boat while not under engine or sail more difficult. But, the sight of my boat warmed my heart when I got to the marina. There she was. Still floating. Still holding on for us. The gravity of what Plaintiff’s Rest had done—held on in the horrific nightmare that had played out around her—steeled my nerves. If she could do that surely I could be brave, tell the dock guys how I wanted things handled, and get ‘er done.
Here we go, I told myself as the workboat came around to Plaintiff’s Rest to begin the process. When I saw him approaching I felt my hopes immediately buoy. A familiar face!
“Peewee!” I shouted. Yes, that is in fact his name. Or at least the name I’ve always known him to go by in sailing circles. Peewee is one of those salty jack-of-all-trade types that you’ll find working on sails one year, doing rigging and making boat deliveries the next, helping clean up after a hurricane the following. He’s been doing boat stuff in Pensacola for years and was someone I felt I could call a friendly acquaintance. He was also a person I knew would care about my boat while moving her. I was also hopeful he would honor my request not to crank the engine or turn the rudder. When I spoke with Peewee, he confirmed mine and Phillip’s suspicion that the owner of the marina was trying to get all operational boats out and moved to a different location, which was understandable. I just didn’t consider my boat in its current condition safely “operational.”
Mustering all of my available “tell them no” bravery I explained to Peewee that the first time I wanted to move our rudder would be on the way to the shipyard to haul in case we started taking on water, perhaps a lot of water. With a little pushing and a very clear indication that I was not going to turn my wheel, Peewee agreed, and I was so relieved! The plan then was to push and maneuver Plaintiff’s Rest to the extent we could, manually (using our hands and boat poles), to a point where she could then be pushed or pulled out into the open marina by the workboat, then maneuvered over to the seawall on the other side to sit until it was time for her to haul-out. Phillip and I had no clue when that would be. All we knew was we had been put on the list the day of the storm.
This is roughly what we were dealing with as far as surrounding boats, docks, and debris:
Peewee and his crew first tried to pull the piling that was once at the end of what remained of the finger pier to the south of us, but they only managed to tilt it a good thirty degrees. It would not budge after that. But, they did get it heeled over enough to allow Peewee to saw off the damaged finger pier. It was a mangled mess.
Almost impossible to walk on. Thankfully, Peewee was surprisingly good at this awkward crawl maneuver that allowed him to free the finger pier and the crew then dragged it out with the workboat.
That left this space, roughly, to try and work Plaintiff’s Rest safely out.
The view from PR’s cockpit to starboard.
It was cold and spitting rain; we were all pretty much soaked on the outer layers. But, the crew was diligent, calmly voicing orders over the weather. I was staged initially on the dock by Plaintiff’s Rest’s bow, my hands and knees shaking knowing she was now finally untied. I was afraid I might be the leader the day we did something that sunk her, after all she had been through and survived. But, my hope was that Plaintiff’s Rest was taking her first step to safety, albeit with a path of carnage to navigate before she could get there with no propulsion. This was it.
Peewee first thought he would be able to push and pull her to execute a full 180-degree turn in the “slip” so her bow would then be pointed out toward the exit. As we began this process, I had to fight the urge to repeatedly tell Peewee, who was at the stern, “watch the rudder on that sunk boat, watch the rudder, look out for the rudder” over and over again. As if he didn’t know. But, it’s like handing something expensive and delicate to a friend. You can’t help fight the urge to say “don’t drop it.” But, I could see he was watching our rudder closely as we all nudged and scooched Plaintiff’s Rest’s bow over to the southeast corner of the “slip.” However, when we started to spin her, it soon became clear we would not be able to get her turned all the way around. A large sport fisher was just sticking out too far to allow her bow to clear it.
“Change of plans,” Peewee shouted just as the cold north wind started to fight us and push her stern over toward the sport fisher. “We’re backing her out!” Another worker started crawling up on the sportfisher to fend Plaintiff’s Rest off at her bow. The marina owner shouted “Annie, board!” Everyone was scrambling to change course.
That’s when I lost it.
Not my temper. The contents of my bladder.
Unfortunately, the only point at which to board my boat at that time was the bow. Have you ever boarded your boat from the bow? In a hurry? It’s not easy. Or pretty.
In a three-second maneuver, I hiked one leg up and stuck it through the pulpit onto the deck, then sandwiched my torso to that leg while dragging my hind leg through the pulpit and flopping onto the foredeck like a slippery fish. And, what can I say? I was nervous, worried, shaking. The pressure that the situation and the maneuver put on my bladder just gushed it out. I heard Peewee laugh and thought in a flash of panic that maybe the guys could see a huge spot on my pants. I looked down in fear but felt a wave of gratitude flood over me as I remembered both my long johns underneath and my pants were black. The perfect color to hide pee. We were all wet rats out there, anyhow, and with the wind keeping things fresh and breezy, it seemed no one was the wiser. Peewee said “Well, I’ve never seen it done that way before.” I smiled and laughed. “He said board,” I replied with a shrug.
