Sailing through a hurricane

Caught in a hurricane

When I completed the sales transaction and took ownership of my Catalac 8M, I was hundreds of miles from home. I couldn’t wait to bring her home and put out a call to friends and family for crew. I accepted my brother’s gracious offer to give me a hand. He has a solid power boat backround these days and when we were kids we spend every minute we could in boats on Long Island Sound and the north Atlantic, and we both survived it. At the time, I really thought he’d enjoy the trip, as this was Florida. Tropical breezes and all that. What’s not to like? In retrospect, my brother didn’t fully appreciated the max speed under power of 6.5 knots we achieved with Catalpa. I still picture him shoving the throttles to their stops, with a quizzical look on his face when she didn’t go any faster (“…wadda ya mean she doesn’t plane?…”). 

My brother Gary at the helm

At any rate, the trip began in mid August ( yep … temp was 98 degrees F), at Glades Boat Storage in La Bell, FL. La Bell is in south central Florida, on the Okeechobee canal about 1/2 way between Lake Okeechobee and Fort Meyers. The plan was to launch the boat and head east, motoring on the canal, through lake Okeechobee, onto the St. Lucie river, arriving at the Port St. Lucie Lock in 48 hours, and then a casual sail home the next day on the Intracoastal Waterway. Sounds simple, right? 

Well, it wasn’t so easy. Who knew that a simple delivery would turn out to be the adventure of a lifetime? For the record, I did read the Coast Guard’s “Notice to Mariners” before we left, but how was I to know that periodic water releases from a dangerously high Lake Okeechobee translates into a 7 knot current on our bow? (It wasn’t my fault, honest!) So, after 3 days of traveling in miserable Florida August weather, with 104 degree temperatures with 100% humidity and a broken refrigerator, a load of bad diesel fuel, clogged fuel filters, zillions of mosquitoes and 7 knot currents at times on our bow, and having to be towed by a power boat into a lock … I’m afraid that tempers were flaring by the time we reached the St. Lucie lock in Stuart, FL. You can sort of picture this trip like the movie ‘Deliverance” except those wimps didn’t have alligators.

Lake Okeechobee

By the way, I’m here to tell you that yes, it’s possible to be at full speed and actually travel backwards against a 7 knot current with a sail boat!! Catalpa made the trip in fine shape, however my brother wasn’t thrilled with the ordeal (I mean…adventure), although I’m not sure if it was his heat exhaustion, the bee stings, the mosquito bites (did I mention we traveled through what is basically the Everglades? No?, well I sort of forgot to mention it to him as well), no cold drinks (do Germans really drink warm beer?), or being on what’s definitely “not a powerboat”, which contributed to his disposition.

Hurricane Katrina

You could say that we ran out of time or, you could say that my brother finally jumped ship (boy do I hate it when they escape like that) and I had to leave the boat at a public marina on the St. Lucie River, just west of the Port St. Lucie Lock. This was about 75 miles south of my destination and 110 miles south of where I live, but I figured I could find a new crew (it would be OK.. no Everglades this time) and bring her the rest of the way home the following weekend. But…it wasn’t to be… As they say “the best laid plans of mice and men…”. 

The Everglades

From out of nowhere, a hurricane named Katrina decided to take aim at south Florida on it’s way to devastating New Orleans. This hurricane formed very suddenly directly over the Bahamas, and gave almost no warning at all to eastern Florida. The National Hurricane Center was now predicting that Katrina was going to roll right over where I had docked the boat!! Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obviously, if I planned on still owning a boat,  I had better get my butt in gear and do something.

After listening to the latest hurricane update, I figured we barely had time (notice I said we?….oh honey, got a minute?) to make it out of the path of the storm, but only if we acted immediately. So, with the National Hurricane Center website up for updates on the storm track,  I grabbed a map and calculated that if we could get underway and head north on the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) to a protected anchorage about 40 miles north of Stuart, in Vero Beach by nightfall the boat should be fine. I figured we could make it to our marina in Melbourne, FL the following afternoon, just as Katrina came ashore. So, that was the plan and at dawn the following morning I headed south, directly into the path of the Hurricane.

