The following is an article Wendy and I wrote for Coastal Cruising Magazine. The many typos and spelling mistakes are contributed to the magazine editing staff. We never write without a spell checker...…
SURVIVING HURRICANE ANDREW
Strap yourself into your armchair.
This may be the most important survival story you will ever read!
Story and photos by Joe Berta
When we decided
to cruise Bahamian waters in the summer of 1992, we knew well that we might run
into some nasty tropical storms or maybe even meet one of nature's dreaded
whirlwinds, but we studied the weather patterns and placed most of our faith in
past averages. We knew we would receive a good forecast each day from WOM on
single sideband, and we thought we could always steer away from a hurricane if
we had to. After all, they travel only about 50 per cent faster than our own
cruising speed… Then, when mid August rolls around, when the storms become more
frequent and pack more moisture and strength, we would head back to Florida we
So, what's wrong with this thinking? For years prior to '92 we have gotten away with it. But, during this one particular tropical summer cruise, we found out that there are no averages and no dependable storm tracks nature adheres to. And, how easily a slow boat's skipper can be fooled into a compromising situation and really have no place to run to.
We left Eleuthera early in August to return to the States, but in between we
stopped and spent time around the Berry Islands. Chub Cay was a favorite
destination for us. Although we mostly anchor out, the club had good facilities,
a store, and the staff was great. We knew where all the lobsters were hiding,
there was lots of conch and fish, and Wendy's pet nurse shark always showed up
at the sound of our dinghy on the flats.
And then came Andrew.
On the 19th of August he was a tropical storm, near 19.02º N and 59.05º W, packing 50-knot winds and moving WNW at 20 knots. By now I could almost recite Sallie Townsend and Virginia Ericson's eight pages on hurricanes from their book Boating Weather.
While a hurricane is in tropical waters, it is influenced by the northeast trade winds and moves toward the west or west-northwest at a speed of about 10 to 15 knots, but "... it is difficult to make accurate predictions concerning the paths of hurricanes .... "
While I was sipping on a can of Budweiser outside the commissary, someone made the statement that, "T. S. Andrew is moving too fast, he'll lose strength and die out at sea." Another cruiser with experience suggested that it was too early in the season. Ha! I knew that Andrew was getting too close for comfort, but not close enough to know which way to run. A maddening predicament…
On August 22nd, Andrew was upgraded to Hurricane status, and was sticking to the usual WNW direction. Bahama's commercial radios were predicting the edge of the storm to brush the Abacos, but only tropical storm force winds would be expected. In other words, the center of the storm would not pass within 30 miles of land, if movement to the NW continued.
At this point, we thought Chub Cay would fall in the "navigable semicircle," where the prevailing terrestrial winds, opposing the counter-clockwise direction of the storm's own winds, would make things less violent. Where you do not want to be, besides the center, is the right or "dangerous semicircle", where the terrestrial winds are added to the storm's winds.
So, going north was out of the question, especially since we heard from a Miami news broadcast that North Palm Beach would be in the way of the storm's track. Going to Miami would not put us further south than Chub Cay, but would present a problem finding shelter for the boat when everyone else was looking for one, and I thought, if things started flying around, at least at Chub there were fewer people, fewer boats, and certainly fewer buildings to come apart and land on top of us.
The one alternative was Andros Island, with which I was totally unfamiliar. Running ahead of a storm, moving almost twice our hull speed to an island I had never been to before, and looking for a good hole to put into, was a scary proposition.
I knew the Chub Cay area very well however, and still believing that the eye would pass outside of the 30-mile radius of us, I elected to stay put.
I had picked our way into Mamma Rhoda Channel a few times before, when the
anchorage was rolling too much. I thought we could put out anchors and tie off
to the mangroves there and be alone, away from flying debris. Or, we could put
into the marina basin, which I figured would be a snug little hole without much
surge, but surrounded with frame buildings that definitely could go flying.
