By Capt. Kevin Hughes
This article originally appeared in the November and December 2004 issues of Southwinds Magazine
“But Then Along Came Charley: An Unexpected (right-hand) Turn Of Events”
It was August 2003. Capt. Kevin Hughes, in efforts to escape from Hurricane Charley’s path as it headed north from Cuba and up the west coast of Florida, ends up anchored off Punta Gorda during the storm – exactly where Charley hit.
What The Doctor Ordered
I work as a delivery and charter captain, and ailing instructor, so taking a cruising vacation to the Dry Tortugas might not seem the thing to do to “get away from work.” But it was what the doctor ordered.
In this case, the doctor was Sandy, former owner of my boat (Windigo III) and my original sailing mentor. His life has been so hectic this year that he has not been able to launch his MX20 in Green Bay for the short Wisconsin Sailing season. I owe Sandy big-time for my current station in life, so a request to go Sailing was well-met.Capt. Kevin Hughes
The Dry Tortugas seemed a perfect choice for a short vacation, as they are positioned exactly 200 miles south of my current home in Clearwater Beach, FL. They appear as a tiny speck on most charts, yet the photos I have seen make it appear to be an idyllic tropical setting. The reef-protected harbor provides a last stop for Mexico- and Central America- bound cruisers. To just sail there as a destination seemed frivolous enough for a vacation. We would Key-hop and check out a couple of ICW coves on the return trip.
We departed Clearwater on Monday, August 8, and the 48-hour voyage down was without incident. (As we approached the Dry Tortugas, Charley was just an unnamed tropical depression off the coast of South America.) The views were magnificent and the weather ideal. Everything was completely relaxing. We swam from the anchorage, as we didn’t wish to be burdened with a dinghy on this cruise.
We had spent the first day at the Dry Tortugas National Park, snorkeling and exploring Fort Jefferson. Only two or three other boats shared the anchorage, and tourist ferries came from Key West spending a few hours during midday. A most enjoyable day, topped off with a nice meal cooked aboard. I even hauled out the sewing machine to make minor repairs to our bimini and mainsail. But that evening an e-mail and weather fax revealed that a tropical storm was curving its way through the Caribbean toward the Gulf.
Charley Is Born
The morning of our arrival, Tuesday, August 10, Charley had become a tropical storm. Its predicted path included the Dry Tortugas and the west coast of Florida. Plotting the coordinates, the prediction had it becoming hurricane strength at exactly our position! We had three days to get back to Tampa Bay where I was familiar with several effective hurricane holes. But another storm, Hurricane Bonnie, was spinning away in the northeastern Gulf.
After preparing Windigo for a lively dash home, we decided that we would start the journey very early the next morning, after a full night’s sleep, to face the challenges ahead. We left at sunrise the next morning, August 11, as the VHF buzzed of evacuation plans for the next two days. The research vessel Bellows left with us to return to its homeport of St. Petersburg via a direct route across the Gulf. We decided to angle up to Charlotte Harbor and then continue the trek to Tampa Bay in the protected waters of the ICW, just in case Charley sped up or changed course. (That evening, as we were halfway to Charlotte Harbor, Charley had become a Category 1 hurricane as it approached Jamaica.) We sailed and motorsailed into Charlotte Harbor, anchoring just behind Gasparilla Island north of the entrance a couple of hours past daybreak. But we had now sailed 72 of the past 96 hours, and thought it best to stay well-rested.Windigo at anchor at home in Tampa Bay
The next day, Thursday, August 12, after a late-morning nap, we weighed anchor to finish our journey to Tampa Bay, but I noticed an acrid odor as we headed up the ICW.
It seems a contaminated electrical connector had caused a current surge in the wiring harness and melted wires, connectors and the voltage regulator. Another failed component turned out to be the starter motor for the inboard diesel engine. But an announcement over the VHF got my attention.
The Coast Guard and the Department of Transportation (now two separate entities) picked this moment to start “locking down” bridges across the ICW-over 24 hours before the storm was predicted to arrive-to facilitate land evacuation. The list of bridges included ALL bridges farther north of us. They were forcing me to return to Tampa Bay out in the Gulf without an engine, at the mercy of variable winds present at the time, and I told them so. As we made our way out of Charlotte Harbor, night fell as we pushed on with our plan to head north.
We continued to tack out into the Gulf of Mexico engineless. But, upon reaching the junction of the Gulf and entrance channel we found no wind and big seas, with huge breakers across the transition between deep and shallow water.
These conditions were not what we needed to return to Tampa Bay, 70 miles distant. We decided we did not want to be caught out in the Gulf away from a harbor of refuge, so we crawled back into Charlotte Harbor and studied charts to locate a place to weather a storm. That evening, Charley became a Category 2 hurricane as it approached Cuba and was predicted to remain a Category 2 until it made landfall at Tampa Bay.