Manual Swing Bridge – Rim route

We begged a ride to Port St. Lucy and as we arrived at the marina, the winds were already clocking at 25 mph with 35 mph gusts. There was a power problem at the marina and they took forever to settle the bill, so we didn’t untie the boat until noon. I took advantage of the delay and called City Dock at Vero Beach to reserve a slip and tell them we were on our way. It took 30 minutes to clear the Port St. Lucie lock, and another 3 hours before we made the turn onto the ICW in Stuart Harbor because of a delay waiting for one of the bridges to open for us. We said a prayer, and headed north on the ICW. 

Conditions were what we expected. There was a small craft advisory posted, with gusting winds and a violent chop. The ICW is a protected waterway, but even so, in a short time 3-4 foot chop developed and the wind was from the NE, which was almost on the bow. At least there wasn’t any traffic as it looked like we were the only boat on the water. I had the sails down and both diesels at cruising speed. My GPS indicated we were making 6mph SOG but it was already 3:30PM, and because of the delays, there was no way we would make it to Vero Beach before nightfall. Unfortunately, we had run out of other options. By 6:00PM, the rain squalls in the outer bands of the hurricane began to catch us. Let me just say that you’d have to experience this to appreciate it. Suddenly visibility is reduced to 50 yards, with rain directly in our faces driven by 40 mph gusts. The boat is taking the chop on the starboard bow with enough force to cover us in spray. It was stimulating to say the least, and fatiguing, as hour after hour we plodded north away from the approaching storm. We began switching helm duty as the day wore on, as it didn’t take long for conditions to take a toll on us. We learned a couple of valuable lessons. First, I needed a helm seat, (Yep I bought one) and 2nd I learned the futility of trying to outrun a hurricane in a sailboat.As night fell, we were just short of Vero Beach, FL. It was pitch black, with horizontal rain and winds gusting to 50 mph directly in our faces. The ICW widens here and the fetch allowed the wave action to build to 6 footers. I glided under the causeway bridge and eased into the anchorage. By this time we were soaked to the skin and must have looked like a couple of drowned rats. I was struggling to see, using the GPS to guide us from channel marker to marker and using our 1,000,000 candle power spotlight to identify them. Only a sailor knows what it’s like to enter a strange anchorage in the dead of a moonless night in steady 50 mph winds and rain slanting in right in our faces. Let me say that the GPS made it possible to safely arrive at the City dock at Vero Beach, where we ignored the slip we were assigned, and tied up right at the fuel dock with doubled up dock lines and 4 fenders rigged as insurance. We were utterly and completely exhausted. We barely had enough energy to take showers before we collapsed and immediately fell asleep while the wind was howling through our rigging. 

St. Lucie River

We were up before dawn, anxious to get underway as the winds were brisk and gusting and the sky was black as night and seemed to have no intention of allowing the sun to come up. We hurriedly gobbled down a breakfast bar with a cup of black coffee graciously offered by the guys at the City Dock, as we watched the Hurricane update on their TV. There was a slight shift in Katrina’s path to the south during the night!! We were out of danger, but it was going to be a bumpy ride home. We left the dock at 7:00AM and headed north, in 3-4 foot chop and 50 mph steady winds which gusted to over 60 mph. In each gust we watched our boat speed slow as the wind was on our nose and catamarans aren’t exactly aerodynamic. Condition did improve as the day wore on, as we were heading north and the hurricane was bending to the south. Every hour we put more and more distance between us and the approaching storm. We arrived at her new home in Melbourne, FL in early afternoon without incident just as Katrina came roaring ashore in South Florida. In reviewing the trip I can honestly say that the boat was level and stable the entire trip and overall she performed flawlessly. I feel like I’ve made a good choice in selecting a catamaran. Especially selecting a Catalac 8M!!


By Rick

Owner of a Catalac 8M and Catamaransite webmaster.

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