Lessons Learned from Liveaboard Hurricane Survivors
by Suzanne Wentley
In the middle of Hurricane Irma — the strongest storm ever measured in the open Atlantic Ocean — Justin Smith was peering out from behind the plywood covering the windows of a home in Coral Bay in St. John, USVI, where he was taking shelter with friends.
He could see two sailboats, neither of them his. As rocks pummeled the windows and the winds slashed the leaves off trees, he decided that as long as those vessels were holding, then S/V Jasaru, his recently renovated Pearson 53, would be all right.
“Halfway through the storm, one of those boats was taken out by another boat from somewhere else in the harbor,” Smith said from St. Petersburg, Florida, where he arrived 26 days after the first of two Category 5 hurricanes hit the northeastern Caribbean.
“At the strongest point, you couldn’t hear anything but the intense noise. All you could see was leaves, and the building was shaking. The wind wanted to suck you out of the balcony,” he said. “When it finally let up, there were no boats anywhere.”
Indeed, by the time he got back to the water, S/V Jasaru was nowhere to be found. She had sunk in the 35 feet of water in which he had held her with anchors upon anchors. He even videotaped his hours of sweaty prep work in the days leading up to the storm to remind himself that he really did all he could. Smith lost his home, everything.
It was the gut-wrenching heartbreak no liveaboard ever wants to feel.
“When I swam to her to see what happened, I envisioned other boats tangled up to her. I could not have imagined my anchors would not have held,” Smith said. “I just assumed someone hit her and sunk her. But the front hatch had been peeled off the front of the boat, and the aft hatch was peeled off the back of the boat. The mizzenmast had broken, and the companionway had busted open. I think she just fought to the very end.”
So far, it is unknown how many dozens of boats were lost in Hurricanes Irma and Maria, two Category 5 storms that hit the northeastern Caribbean ten days apart this summer, but there are endless photos of boatyards, marinas and hurricane holes littered with damaged vessels throughout Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and St. Maarten. Boats from Cuba to Barbuda and Dominica were lost by sinking, whether owing to moorings coming loose, waves topping toerails, or colliding with one another. It continues to be a major tragedy throughout the affected islands.
Another liveaboard sailor, Ben Oglesby, knows how lucky he is. His wife, Quinn, already planned to leave S/V Wanderlust, their 38-foot Morgan, for work a week before Hurricane Irma was expected to hit. In St. Thomas, they were closely watching the weather, with an original plan to sail south to Martinique. But weather models were unpredictable, and the last thing Ben wanted was to be singlehanding straight into a storm. Together, they decided for Ben to sail to Puerto Rico, and he tied up into the mangroves in Salinas.
“There were ten to 15 other boats in there. Everyone was just keeping an eye on each other and helping each other tie in,” he said from a rare WiFi spot in Fajardo.
Oglesby took down the jib once he got there, since so often that is the first to unfurl. Winds were predicted for only around 25 knots there, so he left on the mainsail and tied a line tightly around it. He also left on the boom and solar panels, and he made the difficult decision to stay on the boat for the storm.
“There are still a lot of things you can do to help save your boat, like have the engine on forward to take pressure off lines or reacting if hatches open or the bilge pump stops working,” he said. “I ended up sleeping like a baby that night, I was so exhausted.”
After the storm, Oglesby had limited cell service, but was able to see online the destruction that happened just 50 miles away. When his wife flew back to Puerto Rico, they decided to sail to Fajardo to volunteer with Sailors Helping, a group organized to get supplies to the Virgin Islands and get people evacuated from the worst hit areas.
But then the tropics heated up again. Hurricane Maria was on the horizon.
Jost Van Dyke resident Hannah Thayer couldn’t believe it. She had just survived Hurricane Irma on Virgin Gorda with her friend Jeremy Dugan. Dugan ran an Airbnb business of floating vessels on the dock near the popular bar Latitude 18 on St. Thomas. He had already lost eight of his nine boats in Irma, despite spending hours setting out extra anchors on one-inch line and stripping the boats of fuel, batteries, sails and anything that could come loose.
Qwest, Dugan’s 47-foot Morgan, was dismasted by Irma’s winds at the dock in Virgin Gorda, while he and Thayer took shelter in a nearby hotel.