It was very peaceful on the bay as we edged northward and inland 20 miles. The wind picked up as we sailed along nicely toward our new chosen hurricane hole in the mouth of the Peace River at the northern end of Charlotte Harbor. We had 12 hours before the hurricane was predicted to pass west of us, hitting land at Tampa Bay. Sandy and I discussed how all the unusual circumstances had brought us to what seemed to be the safest place on the west coast of Florida. Then the gale struck.Anchored with four snubber lines to 200 feet of chain
I’m sure it was associated with the Charley (or Bonnie) weather system, but these things may spring up in the harbors on the Florida coast almost any time of year. We reefed our foresail and maintained control with the main. But a few seams of UV worn threads of the mainsail (adjacent to the ones I replaced in the Dry Tortugas) let go and further reduced the power of that sail.
We made it around the point into the mouth of the Peace River just north of Punta Gorda and anchored – far inland and away from the predicted path of Charley. It was still dark, and the hurricane was 10 hours away, so we fell into our bunks, storm-weary, for a short nap. After a few hours’ rest, we moved Windigo to a precise location chosen on the chart for the storm. We affixed FOUR (4) 3/4-inch snubber lines to the 200 feet of 3/8-inch stainless steel chain. At the other end was a self-designed, handmade, 70-pound stainless steel claw anchor that has never dragged in 7000 miles of cruising. Thirty feet from the big anchor was a 35-pound CQR plough anchor, which on its own held Windigo just fine for the 20 years previous. That’s over 400 pounds of ground tackle, dug in a muddy bottom with a scope of 14-to-1. I have always been VERY confident of my anchoring.
We stripped the deck of everything loose, and rigged the baby stay and running quarter stays. All halyards were attached out to strong points. We were all set by noon, and the winds were 8 knots with a light rain. At noon, Charley was still a Category 2 hurricane, as it made its way north just off the Florida west coast. But as the storm moved north, it encountered a frontal system left over from Hurricane Bonnie (remember her?) stretching across the Gulf.
A Sharp Right-Hand Turn
It was this stationary front that changed the northward journey of Charley and bumped it to the east. So now Charley, a Category 2 hurricane, was heading directly for us. Interaction with this frontal system also increased Charley’s intensity from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane and accelerated its march into land.
So it crashed into the idyllic barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva, ripped up Charlotte Harbor and blew full force into Punta Gorda. As the top half of Charley moved into the neighborhood, winds increased in steps. The wind speed increased from 40 knots to 60 knots, and then to 85 knots. Now even this wind speed was comparable to what I have experienced in squalls and gales. Eighty-five knots (100 mph) could be described as REALLY, REALLY windy. But the winds I experienced that day over 100 mph have a power that is indescribable, so I will tell of the effects.The view of the bridge as the storm approached
While buildings and trees ashore were relocated to the west, Windigo was flailing in the wind at the end of its ground tackle, and the seas became completely airborne. Seeing we were anchored in water only one foot deeper than our keel, the turbulent seas kicked up mud and grit from the bottom, and it too became airborne. Although Windigo has never had a leaking problem, she took on water during this stint as a submarine through every conceivable nook and cranny. Much of it through the cockpit lockers, as the cockpit remained flooded for the most intense portion of the storm. Seeing the electric bilge pump was not keeping up by working continuously, BOTH manual pumps (one in the cabin and one at the helm) were needed to keep her dry and afloat. But just opening the hatch for a moment to get to the pump at the helm allowed a deluge of seawater to enter the cabin.
On one of the two-minute pumping drills in the cockpit, I observed wind speed at a steady 131 knots. That was the way both the wind and seas were – steady. No big gusts, no real waves. I suppose the water just wasn’t deep enough for big swells, but it was fully airborne, whipping sideways as I never before had seen. The intensity of sand and saltwater blasting my back was painful enough to check for blood upon my return to the cabin.
During the next trip out to the helm to pump the bilge, I observed the strapped-down wind generator snapping its two-inch aluminum mast and knocking off one end of a pair of one-inch stainless steel braces, blowing west as if shot from a cannon. Then the shock of this shook solar panels loose, and they had to be cut free before they pummeled the davits and stern rail to pieces by whipping at the end of their electrical connections.
A Slight Reprieve
Then the dark and violent water-laden air changed from dark gray to bright white and the wind dropped by half – the eye of the storm was overhead and sunlight reflected down the empty cylinder of the center of the hurricane. Having been in the eye of big storms on land, I expected a reprieve from the action. But the wind reduced only to around 40 knots, and only for a few minutes.Hurricane Charley in the middle of the storm
We emerged for a quick check of remaining deck gear and ground tackle. The four snubber lines and one-inch anchor rode were all intact as we had tied them to the chain. The anti-chafe protection was still in place and there was no evidence of damage to the lines. It was a good thing the deck inspection was brief, for Charlie was a compact monster, and the 180-degree direction reversal began with 130 knots of force.
