Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Have you ever wondered what 75 knots of wind feels like?

Yeah. I know. Neither have I. That's 80+ miles per hour.

Well, be careful what you (don't) wish for...

It all started innocently enough.

It was last saturday night here in our little El Salvador estuary. Chris and I had just finished a nice pasta dinner aboard Espiritu.

Off to the north, a lightning storm flashed. We sat in the cockpit and settled in for the show, which happens many nights now that we are in the tropics.

    As often happens, the breeze gently rose as the squall approached the mooring field. There are about 15 sailboats out here. There are another 10 boats anchored, with the last 15 on the small dock at the marina.

     The wind rose to about 20 knots, and the rain began to fall. We figured the small storm cell was blowing through.

    And then...and then...the wind didn't back down. It picked up. Alot (By now, the sky was pitch black -- except for the lightning, that is).

    We started moving through the cabin making sure all of the hatches were closed. A moment later, we heard a voice on the VHF announce: "Hello, fellow cruisers, I just clocked 35 knots."

   Yeah, yeah, we know.  The wind, rain and waves all increased exponentially.

   After we were sure everything was battened down, we heard another female voice on the radio announce: "Well, we just clocked 45 knots. (silence) Oh God, oh God, OH GOD!!!!!!!!"

 Then silence.

  I rolled my eyes in frustration as did everyone else in the fleet. This wasn't helping.

  Suddenly Espiritu heeled way over.

Oh, so THAT'S what she was talking about!

  We popped out into the covered cockpit and observed the increasing pandemonium going on around us.

  Voice on radio: "Uh, OK, look out, everybody, because Sundancer has just blown their mooring. Blithe Spirit, they're heading right for you."

  We peered into the worstening storm and could see nothing.

   Only a few nights earlier another boat had snapped it's mooring and washed up on the mud after a teeny-tiny squall blew through, much smaller than this one.

Taking Flight on the rocks

       Voice on radio: "OK, I've got 55 knots, gusting to 75. Panache is dragging his anchor, and so is Tolerance."

       I popped out into the cockpit again to assess the situation. We did not appear to be dragging YET. Our dinghy and motor had flipped over, but as it was still attached to the boat there was nothing to be done about that right now. Too dangerous.

    "OK, Santos' catamaran has just lost his mizzen mast." someone muttered on the radio, sounding a bit in shock by this time.

     I peered out into the now hurricane force storm to look for any other boats which might be hurtling towards us. I was shocked to see a darkened Talaria hurtling past us into the blackness.

   I jumped onto the radio: "Talaria, Talaria, are you on board?"   No answer. I didn't know where Rick and Deena were -- if they were ashore or even on their boat, which was now careening towards the mouth of the estuary as far as I could tell.

  Another voice assured us that Rick and Deena were indeed aboard Talaria, but they were unable to answer the radio, as they were too busy trying to save their freaking boat which had sprung it's freaking mooring in a pitch black hurricane and was now heading almost out to sea!

  Good Lord.

  Molly from Knee Deep came on the radio and calmly announced: "We've sprung our mooring and we're now motoring." Considering she and Ben have two small boys on board, their steadiness under pressure was impressive, indeed.

  The hurricane force anarchy continued outside.

   This was so surreal. Only 10 minutes earlier we were relaxing in our warm, dry cockpit in post-prandial bliss. And now this.

You know what was going through my mind during the worst of it?  "Nobody's going to die here. We can all swim. Worst case scenario, a boat sinks and the occupants swim to shore. There may be damage, but nobody's going to die."

   Sounds crazy, but this little mantra actually HELPED.

   Another voice came on saying: "Uh, the dock is coming apart. We've sprung 3 out of 4 lines and are only holding onto the dock with one line."


   Finally, finally, the chaos began to ease. It was passing, thank God.

  Later, since we don't have any Fritz Coleman or Johnny Mountain out here to help us with the weather, we all put our heads together and theorized that this was a microburst.

 The crazy thing is this: the locals swear nothing even remotely like this has ever occurred here. Ever. No hurricanes. No nothing.

    Later, we compounded the damage:

1) Talaria collided with Hotspur after bursting their moorings -- they both suffered severe damage to their hull, dinghy davits, lifelines, stanchions and solar panels.

 2) It's a funny story about Panache: the skipper Zach was having dinner aboard Bella Star in the marina when the storm hit. He, Aaron and Nicole watched in shock and horror as his boat (and floating home!) dragged right past them during the worst of it. Just when they feared it would drag all the way out to sea, Panache stopped and the anchor caught, right next to the marina;

 3) There was much ripped canvas, dozens of shoes and gas cans lost overboard, power lines were knocked down, hundreds of trees fell, and Santos' mizzen mast was lost;

4) A fishing boat flipped in the storm, and some brave sailors rescued them in their small inflatable dinghy;

5) The marina dock here was destroyed in parts. It held together, though!

 6) Tolerance, which dragged it's anchor, smashed repeated against a cement piling, and is now a complete loss.

Tolerance was broken down and sold for scraps after the damage incurred during the storm

   As for Espiritu, all we lost was a shoe which flew out of our capsized dinghy/motor. We were very, very lucky.

  My thoughts after the storm went to the locals who live nearby and on the island in the estuary. These people live very, very simply -- without electricity or running water.

 I've been volunteering at the tiny school on the island during my stay here.

       They are so grateful for any help and attention that we give them. It is pure joy to spend time with them and to help them with their basic math and language skills -- or just to play and laugh with them.

         After the storm, I asked them about the "tormento" (Spanish for "storm" -- great word, huh?). They fell silent, and their eyes were as big and shimmering as fresh plums.

   I asked about their homes. A tree fell through the roof of one of them, but the villagers replaced the palm frond roof the next day. Noone was hurt.

        The thing about these children -- and about the Salvadorians in general, is this: they're resilient.

Which is interesting, because "resilience" is something I've been in search of for myself. It's a muscle I've been working to strengthen. And the island children teach me by example every day.

 When you live simply, without many expensive material possessions, and when you are part of a community that helps one other, when natural disasters strike, unless someone gets swept out to sea it's usually not a big deal.

  The homes are simple, so they're easy to rebuild. And everyone helps one another.

  It's enough to make a gringo THINK, you know?



  1. I read this on Bella Star's blog and am so relieved that y'all are alright.

  2. This is an incredible story - thank God you are all OK. Hope to see you soon on your way south.
    Daragh and Cathryn

  3. Wow! So glad you are fine and that everyone (except the one boat) is okay. I love your Mantra and may be using it myself at some point. How many minutes would you say it lasted from start to finish? Miss you! Trisha

  4. Wow - it is all going to make a really great book someday...your search for resilience...! So grateful everyone was OK! I have some questions that you may or may not know... What happens to the one's who lost their boats, can they file an insurance claim from El Salvador??? Is their journey over or ending, do they just go home :( ? I am so interested in hearing how your adventures unfold. Take care

  5. Liz, thanks for the first-hand report. Glad to hear you made it through OK. Hope to see you somewhere down the road.
    -James, Millie, and Colin (s/v Jean Marie)

  6. Holy cow! That was intense to read... Seeing SV Tolerance, was more than sobering. Ugh. Glad you're safe guys!