What I did not know, was that Andrew had gone as far north as he was going to go for now, and was taking a due west course. I was sure I had heard on WOM about the high pressure system situated north of us offshore in the Atlantic, but it completely escaped me to put the two together, and realize that the high would block Andrew's northward progress altogether. Excellent proof of a little knowledge being dangerous! It came down to making the decision whether to put into the channel or the marina.
At noon, on the 22nd, l took the dinghy in and tied it up in front of the commissary. Adjacent to the store was an all steel structure used for weighing in the gamefish that Chub Cay Club was famous for. Beside it, was a shaded structure with a picnic table and bench seats, kind of like a gathering place for the boaters and a siesta-time hangout for the staff. Tall tales were spun on a regular basis here by the guides and crews of sportfishing boats, and heated discussions on politics and religion were carried on by the handful of locals. It was a wonderful place, where you needed no invitation, no matter how large or small your boat was.
The day's noontime topic was Andrew, and I needed advice on how the Channel would be in the storm. Two elderly men showed me how to pick my way in there last winter. I was advised against Mamma Rhoda Channel in view of the surge that would come through unobstructed. If Seadream IV ended up aground or too far in the mangroves, the controlling depth of the channel would prevent the entry of a big enough vessel to winch us back into deep water.
At 1500 hours, we put into the marina basin. A steady procession of fast and expensive sportfishing boats was leaving for Lauderdale as fast as the crews could be flown in. The 56-foot yacht Sea Sharp, from Miami, was tied to the newest face dock with the best pilings. Shortly before dark, her skipper decided to move the boat to Great Harbour, at the other end of the Berry Islands. For some reason he was back the next day; nevertheless, I ended up with that good face dock, which I think was the only one strong enough to hold our heavy trawler.
The club's plan was to evacuate the staff to Nassau the next morning. That evening, the sailing vessel Windsong pulled in and docked beside us on the inside. Next to them, but spaced apart, were two other sailboats, whose crews were not present.
As we worked away preparing our boats, a friendly atmosphere built between us and the only other crew on the dock aboard Windsong-- her skipper, Randle Hare, a commercial airline captain, his brother Rabbit Sr, a retired fighter pilot, Randle's son-in-law, a crop duster from Kansas, and Rabbit Jr., a journalist from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
This was not a timid bunch, which of course helped keep our spirits in high gear. They also helped in securing Orion, whose elderly skipper had evacuated on the last flight to Miami.
Wendy, the "great white underwater lobster hunter," scared us up a bunch of those tasty critters, and we celebrated a late cocktail hour as if we had not a care in the world.
At 0500 the next morning reality started to sink in. We still had our shore power and cable TV hook up, and the satellite pictures from the National Hurricane Center in Miami did not look good. Andrew took a liking to us and was headed straight for us!
By 1100, they were starting to evacuate some of the Florida Keys and South Miami. The Bahamas Radio Network had pre-empted all programming and was broadcasting evacuation orders and shelter locations. Chub Cay was deserted except for us, the Hares, and two policemen who volunteered to stay and look after things. There was also a 40' sportfisherman, still tied up across the basin at one of the club's private docks. We ran into her skipper and first mate that morning and asked if they were staying. "Definitely," they replied adding their opinion that, "it's better here than anywhere in Florida." They said they were entrusted to look after the boat and that was exactly what they were going to do. They'd weathered hurricanes before and they knew what to expect. After hearing horror stories about hired crew, I have much respect for these two gentlemen. They stayed aboard and adjusted lines when they could. It was the only boat Andrew failed to put a scratch on.
Around noon, a sailboat about 38 feet long tied up at the fuel dock. Rabbit and I were talking about taking "before" pictures when her skipper casually approached us asking if we heard of a "storm coming or something?" Somewhat baffled by his nonchalance, I replied, "Well, we have hurricane Andrew approaching".
"Andrew?" he said with disbelief, "I thought he was long gone north and had blown himself out!"
We filled him in on the latest, which by now was a Category-4 storm and still strengthening. The skipper and crew then tied up at the finger docks in front of the restaurant.
