Sunday, July 6, 2014

Riding the Wind: Hurricane Arthur


Crabber pulling traps Thursday morning.

A few days into my week off from work, a tropical disturbance grew along the east coast of Florida – scattered thunderstorms without any real structure or organization. Soon it was a tropical depression and the first named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, a term that always reminds me of sports seasons for some reason.

Pre-name, Arthur had drifted south for days, but then it slowly turned and began to tromp northward. A friendly high pressure system to the west promised to intervene and turn Arthur in its track as it approached the North Carolina coast. As always, timing was the issue. When would the two systems meet, and when would conditions push Arthur to the east away from the coast?

Hurricane Arthur did turn, just a bit later than we hoped. Hurricane Arthur also intensified to a Category 2 hurricane as it crossed Onslow Bay for landfall midway the east-west reach of Shackleford Banks, home to wild ponies and dreams buried by earlier hurricanes. But I have gotten ahead of myself.

*****

Two days before the Fourth of July, the dock was busy with boaters preparing their boats. Remove loose items from topsides, secure anything topside that cannot be removed, check and double dock lines. Consider all necessary preparations. Make lists, check lists, think of what needs to be added to lists. Chafe, windage, storm surge, loss of power.

As the official forecasts are released every three hours and factors and conditions change and evolve, the ultimate risks are uncertain as they must be with natural forces, so a low buzz of anxiety roots and breathes along the docks. Speed of approach? Direction? Time and locale of landfall? Wind speed? Forecast strengthening? In the end, we ask many questions and speculate on many possible outcomes but know that the storm will be the storm that it is after we have committed to any decisions we made. Logic and reason will change nothing. The unknown and unknowable determines our fate.

Pre-storm conference on the dock Thursday 12 hours before landfall.

Ever present, the ultimate second guessing: should we leave for a more protected anchorage? Should we haul the boat onto land? Each option has benefits and weaknesses. No answer is right, but any choice could be wrong. We could sink. Several of us live on our boats so a wrong choice could destroy our homes. We all work hurriedly and help wherever more hands or muscles are needed. Tighten lines. Hoist inflatable dinghies onto the dinghy/kayak rack and cross-tie.

The days were long as we prepared, the sweltering humidity drained us of salty and sticky sweat. Late afternoon, the pool called. Pausing, we enjoyed the sunshine, blue skies, blue river accented with white caps whipped by a fresh breeze. Consensus called for beers and grilled veggies as the sun set. There was more to be done the next day – before the rains, if possible.

We continued to check the updates and discuss the variables, improvement or deterioration in factors. Overnight, Arthur spread its hurricane force winds and tropical storm force winds farther. A 25 mile diameter hurricane force wind field became 35, and the track shifted a bit west. Instead of striking land first at Cape Hatteras, Arthur was forecast to first strike Cape Lookout, only 30 miles to the east of us. The eyewall would be close enough to hit Oriental if the track did not change or if the storm intensified. Nevertheless, the National Hurricane Center continued to predict Arthur would turn to the northeast and accelerate.

The days of the week lost meaning. Day followed night as weather update followed weather update. We picked apart each bit of new information for a glimpse into a future we could not see. Time itself lost meaning. There was only the countdown to projected landfall of what became a Category Two hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 100 mph and a hurricane force wind field that extended 40 miles from the center of the eye, well within striking distance if the hurricane made landfall at Cape Lookout. Our decision to stay began to look much more risky.

A partial list of worries, concerns and anxieties in no particular order:
  • We could die
  •  The boat could sink
  • Major rigging failure on the boat 
  • We could be severely injured, maimed of dismembered
  • Storm surge could overwhelm us, preventing us from escaping the dock
  • Storm surge could lift the boat so high that a dock line or more snap
  • Lightning could strike the mast (a tall piece of aluminum)
  • A tornado could hit
  • Some other boat in the marina could break loose and ram ours
  • Another crew gets into trouble at a point during the storm when we cannot safely reach them to assist
  • A “last minute” change in direction that places us in the dangerous sector of the storm
  • The hurricane intensifies at the “last minute”
  • Both of the last two above occur

All manner of possibility and impossibility strangle the brain as we attempt to imagine and  rationalize risks we can, at best, mitigate, not eliminate. Once in the storm, there is little chance to flee, to change your mind and safely exit. 

As the outer rain bands of Arthur reached the southern coast of North Carolina, we gazed at scattered clouds in blue sky. Nothing threatening, only the water down a bit due to southern winds.

We gathered for 5 o’clock on the dock, as many of us usually do. The skies were shades of gray, the blue had vanished, and the wind had freshened. A rain squall formed an opaque veil across the river. We all had prepared as best we could. Only the actual storm would tell whether our preparations were sufficient. Nervous joking all around, then we scurried for our boats as the squall struck. It was short-lived, but followed by another and another until a half inch of rain had soaked the docks. Bold and sharp reports of thunder followed angry and brilliant flashes of lightning. 

First squall from outer bands late afternoon.

