Where You Gonna Go
When the Hurricane Blows?by Ralph Trout
It is hurricane season. Every day now centers on weather reports. Depressions are tracked. They are upgraded and finally named. Ground tackle is checked and readied. Fisherman, Bruce, Barnacle, CQR, Grapple and Danforth become consoling names. The question remains: Where to take the boat when a storm is coming?
One hurricane experience is one too many. Every sailor of worth has a tale of stormy horror. In 1984, Tropical Storm Klaus strengthened without much warning, approaching St. Thomas and putting a hundred-plus boats on the hard. 1989's Hurricane Hugo was a catastrophe in the Virgins. St. Croix was crushed. Sailors who had fled to what they hoped was safety in Culebra were unpleasantly surprised when the eye of the storm followed them. Then, 1995 brought the double barrels of Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn: Antigua, St. Maarten and St. Thomas were truly blown apart. In the following years Hurricanes Bertha and Georges made living on the water a worrying Hell. Then in 1999, Hurricane Lenny broke the rules and reversed direction.
Some of you, perhaps because of your job, have decided not to go south and probably out of harm's way in Trinidad or Venezuela. The actual experience of a storm might last two long, miserable days, but you are prepared. The boat is "safely" on four hooks early and well secured to mangrove trees. The masts are stripped of sails. The radio is hyping the storm like an action movie. Your stomach is in a knot and then a numb-nuts decides to give you company with his boat. Your worries have expanded twelvefold. The problem isn't only the storm, but unprepared boaters who tackle the situation at the last minute.
You make it through the blow with only cosmetic scratches on the boat, but indelible scars on your psyche. Unless you are capable of just sailing away, Storm Trauma Phase Two begins with the local government and the insurance companies. Depending on the storm's damage to the sovereign nation where you sought safety - perhaps due to legal and language barriers, utility and communication infrastructure, lawlessness and looting - the fallout from nature's wrath may continue undaunted for weeks. Insurance agents must await a safe airport runway to solve myriad problems. For the worst case scenario, have enough cash to make your own repairs and pay a lifting crane, or cut your losses and get a plane out.
So where you gonna go? Somewhere in the familiar, English speaking, FEMA-sending USA? Or should you hope that Chaguaramas in Trinidad is spared again? Now might be the time to learn Spanish and practice it along the coast of Venezuela. Deciding factors are the depth of your pockets and the depth of your keel. Most good hurricane holes are great for boats that draw five feet or less. Deeper draft boats are limited in finding great hidey-holes. Always remember the storm swells and tides will steal a lot of water from under your boat.
Puerto Rico has Boqueron on the north coast and Salinas Bay on the south, which offer some protection for shallow draft vessels. The Spanish Virgins of Culebra and Vieques both have Ensenada Hondas to hide in. Neither accommodates large boats.
Water Island off St. Thomas has a small refuge in Flamingo Bay, but locals will quickly take the spaces. Benner Bay and the Lagoon on St. Thomas have some of the best holding to be offered, but many local yachts and charter companies will be vying for berths. The Lagoon may be deemed off limits by the local ruling constabulary-DPNR (Department of Natural Resources) to "protect" the hideous, unrestrained run-off from the nearby dump. I once left my boat, Sea Cow, in an inlet at the end of the horse-race track, only to have it pillaged by both mangrove rats and human rats. St. Thomas' north side has a small, virtually unknown hole: Mandahl Bay. Again, local fishing boats will fill this.
St. John has Coral Bay's protection, unless the blow comes directly from the south - which it often does. St. John also has Hurricane Hole stretching to the east. A lot of boats were lost in this comfortingly named harbor during Hugo and Marilyn. The best bet is to tie yourself into the small curling cove of Princess Bay. St. Croix has Salt River on its south, but also has a lot of Hess refinery vessels seeking protection.
Tortola has some safety in Trellis Bay, but consider the number of charter companies that must find safety for their boats. The best of refuge in the British Virgins is Gorda Sound. It is a huge, virtually landlocked bay that can accommodate many boats, large and small, and sections of the bottom have good hooking mud. I awaited the passing of Hurricane Andrew there, and found the Bitter End Resort provided great solace.
