Tales of Truelove – Hurricane ! Episode 7

It has been so long since I published Installment No. 6, I thought that it might be helpful to reprint the last paragraph of that installment before going on with the saga.


[“Just before dawn I was getting close. At Havelock, North Carolina I turned off of Highway 70 onto the secondary road that leads to Sea Gate. Just about fifteen miles to go. As I topped the hill right at the entrance to the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, there they were – enough red and blue flashing lights to give a rescue squad groupee an organism. No, no, no!!! I can’t get this close and be blocked from getting to Truelove. She needs me. What can I tell these people to convince them to let me through? A sick friend? Get ready, Lee. Twenty-seven years of professional BS-ing has prepared you for this one moment in time. You must get through!”]


All those brilliant stories, a friend in need, an aging grandmother, wasted. It turned out that a Marine returning to the base after a night of R&R had missed the turn and driven into a deep gully near the main gate. Instead of wanting me to stop, the swarm of authorities were downright insistent that I keep moving, and I was glad to oblige. My body had already been fired up with thirteen hours of worry that my beloved boat would be destroyed before I could get to her. Now it took several more miles of driving for my adrenaline to return to being simply elevated.


Would I be too late? Would my way be blocked by downed trees and utility poles? As I approached Sea Gate after driving all night, the sky was just beginning to lighten. When I pulled into the parking lot of the Marina, there was an eerie silence. The Marina office was boarded up and there was not a person around. The sky was overcast and there was a modest breeze, but otherwise there was not the slightest sign of the impending hurricane. It was not at all what I had expected to find. There was an unsettling strangeness that made me wonder if maybe I had missed some great news while I had been driving. But at least I had beaten Bonnie to Truelove.


How much time did I have to get ready before the onslaught? Without access to my computer, I really did not have an accurate idea of where Bonnie was and what she was going to do. Of course, I had already learned that even with the computer there was not nearly as much long-range predicting as I had previously thought possible with hurricanes. I was really worried that with very little warning the wind would begin to howl and Truelove would be caught unprepared. As it turned out, Bonnie was off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, just sitting there threatening. My fears were not unfounded; when Bonnie chose to move she could easily move toward Truelove very quickly.


I immediately set to work feverishly doing everything I could to protect Truelove. I began by doubling the spiderweb of lines holding the bow and stern and the spring-lines running the length of the hull. I had been unable to find three-quarter-inch nylon line in Bowling Green and had to add lenghts of half-inch line to the three-quarter inch docklines already in place. With breaking strenghts of hundreds of pounds, I could only hope that they would hold.


I then set to preparing the deck for the anticipated wind. Everything that could be removed was removed. For example, Alex Carthay had given me several sheets of heavy aluminum plate with which to possibly build a pilothouse for Truelove. Until I could figure out what to do with the plates, I had stowed them on the poop deck. While it would take one-hell-of-a wind to move them, if they ever did get airborne, they would be deadly missiles. They and everything else that could be detached were moved below.


I then tied the main and mizzen booms down so that they could not swing. Halyards and sheets were tied tightly and pulled away from the masts to prevent chafe and noise. The aft deck box that runs athwartship along the stern is not secured to the deck, so it was tied down. For good measure, the lids on the other two deck boxes, that run along each side of the poop, were tied down to keep the wind from blowing them open. Every fender I had was deployed along the sides close to the pylons and finger dock.


By this time other people were beginning to stir about the Marina. It was reassuring to find that everyone had not evacuated. Lynne Bourne from s/v Suits Us walked by and simply said, “Too tight.” “What do you mean?” I asked. She explained, “You have done a nice job of tying off your boat, but you have not allowed for the storm surge. When the water suddenly rises five or six feet above high tide, Truelove will be held down by all those lines or something will have to give.” Lynne went on to say that the lines had to be so loose that Truelove could almost, but not quite, hit the dock or pylon on the side opposite the line. This would provide the slack that a sudden storm surge would eat up quickly.


I also noticed that several boats had their anchors set in the lot across the water in front of their bows. When I asked Lynne about the advisability of doing this, she opined that it was not worth the effort and that she had rather be able to motor forward with the engine if the pressure got too great on the bow.


Grumbling at having to reset all my lines, but very grateful for the wise counsel I had received from Lynne, I began the process of untying and retying the many lines. By the time I finished this task the wind speed increased rather quickly and it began to spit rain. I had gotten lucky; Bonnie had given me just enough time to do all that could be done. Now I had to wait, see, and worry if my efforts had been sufficient to save Truelove. It was far from a sure thing. Much depended on where Bonnie went ashore and how fast her top wind speed was when she hit us.