Although Sandy and I were secure below, the full energy of the storm was felt as Windigo was sent driving forward for approximately 375 yards. Then when the ground tackle reached its limit, Windigo’s 24,000 pounds whirled around to face the wind once again. But after a few minutes, there was a distinct difference in Windigo’s motion.
We were no longer submarining through water, with wind coming over our bow at 150 miles per hour. Visibility outside was only 50 feet, so a quick check of the GPS revealed we were moving farther than the anchors should have allowed. Emerging from the cabin into the surreal storm conditions, I noted that we were lying ahull – sideways to the wind – and drifting . . .
Sailing In A Hurricane
With the ground tackle no longer attached to the boat, I went forward to attempt to raise the trys’l. Already rigged on its own track on the mast, deploying it would be a simple matter of snapping the shackle of the halyard to the grommet on the head, and hoisting it into position. Closing a snap shackle in normal conditions takes a fraction of a second. But I was unable to perform this easy task on the deck of Windigo in those conditions.
After three distinct attempts lasting a period of maybe ten or twelve seconds, the halyard flew free – horizontal to the top of the mast. Abandoning that option, I returned to the helm (that action alone was extremely difficult) to try to control the path of the boat. With no sails and the deck stripped of gear, there was enough windage to move my 24,000-pound vessel along at 8 to 10 knots. I aimed at the main section of the fast-approaching bridge, now downwind of our position. But I knew Windigo’s mast was four feet taller than the bridge deck.
As I sailed on a broad reach, I prepared to set another anchor to save Windigo from its fate at the bridge. I joined three 50-foot dock lines that were handy and attached them to the bit of chain on the 22-pound Danforth anchor I carry on the stern rail. But I was unable to deploy the anchor before reaching the bridge because of our unprecedented speed.
I was able, however, to maintain a course through the main section of the bridge. The angle of heel was sufficient to clear the top of the mast as we passed under the bridge. The VHF antenna just barely scraped the underside of the bridge deck. As we emerged from under the bridge, I sensed an opportunity to stop Windigo’s ill-fated journey up the river. After steering the boat close to the end of the wood crib lining the sides of the main bridge span, I went forward to the bow with a 50-foot dock line in hand. I considered trying to secure a line to this wood fender wall to keep Windigo from getting to the second span of the twin bridges across the river. But standing there with the line for only a second or two made me realize I did not know what part of the crib I could connect with, and that I also lacked the ability to secure the other end to the boat in time.Literally sailing in a hurricane
More Passionate Attempts To Stop
So I just stood there as the bow roller contacted the wall, was sheared from the boat, and disappeared into the river. Returning to the helm with the dock line, I turned the bow toward the main span of the second bridge and deployed the stern anchor. I was surprised at how rapidly the anchor rode paid out and was just barely able to get the end secure on one of the stern Sampson posts. But the line no more than got taut, then went limp, and I hauled in only two of the three dock lines I had attached – the third one had parted without hesitation. Anchor number three was gone.
Guiding the boat through the main section of the second bridge became more and more difficult. The apparent wind moved forward as I turned the boat from a broad reach to a beam reach, and finally, to a close haul. Windigo began to stall and drift sideways, so to regain some control, I turned downwind and aimed for the nearest bridge section straight downwind. But this section was considerably lower than the main section.
She may have even cleared this at the extreme angle of heel (difficult to imagine Sailing on bare poles). But as Windigo passed under the bridge, the boat gybed, and the masthead struck the underside of the bridge deck, folding over the top 14 feet of mast.
But this may have been a blessing in our current situation since numerous high-tension electrical lines were strung over the river just past the second bridge.
Sandy came to the companionway thinking it was safe as we emerged from the bridge. I sent him back into the cabin to check the bilge, just to be sure he was clear of any rigging on the deck that might become energized if we contacted the electrical wires. Even though we did not pass under the wires at their highest point, I was able to guide Windigo through clear of the hazardous lines. There is no doubt we would have been fouled in the power lines had our mast remained intact.
So now we were in a fairly wide, very shallow river with another low bridge two nautical miles downwind. I was able to sail the boat in a fairly controlled fashion as Sandy dug our last anchor, a 25-pound CQR, from the bottom of the water-filled sail locker. I attached it to the end of the remaining 200 feet of parted one-inch anchor rode at the bow, and deployed it from the bow as Sandy kept Windigo facing the wind. At last, we were secure on another anchor approximately one half hour after the snubber lines parted. The wind speed had tapered off at a much faster rate than we had experienced on the other side of the eye. By the time we were anchored, the wind had dropped below 100 knots and then slowly diminished over the next three hours.A broken mast
There was little storm surge, but the high winds had still driven us a good way onto a shallow mud flat in the middle of the river. During the beginning of the storm, we had cell phone contact with my wife in Clearwater. But the cell towers were damaged and service was becoming very scanty.
