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This is the story of our brush with Hurricane Elsa.
When we planned to move to St Vincent and the Grenadines, we knew the volcano was active. We never expected at all that we would see that volcanic eruption with our own eyes, and clear up the ash that fell.
When we planned to still be here in early July, we knew it was hurricane season. But, based on history and research, we knew it was very unlikely that we could possibly experience a hurricane.
If there’s one thing that life in the tropics is teaching us, it’s to expect the unexpected.
The lowdown on hurricanes, and boats
If you’re one of our friends sailing the Caribbean, we’re teaching our granny to suck eggs with this explanation. This is more for the benefit of landlubbers…
In the Atlantic, the hurricane season officially lasts from 1 June to 30 November. This is the period when warm air coming from Africa can form into tropical waves, then tropical depressions, which are carried by the trade winds to the Caribbean. At this point of the year, we’re experiencing 1-2 tropical depressions a week.
Usually, this far south that just means some rain and unpredictable wind. As we’ve found recently, it also often means annoyingly calm water, which means boats can swing around. In general, unless we have plans to sail we like them as it brings some variety to the otherwise samey weather.
Occasionally, these tropical depressions will strengthen and pick up pace, and become a tropical storm. If they become even stronger, with sustained wind speeds of over 75MPH, they become a hurricane.
Typically, because of the trade winds, storms and hurricanes end up arriving in the Caribbean within a certain latitude, and then they travel north. This latitude changes with each season, but typically Barbados, Saint Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, and Trinidad and Tobago are little affected, if at all. Hurricanes will either make landfall further north and follow the trades to Florida or will fizzle out somewhere in the mid-latitudes of the Atlantic.
Insurance for boats varies, but many insurers use latitude on policies. Basically, get your boat either below or above a certain latitude (it varies by year/company/location, but the broad range is 8º to 20ºN). Bequia sits at 13ºN. For practical reasons, and based on historical data, many people take the southern coast of Grenada, around a degree further south, as a safe bet. It has only had a direct hit 5 times since records began, though Hurricane Ivan in 2004 was devastating, and still put some people off staying there.
Our insurance doesn’t work on a latitude policy, it works on the basis of named storms. Basically, if a named storm affects us, we aren’t insured.
The probability of being hit
In St Vincent and the Grenadines, where we are now, the chances of being affected by a hurricane, or even a named storm, are very low.
A little research on HurricaneCity shows that the last time a hurricane directly hit St Vincent was in 2010. Before that, it was 1980. Since records began in 1886, only 7 hurricanes have made landfall in St Vincent and the Grenadines. All of those took place between August and October. Of course, brushes or storms happen more frequently, on average every 3 years, but statistically speaking these peak in September.
We’re very familiar with, even in the UK, checking the hurricane news regularly through September. We’ll never forget our friend Mick posting updates from the eye of Irma as it ravaged the British Virgin Islands in 2017. But we rarely think about it before mid-August or so…
So, like many other cruisers, we were happy staying in Bequia until June or July. We would happily have moved on a little sooner, but we’re waiting for our barrel (currently sitting in a container in Kingstown waiting to be unloaded). The chances of being affected by a hurricane were so low we didn’t think twice about not giving ourselves a strict deadline.
An unprecedented event
Hurricane season for 2021 is predicted to be a particularly active one. But here at 13ºN, people are still relaxed at this time of year. Not to mention still heavily focused on recovering from the effects of the LaSoufriere volcanic eruption on 9 April.
Early last week, we knew we were expecting two tropical depressions in the few days ahead of us. The second, expected on Friday, was to be worse than the first. We have a stern anchor down to stop us swinging about, and we keep some extra dried food on board in case we’re confined by rain or rough seas. That’s about it for our general preparedness.
By Wednesday evening, we were being pummeled by the first wave. Steady rain meant our diving lesson was called off, and by 5pm a tropical storm watch had been issued but we still went ashore to meet our friend Kathy for dinner. As we ate at Sailors Cafe, thunderstorms and rain persisted, and we pondered what was ahead. We locked up the hatches extra tight that night. As we slept, the tropical wave was upgraded to a tropical depression.
By the time we woke up at 5am on Thursday 1 July, the storm had a name. Its name was Elsa. Given this is what most people *think* my name is, I wasn’t too impressed.
