Thursday, August 7, 2014

Season Opener

In which we respond to a heartening heap of  missives, comments, and emails
inquiring about our first Tropical Storm experience this year.

We awoke to an unusual sky on August 1st. We've become accustomed to a semi standard selection of predawn lighting arrangements to our east.  We've seen a lot of the available combinations of sky, light, and water. We know that rosy glow as the sun bunches its muscles to leap up above that clear line of horizon into a cloudless sky.   We've stood with morning coffee and watched  amazed as old Sol  painted, slashed and repainted a rapidly changing cloudscape. Like a maniacal cosmic Jackson Pollock with brilliant colors that change and fade even as we stare in smiling appreciation.  We've shared breakfast with  a lot of squalls and thunderstorms and we've had our eyes  assaulted by blazing dawns.  You know, that awakening burst  like the sudden surprise of a policeman's flashlight at a drive in movie.  But this was different. Layers of clouds. Different strata, as far as the eye could see.  I knew it wasn't going to be a spectacular, blog-worthy sunrise but it was so non-typical that I snapped a photo anyhow.  Just in case.

Life's been chugging along pretty much normally. Or as close to normal as it ever gets around here.  Just a few days before, we had seen a really nice version of this same view without the ominous parts.

I included this next photo because I thought it has a certain, well, fiddle dee-dee aspect to it.   That's one of our friends playing a little horn from our 3D printer.

I assure you, Mr Hinderaker is a different animal when he puts his architect's hat on.

Wait a minute.  That IS his architects hat... This could be trouble.

We're still spending a lot of time at South Side Marina working on the boat.  And there's still a traditional gathering most evenings at Bob's Bar for the sunset happy hour.

We'd been watching a bit of a disturbance working its way westward from Africa over the Atlantic.  Our weather watchdog, WunderMap, showed us the situation pretty succintly.  We were expecting Tropical Storm Bertha to run right smack dab over the top of us.  And soon.  The main question was what kind of footwear she'd have on during the process.  This thing  had winds of 50 miles an hour and was doing another 22 in forward motion.  Sailors think that's pretty fast.  Especially sailors trapped with no place to run to.

I'd been looking for a reason to see if I could take the U.S. Coast Guard's weather fax broadcast on Single Side Band (SSB) from a simple receiver to a fax program on an iPad. I'm slowly trying to move myself from PC dependency to the iPad generation.  So far, it's been a pretty rocky trip.   I can't work without a keyboard that makes clicking noises, I guess.   Touch screen is still counter intuitive.  I used to get my hands slapped for that. Anyhow, I set up a little Sony worldband radio receiver next to an iPad. That wire stringing off to the left is a 7 meter antenna.   The little black box behind the iPad is an amplified speaker.  I figured I needed some volume to hear a fax signal over the ambient atmospheric noise on the patio.   The plastic glass is full of lemonade.  Really.

It took me a few tries before I managed to get anything useful out of this little setup. Oh there was my usual grumpy impatience and irascibility to get through first.   I had some frustrated and ugly thoughts about the Sony, iPad, and probably even the Coast Guard's radio.  No hair pulling, though.  I don't do hair pulling.  Any more.

I was managing to get some data finally, and tried to take a photo of the iPad screen.   Duh.   See, I told you I was new at this.

Then in the midst of one of my diatribes about the current state of the computer industry, La Gringa pointed out that there were buttons on the iPad that I could  just press to preserve screen shots.  Hmph.  Go figure. Good thing I have her, isn't it?

So after getting my hand wringing  frustration and teeth gnashing behind me (she's been calling me Captain Cranky Pants after reading it on some curmudgeon-bashing women's sailing site)  I managed to actually start getting usable data.  This is from  a little $130 radio sitting next to a hand-me-down iPad on a noisy patio. Yep, a nice image, but not nice news.  I guess I was sort of hoping it would refute WunderMap. Not going to happen though.  I think all these weather guys are in cahoots.

I think that this was about the point where we realized that it would behoove us to start thinking seriously about what was shaping up to be the first storm of the season.  Of course it was pleasant to take my lemonade out to the patio and twiddle radios and computers.  I regaled the dog with tales of how it was back in the old days, of Loran C and microwave navigation.   He wasn't all that impressed with the Coast Guard's weather fax from New Orleans by the way.  He was expecting jazz, I think.  Or Snoop Doggy Dogg.

