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The Two Captains

Electronic Bookshelf

To: Editorial@latitude38.com
From: Gwen Hamlin & Don Wilson (Photos by Bev of Seatacean you already have.
Sv Tackless II ? CSY 44 Walk-thru Cutter ? Homeport: St. Thomas, USVI
Puerto Don Juan, Sea of Cortez, MX

RE: Rewritten Article on Hurricane Preparation/Updated Post Hurricane Marty

Hurricanes in Baja: Fire Drills and the Real Thing

On August 20 we first heard (from Don of Summer Passage Radio ) about a tropical disturbance at 19N, 106W with conditions favorable for development. By August 23 it was officially Tropical Depression 9e, centered at 21.5N, 108W, about 135 miles SE of Cabo San Lucas. By the next day the storm had grown into Hurricane Ignacio, and its projected track had been shifted from up the outside of Baja to one that would carry it northwest right along Baja's eastern coast. In other words, right over the top of pretty near every cruiser summering in the Sea of Cortez !

Aboard Tackless II, there was no hesitation in our mutual agreement to hasten into the nearest hurricane hole. According to all the guidebooks, the 400-some mile stretch of Baja's summer cruising coast has but four acceptable hurricane holes: La Paz/Pichilingue, Puerto Escondido, tiny San Francisquito, and Puerto Don Juan. In our case Puerto Don Juan at the southern tip of Bahia Los Angeles (28*56.5'N, 113*26.9'W) was the closest. Our years in the Virgin Islands had given us more exposure to hurricanes and hurricane preparation than anybody could wish, and our first rule is: Get to the best and/or nearest hurricane hole you can, and get there as early as possible to be able to choose your position.

When we arrived in Puerto Don Juan we were the thirteenth boat in the anchorage. By the next morning that number had doubled, and in the end there were over thirty boats seeking refuge in this single bay. Puerto Don Juan is a nearly perfect hurricane hole. It is encircled by hills, the bottom is good, there are no unattended boats, nor are there any man-made objects ashore to fly though the air. Its sole flaw is that it is fairly deep. The average depth throughout the center is 30-40' depending on the tide, and the storm was due to pass over us on the day of the new moon when tides would be a full ten feet! Obviously, with that many boats -- each with its individual ground tackle capacity and theories, we were going to need a lot of coordinated effort to make the jigsaw puzzle of free-swinging boats fit. Equally obviously, there was a wide range of experience among the cruisers. Some had storm experience in the Pacific Northwest, a few boats had experienced Hurricane Juliet in 2001 here in the Sea, and almost all of us have had Chubasco experience in the preceding months. However, a half-hour of forty or fifty knot gusts is a far cry from 12 hours of 60+. Very few cruisers had really thought through all the preparations necessary to withstand a full-blown hurricane.

Archie of Seatacean proposed that we have a meeting on the beach of all the boat crews and asked if Don and I would speak about our experiences preparing for hurricanes. Don and I put together a checklist of the considerations that we would follow before and during a hurricane, and that formed the outline for a really good discussion, leading (amazingly) to a fairly general consensus of how to proceed.

By the morning of August 26, Ignacio had surprised observers by wiggling its way more westerly over land, a position that would rapidly deflate its force and a course that dealt only glancing blows (relatively speaking) on the cruising communities in La Paz and Puerto Escondido. Luckily for us, Ignacio's newly projected track would carry it out into the Pacific and away from BLA. A collective sigh of relief was definitely heard in Puerto Don Juan. Still, that morning, before any boats left, we held a follow-up net where we could all air our questions, comments and second thoughts. We dispersed hoping we'd had our scare for the season.

On September 19, less than four weeks later, Tropical Storm Marty jumped into being overnight from a ?disturbed area? intersecting with a tropical wave. It's location that morning was 17.5N 109W, about 330 miles South of Cabo San Lucas, looking then like it would track up the west coast of Baja. The next morning, however, it had stalled at 18N, 108W, and by the very next day, Sunday, it was Hurricane Marty and it was one day away from hitting La Paz dead on.