Thankfully that had everyone smiling and in a good mood for the move. We then carefully picked Plaintiff’s Rest’s way between the sportfisher, the sunk boat (Peewee actually boarded Plaintiff’s Rest midship from that boat), and the wayward piling to get her out in the center of the marina.
Although the wind had a good bit of force on her once we were out in the open, with the workboat we were able to nudge and move her fairly easily using the workboat’s engine power and fenders. Peewee and I worked her gingerly up to the sea wall on the other side and secured her to pilings.
The view from her new location back over to the demolished “slip” she had fought her battle in, and from that “slip” over to her new spot on the sea wall told quite the tale.
This was a huge, satisfying Step One toward our recovery. For the moment, Plaintiff’s Rest was safely secured, not taking on water, and on a list to haul at the shipyard to be repaired.
And, I had done it! Saved the day! Captain Annie … Wet Panty!
“It’s some of your best writing, that’s for sure. Magnificently written,” then Phillip paused. “But … there’s no way you can send this to SAIL, Annie. It’s too … too dark.”
That was Phillip’s response to my first version. I was trying to work up a carnage-and-community theme juxtaposing the savagery of the storm with the solidarity among our fellow sailors who all pulled together to help each other in the aftermath. But, apparently I—according to Phillip—had created an entire piece of carnage cinched up at the puckered end with a mere paragraph of community. So, I did a complete re-write. And, I cannot wait for you all to read it when it is scheduled to come out in SAIL Magazine in January, 2021! I’m so proud and humbled to share our tale of survival and the incredible story of two of our very close friends that forms the beating heart of my piece. And, while many parts of this tale are sad, know that they are connected by a thumping vein of love and kindness that can only truly reveal itself in a situation like a devastating storm. My goal is not in any way to make our wonderful friends re-live or mourn again, but, rather, to share with you all the unique hearts that beat in sailors which makes our particular community so strong.
September 16, 2020
I’m listening to the slush and squish of my boots, dreading what’s coming. Although Plaintiff’s Rest is floating, miraculously, in her slip while most of the other boats in Palafox Marina have been heaped in massive piles of fiberglass and twisted stainless steel, there is still a gaggle of boats that lunge at her with every wave and gust. There is no way to even tell what’s holding those other boats in place exactly. A barely hanging-on sliver of dock that might go any second? A line tied to a cleat that’s about to snap in half? A power plug that’s about to pop?
We simply do not know. Phillip and I can only hope everything holds on just long enough as the winds continue to howl in the upper 20s and 30s throughout the entire day. But, more potential damage to Plaintiff’s Rest is not what I’m dreading in this moment, staring at my wet, walking feet. Phillip and I are walking to our friends, Stephen and Beth’s, house to give them news they likely already know is coming, but this will be the first time it will come from a source they know they can absolutely trust: me and Phillip.
And, what we have to tell them is that everything they dreaded all night long, everything they’ve feared every time a storm came into the Gulf, everything they’ve worried about since they bought their rare, unique, suited-them-perfectly Manta 42 catamaran has happened. One of the worst things that can happen to people who love their boat has happened.
Phillip and I have to tell Stephen and Beth that it is true. Cattywampus has sunk. He and I have now been the first people who know Cattywampus to have seen her with our own eyes, half-submerged at the other end of the marina. She was torn from her slip, just one over from where Plaintiff’s Rest is currently riding, slung to the north and somehow impaled and sunk.
Even worse, it looked like she was one of the first to go down in the marina, which I know is going to feel to Stephen and Beth so incredibly and unacceptably unfair. I feel it for them as I’m walking. I know it would be equally hard for me to process if I saw Plaintiff’s Rest wrecked, submerged, done for, not 50 feet from other boats that are simply marred, or even seemingly untouched. The injustice of it angers me.
But, as I write this, remembering that moment and their feelings, which were also my feelings, they are overpowered by the tightness I feel in my throat right now at Stephen and Beth’s strength. Their love, for each other, for friends, for boats. Their humor and ability to laugh through tears. And, more importantly, their awareness and thoughtfulness.
After we told them the news and Stephen and Beth, a few hours later, found the courage to bring themselves to the graveside to bear it, Phillip I were at our boat doing what we could to best protect her. Moving wayward fenders that had floated away from their vessels or from foregone vessels and tying them around Plaintiff’s Rest in a pitiful deflated crown. It felt funereal. I saw several boats I knew personally, boats I had been aboard to tell tales and share drinks, boats I had helped to fend off when they were coming to the dock, now sat wrecked likely beyond repair. There was just so much loss in one place.
I saw Stephen and Beth, first, up on the concrete walk that leads down to the dock. At that time the only way to get down to our boat was to crawl, quite precariously, down a huge swatch of dock that had smashed up and into the concrete. I told Phillip that Stephen and Beth were there but we both decided to give them some space. Even as close friends there’s a time when you just need a moment alone with ‘your person.’ I watched as they crawled their way down and walked to the end of the last floating finger pier on the east side of the marina, that Cattywampus had previously been tied to, so they could actually see their Manta with their own eyes. Phillip and I were at our bow trying to move our boat deeper into the slip in hopes of avoiding more contact with her rudder and the boat that sunk underneath her—which had likely fended off so many wrecking balls aimed at her stern—when the water receded. Stephen and Beth finally turned to face us. With a mighty effort to chuckle, Stephen said “She looks a little Cattywampus doesn’t she?” before his head crashed into my shoulder in a big bear hug. COVID could stick it at that point. With rain and winds of 30 mph it likely couldn’t survive anyway, and that man needed an Annie hug. I felt a gush of tears spring from my eyes when I let him go only to hug Beth just as hard and felt her sobbing in my arms.
