As promised, here is the story of how Queequeg and her crew survived Hurrican Irma:
Queequeg, a 1982 Irwin 40 MK II sailboat has been our home since 2011. She's a good, sturdy, well built old girl and we'd hate to lose her. But the possibility of losing her became evident in the early days of September, 2017.
We watched as Hurricane Irma developed into an extremely large and powerful storm. She swept through the islands in the north east Caribbean, leaving massive destruction in her wake.
As it became apparent that Irma was going to impact the Florida Keys, we found that we had some major decisions to make. We knew about the storm far enough in advance that we had time to make preparations, but what?
Queequeg was docked in one of the many canals that run through the City of Marathon. Just leaving her at the dock was not an option. Wind and waves would smash her to pieces against the dock. We debated putting her on one of the mooring balls at the City Marina. We rejected that idea, not so much because we did not trust the moorings, but because we knew that other boaters might not take adequate precautions to prevent their boats from breaking free and crashing into Queequeg. That turned out to be a wise choice and nearly 200 boats were lost or destroyed in the mooring field. Once a few boats had broken free, the entire field became a row of dominoes, with boats cascading down the field taking out entire rows of boat.
Another option we considered was to leave the Keys and sail north to the Everglades and anchor in the Little Shark River. Boats have survived hurricanes by tying off to the tall mangroves there. This might have been a good option for us but we decided against it simply because of our ages. Bev and I are not the spring chickens we used to be and health issues can crop up at any time. The rivers in the Everglades are very isolated, with virtually no means of communication available. No cell phone service, no radio stations withing VHF range, etc. If any sort of emergency happened, rescue would be nearly impossible.
After much discussion with friends, we decided to “spider” the boat right in the center of the canal where she is docked. There are buildings all around which should provide some protection from wind. We set three anchors out on the opposite side of the canal and ran several lines across the canal to cleats on the opposite dock. All these lines were weighted so they would sink to the bottom. This served two purposes. First it would allow other boats to pass by without getting caught in the lines. Second, if there was significant surge during the storm, it would prevent excess tension on the lines. The surge would lift the boat and the weights at the same time, keeping us safely tied up. At least that was the theory. We doubled up the lines on our side of the canal.
We also stripped the deck of everything moveable and fragile. We took down all the sails, the dodger, the bimini and the solar panels. We stowed everything below deck, with blankets wrapped around the very fragile solar panels.
I made the decision to leave the wind turbine in place. We were disconnected from shore power and I wanted as much charge on the batteries as possible. We fully expected the boat to take on water during the storm and it was imperative that the bilge pumps continued to function. I knew that the turbine could be damaged by high winds or flying debris, but I felt it was worth the sacrifice.
Several other boats were being secured near us. Our friends Rick and Mary on “Dark Star” spidered their boat just forward of us and “Cloud Walker” spidered just aft of us. “Thar Be Dragons” and “Miss Marilyn” were tied up in the side canal just around the corner.
By late Wednesday evening the boat was as prepared as we could make it. We were exhausted from all the work that continued until well after dark. We packed the car with all our valuables, all our memorabilia and of course our little parrot Morgan. We drove to a friend's house to get a few hours sleep. As we drove away from the dock, we were aware that we should have done more to secure the boat, but we just didn't have the energy.
At about 3:30 AM we woke up, got in the car and headed north. Our very dear friends, Tim and Julie had offered to allow us to ride out the storm in their home in Hudson, FL. We were thankful that we had filled the car with gas earlier in the week as many gas stations were already closed. We were also thankful that the traffic was light at that early hour. We made good time up to Florida City, but we needed some coffee and some breakfast. Just as we left “The Stretch” we spotted a Dunkin Donuts shop that was open! We stopped and walked in and ordered some coffee and some sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches. Waiting for our food, we chatted with the owner. She told us that she had made the decision to stay and ride out the storm rather than evacuate. Since she wasn't leaving, she said she might as well make herself useful to any passing evacuees. We don't know how she made out in the storm, but we are very grateful for her to decision to stay and keep the shop open.