The first decision we made was not to haul the boat out of the water for this one.  This was not an easy decision.  We will never forget what happened to us back during another storm named Hanna.  It was early September, 2008, and the whole situation was remarkably like this one.   A tropical storm, nothing much to worry about, passing a bit to the north east of these islands.   And it did just exactly that.  Tropical Storm Hanna passed north of us, bumped us around a little, and then showed us her backside as she gazed up toward the USA.   And we had a boat in the water then, too.  And we decided not to take it out of the water for that storm.   And that boat was smashed upside down onto Heaving Down Rock .  The treacherous little tropical tart made a sudden hard left for some reason, and caught us all looking the other way.  She came all the way back down to Providenciales  holding a slip of paper with our name on it.  But as a full fledged hurricane this time.  There were 12 boats smashed from the dock we were tied to, and reports of dozens more lost nation wide.   And it's not a very wide nation.

This is the path of  Hanna through our neighborhood six years ago.  It looks like we were a triple victim of her side trip to Haiti:

Gosh, that looks a lot like the track of Bertha only a hundred miles further north.  And you can easily see where Hanna decided to get serious, headed back down south and did that tropical two-step all over us for three days.  Ouch.

So, back to the preset panic, we decided that if we were going to chance leaving a boat in the water again, this time we were going to tie it to something a little more substantial than Sherlock Walkin's floating docks in Leeward.  We decided to tie it to Bob's floating docks at South Side Marina.   And I do mean that we really tied one on this time.

You might reasonably ask why the clueless looking guy is out playing around  in the middle of the marina in a dinghy with a paddle, when he should be tying up his boat. Notice  that the clear Caribbean blue sky and water.....have apparently fled the scene.

Well I'll have you know I'm not as stupid as I look, recognizing that it would take a whole boatload of stupid  to facilitate that equalization.   We were tying up the boat.  This was our stern anchor point.   I lowered a big Danforth anchor and a lot of chain into the marina.   I ran the rope anchor rode along the bottom, weighted by the chain, and we attached that to the boat.

The chain laid along the bottom until the rope anchor rode came up right off the aft end of our boat.  We ran that through a center chock on our toe rail and then to one of our biggest sail winches.  I hoped that this would let me dash out in bad weather and put  a few cranks on this from a sheltered position if needed.

This also let us keep the dinghy attached across the stern of the boat, and I planned to use that as a big and expendable fender should some other boat break away and drift into us.  This orientation also made it easy for us to keep an eye on the most likely other boats to do something like that.

We ran three lines from each hull to hard points on the concrete wharf, not putting all our eggs into the floating dock basket again. Old dogs, new tricks, you know how that goes.

You can see that the other two  sail boats turned around in their slips with their bows pointed to the south.   This let them put their main anchors out.   We decided to keep our boat bow in.  My thinking was that if we did get a strong storm from the south and anchors let go, I wanted my propellers and rudders free of this mess of lines near the docks.   That might be the only way I could maintain position in some situations, running the engines in reverse.

If the storm tracked as forecast, it would be east of here and our wind should be from the north.  But nobody really knows how these things are going to track until they've left their tracks behind them.

There are two visiting sailboats in the marina, both mono hulls and both American.  I think anybody with any sense is long gone by now, safe and snug wherever they plan to spend hurricane season.    And we all roped back to the pilings on the concrete.  There's a lot of rope in this photo.

Sure hope nobody was planning to duck into this spot unobstructed at the last minute.  That would cause some problems.   I'd say this slip is 'tied up at the moment'.

If you were accustomed to the clear water here, you'd notice immediately that the water coming in on this tide is not clear.  It's murky with stirred up sediments, and that looks even more ominous to us with the failing light.  The crystal clear water of the Turks and Caicos Islands has spoiled us.

The marina was mostly cleared out for this storm.  One of the Molasses Cat crew boats was taken out of the water, and the other was secured against the fuel dock.   Bob's sailboat Valhalla is tied in her usual and well-protected spot in the little short stub canal, and that boat on the left at the far end belongs to Flamingo Divers.  And there was one small power boat pulled up near us.

And there was us.    That white line crossing behind the power boat ( above) went to our aft port cleat. I had to splice two lines together to reach around that boat.  Our  mid boat  cleat  was tied to the floating dock,.  And the bow cleats to the vertical posts which are bolted to the concrete.  Oh yeah, we put some line out this time, Hanna.  And we used the stern anchor to pull the boat out away from the dock so it wasn't actually touching anything harder than the ocean.  At this point, Dooley the Doofus realized that something unusual was up.  This wasn't our typical Go-Work-on-the-Boat trip.   We spaced the boat out with fenders and lines and the anchor, we wanted a clear area around it to allow for some motion.

The boat was more or less suspended like a fly in a spider web.  But hopefully without the getting eaten part.   Come to think of it, I'm going to change that to suspended like a relaxed tourist in a hammock.    I like that one better than the dead fly analogy.   But nobody was relaxing in hammocks at our house on this weekend.

The skies were actively engaged in a quick and quiet slide into serious gray scale.   We could still see isolated patches of blue through the bands of thunderstorms approaching from the south east.   I was going to use the old 'calm before the storm' cliche' here, but my better judgement prevailed.  So I won't.  