By mid afternoon, Bonnie began to drift in toward Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, just east of Wilmington. Polly McIlvoy, the mother of my good friends from the Port Oliver Yacht Club in Kentucky, Linda Penn and Carol Kersting, has a beautiful house on Wrightsville Beach. The house had been flooded and severely damaged by Hurricane Fran a couple of years before. Polly had just completed the renovations. Now Hurricane Bonnie was repeating the assault. My heart went out to her while we waited to see what Bonnie would do to us next.


Wrightsville Beach is about sixty-three miles from Beaufort by sea. Once the Hurricane moved and began battering the shore, her outlying winds reached the Sea Gate area. We were on her northern side where the counter-clockwise rotation of the winds bring them out of the east. With very little warning the wind began to blow hard right on Truelove’s bow. The wind would gust to forty to forty-five knots and then “subside” to thirty or thirty-five.


Then the rains came. And, man, did it rain! It was like being hit with a firehose. In Kentucky we would call it a genuine “frog strangler.” At times it was hard to discern where the water stopped and the air began. Inches and inches of rain fell (or more correctly were blown sideways) every minute. Like the wind, the rain came in bands, first pouring down for twenty minutes and then just raining hard and then pouring down.


So far so good. Truelove was holding her position in the slip with little apparent difficulty. Of course, she was presenting the least windage toward the wind direction and her bow and spring lines were in their best position for the direction of pull. And, we were only getting the mere “preview of coming attractions.” Karl Millen would have given us his classic declaration for all winds under hurricane strength, “It’s just a twenty knot breeze.”


With the extraordinary flood of rain, I was especially glad to note that Truelove did not leak. If she did not leak now, she probably would not leak under any normal conditions.


Would Bonnie finally go ashore at Wrightsville Beach or would she skim along the shore and head right for Beaufort? As darkness fell, we listened to the radio and waited. For the time being Bonnie was content to do a thorough job of pounding Wrightsville Beach and let us keep waiting and wondering.


Finally, around nine o’clock, Bonnie came ashore and began moving slowly due north, right for New Bern, North Carolina, only about thirty-five miles from Sea Gate. The predicted path would put Bonnie between New Bern and Sea Gate. With hurricane-force winds reaching out as much as seventy-five miles from the eye, we were in for a serious blow. Our only saving factor was that, as Bonnie traveled over land, her top wind speed would probably decrease somewhat. As her maximum speed was now 115 miles per hour, we certainly hoped it would decrease.


We could tell that Bonnie was moving even without listening to the radio. The wind direction started clocking from east to east-southeast to southeast and the wind speed steadily increased. We were now in the northeastern quadrant of the Hurricane as Bonnie moved north.


If you have a choice, it is better to be in the right-hand side (as you face it) of a hurricane (the western side if it is heading north as Bonnie was) rather than the left-hand side. This is because the counter-clockwise rotation of the winds causes the wind speed on the left-hand side to be increased by the forward speed of the hurricane while the wind speed on the right-hand side is decreased by the forward speed. The difference of twenty knots, for example, from one side to the other could mean the difference in survival and destruction. Of course, we had no choice and were right in the middle of the left-hand side of Bonnie.


By around one o’clock in the morning the eye of Bonnie moved to west of our position. We were finally ready for the “main feature.” The winds roared out of the south, hitting Truelove on her starboard side with its maximum windage and least effective set of docklines. There was one boat, m/v Manatee, a thirty-foot trawler, in the slip to windward that afforded just a little protection for Truelove. When the winds continued to rise, 30,000 pound Truelove heeled as much as thirty degrees with bare poles. Even without an anemometer, you just know it is more than “twenty knots” when that happens. Manatee, many of the other smaller sailboats, and even some of the really large trawlers were heeling even more. With only twenty-five yards of water from the shore to the docks, there was sufficient fetch to create three foot waves and continuous whitecaps.


When the wind hit ninety-five miles per hour (confirmed by the NOAA weather station five miles away), it set up a sound that I have never heard before and, God willing, I will never hear on the ocean. I can only describe it as a woman wailing in great distress. The memory of it still sends chills down my spine. Any ancient mariner who heard such a sound has my understanding and empathy for concluding that there are spirits and things that go bump in the night.


As the wind shrieked and tried its best to rip Truelove from her slip, the docklines stretched and strained. It is quite an experience to see large lines squeeze and shrink as they are pulled to their limits. But, if the wind did not get any higher, it looked like the lines would hold and Truelove would be safe. I sure was glad that I had come down to protect her.