But then the sky brightened, the rain fell to a drizzle, the wind softened. We stepped into the cockpit, eager to enjoy any remaining outside time possible. An east-southeast breeze built to 30-35 knots and heeled the boat to port, an angle from which it rarely righted for the next several hours.

Our crew sat down for a dinner of salmon salad and fresh vegetables from Paul’s. A squall surrounded us with crackling rain and pulsing wind. With a Hurricane Warning and concomitant Tornado Watch, the details of the weather forecasts, wind speeds and rainfall counts, meant less and less. If Arthur turned northeast as predicted, it would offer us a decent, not generous, buffer from the worst of the hurricane. If it accelerated as predicted, it would toss us about less rather than more. But, whatever the prediction, the opposite or something worse could happen. We would know when it did… or did not.

List of boats with crew riding out the storm (14 souls not counting one dog and one cat):
·         Hale Kai
·         Kindred Spirit
·         LZ Sea Dogs
·         Katkandu
·         My Dream
·         Wild Haggis

*****

The skies darkened for good well before the time of sunset. The storm began fitfully with warm and moist humidity replaced by the cooling winds from thunderstorms. The hurricane itself was invisible except as rain and tumbling wave shadows. Unseen in the darkness, like fists and fingers from a nightmare, the storm lashed out. Breaking the darkness, there were only small and ineffective lights here and there. What we could not see, we could hear. Rain was alternately slammed by heavy gusts and fell rhythmically. Inside the storm, the rain pummeled the deck with a heavy staccato and a background of droning winds. 

For hours, the sounds were rain in varying volumes, wind strong and stronger, the noise of both wind and rain, of waves slapping the hull and surging through the pilings. Sitting in our saloon, the motion was continuous as was the roar of the storm. With several layers and dimensions of wind, rain, waves, rigging, the popping of canvas and banging of halyards, a complex symphony of nature at battle never slowed. Each change of sound, each blast of wind, each noise that broke free from the storm sent caution signals to my brain. Problem? Or just another new and different sound in the lexicon of an overwhelming force?

Rain and wind on creek as Arthur approached.

At 2100 Thursday, July 3, Arthur was declared a Cat 2. It was tracking toward Cape Lookout, but wobbling like a drunken sailor ashore after a long voyage at sea. Aboard our boat, the storm heaved and breathed, long, deep and regular like a magnificent monster. We rolled, ever heeled, and lurched as winds and waves collided.

At 2315, the eye had jumped northwestward, still wobbling, and Arthur made landfall on Shackleford Banks, a few miles from Cape Lookout lighthouse. An hour later, the northern wall of the eye was less than eight miles from us. Had we anchored up South River, we would have been inside the eye. Fortunately, the worst of the hurricane remained the southeastern quadrant, closer to Core Banks than us, but dead center for Cedar Island. The danger zone later crossed Ocracoke Island, unfairly a target for many hurricanes through the centuries.

Hearing the sound of a hard BANG, I went topside onto a pitched deck to see if we were hitting the dock. Raindrops shattered by the winds stung like pebbles on my face. Water swept over the docks, but there was no damage. Back down below, I noted the wind shifted, in an instant, to the north. The boat righted for the first time since sunset. Arthur was moving on and moving fast.

Relieved as I was that the storm had “passed” in theory, I stayed up to keep an eye on the storm surge that would not recede until the winds clocked to the west. When the wind change occurred, about 0300 July 4, I crawled into my berth, content that the danger continued only for those in Arthur’s path. Still, the boat rolled and shook and shuddered in the bigger gusts of storm winds. I slowly fell to sleep.

*****

I climbed onto the dock at 0630. What surge Arthur had pushed into the river had drained and more. Pine cones and needles, leaves and branches, marsh grass and bark littered the dock, very minor debris all things considered. I looked toward the peninsula to see if the dead pine tree holding the osprey nest had survived. It had. Our boats were wallowing in silt or sitting on the bottom. But the water eased back into the river during the morning hours.

Five years ago, I would have said that anyone who rides a Cat 2 hurricane on their boat is foolish. I was wrong, but I still do not recommend it. There are too many factors over which you have neither control nor, possibly, knowledge. The proverbial devil is always in the details.. Arthur was relatively small despite Cat 2 winds in part of the eyewall. It moved fast, sparing us from both wind and surge damage created by larger, slower storms. Our maximum sustained wind as measured on Hale Kai ’s anemometer was 59 knots (Butch estimated some gusts about 80 knots), a huge difference from 90 knots when you consider than wind force increases exponentially.

Everyone survived the hurricane safely, and there was no boat damage.
Did we make a good decision, or was it good luck?

Be well, be safe and keep a weather eye.

2 comments:

  1. Jim...A restless time of things we would like to control and quickly find that our sense of control is partially and illusion. I'm glad Wild Haggis & her crew did well in the storm. I'm putting down my sea roots in Seattle. A large sailing community. I miss our times at the Bean.....Be well....Pat

    ReplyDelete
  2. I accept that control is an illusion. I hope your new sailing community knows how fortunate they are that you set your sea roots there. Missing conversations at The Bean and time on the water with you two, with best wishes.

    ReplyDelete