Our last arrival was a 50-some-foot beautiful old wooden cruiser with USVI registry. Her owner, a soft spoken, big Texan had obviously put years of painstaking care into this lovely lady, and did everything in the short time he had to protect her.
By 1300 on August 23rd, Andrew was blowing 145 MPH and was located at 25.4º N and 75.0º W. At 1630 he was at 25.5º and 75.3º with maximum sustained winds of 150 MPH. It appeared that he was still strengthening but moving a little North. Bahamas radio predicted a landfall on Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. By 1800, he was back down to 25.4º N latitude and staying there. Advancing at 14 MPH, with sustained winds of 155 MPH, he was 5 MPH away from being upgraded to a Category-5 storm which is the highest rating for a hurricane. On Miami's TV-10, they were predicting the strongest hurricane to make landfall on the U.S. East Coast in 50 years.
Our coordinates put us less than 6 miles from the predicted path of the storm's center. The eye of the vortex was over 9 miles in diameter, which put us 3 miles or so within the eye, and into the "dangerous semicircle."
One of the policemen had stopped by and brought to our attention that the strongest building on the island was the chapel, and advised us all to use it as the designated shelter in case we did not wish to stay aboard our vessels. We made a close inspection of the building. Randle's son-in-law was also a building contractor, thus he became our resident shelter inspecting expert.
Erected in 1987, the Chub Cay Chapel was certainly well put together. A concrete block structure on poured concrete floors and heavy duty plexiglass windows all the way around. The roof, our biggest concern, was given a big thumbs up by our expert -- two-ply tongue-and-groove plywood and asphalt shingles, all securely hooked into the walls to prevent a liftoff.
I still felt I would rather trust the boat, and stay on board, but I had Wendy pack our backpacks with documents and money, the Sony All Band, our best flashlight, the hand held VHF and the Magellan GPS. I don't know why the GPS, I guess I thought if we lost the boat we'd have something to start with again.
I had never faced a decision that was so unforgiving and so sharply attached to the difference between staying alive or not. I had certain reservations about putting a roof over my head that I had not built myself. The guys across the basin on the sportfisherman were staying on board for sure, they said, and it was a fiberglass boat. I may not have built my boat myself, but I've known her long enough to know every inch of her steel construction.
The biggest threat to us was the two-story floating apartment docked in the basin, which was where some of the staff was housed. But even pieces of that could not penetrate our steel decks if we stayed below in the forward cabin.
There was not much I could do about any storm surge that might build up in the basin, although the locals figured there was little to worry about there, thanks to the creek -- which, in their opinion, was going to get rid of most of the swells.
I didn't think staying aboard to tend to the lines was a healthy proposition. I read about people getting killed by flying coconuts trying to do just that, but if I stayed on board it would be strictly to take shelter under her steel decks and not venture out of the forward cabin at all. I certainly would not have stayed on a fiberglass boat.
We were tied to the best pilings in the marina by one length of 5/8" BBB chain, and five 3/4" lines. We had two 45-pound CQR's and a 65-pound Danforth on chain rode to hold us about 15 feet off the pilings. I was fairly sure we were staying aboard, but I failed to make a definite decision, which I know now, has to be made in time, and not swayed from.
At 1830 hours, we heard on Nassau radio that Eleuthera was hit hard. We no longer had power and cable hook up, but at 1900 WOM reported that we could forget about our host hope, that the land mass of Eleuthera would kick Andrew a little north. The storm was sticking to a due-west movement along latitude 25.4º N. The cirrus clouds had given way to a dark sky and torrential rain.
Nassau radio reported that the island of Eleuthera was hit with winds gusting over 185 MPH, and that Nassau Radio was going off the air at 1900. Things were getting really scary! We estimated the winds to be over 50 knots at this time, but we came to a mutual decision to get off the boat and join the others at the chapel.