Unlike Hurricane Ignacio, Marty was moving fast. In a steady stream, cruising boats steamed back into Puerto Don Juan. Most of the twenty-five boats ? Tackless II, Seatacean, Lady Galadriel, Isla Encanto, Narwhal, Camira, Waking Dream, Nuestra Isla, Desire, Overheated, Aliikai Too, Crazy Crowhead, Milagro, Corazon de Acero, Djedara, Tyee, Quay Linn, Iwa, The ?Cs?, Peace Arrow, Camelot, Cristal Wind, Dos Brises, and ?on the hard? on the careening beach, the veteran catamaran Katherine Estelle ? had been there for Ignacio. This time there was less time for consultation, but thanks to our Ignacio Fire Drill, everybody knew what to do. Even though the forecast had Marty going ashore near Guaymas/San Carlos, all the boats in Puerto Don Juan followed Tackless II's second most important rule : PREPARE FOR THE WORST CASE SCENARIO. All the boats in Don Juan there had their headsails off, their mains cinched to the booms, canvas stowed, decks cleared, and dinghies lashed down or flooded.

Hurricane Marty hit La Paz dead on the morning of September 22 with winds up to 100 knots. By midday, Puerto Escondido was getting beaten up. By the evening nets, Santa Rosalia was feeling it. The last forecast of the day still called for Marty to make its second landfall near Guaymas/San Carlos and continue due north over the mainland. Everybody expected this to knock back the storm's strength quickly.

In Puerto Don Juan, we woke to winds building from the northeast about midnight. For the next five hours, the barometer plunged and winds of 40-50 knots -- shifting from NE to N to NW -- buffeted the boats. Obviously, the hurricane was coming much closer to us than predicted, passing between Isla Angel La Guarda and Isla Tiburon. Even so, at no time did we get seas much over a foot or two (well, maybe more, but it was dark!) in Puerto Don Juan. This is what a hurricane hole is supposed to do ? provide protection from building seas.

The next morning reports from all over the Sea of Cortez began flooding in. Every cruiser node the length of Baja and on the mainland in San Carlos suffered damage with docks broken up and boats sunk or grounded. In Puerto Don Juan we had NO Damage. NONE! We were in the right place and we were prepared. It's the most we can do.

Summary of Hurricane Preparation Considerations

Hurricane Ignacio Fire Drill

First Rule: Get to the best hurricane hole you can find. A good hurricane hole provides land barriers as close to 360 degrees around, and of course good holding. If the world were perfect, nobody else would be there with you! BUT, don't try to ?reinvent the wheel,? that is, outsmart or rethink the fundamental principles just because there will be other boats in the hole Unfortunately, as the number of cruisers summering in the Sea goes up, the pressure on what nature has provided us will also increase.

Second rule : Always prepare for the worst case scenario. Forecasters do the very best they can, but we are talking about weather. Big storms can miss you, and apparently small ones can hit the bull's eye. It is far, far better to go through the motions for nothing a dozen times, than to be caught unprepared.

Anchors, rode, scope and deployment strategies:

  • Deployment strategy: This was the most important, and yet the hardest, issue to come to a consensus on. Every sailor has different beliefs about what are the best anchor, the best rode, and the best strategy for anchoring in a storm. In the Virgin Islands, our preferred strategy is to stake ourselves out in the mangroves with, for example three to four anchors off the bow (or one side of the boat) and as many line as possible from the stern (or other side) tied into the trees. Obviously, that strategy is not available to us in Don Juan where there is almost nothing green, let alone mangroves! The strategies proposed were these:
  • Riding to a single anchor with one or two backups ready on deck
  • Riding to a single anchor, with a second anchor dropped at a 1:1 scope to help limit the swing.
  • Setting two anchors ?crowned? one behind the other on one rode
  • Setting two anchors at a 60-90 degree angle.

    The concerns most important in Puerto Don Juan were swing radius for thirty boats (in Ignacio) and sufficient scope for the depth. We proposed the setting of two anchors, which is the most second common strategy in the Virgin Islands to reduce the swing radius. Many people were concerned about the possible fouling of the two anchors, although during a hurricane, boats are likely to experience a 45-180 degree wind shift as the storm passes, as opposed to turning complete circles.