Even in the peak of the storm the wind tended to rise and fall. As I stood on my poop deck, holding on for dear life, I watched the gusts stretch the three-quarter-inch docklines and push Truelove within six inches of the pylon on her port side. During one of the “lulls” I was able to reach down and take another wrap with the dockline on the stern cleat at the starboard quarter. When the next gust came, I could see that Truelove was now being held off the pylon with a little more comfortable distance. Thinking I was alone, relieved that the lines were holding, and pleased with myself moving Truelove a little farther from the pylon, I pumped my right fist back and exclaimed out loud, “Yeah!” Little did I know that Lynne and her son, Sean, were watching me from Suits Us. They thought I was just out defying the wind and “enjoying” the storm. Out of the night I heard, “Go below, you idiot, it’s a hurricane!”


I concluded that I had done about all that I could do at that late hour and that Truelove would probably be safe as long as the wind speed did not increase any more, so I decided to take their “advice” and go below. Having driven and worried all night and worked hard and worried all day, I crawled into the the bunk and went to sleep, right at the height of the storm.


At two o’clock in the moring I heard shouts and saw lights flashing into my cabin. When I went out to investigate, Sean hollered over the noise of the wind that he thought the sailboat across the dock from Truelove might be sinking. The boat was heeling farther than the other sailboats around her. He had called her owners, Luther and Rosie, a couple who had sailed her over from Germany. Luther found that there was no water in the boat and concluded that the extra heeling was simply because of her somewhat flat-bottomed design. With that excitement over, we all went back to our bunks.


A couple of hours later I heard what sounded like a rifle shot and went to investigate. Sean and Richard Becker from m/v Blue Skies also heard the noise and came to check. We found that the fierce wind on Manatee’s starboard side had finally become too much for her docklines on that side. The lines had snapped after being stretched to the limit. Manatee was now banging up against the pylons on Truelove’s starboard side, to which Truelove was tied. This was not a good situation. Besides the damage to Manatee, if those pylons were knocked down (and the Hurricane and Manatee were trying their best to do that as quickly as possible), Truelove would break loose, wipe out the next set of pylons, and start an avalanche of boats on down the dock. Needless to say, Richard, Sean, and I were on Manatee and rigging new, double lines in a heartbeat.


By the time we finished with Manatee the sky was beginning to show some light. The wind had clocked just a little but was still blowing at hurricane strength. We decided to check all the boats on the docks to make sure none had come loose and were being damaged. As we went from boat-to-boat adjusting lines, I commented that we were like a bunch of school boys playing in the water puddles. We were helping people out who had not come or stayed for the Hurricane, but we sure were having fun.


As the morning wore on, Hurricane Bonnie continued to move north and then northeast, back toward the sea. As she moved, the wind clocked around to the southwest and then the west as we experienced the southern side of the Hurricane. Though the wind still blew pretty strongly, we were jaded and hardly noticed it. By this point we were veterans and knew we had made it.


During the night, when the wind was out of the south, the water had slowly risen just a couple of feet above normal high tide. We never did experience the dreaded storm surge. But, by the next afternoon, we witnessed a phenomenon that none of us had anticipated. Without any warning, the water started quickly draining out of the Marina. Before I realized what was happening, Truelove’s keel was sitting on the Marina bottom and she was leaning against a pylon, held upright by her docklines. Bonnie had moved north of the Pamlico Sound. The westerly winds in her southern half had driven the water right out of the Sound into the ocean. In turn, the ICW at Sea Gate had drained along with the Neuse River right into the Sound.


Throughout the Hurricane I had worn a bathing suit, tee-shirt, and my automatically inflatable SOSpenders PFD (personal flotation devise, i.e., life preserver). The SOSpenders are easy to wear and I like the idea that if I fall off the boat or the dock and hit my head the PFD will still inflate on its own. Several people teased me that, with the rain coming down so hard, the SOSpenders would probably inflate with me just standing on the deck. I was pleased to find that that did not happen. But, when I took the PFD off and set it down on my bunk after the Hurricane, I apparently set it down in such a way that the water could run up under the flap that protected the inflator. Poof!


After Bonnie had passed, several of us drove to Beaufort to view the aftermath. Three or four sailboats had dragged in the Town Creek area north of Beaufort and were now sitting up on sandbars. A beautiful forty-foot ketch had dragged its anchor on Taylor Creek, right at the Beaufort Docks, and was high and dry on shore at the end of Front Street. Some of the most extensive damage had been done to the Duke University Marine Biology Lab by a tornado that the Hurricane spawned. That distressed me to learn that tornados were a part of hurricanes. Tornados I know from Kentucky, and do not care for them at all. It was even more disturbing to find that a small tornado had touched down in the Sea Gate community less than a half mile from Truelove.


Now we can stand down from “red alert” and maybe even go sailing. No, guess what. There is another hurricane named Danielle off the East Coast, just about where Bonnie was not many days ago. Here we go again.


Next Installment: “Hurricanes Two And Three”


Lee Huddleston

s/v Truelove

lying Sea Gate Marina

Core Creek, North Carolina

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