Ku, our German Shepherd, had her life jacket on, and so did we.The boat was held off the dock by the anchors, so Wendy and Ku swam ashore and I took the backpacks and walked across one of the docklines, holding onto a small line I had installed earlier between the top of one of the pilings and a stanchion on the bridgedeck just for this purpose. Wendy and Ku were waiting for me at the laundry room. Wendy changed into dry things, which I had in one of the packs, and we made our way toward the little church. It was no longer raining, but was very dark, and the road was already littered with broken branches. It was blowing hard now, but it all seemed to be well overhead, and although we could not see, we could hear the wind in the great trees as they presented their friction to the storm's force.
As we arrived at the chapel, we wondered what the others might say about bringing our dog with us. All afternoon we listened to Miami TV stations broadcasting shelter locations and advising people that their pets would not be allowed into the shelters. But as we walked in and started making apologies, we were told that it was expected of us to bring her, and of course it was the right thing to do.
At first the attitude inside was pretty cool. We had all taken up little territories of our own in our groups, arranging our things on the benches. We had drinks and socialized. Then, around 2200, we were reminded why we were there, by what sounded like a giant, dusting the exterior of the building. Tremendous gusts of wind started to blow out of the north. The island is about a mile wide here, in a north-to-south direction. Our church was about 200 yards off the south beach. The northerly gusts were somewhat buffeted by the vegetation and the buildings to the north of us.
By 2230 the island's generating plant had shut down. It was not easy to get used to being in the dark.The gusts were building in strength, and the flashlights played eerily across groups of us who were now pulling the church pews around ourselves.
There was an altar at the north end of the building and behind it a large, but tough plexiglass window. It was now resembling a large woofer resonating at a Stones concert as it flexed against the forces of the wind. There were tremendous noises outside. Branches of trees crashed against the plexiglass with thumps that seemed to move the earth under the concrete below our feet. The roof had a constant loud crashing and popping noise to it, as shingles flapped and were torn away. After about an hour of this, I think most of us felt we were going to make it. Then, about midnight, as abruptly as it came it started to subside. Deep down I knew what I did not want to know. I was hoping everyone was wrong and that we were far from the center of it all. But it was there. Nothing but a light breeze and deadly silence. We knew we had a few minutes, so some of us decided to check on the boats.
Armed with good flashlights, we stepped outside into a different world. Hundred-foot-tall trees, with roots 30-feet in diameter, were lying all around the chapel. I had known my way around very well, but now I was completely lost. I couldn't find anything resembling the road, nor could I find the stone gates leading to the marina. We climbed and hacked our way in the direction of the commissary. We did not have to worry about live wires. In the silence we knew the generators were not running.
Chunks of the roofs of the motel units, broken furniture, and pieces of buildings lay intertwined with mature trees. We could not believe how "sheltered" we were from all this inside the church. Our senses had been incapable of relating to the magnitude of destruction that had taken place on the outside. Judging from the destruction that lay around us, I don't think any of us expected our boats to be there. I know I didn't. As we made our way past the commissary, which, surprisingly was still standing, we came upon the twisted remains of the steel structure that once had been the fish weighing station. Then, we walked across the roof, under which we had all gathered before, to discuss what was coming.
As we neared the docks, I could've jumped for joy. I had left the lights on in the salon and, Lord Almighty, they were still on, and Seadream IV was in one piece. Then we saw a mast standing on the left of the dock, it was Orion's. But there was nothing on the north side. The dock pilings and planks were sticking out in every direction, heaved up and in some places just not there, but we ripped through the debris determined to get to our boats.
Then, suddenly, we were close enough to see. We should not have been looking for masts -- there weren't any left on the boats -- at least not standing vertically. Bent, broken, thrown about the dock and atop the boats they were, as if the giant that had dusted the roof of the church came by and gave them all one big slap just above the waterline. But the boats were all afloat.
One of the masts landed right across Seadream IV's bridge, pretty well wiping out everything behind the helm, but it had missed all the expensive things, like engine controls, instrumentation and hydraulics. Although I couldn't go on board, because the small line I tied to hang onto was gone, I knew that what I could see was all the damage we had. I was a happy man!
Then, it started to drizzle a little. We'd been gone 10 minutes. We knew we had better make our way back before we got caught by the second half of the hurricane.