    Several people were keen on the idea of ?crowning? their anchors, that is, attaching one anchor behind another on the same rode to increase holding power. We don't remember anyone using this technique in the VI, but judging by conversations on the nets, it is popular on this side of the world. This seems a valid technique if the wind is expected from a constant anticipated direction. When a major wind shift is possible, however, it seemed to us that this system has a greater potential to foul than the two-anchor plan. Plus should the anchors begin to drag the nearer anchor could plow a furrow that the second one would fall into.

    On the basis that Ignacio was likely to be just at or even below hurricane force by the time it reached Don Juan, most boats opted for the single anchor strategy, either with the backups on deck or with a second anchor on 1:1 scope to help reduce ?tacking?. This pseudo-sentinel strategy seems to make particularly good sense for those boats on rope rodes or very light chain. If concerned about the chance of anchors fouling during a major wind shift, as might happen in the passing of the eye, one could always walk forward to retrieve the ?sentinel?anchor and when the shift has taken place, re-deploy it.

    In retrospect, Don and I agreed that our preference is still the two-anchor strategy. For Hurricane Marty, Don and I made point of getting a spot on the ?edge? of the anchorage, where we could go ahead and set our second anchor without causing a problem for those who chose to swing on one. The four boats nearest us also chose to set two anchors. Our ride through the storm was very smooth without as much ?tacking? as other boats reported.

  • Anchors : Every boat should have at least two and preferably three anchors that they can deploy., one of which should be an oversize ?storm? anchor. Ideally these anchors should be able to handle different bottom conditions. On Tackless II, we carry a 60lb CQR (heavy enough to be our storm anchor and reliable enough to be our primary (we have never dragged, knock wood), a 45# CQR in bow rollers, a Fortess #23 as a stern anchor and a Fortress 37 to assemble as a second storm anchor.

  • Rode : Each boat needs to have enough rode on board to achieve storm scope with two or three anchors. Obviously ?enough? will depend on the depth. Scope for hurricanes should be at least 10-12:1 for rope rodes and 7:1 for all chain. Most of the boats in Don Juan had all chain on one rode and chain with rope on their secondary.

  • Scope : Scope is the depth of the water + the height of the bow over the water + the tide. In Don Juan the average depth was fairly deep: 30-40 feet, and the tide on the day it was predicted to pass over was 10'. That meant a boat in 35' with a bow roller four feet above the water plus the tide using all chain should have about 350' of chain to deploy. (We had 290' available.) Many boats did not have near enough scope for the depth they found themselves in Don Juan. A way to increase the holding power (ie the horizontal pull) of shorter scopes is to add a weight, or sentinel, to the rode. Traditionally this is done with a weight that is attached to a rode so it can slide up and down the rode. It should be positioned about half way down the rode and be controlled by a pennant from deck. Jerry-rig sentinels could be spare anchors even dive weights hung from a shackle, but they must be attached in a way that does not produce chafe. One can buy ready-made sentinels or have a custom one welded together, but it does seem like a good thing for boats that don't have the space for sufficient rode to carry.

  • Setting your Anchor : Try to set your anchor in the direction that you expect your winds to come from. Set the anchor first with a normal (3:1 for chain) scope to ensure a good bite. Then deploy your storm scope. If you try to set your anchor with a full 7:1 scope, your chain may bury before the force ever reaches your anchor.

  • Lock down your helm : Once your anchor is set, be sure to center and lock down your rudder. Big seas can force your boat backwards, slamming the rudder over to its stops potentially breaking your steering cable or damaging your rudder.

  • Marking your Anchor : To mark or not to mark, that is the question. Marking your anchors does make it easier for the boats coming in after to you to know where you anchor lies. In Don Juan we had many wind shifts while the boats were getting settled, and anchors were often behind boats. HOWEVER, do NOT leave your anchor buoys on the surface through the storm in a crowded anchorage. Yes, it is nice to know you'll be able to easily find a lost anchor, but anchor buoys can become fouled in your neighbor's prop as he swings over your rode. A hurricane is not the time to have your anchor pulled out by the trip line. It is nice to imagine enough space for all the boats to swing fully, but it just isn't realistic. So, use a continuous line on your markers so you can remove them before the storm hit, or submerge them 10 feet below the surface.