The storm was planned to pass through the next morning.   We decided to sleep on board the boat in the marina for that whole Tropical Storm experience.  We were fairly confident that the chances of the house breaking up or sinking were pretty remote.   And if we were at the house we'd be  awake worried about the boat.  So the three of us spent the night aboard, listening to the wind through the rigging.   And the neighbor's halyard slapping against their mast all night.   Hey! I think that would be a good name for a bar:   The Slappy Halyard.  A bar name with a built in sobriety test. Perhaps it should stock Pheasant Plucker, which is a pure Highland single malt whisky.  An Aberdoonian once told me "When ye cannae prrronoonce it, ye should naelonger be drrinking it."

We crawled out early the next morning to realize that I had not finished hooking up the gas line to the rebuilt stove just yet.  It's on The List, too.  It just keeps getting bumped off the first page.  We've learned that boats often establish their own priorities for these things.  Proper liquid management is always near the top of the list. We strive to exclude uninvited water from inside the boat.  So we couldn't cook on the proper stove, or "hob" as the Brits sometimes call it.   We did have an alternative, and although not perfect, we did manage to boil water for coffee and a couple eggs each on a portable propane grill.    It takes forever to boil water like this.   Do you think it was because I was watching?

Bob has been out several days fighting a bad case of Chikungunya Fever, but he managed to rally long enough to be sure that area boaters without access to television or internet were aware of the storm's progress.

We made a last trip to the house to be sure everything that needed to be closed was closed before heading back down to the boat to ride out the storm.    We looked at the latest storm tracking map, and it was showing Bertha to be right out on the Caicos Bank, about 25 miles south east of us and headed our way on a dotted line that ran right over Pine Cay.   Strange feeling to be just a few miles from the cross hairs like that.

And we looked out the window to the south east, and sure enough...... here she comes.  Tropical Storm Bertha  headed for our patio.  I think WunderMap pretty much nailed that one.   This is not a rainbow headed our way.   This is the view directly to the south.

We grabbed a fistful of dry t-shirts, locked up the house and headed back to the boat.    I'm thinking that most people would lock up the boat and head for the house. Somewhere in there is a clue.  The wind picked up as predicted.  We were seeing gusts that I feel were well over 30 knots. South Side Marina's location protects us from every direction but the south.   So of course Murphy's wind clocked around to the south. All the dock lines we meticulously adjusted and worried about  led to the north  and were slack.  The only thing that was keeping that boat  off the dock was the stern anchor.   Good thing we put that in.  That anchor and a piece of string from the bow to the dock would have done it.  No kidding.  All the force was from aft.

 We got the whole Cecile B. DeMille Tropical Storm treatment.  Technicolor.  Sound Effects.  We had Howling Winds.We got Lightning Flashes.  We had Crashing Thunder that tickled the insides of my ears when the loose stuff inside my head vibrated to that bass.  Of course this totally shattered our pitiful hulk of a dog with  his ongoing psychological issues.   He stuck to our feet like wet socks. The water outside the marina was forming long waves and the wind keptt blowing the tops off of them.   The sky, the air, the sea, it was all the same color of angry looking gray randomly lit by lightning strikes reflecting off  the whites of Dooley's eyes.

It was great.  We watched the whole thing from inside the catamaran.   I went out  to check on lines between squalls.   Scrambled up onto the top of the cabin to jam some butyl putty on a leaking cable feed through next to the mast. I crawled around inside the boat looking for leaks to mark with blue tape and a felt tip marker.   It's hard to find a good driving rain when you need one.  This was like a hundred fire hoses and a wind tunnel.   This is the cleanest that boat's been in months.    

We didn't get a full fledged hurricane out of this storm and we're quite happy with that.  The thrill of that whole experience wore pretty thin some years ago.    But we did appreciate the value of the training we got by putting ourselves through this instead of just hauling the boat.  Now we know the types of decisions we may have to make the next time we find ourselves threatened.   Perhaps experiencing what the ocean is capable of tends to engender some level of respect for it's potential.  At least with the survivors.

The storm started abating by late afternoon on Sunday. We felt confident  that the worst was past us and went back to the house for a good night's sleep. We left the boat tied up and the anchor out.   Take that, Hanna.   The next morning we could see that Bertha was well to the north and turning into a hurricane without us.  We were okay with that, and after a leisurely breakfast on a real stove we went back to the marina.  In one hour  we undid the previous day's labor.   We pulled the  anchor and put all our lines back where they normally are.  By the next afternoon, things were clear and calm and back to abnormal.

And other than her brief mention for the next few days on the evening news,  that was the last we saw of Tropical Storm Bertha.