Armed with full bellies and a nearly full gas tank, we continued on our trek to Hudson. By early afternoon we arrived at Tim and Julie's home. We got settled in and got an update on the storm track. It was starting to look more like the Keys would take a devastating hit and that the storm would continue north, possibly even impacting Hudson. Our friends had recently installed hurricane resistant windows (but not doors) and their house sits several miles inland and 26 feet above sea level, so we felt we'd be relatively safe there.
Tim and I spent the next couple of days preparing the house for the storm. We reinforced all the doors. We fueled up two generators, one that Tim had in his work trailer and the 2K portable we had for the boat but brought with us in the car. We pumped 110 gallons of water from their well into two drums and filled the bathtubs with water. (Tim's well pump ran on 220 volts and the generators were 110 so if the power went out we would not be able to pump water from the well.)
The time went by slowly as Bev and I starting second-guessing ourselves. Did we do enough to secure the boat? Did we really bring all the things that are important to us? What will we do if the boat is destroyed?
Tim and Julie also opened their home to others. A neighbor from Marathon, Jane, came up a day or so after us, and Julie's son brought his wife and son. By the time the storm hit, there were twelve souls camped out in the house, ranging in age from 4 to 94!
We continued to watch and wait. The spaghetti models all started to converge on the Keys. The exact point of landfall kept shifting, but we were learning that this storm was so big, so powerful, it wouldn't matter much exactly where the center hit. We knew the destruction would be widespread. We mentally starting preparing for the worst.
By Saturday the storm was hitting the Keys and all communication with the islands was lost. There were no news reports from the Keys. The phones were out in the Keys. We knew it must be bad down there but had no way to know how bad.
We continued watching the spaghetti models, which were still shifting but it looked more and more like Hudson would also take a big hit.
As it turned out, the storm took a last minute jog to the east and weakened slightly as it passed by. The peak of the storm passed Hudson in the early hours of the morning. We actually slept through most of it. I woke up a few times to see the trees swaying in the winds outside the hurricane windows, but it was spooky because the bullet-proof glass deadened the sound. As expected, the power went out.
The next morning, we looked around and things didn't look so bad. A few branches stripped from trees, leaves blown everywhere, one tree down across the street. But...no power, no phone service, no way to know how anyone outside of our little area made out. We had no way to know if we still had a home to go back to, or just how bad the devastation was. Our only contact with the outside world was a transistor radio. The news was sketchy at first, but gradually the total picture emerged. 6 million people throughout the state of Florida were without power. Millions had evacuated. Gas stations were closed all over the state. We learned that the eye of the storm had passed directly over Big Pine Key, where we had friends who had decided to ride it out at home. It would be a week before we learned if that had made it through.
After two days of “camping in” at Tim and Julie's, Tim called a meeting. He told us that the fuel for the generators was running low and that the 110 gallons of water we had stored were gone. He asked us if any of us had another place to go. Bev and I said that we might be able to go to my sister Jane's place in Kentucky. Others also said they could make other arrangements. So for the second time in a week, Bev and I packed the car with virtually everything we owned including Morgan, and we headed north. Luckily, we were able to find the ONE gas station open and fill the tank.
Two days later we arrived in Lexington. Jane and Tracey welcomed us, along with their two dogs Derby and Abby.