  • Check your anchors : If possible, use scuba to visually check that your anchor is well set and that the bottom is good. Do this while you still have time to move to a different location. A scuba check on my anchors in Hurricane Bertha (USVI, 1996) stood me in good stead when I found my anchors in rubble. The boat that ended up in that spot at the eleventh hour dragged.

After these issues of anchoring, the checklist gets much easier!

  • Snubbers: All chain rodes should have one or more snubbers to help absorb the shock loading on the chain. (Links can actually stretch after 12 hours of hurricane tension!). Use dock lines as back-up snubbers attached to the rode with a rolling hitch below your primary snubber (rolling hitches must have tension on them. Chain rodes should be not left on the windlass, but cleated off, so that any shock (should a snubber fail) is not transferred to the windlass. Other cruisers had other systems for securing rodes on deck off the windlass, but several boats found themselves with no good way to even cleat off snubbers. A hurricane is not a great time to discover your deck cleats don't have backing plates!. (Lonnie of Tyee had a great set up for a chafe-free snubber, using a short piece of chain over the bow roller shackled to two pieces of the line on each end. The inboard piece is secured on deck while the outboard end can be changed out for different lengths as conditions warrant.)

  • Chafe Gear : Rope rodes and snubbers need to be protected by chafe gear. Fire hose is ideal, as is reinforced water hose. Be careful your chafe gear doesn't split and cause chafe!. In a storm, you can prevent chafe on your rope rode by repeatedly paying out more line a little bit at a time. This takes constant vigilance as a rode can chafe through very quickly.

  • Sails off or lashed : No ifs, ands or buts: in hurricane conditions, furling headsails should always come off and get stowed below. (Same goes for any boat stored in a hurricane zone.) It is too easy for the wind to get under a furled headsail, and the damage that results from an unfurled headsail in a storm, not just to itself, but to boats around it, is legendary. (The stories we told of the Virgin Islands were backed up with reports on the nets as Ignacio passed by La Paz. Despite counsel on this from our weather guru Don, there were still reports of headsails that got away. Incredibly, one month later, pictures of the devastation in La Paz from Marty showed many shredded headsails! One would at least hope these boats were unattended, but then one must ask, what were the owners thinking going away and leaving their headsails up during hurricane season!) If you can't get your mainsail, club-foot staysail or mizzen off easily, lash the sail in its cover tightly to the boom.

  • Booms, staysail booms and whisker poles : All spars should be tied down. An acquaintance of ours was killed in Hurricane Marilyn when his boom came loose while he was on deck.

  • Clear decks : All loose items on deck and attached to lifelines should be stowed below or lashed down. The cleaner you can make your decks the better. (Do NOT however get carried away and bring any fuel jugs below!)

  • Wind generators should be brought down if possible, or at least the blades removed. At the very least be sure they are tied down. (Don't even begin to fantasize about the amps you'd make in a hurricane!)

  • Solar panels should be removed when possible. In locations where there could be flying debris, those left in place should be covered.

  • Dinghies should not be left in davits. If you can't lash your dinghy to your foredeck, remove the outboard, deflate the pontoons to about half, and fill it with water so that it floats low in the water. Attach a backup painter and trail the dinghy well behind the boat, being sure to put chafe gear on the painters. Hard dinghies that aren't self-draining, would probably do best weighted down on shore high above the tide line. Those that are self-draining (like Whalers) can be anchored out like big boats.

  • Dog down tightly all hatches and ports. Low pressure can blow even dogged hatches open! (It happened to us.) Imagine what can happen if they aren't dogged down tight.

  • Remove all deck canvas, including bimini tops. Depending on the strength of forecast winds, some people may decide to gamble with leaving up a well-found dodger for protection in the cockpit. We did in Marty, but in stronger conditions, it should come off. ( Tackless II has a hard top which we cross-tied down to the genoa tracks and stanchions.)