911 calls were being answered in an “emergency shelter with no communications resources”(!?). With no mast for the HAM radio antenna and e-mail and the handheld VHF having been mostly ignored for the past day, we were out of contact with anyone for all practical purposes. We attempted to make one last call to the U.S. Coast Guard with our position as the wind dropped below 90 knots. But it took over 20 minutes to receive an acknowledgment to our Pan-Pan calls.
The next morning, my wife and a good friend made many phone calls and were able to have a towboat come to get us out of the middle of the river. But the closest towboat had to come down from Englewood (a three-hour trip) to tow us off the mud flat.
A Tough Tow
When it came time to steer our towed vessel, a stowaway seagull would not allow us access to the helm. It was on the sole under a bit of debris and scared to death. It would not let us near the wheel. But Sandy was not about to allow further delays and hoisted the bird over the side (the bird managed to draw a bit of Sandy’s blood before leaving).
The towboat tried for a couple hours to free us. It was unsuccessful and called for a second larger towboat.
The two boats together were able to pull us 150 feet after 50 minutes of hard pulling and finally freeing Windigo. They deposited us at the Fisherman’s Village Dock in Punta Gorda. The manager there allowed Windigo to stay until I was able to get the engine running, but I did not expect it to take almost a week to rewire the engine and replace the starter.
I spent four days driving 120 miles one way to work in the 115-degree heat on the engine. Normally, an okay job for a boat guy. But there was no electricity within a 10-mile radius of the boat, and no hardware or marine part stores were in operation even if they were still standing.
Every tiny thing I needed for the repair I had to have with me on the boat or return to the Tampa Bay area to get it to bring on the next trip. The day we got the engine running, we also had a friend with SCUBA gear search for our ground tackle. I had exact GPS coordinates, but the muck at the bottom of the river was so stirred up and so thick that he was unable to locate any part of it.
Another friend accompanied me on the 15-hour ICW journey back to Tampa Bay on the seawater -soaked boat with the crippled mast. Upon returning to St. Petersburg, I had the mast unstepped and cut out the damaged section. After two more days of cleaning and purging, Windigo was home in her slip in Clearwater Beach, nine days after the storm. The cleanup continues . . .
We had about four minutes of reduced winds (40 knots) as the eye of Charley passed directly over us. Three weeks later, the eye of Frances passed north of our slip in Clearwater Beach. The becalmed winds (less than 10 knots) lasted four hours!Recovered Ground Tackle
It took two large towboats and over six man-hours to drag Windigo off the mud flat that she sailed onto in 100-knot winds. The first boat traveled three hours to get to our location because there was nothing left floating any closer after the storm. Towing bill: $1800.
A diving company was contracted to go retrieve my ground tackle and was successful. But the 70-pound, custom stainless steel anchor was stolen from my dock the first night after it was returned.
Also, FEMA offers grants to homes damaged in hurricanes that are national disasters, so we applied and were visited by an inspector. But they are only offering $4000 to repair Windigo.
At the end of the day, major projects caused by hurricane damage:
I. Replacement of a four-foot section of damaged mast.
II. Repair of the mast cap with an improved bolt-on unit, which will allow greater access.
III. Replacement of all mast top transducers, antennas and signal devices
IV. Replacement of electrical generation system – wind generator and solar panels, which were completely lost.
V. Replacement of bow roller sheared from boat.
VI. Repair of bow pulpit damaged by fallen furling unit.
VII. Replacement of one five-foot section of furler foil.
VIII. Replacement of lost Danforth anchor.
IX. Replacement of damaged lines.
X. Repair of boot stripe.
Sandy and I agree that we did all we could with the knowledge we had and the time and resources available. The two most important things I learned were: (1) you cannot have too many lines joining your very secure ground tackle and your boat. I thought five snubber lines were excessive. Now I believe 20 or 30 would be appropriate in the extreme conditions that exist in tropical storms. And (2) a wind generator needs to be removed from its mast during a storm of high magnitude. This was something I knew before this incident, but did not give it enough attention as I was distracted by many other things. I use pre-voyage checklists for deliveries; a storm preparation checklist would be useful.
Kevin Hughes (Boat@Consultant.com) is a liveaboard on a 37-foot Islander with his wife Karin. They subjected S/V Windigo III to an intensive two-year refit, completed in 2001. He has sailed for over 20 years, holds a USCG Master’s Document and is a certified Sailing instructor. Windigo will stay in the Tampa Bay area while repairs are made after reluctantly Sailing through the eye of Charley. A journal of Windigo’s voyages is published on the Internet at www.ciekurzis.org.
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