For the next few days, we watched nervously as the news from the Keys trickled in. Cudjoe Key and Big Pine had taken a major hit. Marathon had escaped the eye, but still had massive devastation. We had no news about the fate of our boat until some days later when there were some aerial pictures posted on the net. These pictures painted a horrible scene. Before the storm there were 226 boats on moorings in Boot Key Harbor and dozens more anchored. The overhead pictures showed the harbor almost empty of boats. There were boats in the roadways, boats in yards, boats piled up under bridges, etc. We nervously scanned the pictures until we found Queequeg. She was floating! Unfortunately, she was not exactly where we left her. She had apparently broken free from some of her lines and was resting bow first against the dock. “Cloud Walker” was also turned around and resting stern first into the next dock. “Thar Be Dragons” was dismasted, with her mast lying across the canal on the dock on the opposite side of the canal! As we looked more closely at Queequeg, it looked like her mast was bent. Not broken off, but sitting at a strange angle. Replacing the mast would be a very expensive project if that became necessary. It would probably cost more to replace the mast than the boat was worth. It is even possible that the hull could be compromised by the breaking of the mast, which was keel stepped. The overhead picture also showed another boat, which we did not recognize, resting against the swim platform at the stern of “Dark Star.” We found out later this was “Rock Steady” which had broken free from the mooring field and drifted down the canal the day after the storm.
It would be another few days until our friend John posted a picture taken at ground level. He lived in the condos on the other side of the canal and rode out the storm at home. (“Never again,” he told us later.) He managed to get a good angle on a very still day. The picture showed the boat, clearly floating properly on her waterline and it showed the mast standing tall and straight. The overhead picture must have been taken at a strange angle. The mast was not bent after all. It looked like we still had a home!
It would be over a week before we could return to Marathon. The authorities were not allowing anyone to return until basic services had been restored. Electricity, water, sewer, etc were all damaged by the storm and would have to be functioning before anyone could be allowed to return to the Keys.
As we waited for the “go ahead” from the authorities, we gradually gathered information about how our boat got twisted around. As it turned out, we wouldn't get the whole story until well after our return. As the storm struck, Queequeg rode out the wind and surge quite well until “Cloud Walker” broke free of her moorings and crashed into Queequeg. Lines got tangled, lines broke or worked free of the cleats and both boats got tangled together and crashed into the dock. At one point, Queequeg was actually sitting above the dock due to the surge.
When we finally were allowed back in, we found Queequeg floating but she did suffer some relatively minor damage. One lower diagonal shroud had broken free causing a slight bend in the mast. One lifeline stanchion was cracked. The blades on the wind turbine were, as expected, pretty twisted and broken. The topside paint was worn away, along with the name, along the port quarter. Other than a few dings and scratches, that was about it.
Below deck everything looks fine. We didn't take on any water beyond the little leaks that happen whenever it rains. The batteries were at 90% of capacity even after many days of not being charged. This means that the bilge pumps must not have had to do much work.
The area immediately surrounding the dock was almost knee deep in debris. There was seaweed, tree branches, roofing, insulation, shoes and who knows what filling the entire area. Capt. “Sandy” of Miss Marilyn had arrived a few days before us and had removed most of the larger bits of debris, but he left a day or so after we arrived and that left Bev and I as the only ones to finish cleaning up the yard. The two of us spent two weeks raking seaweed and other junk into barrels and carting it all out to the street. We had a mountain of debris piled up when the FEMA crew arrived to cart it away. A week later, we had another mountain! Thanks to my sister, we had a chain saw to cut up the larger branches and take down a dead tree! Thank you, Jane!
Keys Rigging replaced the broken shroud and the one on the opposite side and straightened the mast. I have been working on repairing the scratches and repainting the topsides. We still need to have new name decals made, but Bev's son Ben can do that for us when we're ready. One item we haven't yet addressed is the broken stanchion, but that will have to wait until things calm down for the welders in the area. I'm sure they are quite busy!
We had the bottom cleaned and inspected. The bottom paint is scratched off in a few places and there are some chips in the fiberglass, but no visible major damage.
All in all we feel very fortunate to have made out as well as we did. It could have been a lot worse. We have our boat/home. We have out health. There are others who have lost everything. There were even some fatalities among the boaters who tried to ride out the storm on their boats.
As the boating community tries to rebuild, we feel we must do a little to help others who lost more than we did. We gave away a spare sail. We gave away our old dinghy. We pitched in a little money and a few items for the marina's Christmas bike fund. Bev and I know that our efforts at “paying it foward” are modest at best, but if everyone pitches in a little, it will make a difference.