“The way we heard it, the water came up four to six feet above the dock. Had we tied her any tighter, Qwest would have sunk,” Thayer said after the storms, from one of the few WiFi spots on Virgin Gorda.
In the end, while Qwest survived, the rest of Dugan’s fleet in Red Hook, St. Thomas did not do as well. P/V Gigi flipped upside-down on its mooring, S/V Shirley and S/V Jenny are missing, and the rest of Dugan’s fleet either sank or were beached. Thayer’s vessel, a 41-foot Rhodes, was ripped apart from the inside out.
“That was a hard day,” she said, thinking of when she first saw her boat ashore on Vessup Beach.
Thayer and Dugan rode Hurricane Irma out in a motel on Virgin Gorda. At first, the hot showers and cable TV were luxuries, but when the eyewall arrived, the two were frightened. As they were pushing mattresses up on the windows, a gust of wind opened the doors in between units, throwing Dugan back against the opposite wall. He was knocked out. When he came to, they both watching the rain creep across the ceiling and the plexiglass windows blow out.
It took Thayer six days to find cell phone service to let her mother know she was alive. And just four days after that, Maria struck.
“Maria was amateur hour compared to Irma,” she said. “We were ‘sleeping’ on Qwest, which was more like lying in the aft cabin wondering if that noise was the dinghy hitting the boat or another boat hitting the side of us.”
The next morning, all the extra rain allowed them to take fresh showers before heading back to St. Thomas to assess damages. Before they were able to do so, someone came aboard and stole Thayer’s phone.
Meanwhile, there were rumors of Cost-U-Less, the grocery store on St. Thomas, getting looted while the militia stood by and watched. Celebrity resident Richard Branson worked to get running water in the British Virgin Islands, and residents of St. John came together to clear roads and feed neighbors. However, St. Thomas was “rough”, Smith said.
After Irma, when he realized that S/V Jasaru was lost, he piled what few things he had (he had grabbed only a bunch of T-shirts and shorts, confident in the boat, and left his computer, tax returns and the cookbook his grandfather had given him) on to his nine-foot dinghy. With a friend, he motored from Coral Bay to St. Thomas and connected with his employer.
By then, Maria was all anyone could talk about. Smith ended up hunkering down in one of the catamarans he captained before the storms struck. He barely had time to think of his boat, on which he had just finished a US$60,000 renovation. While he was on St. Thomas, he broke his foot when a hatch slammed shut with the wind. He knew he needed to get to the mainland, since the hospital on St. Thomas was destroyed.
Again, he packed up his dinghy with plans to motor all the way to Puerto Rico. Thankfully, a fellow boater intercepted him and took him to safety.
“When we arrived in Puerto Rico, we had no idea how devastated it was,” he said. “But you know Puerto Ricans, always there with a smile, always happy and full of life.”
Eight days later, Smith was able to fly to Miami, where his grandfather met him and drove him to a warm bed and a big meal. That doesn’t mean he’s been able to sleep.
The Oglesbys’ vessel, S/V Wanderlust, made it through Maria in a slip in Fajardo with only a bent anchor pulpit. Eight days after Maria hit, the couple was able to get a flight out of Puerto Rico along with their dog, which required veterinarian clearance. Thayer and Dugan are still awaiting a flight out so that they can visit Dugan’s father, who fell ill during the storms.
Thayer said her goal was to return to the Virgin Islands as soon as possible to begin rebuilding. She felt like they had done everything they could have done for their vessels.
“There was no doing enough for your boat, because there was nothing like this ever seen before in the Atlantic,” she said of Irma. “It was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic. There’s nothing you can do for that.
“When you stare death in the face for eight hours, your perspective on life changes,” she added.
That's true for Smith as well. He also has plans to immediately buy a new boat and return to St. John.
“In the process of all of it, I never really once thought how tough it was or how bad it was. We really just made the best of it,” he said. “It was one day at a time. But I’ve abandoned so many people in St. John who have helped me. It’s the only thing I can really think about, just get back there.”
Sailors’ Advice after Irma and Maria
Justin Smith’s plan for next hurricane season is to be nowhere in the Caribbean.
Get good weather forecasts. Are you confident in your weather sources? Are you really?
Figure out what you’ll need and miss from your boat (both practical and sentimental) before crunch time.
With increasingly strong storms, sometimes your best isn’t enough.
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