SEAWISE WITH DON STREET
Learning from the Ghosts of Hurricanes Past
In the 58 years I have been in the Caribbean, the tracking of hurricanes has changed dramatically. When I first arrived, a couple of six-engine B36 long-range bombers had been converted to hurricane hunters. They did a good job but they could, and did, miss hurricanes forming. And when that happened there was little time for preparations.
Today, with satellite tracking of weather systems and hurricane hunter planes gathering data, the landfall of the hurricane and its danger zone can be fairly accurately predicted. We also know that hurricanes (or circular storm cells that can develop into hurricanes) when approaching the islands of the Eastern Caribbean never alter course more than five degrees in 24 hours, and the course alteration if any is nearly always to the north.
Normally there are three or more days warning before a hurricane hits the Lesser Antilles, but there have been two notable hurricanes that popped up and hit yachting centers before proper preparations could be made.
Klaus and Gonzalo
In November of 1984 Tropical Storm Klaus formed south of Puerto Rico and developed into a hurricane as it headed northeast. Few were prepared. It was only the second hurricane in known history that formed in the Eastern Caribbean, and the first to hit the islands from the west. Besides, hurricane season was supposed to be over.
Klaus hit St. Thomas in the middle of the annual charter yacht show. The cruise ship Nordic Prince entered the harbor and attempted to dock. She discovered that her bow and stern thrusters could not overcome the high winds, and drifted down on anchored boats as she backed out of the harbor. The insurance companies of damaged yachts that were insured went after the cruise line, whose insurers promptly paid up. But the damaged boats that were uninsured collected nothing, as they could not afford to hire Admiralty lawyers to go after the cruise ship companies. (Admiralty lawyers will not take cases on a contingency basis.)
During hurricane season, tropical waves regularly form off the coast of Africa and move across the Atlantic. These sometimes develop into a circular tropical storm, then on to a hurricane or sometimes remain only a tropical storm, or sometimes die out. One such tropical wave developed into a circular tropical storm on October 12th, 2014 about 150 miles east of Antigua. It was named Gonzalo. Warnings did go out, but only to expect winds of 40 to 50 knots. However, when Gonzalo hit Antigua some claimed that it was a full-blown hurricane of 100 knots. Luckily, it was fast-moving and zoomed onward before it did massive damage there.
St. Martin also had warning that the tropical storm was approaching, but as per letter of the month in the December 2014 issue of Compass, the governments on both sides of the island did little. Boats out at anchor in Marigot Bay should have been urged to move into Simpson Lagoon and extra opening hours arranged for the bridge. If a boat drags up on the bulkheaded shore of Marigot Bay in a storm, the boat will likely be a total loss. On the Dutch side, since the causeway has been built, there is no reason that the bridge could not have been left open all day and road traffic re-routed. This would have allowed all the boats anchored in Simpson Bay to move into the lagoon. Even if a boat is driven ashore in the lagoon it is a lot easier to salvage it than to salvage it off the exposed beach of Simpson Bay.
After passing over St. Martin, Gonzalo curved north, missing the Virgins but scoring a direct hit on Bermuda.
‘Go Where They Ain’t’
After Iolaire was caught by Hurricane Klaus, I obtained a copy of the book Tropical Hurricanes of the North Atlantic Ocean 1851 to 1998, and the supplements that bring it up through 2014 (available at www.nhc.noaa.gov/pdf/TC_Book_Atl_1851-2006_lowres.pdf), and have spent the last 30 years studying the tracks of hurricane and the months in which hurricanes can be expected.
Looking at Tropical Hurricanes of the North Atlantic Ocean and studying the tracks of hurricanes, I am reminded of the saying of General Bedford Forrest, a brilliant cavalry general for the Confederacy in our War Between the States. When asked what was his formula for his very successful raids against the Union side, his reply was, “Hit ’em where they ain’t”. To avoid hurricanes, do the same: in hurricane season, cruise or lay the boat up in a location where the hurricane frequency is low.
If living on board in the Eastern Caribbean, you can continue cruising but stay in the area from Martinique south; listen every day for hurricane news and head south if one approaches. (See my article “You Can Cruise During Hurricane Season” in the June 2009 issue of Compass at www.caribbeancompass.com/online/june09compass_online.pdf.) When cruising during hurricane season, check your insurance policy. A proper policy that has a hurricane exclusion box notes that you are not covered for damage caused by a named storm if you are in the hurricane box, but you are covered for all the normal marine perils in the hurricane box. If a hurricane approaches, head south as fast as you can to get south of 12°N, the southern edge of the hurricane box.
The hurricane season has moved about a month later. In the last 30 years there have been more “late” — October, November and December — hurricanes than there have been in the previous 120 years that hurricanes have been reported.
Regarding frequency of hurricanes hitting an island, what the tourist boards say often does not match up with what Tropical Hurricanes says. When I wrote an article called “Reflections on Hugo” as a result of the massive destruction in the Leeward Islands, USVI and Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989*, I worked out the approximate hurricane frequency for various islands and island groups. This information I have updated through 2014. I have lumped hurricanes and tropical storms from 40 to 60 knots together.
Trinidad is basically south of the hurricane belt, but Trinidad has been hit three times since 1871, the last two times in 1993 and 2002. Surprisingly, the hurricanes hit the south end of the island rather than the north end.
Grenada was spectacularly hit in 1955 by Hurricane Janet, then in 2004 by Ivan and in 2005 by Emily. People forget that in the closing years of the 19th century Grenada took a number of bad hits by hurricanes: in 1876 and then again in 1887, Grenada was hit by two hurricanes in two weeks. It was hit again in 1888. Tropical storms of 40 to 60 knots hit Grenada in 1928, ’32, ’38, ’87 and ‘90.
The Grenadines and St. Vincent have been hit by hurricanes or tropical storms 32 times since 1871, and the St. Lucia – Martinique area 49 times.
Nevertheless, the hurricane frequency in the far-south islands is relatively low. From St. Barts west to the east coast of Puerto Rico, you are in hurricane alley and must expect a good solid hit on a fairly regular basis. Plan accordingly.
Ivan was a wake-up call for all haulout facilities up and down the islands. So many articles since then have been written about proper chocking, tie downs, specially built cradles, stripping all sails and canvas when laying up, etcetera, I will not repeat instructions here.
Traveling through the islands in the winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14 I saw a tremendous variation in the chocking of boats. Some yards’ systems were excellent, some good and some poor. Even within yards there was a variation as to how well chocked boats were, and whether the mast was in or out. Where there was a variation, the difference in chocking methods was usually influenced by the amount of money the owner was willing to spend.
Before firmly committing to laying up afloat or ashore during hurricane season, check your insurance policy, and ask your broker to double check with the underwriter that you are covered. If the underwriter says your lay-up arrangements are not satisfactory, ask what must be done to keep the insurance in effect while laid up.
A check of Tropical Hurricanes of the North Atlantic Ocean shows that in some years there are no hurricanes in the Eastern Caribbean. Let us hope that 2015 is one of those years.
*“Reflections on Hugo” was written in 1989 and reprinted in all my guides (available at iUniverse.com or Amazon). I have reread it while writing this article and I stand by everything I wrote in ’89 and updated in 1992 and again in 2002. I advise everyone who is spending the hurricane season in the Eastern Caribbean, or leaving their boat either ashore or in the water, to read it.
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