An escape plan
We were now officially under a warning for Tropical Storm Elsa, the earliest known fifth named storm in the Atlantic Basin since 1966. If we had any damage, we wouldn’t be covered by insurance. Our mooring is very close to shore. It’s great in the normal ENE winds, but if a cyclone passed north the winds would circle and come from the west, blowing us towards the shore in a spot known for breaking waves in westerlies. We considered moving to anchor at Princess Margaret Beach, but it would still leave us exposed to some unpleasant swell and close to the centre of a storm.
Friends in Bequia have questioned why we decided we needed to leave, but Mirounga is our home. It’s also our savings. If we lost the boat, we would have lost our house and our financial stability. It was a risk we couldn’t take.
Elsa was a fast-moving storm, so we decided our best bet was to take a half-day off from work and get the hell out of Dodge.
Colin prepared for a sail while Ailsa finished a couple of deadlines, then soon after 9am we were on our way. It was a fast, comfortable sail, with no adverse weather and not even too much swell. Still, we were pensive and didn’t play music or talk much. We didn’t know what to expect.
As I raced up and down the deck preparing lines and fenders, things felt eerily calm. It was a relief to see Davidson appear in his tender to pilot us into our mooring. At first, the yacht club looked deserted. We passed where we would usually dock, 50 yards from the showers, and crept slowly further and further into the marina.
And then, we turned a slight bend to see the happiest sight. A couple of dozen boats holed up in the most sheltered spot, at the far end of the marina. Friends, people we had shared beach yoga and beers with and hadn’t seen in weeks. Familiar faces waving hello.
Whatever we were about to go through, we wouldn’t go through it alone.
Once we were safely moored and had had our temperature check we checked in and did some supermarket shopping. Then we started to prepare Mirounga as best as we could.
We’ve never done this before. We really didn’t have a great idea what to do. But a logical first step was removing anything loose on deck and taking down the bimini. Luckily the latter folds away easily, so we did that and tied it so it couldn’t catch any wind. We tidied all sheets so they were secure, and made a guess at how to set our dock lines. I wrapped and soaped lines that would chafe. We checked all hatches were tightly closed.
We took down all of our flags. The half-varnished new cockpit table was wrapped in hefty bags. Colin lashed the dinghy tight to its davits and removed its plugs so it could drain if needed. We taped down any covers on instruments, and of course, kept a close eye on the news.
A helping hand
As I was walking back from the shower block in the early evening, the marina manager Sheldon offered me a lift in his golf cart. Like me, Sheldon is from Kelso (albeit the one in South Africa!), so we hit it off. I mentioned that we weren’t that confident about our dock lines, and didn’t have many compared to others. Without hesitation, Sheldon offered to help us figure it out. He made some quick adjustments, explaining his reasoning throughout so I know for the future. We switched lines so we could adjust them without having to step onshore. Then he retrieved a few more lines from storage.
By the time Colin returned from his shower, we were securing a big heavy line to the opposite shore. This would hold us off the dock when the wind changed. With Colin’s help, we added extra spring lines to the bow. By the end of it, we had 9 lines to the dock, and Mirounga looked like a fat spider in a web. We were barely moving an inch.
Sheldon’s last word was a reassurance that we could call for help on VHF 68 if we needed it. If things got scary, he was a quick radio away and he’d come to take us to shelter on land.
With nothing more we could do, we joined our fellow cruisers at Scruffy’s Bar for dinner. It was a strange jovial atmosphere – we were all nervous, and at a loss as to what more we could do. All we could think to do was eat, drink, and talk. It was great to catch up with friends from Bequia (SV Lupine, SV Nari Nari, SV Turtle, SV Gina Lee, and SV Kindred Spirit).
It was an early night, thankfully as we still had work planned for Friday. The rain was just starting to fall as we walked back to Mirounga. We locked our door with its heavy steel bar, and Colin climbed back in through the hatch of our cabin. The only hatches we kept open were in our cabin, where we could close them quickly.
I couldn’t fall asleep, wondering what I’d forgotten. Of course, it was obvious – I hadn’t made go bags! I jumped out of bed and rushed around packing our laptops, boat papers, passports, shoes, warm clothing, a torch, wallets, chargers, battery boxes, and of course my hip flask of rum. I fell asleep easier knowing that if we had to jump out of our cabin hatch in sleepwear our bags with everything we needed were right there.
We had a predictable broken night of sleep. Mirounga juddered in her web of mooring lines from time to time, and it rained on and off. It wasn’t too wild though. We felt safe.
When we woke up for work, things were grey and wet, but not too wild. The weather forecast on Ventusky had the eye of the storm passing pretty much straight over us. I worked from the boat for a while then in the calm before the storm I walked to the plaza at 7:30.