We paused for a moment as someone asked, "Where is the floating condo?" We searched with our flashlights in the area where we knew the huge thing had been, but it was not there. We could not even see any debris where it had been moored. Our worries about the thing returning to menace our boats were not yet over.
We arrived back at the chapel just as it began to rain buckets again.
We had a calm of roughly 40 minutes. Then the back end of Andrew came fast and furious without warning. All of a sudden it was there.
Our ears hurt and popped as the pressure began to rise as the backside of the eye swept over us. We heard it coming up the beach, quickly bolted the big double doors and BANG! The building took the first blow. I think we were expecting something like what we already experienced during the first half, but this introduction sent us scattering about to find our places. We realized that something much worse was coming. This was no longer a giant, dusting the building. He now had hold of it and was shaking it on its foundations.
Two hundred yards off the south beach, the little building took the full brunt of the storm's highest velocity as the gusts now blew unobstructed off the Tongue-of-the-Ocean. There was a noticeable drop in temperature. A steady roar of unbelievable forces wrapped around us. Everything was vibrating. We were on the floor now, under the pews. Suddenly, the plexiglass window above the entry doors exploded across the air above us. The gusts were getting stronger and pressure was building inside the building, now filled with a fine mist of seawater swirling around.
Like a thunder clap the double-entry doors blew by in mid-isle. "No, stop it, stop it!", a lady screamed out.
The hurricane was now inside. At first it was hard to breathe from the amount of wind, but you got used to it. Seawater in the form of a fine mist blew in horizontal lines. Visibility was nil and deafening blows of wind gusts filled the building.
We piled pews on top of us to shield us from debris that we could not see but heard crashing all around. We lay in 2 inches of water that covered the floors and was rising. I was very cold and scared. Next to me, Wendy was covering Ku with her body and shaking violently -- Her teeth unable to stop chattering.
Loud cracking noises were emanating from the roof. I was sure I had made a big mistake coming here. I thought the building was coming down on top of us, while we would've been okay on the boat.
I told Wendy that I wanted to move next to one of the side windows close to us. I moved the stack of pews while she and Ku crawled along.
Ku was very good. She knew we were in big trouble and she acted accordingly. Of course, she was scared too.
I wanted to be at the window to be able to bust through and get on the outer perimeter of the walls in case they started to fall in. (As if outside would've been any better.)
For some reason, nobody could light a flashlight. Or maybe we just couldn't see well enough. Our eyes were aching from the pressurized saltwater spray.
Things were getting worse and the gusts still building. I felt the walls with the palm of my hand. They had a resonance to them. I knew we were in a wind tunnel that had no exit. I thought if we did not relieve the pressure, the roof was going to lift off and the walls implode.
"Why the hell doesn't that big window on the north wall blowout?" I thought to myself. "Why does it have to be such good quality plastic?" I considered taking a pew and busting through it, but what if it didn't break? I'd be standing there with all the debris flying around.
Then I thought of the doors. There were single-exit side doors on either side of the chapel. I crawled along the wall from under my pew. About 20 feet downwind of our window, I found the door. I reached with one arm stretched out, covering my head with the other, and with the feather-light touch of a safecracker I started to turn the knob. The next second the door was gone. I could feel the moisture-packed air funnelling through the hole. I crawled back under the pews.
With my flashlight. I was able to see the others now. Across the isle were the policemen and a couple of other local guys. One of them had been hit by a piece of lumber, but it was not serious. "Open that door!", I screamed across to them pointing at the door on their side. But, either they didn't hear me or didn't understand. The water level on the floor was dropping, which I was most happy to see, since I really would've hated drowning there in the surge while my boat floated happily at the dock.
Visibility was much better now, and we started playing our lights on the roof. The tongue-and-groove was flexing and the gaps would open and close with each heavy gust. Cracks would appear in alarming progressions as the storm kept howling. Pews not in use were milling about in mid-isle like slow motion bumper cars. Three ceiling fans above us whirled away like mad Windbuggers ready to self destruct.