Then Stephen and Beth did something that will forever burn them into my mind as people I will always admire. Friends who will always lift me up and inspire. There was no cries of injustice in that moment. No wails of “why me!” Stephen and Beth saw immediately what Phillip and I were trying to do to save our boat. They both wiped their faces and said:
“How can we help?”
I will never forget that. And I can only hope I react with equal generosity, awareness, and kindness when I find myself in some moment where I, too, have suffered a great loss. Because we all know that’s coming. It’s called life. And, the joy of it can’t exist without pain caused by loss. I will think of Stephen and Beth in my “moment” and try to emulate the courage and selflessness it must have taken them to turn their backs on their sunken heart and offer their hands to us. They continued to showcase their strength in the weeks that followed Hurricane Sally as they helped other boaters move or salvage their boats. They helped friends clean their homes and yards after they were smothered in falling debris. Then they wrapped those tough weeks of recovery by combing their own filthy lost love after she was raised up, with humor and hope of finding gems to save. And, Stephen and Beth did recover one amazing treasure: the cockpit table they had only recently made with a resin-coated map of the Caribbean to inspire their travels. Although that voyage was supposed to take place on Cattywampus, Beth and Stephen have already began opening their hearts and minds to the thought of a new used boat. And, they have vowed never to give up on sailing, cruising, or caring for friends in need.
Stephen, Beth, this one goes out to you.
Sally may have taken many things from us, but she also opened us up and showed our solidarity.
With Stephen and Beth’s help, Phillip and I were able to move Plaintiff’s Rest forward, just a bit. It was terribly hard in those winds and still cresting waves. The marina on the Palafox-street side was an absolute slaughter.
It was amazing to see what our baby girl had survived in, but wildly strange to see a massive power boat sunk beneath her.
Phillip and I were sure our rudder had likely made contact with the boat beneath us at some point as I had seen, when I went below to make sure we weren’t taking on water, the rudder stop had been hit so hard it cracked and broke free from the engine room ceiling.
Mercifully, however, we were not taking on any water. You could feel when you stepped onto the boat, though, that she wasn’t floating freely. Her rudder or keel was grounded on something. No one could surmise the carnage that might, at that time, be lying beneath our boat.
Phillip and I honestly wondered whether we even still had a rudder down there. We knew it had been struck and the proximity of the sunk boat was like an illusion, telling your mind there could be no rudder in the space between the two. We could not tell visually due to the thick cloud of debris and awful-smelling diesel that coated the top of the water. All Phillip and I could do was scooch Plaintiff’s Rest a bit forward and hope, when the water receded, she didn’t sit down on that boat in some unfortunate position that caused her rudder to break further or snap clean off and allow water to come in.
We had left our bimini on for the storm as it houses the solar in hopes that it could give her juice for her bilge pumps in case something very much like this happened. As I’ve mentioned many times, up until hours before nightfall the day before, all anyone expected from Sally was tropical storm conditions. But, our 110-watt panel had blown off entirely in the storm, and the our remaining two 50-watts were so marred and cracked, likely from flying projectiles, we were sure they weren’t working either. Meaning, Plaintiff’s Rest would only have whatever power was in her battery bank to fight incoming water if she began taking any on over the course of the night.
Phillip and I went to bed that evening with weary, worried hearts, hoping we would return the next day and find Plaintiff’s Rest still sitting floating and not slowly sinking. I gripped her bow before we left the marina that day and tried to make sure she knew just how much we loved her before I left. Looking back it pains me to think it may have come across to her as a plea to remain afloat when I truly meant it as a message telling her no matter what happened, we would always be proud to have owned and sailed her and that none of this was her fault. I hope she interpreted it as the latter. I’ve now experienced that moment three times—the first when we hauled with Hurricane Nate pointed straight for us, the second when we left Plaintiff’s Rest for the season in Great Harbour Cay in the Bahamas, and now this time, as she continued to hold on for whatever Hurricane Sally and her aftermath might continue to dish out—and I know no feeling can quite replicate the helplessness of having to walk away from your boat not knowing if you’ll find her in the same place and condition when you return.
Because you just can’t wrap your arms around her and keep her safe. It is only she who can do that for you in a storm. And, that is the very reason all sailors toil and sweat and bleed and curse, yet continue to sail our boats, as they truly are vessels to so much more than just the next shore.
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.
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.
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:
A forecast is just that, a prediction, an estimate. Nothing is truly certain until 24 hours out.
The decision to haul must be made 3-5 days in advance, when nothing is certain.
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.
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.