The reception staff had given me a key to the Sandy Lane lounge, so I had a comfortable place on land to work from. I had barely arrived when the news came out that Elsa had become a category 1 hurricane. Colin decided it was best to stay with Mirounga just in case.
The weather alternated between an eerie calm and heavy rain. With Foxy Jack’s next to the lounge closed I had to walk back to the shower block to use the bathroom, so I, unfortunately, got a good soaking when I mistimed a trip. My morning was spent feeling pensive and chilly, but it was at least productive. It got far better when Colin sent a care package along with trousers, a jumper, biscuits, and a flask of hot tea.
I couldn’t stop looking at the news. Barbados was hit for the first time in a long while. And around me, the plaza buildings were being boarded up in precaution. I stayed until around 11:40 – the water in the marina was now churning, and the rain was being blown in from the south. I didn’t want to prevent the workmen from boarding up the glass doors and windows of the lounge, so I made a dash for it in my raincoat. Luckily said raincoat is bright orange so I hadn’t gone far before someone spotted me to give me a lift back to Mirounga.
Then all we could do was hole up indoors and wait for the weather to pass.
By 2pm, 6 hours hours after Elsa became a hurricane, the local warning was downgraded back to a tropical storm.
The eye of a hurricane passed over us, and it was all more boring than you’d think. Typically the worst of the weather is to the north of the eye. We did hear of some roofs being blown off in Barbados and St Vincent, but on the whole, for the southern Caribbean at least, Elsa wasn’t too dangerous. We’re hoping the same is the case as she continues, but sadly she’s already caused three deaths in Saint Lucia and the Dominican Republic. Thankfully the centre weakened back to a tropical storm before hitting Cuba and Jamaica and hopefully weakens further before reaching the west coast of Florida.
The rest of Friday was spent avoiding the rain. We got a little tank filling done at least. Otherwise, we just curled up and read, napped, and checked the news.
By early evening people were taking walks to get some exercise off their boats. Having walked plenty in the morning I felt no such need. A lazy day was nice. A small craft warning was still expected to be in place until Sunday so we knew we were staying put.
By the evening we were confident that the worst of the weather had passed us. We almost wondered if the bars might be open but given the Government had advised all non-essential businesses to close we were sure they wouldn’t be. We at least had some fizz with our packet truffle mac and cheese dinner.
Rebuilding and celebrating
Saturday dawned bright and beautiful. You really wouldn’t know that a hurricane had grazed us. We wandered along to the plaza to see if the bakery was open and already all the boards were gone from the windows. We were delighted to find Foxy Jack’s open, so we sat down to brunch in our favourite spot. It felt so good to enjoy a cappuccino in the sun, with calm water ahead.
Like everyone else, we spent a couple of hours putting Mirounga back to rights. Her bimini came back up, and we hoisted her flags once again. By mid-afternoon, everyone was drinking cocktails in the pool, and there was a party atmosphere. We were celebrating Barrett’s 50th birthday, one I’m sure she won’t forget.
The night was spent back at Scruffy’s, which was filled with both cruisers and locals. Everyone was in high spirits. By 11pm most people had called it a night, including Colin and the birthday girl, but I was having a great time. The music picked up and the night at the pub became a dance party. With Covid and approaching middle-age, dance parties are rare in my life. It’s been a couple of years. So leaping and grooving around for a couple of hours with Marie and Steven from SV Turtle was one of those “best night ever” nights. The kind where you end up sweaty and with hearts for eyes, hugging new friends and feeling invincible.
Back to Bequia
Thankfully I switched to water early enough to feel mostly invincible the next day. Almost. The squeaky dock line had me crawling into the forepeak cabin in the wee hours and in my hunt for a blanket I fell. Hard. Survived a hurricane but defeated by mistiming a step inside my own boat. It hurts to sit down now but it was worth it.
We swung by the bakery and had another coffee at Foxy Jack’s chatting to Barrett and Ray, then checked out. Sandy Lane Yacht Club came through for us again – they kept us safe and protected, and we had a great time despite the bizarre circumstances. And now we can confidently say that it’s a great hurricane hole for anyone in St Vincent and the Grenadines to aim for.
Our sail back to Bequia was slow and against what wind there was, but 5 hours later we were back outside Mac’s in Admiralty Bay. We’re finishing up our open water diving course this week, then as soon as we have our barrel we’re heading south again for good.
First stop? Sandy Lane of course. I think we owe Sheldon a drink…