Moving and Preparing a Boat in the Keys for Hurricane Wilma

Preparing a boat for Hurricane Wilma and surviving – Hurricane and boats information page

Keys Hurricane Hideout Hustle
Rebecca Burg, a regular contributor to Southwinds magazine, writes about her experience in moving her boat into the mangroves near Key West during Hurricane Wilma in October, 2005.

This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Southwinds in the Hurricane Section.

An End-of-Season Story,
Keys Hurricane Hideout Hustle: A Native American Sailor’s Secret Revealed

By Rebecca Burg

After a long silence, the FM radio station crackled back to life. “-..on emergency power right now,” said the DJ. He went on to describe how the station’s roof was leaking. At the same time, the National Weather Service VHF broadcast went silent. I twirled the knob and pushed a few buttons. Nothing. It’s outright spooky to lose contact with the outside world when a hurricane is passing close by. Angel’s backup VHF radio, on 72, buzzed. “You still there?” It was Capt. Bill from Defiant. “Yeah,” I said, then added, “I can’t get the weather.” Bill came back. “They’re off the air. The power must be out.” To pass the time, Bill and I nervously chattered on the radio while our sailboats rattled in the gusty winds of Hurricane Dennis. Boat owners in the hurricane belt need to have a personalized storm plan. As a single hander who lives, travels and works onboard a small sailboat, my course of action is to flee and hide in the mangroves. If unable to flee, I’ll hide in the nearest mangroves available. Fellow cruiser Capt. Bill gets the credit for showing me the run-and-duck-for-cover-in-the-trees trick. Years ago, after migrating from the hurricane-free Great Lakes, I had faced a rude crash course in tropical weather. While Angel and I have bobbed around in the subtropics for the past few years, we ran and hid from six hurricanes so far. We were safe each time. The key to survival is to stay far ahead of the weather, act early, avoid unsafe risk-taking and use plenty of common sense. Staying ahead of the weather is easier said than done, so that’s where the avoid-risk-taking part comes in.

sailboat anchored and secured in the mangroves in the keys
Angel secured and anchored in the mangroves

I also fall back on my native ancestors’ beliefs, but more on that later. One must plan ahead, preselecting potential mangrove shelters on a calm day. Note the mean low water depths and the time it takes to reach each shelter. Smaller vessels and shallow drafts are easier to hide. With a three-and-a-half-foot draft, Angel is only 31 feet with her oversized bowsprit. Bill’s Morgan Out Island, Defiant, has a four-and-a-half-foot draft, and she’s about 40 feet long with her davits and attached dinghy. The mangroves not only buffered the winds, but they shielded Defiant and Angel from the seas. There was little fetch in the narrow, dogleg mangrove channel. We were also surrounded by shallow tidal flats. Nylon line tied to the thickest tree trunks near the roots kept us in place. Chafing gear to protect the line and the mangrove’s bark is ideal. Hurricane Dennis kept us away from land for a week, and having a fairly self-sufficient and well-stocked boat is a must. As Dennis passed by in the night, I began to wonder if Angel’s bar had been too well-stocked when I saw tiny green flashing lights in the mangroves. Nearby, Bill also saw the lights. We soon realized that they were fireflies stirred up by the storm. Who would’ve known? After Dennis, I sailed into the Keys to replenish Angel’s stores, particularly the bar. Just when I was getting comfortable and resting in a favorite lower Keys anchorage, I fled on a whim. Bill and Defiant did likewise.

And Then Along Came Katrina – A mere tropical depression, Katrina didn’t even have a name yet, and it was a hot, sunny and windless day. The weather forecast was mild and raised no brows. Nevertheless, I hastily stuffed my bowsprit into a lonely mangrove channel. Defiant settled nearby. Bill, falling back on 30 years of professional experience at sea, didn’t like the looks of the skies. I was relying on something much harder to explain. My native ancestors (from a mix of tribes) had passed on bits of their culture, beliefs and sensitivities. A wise elder, my grandmother had taught me things that were at one time everyday life in our past. One of our beliefs is that everything has a spirit, even manmade things like homes and boats. One could learn from and communicate with that spirit. Of course, these traditional ways are no substitutes for practical seamanship, but I can’t help including them in what I do. Though modern society may question my less-modern ways, it’s not an option for me to ignore an upbringing and family traditions that are thousands of years old.

Angel and Defiant in the mangroves.
Angel and Defiant in the mangroves.