I asked Wendy how long she figured it would be before we were out of that vicious 30-mile radius of the hurricane-force winds. She estimated 40 minutes, give or take 15, depending on our position relative to the true center of the vortex.
We took the heaviest assault for more than an hour. We all agreed the building would not have lasted much longer, but who knows? By 0200 on the 24th, we could move about the chapel, and not get blown off our feet. Andrew had run out of sticks and coconuts south of us, so it was just sand and salt flying. The wind quickly dropped to about 60 knots, the air around us warmed up, we warmed up and had a couple of bottles of very good Scotch to celebrate the experience and the fact that we all came through it unharmed. I can honestly say that whether we still owned a boat out there or not was really immaterial at this point. Just being alive was so good.
As I look aback
now, I realize some of the many things that went in our favor. The runway of the
little airport had an 8-foot surge pass over it, which deposited fish and coral
of all kinds that lay dead everywhere the next day. At the marina basin, we got
only about 4 feet of the surge, due to the creek's draining effect -- just as
some of the old timers figured -- and it came at low tide which made all the
difference. The two story float-a-home had taken its dock and pilings and
traveled away from our boats, hit the fuel dock, broke apart, and sank all in
the first half of the storm -- out of the way for good.
Having a steel hull certainly paid off. We dented 3/16" plating where we bashed against a piling during the southerly gusts. The piling had two huge bolts sticking way out, which were bent around by our hull and driven flush into the wood. Had it been a glass hull, our boat would've been holed for sure and probably cracked below the waterline.
We had a lot of water damage in the interior, in spite of all windows and doors being tightly taped from the inside. All the tape was removed by the pressure of the wind, and twigs and leaves had made it through. Even with half the bridge gone, there was very little damage. Seadream IV had been subjected to wind gusts in excess of 180 MPH blowing across the transom in the second half. I'm surprised the superstructure had not been taken off.
Of the six sailboats, four were dismasted, the three beside us probably by tangling up in each other's riggings as they were knocked down by the wind.
Three sailboats and the old wood cruiser were holed through their topsides from dock hardware, some in several places and with large holes, but not below the waterline. I think we all did better than we would have in a big city like Miami.
I hope there will not be a next time, but if there is, and the circumstances are similar, we'll be staying aboard, below deck in the forward cabin. As far as our personal safety is concerned, I consider it a miracle that none of us even so much as stepped on a nail, for there were many opportunities to get hurt seriously. As we made our way back to our boats in the dark, with the wind still blowing a steady 30 or 40 knots, we had all that debris to climb over and get across.
Out of the three concrete and block buildings on the Island, one was completely leveled, one was half torn apart, and the smallest but most exposed, our little chapel, was without major damage. It may be because the huge trees immediately south of the church uprooted and laid down away from the building during the north winds of the first half. Thank God! If not, they would have crashed on top of us during the south winds of the second half and there is no way the roof would have withstood that!
Most disturbing to us, difficult to describe, and pictures unable to do justice to, was the devastation upon nature -- the thousands of little creatures, birds, even fish, which never stood a chance against the awesome forces, the scars left upon the land like many bulldozers had leveled the trees and stripped the vegetation. It will be many years before this beautiful little Island no longer bears the signs of Andrew's destruction. What men build can easily be erected again, but it takes a man's lifetime to grow the trees that fell at the hands of Andrew.
The living coral reefs outside Chub Point and under Mamma Rhoda Rock had been ripped up and carried around by the swells. All of our familiar diving sites had been messed up or destroyed.
However, I guess, we can also look at the other side of the coin, as the Buffett songline goes "if a hurricane doesn't kill you it will make you strong...". We witnessed one of nature's greatest demonstrations of power, an experience few of us are fortunate to live through. For us, it was an adventure. An education on the serendipitous level.
Because our life span is but a flash in the vastness of time, we find the broken coral heads and downed trees so sad and disturbing. But, is that not the way nature's bullish acts have been played out since the beginning of time?
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Copyright Joseph Berta & Associates, L.L.C., 2002