  • Reduce windage aloft : Halyards, flag halyards, lazy jacks and radar reflectors may seem negligible in calm conditions, but they can add up to a lot of resistance up high where you don't want it. Tackless II has six external halyards, lazy jacks, and two flag halyards all of which are normally secured to pin rails at the shrouds. In a severe storm situation we would run out all but the main halyard, which we could use after the storm to put all the other halyards back. This is a particularly important consideration if you are storing your boat on the hard. As don likes to say, ?Make your boat as small as possible.?

All these steps should be paced out over the time preceding the hurricane's approach. If you do them all five days before the storm comes, and it turns before reaching you, then you are less likely to do all that you should the next time. On the other hand, when a storm is moving fast like Marty, hustle!

During a storm : We suggested that the group select a frequency to monitor during the storm so that everyone could keep in touch. In Hurricane Marty many of us appreciated the chat on Ch. 05. Lonnie of Tyee kept us all abreast of his plunging Vetus Digital Baroscope.

We also reminded people to have their life jackets handy, and to use them whenever they go on deck to check chafe. It's hard to imagine during high summer in Baja, but the driving rain of a hurricane can be freezing, so plan on breaking out that foul weather gear.

A good way to help relieve the pressure on one's anchors is to drive the boat into the wind, being careful not to actually ?make way.? You do not want to create slack and give the wind the chance to drive the boat back with a jerk. Keep a mask and snorkel handy; it can really help you see and breathe in heavy conditions on deck.

Should the worst happen : Nobody likes to talk about what to do when the worst happens. If the boat is dragging, the engine can't help, and your emergency anchors don't grab, stay with the boat. Even if the boat drags ashore, in most cases it is still the safest place to be until water actually starts coming in. You may choose, as Jerry of Mirador did in Puerto Refugio, to try to control WHERE the boat goes ashore. It worked for him. Whatever happens, unless the boat is sinking under you, do not jump overboard into the water. No matter how bad it may seem, in the drink is worse. Once the boat has come ashore, if you can get out safely, do so. Very important: Take your ditch bag, with your passports, documents, insurance papers and money with you, as wells as ready-to-eat food, water, medications, clothes and rain gear. Roberto and Leslie of Spirit Healer were on the beach nearly two days in Puerto Refugio before they could be gotten off by Jim of Kula. Even in warm Baja, that's a lot of exposure.

Important notes :

  • Before you find yourself summering in a hurricane risk area, be sure you understand the gamble you are taking. Although La Paz is considered in the ?safe zone? by insurance companies, obviously that is no guarantee. Familiarize yourself with the weather patterns and probabilities of the area you are in. There is a reason so many boats try to be as far north in the Sea during the high risk months of September and October. Be sure you know the particulars about the hurricane holes you can run to BEFORE there is a threat.
  • If you store your boat in a hurricane zone (i.e ALL of the Sea of Cortez, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, do not leave it unattended without taking all of the above precautions?even if you leave it in June!
  • Remember, even if you do everything right, you can still lose. If you chose not to carry insurance, understand you are gambling it all. At the very least, be sure you have Mexican liability insurance.
  • Finally, as important as a checklist like this is for preparing for a hurricane, it is not much good if you don't have the equipment aboard. Therefore this list ought to be useful to sailors just now equipping their boats to come cruising in Mexico. A ?benign cruising area? Mexico may be, but it seems bad stuff can happen.

Gwen Hamlin and Don Wilson were successful charter captains in the Virgin Islands on Tackless II and her predecessor/sistership Whisper. They have prepared for more than a half dozen hurricanes both in the water and on the hard. They left the Virgins to go cruising (and to escape hurricanes) in 1999 and have traveled through the Eastern and southern Caribbean, the coast of Colombia to the Panama Canal, south to Ecuador, out to the Galapagos, back to Panama via Cocos, and north to Mexico through Central America. They are enjoying their second summer in the Sea of Cortez. Their extensive website can be found at www.thetwocaptains.com.



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