Between Bill’s serious nautical experience and my belief that Angel’s spirit urgently wanted to hide, we had dropped everything to run away like Chicken Littles in perfectly fine weather. Two days later, Hurricane Katrina crossed over South Florida. Boaters had little chance to prepare. Katrina took people by surprise as it swept along the Keys chain, intensifying as it moved along. It came at night with torrential rains and tornadoes. Into the morning, it trashed the lower Keys anchorage that Defiant and Angel had recently occupied. Boats were sunk, some dismasted, blown into each other or blown into the Gulf of Mexico. It was chaos. We were well-sheltered, but our masts were exposed to the hurricane force winds. Defiant’s masthead antenna tore away. Angel’s saggy old bimini self-destructed. I tried to make coffee as my cruiser was being bodily shaken like a toy in the hands of a hyperactive kid. It’s sort of like when someone shakes a can of nuts to see how many are left. There was only one nut inside Angel. When it was safe enough, I took the dinghy over to Defiant to share dinner and watch a movie. A long-time buddy cruiser, Bill was curious about my cultural beliefs. He liked the idea that a boat’s spirit could possibly be “listened” to and learned from, especially if it’s advantageous to one’s safety. I told him that it didn’t matter what one’s background or heritage was. Anyone can freely choose to learn and apply this sensitivity while cruising or to daily life. It’s just a matter of being open-minded. Still, the subject was awkward for me to talk about. It’s easy to say that a decision was made based on practical experience. It’s not so easy to admit that I took an action because a certain yellow sailboat “talks” to me about it. If one openly shares things like in this society, men in white suits and a rubber van might just pay a visit. Still, a cruiser has to use all options available to keep one’s life and property safe. Sometimes that means thinking and seeing outside of the box.

On the Bottom in the Mangroves – After four long days in the trees, Bill and I were so bored that we were watching crabs crawl around the nearby mangrove roots. Katrina had stirred the water so badly that we couldn’t see our escape channel. The snaking route was surrounded by shallow tidal flats, which we couldn’t see either. By the fifth day, and heedless of the water clarity, Angel and Defiant ran in a frenetic panic away from the mangroves. Activated by the hurricane’s rains, swarms of biting bugs had made the trees almost intolerable. Defiant managed to make it all the way to the channel’s entrance before promptly running aground on a falling tide. Resorting to my depth sounder and tuned to Angel’s lively spirit, I stayed in deeper water. The convoluted channel takes about 40 minutes to motor through, and there are no markers. Reading the water’s current flow was difficult in the post-storm swell and chop. The winds were a steady twenty knots. Angel and I were almost free when Bill, trying to be helpful, radioed. “You’re gonna run aground over there! Turn west.” Angel did not want to turn west. Befuddled and unsure whether to listen to an experienced sea captain or to my sailboat, I began to swerve like a drunken ice skater. Flashing different readouts, the depth sounder gave up and blinked in confusion. “No, no, turn west!” Bill urged. “No, no turn east,” Angel seemed to say. Conflicted, I turned west. Bumping to a halt, Angel joined Defiant. Boom drooping in defeat, she slowly leaned over like a wounded animal. Don’t tell the men in the rubber van, but I really should’ve listened to my sailboat. The high tide went out and wouldn’t return for a long 24 hours. Defiant and Angel were resting on their bilges at a 30-degree angle in silty sand. Anchors had been strung out on both vessels. The water was only ankle deep, and I found it disconcerting to see Angel’s nether regions completely exposed. When I crawled inside the cabin, I began to feel sick. I didn’t throw up, but Angel wasn’t so lucky. She managed to expel the contents of her fresh-water tank. For the time being, I think that my beloved Bayfield was mad at me. What sailboat wouldn’t be? At least I had a spare jerry jug with some water in it. Adding insult to injury, a loud thunderstorm with tropical storm force winds rumbled our way. With pelting rain, the weather came and kicked us while we were down.

After the storm, I walked my dinghy over to Defiant to see how Bill was doing. At least his cruiser didn’t barf. We tried to make sandwiches in the ketch’s tilted galley without letting too much stuff slide to the floor. Later, in the middle of the night, Angel was partially buoyed by the incoming tide. I was soon able to kedge free and anchor in the channel to wait for first light. Defiant floated free just before dawn. Finally, we were bounding through the refreshingly deeper waters of the Gulf. Aside from scuffed bottom paint, both boats were unharmed. We found our way into South Florida and managed to rest and regain our senses just in time for Hurricane Rita. Once more, Angel had talked me into another wild ride toward mangrove no man’s land. These days, it’s just another day in the life of a cruising sailboat.