Quickly abandon any thoughts of Anegada or Anguilla, and try to forget Simpson Bay lagoon in St. Maarten. Simpson's was an above-average hole until the government decided they wanted megayacht business. Imagine a hundred-foot-plus Italian design dragging down on your pride and joy, then imagine the litigation for damages! Also forget sardine-packed Gustavia, St. Barth's and if you are in Saba, Statia, St. Kitts, Nevis or Montserrat, get out of there quickly!
Antigua has expansive Falmouth Bay as my best choice. English Harbour is close by and the Bird Government has weathered many storms. Antigua has many bays; it also seems to get hit with a higher than average number of storms.
Guadeloupe has shelter in the Riviere Salée, which can be entered from the south by larger craft. Shallow draft boats can pick their way in from the north. Again, this may be crowded.
The rusty shells of beached ships along Dominica's coast prove that no adequate shelter is available there. Dominica would be my last choice to be stuck in during a storm, as both government and infrastructure would be hard taxed. Boat parts are extremely hard to find and the airports are tiny.
Martinique is a good choice if you parlez-vous. The east coast has numerous semi-protected, pick-your-way-in lagoons, where semi-safety is possible for shallow draft vessels. However if something unexpected happens, you could be facing it alone. Martinique's best choice for hurricane protection is Le Marin in the south. It is a big bay with as many side coves as residing charter companies. The best part of storm hiding in Martinique is the availability of good wine and the zesty spirit of the French. The bad part of hiding there is that many French sailors seem unable to secure their boats even in good weather.
St. Lucia has tiny Rodney Bay lagoon and smaller Marigot Bay, which will be packed. The capital of Castries has a keyhole harbor, but inter-island trading vessels will present a risk to yachts.
Forget St. Vincent except if you are totally desperate, and then hope you can find a place behind Young Island or in Blue Lagoon. The Northern Grenadines are a cruiser's dream in fine weather and a nightmare during a storm because of too many yachts, too few experienced cruisers, and little viable shelter. Bequia's Admiralty Bay usually takes big swells, as does Friendship Bay. If you want adventure and are slightly suicidal with a well-insured boat, stand against nature in the Tobago Cays.
Carriacou offers slight protection on the east coast inside the reef break at Windward. Locals hook their wood boats there - usually unattended, so beware. On the west coast is the mangrove lagoon at Tyrrel Bay, a great place for shallow draft boats that carry plenty of mosquito repellent. The best part of weathering a storm in Carriacou is the sedating Jack Iron overproof rum. I weathered two days of Hurricane Lenny behind a disappearing Sandy Island as the only wave break. I owe my sanity to Hope McLawrence, who led me through the reef into Windward for needed sleep.
Grenada offers a semblance of safety at St. George's Lagoon. This will be crowded and a high percentage of boats there will be unattended. Mt. Hartman Bay on the south side is a great choice, with a mud bottom and a very protective outside reef. Prickly Bay's name says it all. Hog Island, Clarke's Court Bay, and Calivigny Island offer some protection, but deep inside Port Egmont and Calivigny Harbour to the east there is better holding and wind breaks. For me, Westerhall Bay looks too much open to the weather.
Trinidad is almost worry free, as few hurricanes have ever hit there. However, if one ever does it will be a disaster. The government and especially the Coast Guard is unprepared and untested to respond. Many large ships will conquer Chaguaramas Harbor and trample yachts. Trinidadians are very friendly and supportive but, presently, violent crime is rampant. I wouldn't like to think of the pillaging aftermath of a destructive storm.
Venezuela is the best bet. Learn to hablar passably. Isla Margarita can be a paradise with the present currency exchange rate. Most things are easily available and boat repairs are done by Margarita Sailing Services. Personally I would not stay in Porlamar in a storm, though, because of too many fishing boats. I'd get my food and liquor well stocked, head to the Golfo de Cariaco, and be snug inside Laguna Grande. This is large enough to hold a hundred big boats. Venezuela also has Golfo de Cuare at 10.56N-68.14W and Carenero at 10.31.65N-65.05.9W. For myself, Margarita is the place to wait and monitor the weather. If it starts to look bad, I'd convince a group of fellow cruisers to shelter together in any of these above-named Venezuelan areas.
Get prepared, the season is well upon us. Listen faithfully to the weather and track storms. Use weekend outings to familiarize yourself with protective locations. Remember, if you can see the sea, you could still be in trouble. Don't wait until the last minute. It might be exactly that!
Copyright© 2003 Compass Publishing