The guide books suggest that one should avoid the Bahamas during the hurricane season so after an enjoyable 6 months cruise we returned to Charleston S.C. unaware that we were climbing out of the frying pan.
Although we had seven to ten days warning of Hugo's approach it was only during the last couple of days that the authorities had any distinct idea of where it was going to strike. At ten days out, there was only a 3% chance that it would strike Charleston. Trying to go north or south to get out of the path was a gamble, quite easily putting us in worse jeopardy if we chose the wrong direction. By the time it was certain to be within 200 miles of Charleston, there were only 24 hours left. Putting to sea was an option but heading south (normally the best choice to be on the favorable side) could still put us in the eye. Yandina is a 71 foot steel ketch which the two of us handle comfortably in reasonable conditions. For the predicted unreasonable conditions approaching, however, I felt we did not have the manpower to handle warps or storm sails.
I picked out a suitable spot about eight miles up the Wando River. The half mile wide spot selected had a muddy bottom with a uniform depth of 8 to 12 feet for a mile up and down stream. This depth was selected to limit the size of waves since they cannot build up much over a maximum of 30% of the depth of the water. I expected to drag and the location allowed ample room with no docks, bridges or hard landings in range. We moved to the location about 10 AM and found it virtually deserted, another good omen since much damage is done during storms by other boats.
After removing the sails and awning and securing or stowing anything loose, we had a delightful dinner and waited for the storm. It was not apparent from the weather that anything untoward was approaching and we felt a little silly anchored out enjoying the evening. We called some friends and relatives on the cellular phone, gave them our location and said we would call them when it was over. I fitted our plexiglass storm windows, prepared jack lines, life jackets, safety harness, spare lines and diving mask (to see in the spray).
Hugo arrived with a direct hit on Charleston as you no doubt remember. Yandina was ready. I had memorized the radar picture so that I could keep track of our position. As a high priority after some bad experiences in the Bahamas, we had just finished installing a new 115 lb Bruce anchor which was a major improvement over the navy type anchor it replaced. Our other anchor was an undersized and bent Danforth which I naively kept ready in case we lost the Bruce. For the little it would add to our holding power I decided not to risk the anchors fouling each other.
As the winds increased around 10 pm we had to run the main engines to minimize dragging and reduce anchor loads. Both the radar and Loran showed we were dragging but it was not alarming; the conditions, however, were. GPS was in its infancy with only a few satellites and expen$ive. Visibility was reduced to nil, except for lightning and the spectacular blue glow of power lines shorting out in the distance.
Winds during the first half were about 135 miles per hour which made venturing on deck almost impossible. The river was white with foam and the rain and foam blowing over the boat blasted the paint and wiring off the main mast. Our first calamity apart from the terror of the storm was a crash on the aft deck. We looked at each other - "What the hell was that?" Lea held the door open while I crawled out in the lee of the enclosed pilot house to see what had happened, leaving the auto pilot to handle the helm. It was the TV antenna, a plastic dome about 30 inches in diameter - no great loss, it never worked very well. Our next worry was both the main and mizzen booms. Although there were no sails and the heavy wooden booms were set in their gallows, the wind had lifted them out and they were swinging loose, crashing against their gallows with each roll of the boat. Using dock lines which we had kept handy I secured each of them and jury rigged a line to a deck cleat to hold them down. This worked for a while until the wind managed to lift them to the other side of the gallows and I had to repeat the procedure with a second guy line to the opposite side. Even with them as tight as I could manage they still crashed about alarmingly.
Eventually the eye arrived and within a few minutes the wind dropped to a nervous gusty breeze. It was quite warm and not unpleasant under the stars except for the disquieting knowledge of what was yet to come. I used the break to re-secure the booms and then walked around on deck to check for any problems. Half the rope locker cover was completely missing. It was made of 1.5 inch solid mahogany and weighed about 60 lbs but somehow the wind must have sucked it up and snapped it off against the salon ridge. Although our vulnerable salon windows were protected with emergency storm covers, the pilot house windows were not and how the flying half of the cover missed smashing into the main windshield we will never know. The new canvas dinghy cover had been shredded so I took a line and tied down all the gas cans and items stored there so they would not escape.
The barometer read 27.77 inches, something I hope never to see again. In fact the pressure had dropped so quickly that air trapped in the hollow mizzen boom had caused bubbles in the paint. The surge was running upstream at about 5 knots and the depth had increased to about 14 feet, but with over 200 feet of half inch chain out the increased depth was not a problem.
If the first half had been bad, the second made it seem mild. It hit and built up to full force rapidly, but this time the wind and the surge of water were both in the same direction putting incredible load on the anchor. I knew we were dragging and tried to relieve the load with the engines but it became increasingly difficult to keep her pointed into the wind. Each time the bow would get one side or the other we would fishtail despite full forward and reverse on the opposing screws and a little help from the rudder. The rudder is of limited help when the motion through the water is minimal. Dragging along with the surge, our speed relative to the water was only about 3 knots. We understand that gusts were as high as 185 mph and the noise was overpowering. You expect the screech of the wind in the rigging but the very low frequency howling and pressure changes are hard to describe. It's like you are inside a giant whiskey jug and Hugo is blowing across the top in time to a wild dance. During one of our swings the anchor chain parted.
The loss of the anchor was not immediately apparent. There was so much violent motion and noise, and with no visibility, all I could do was keep my eyes glued to the radar and try to keep her pointed into the wind. The rise in water level due to the surge, however, had completely altered the outline of the river on the radar. What were headlands were now islands, marsh areas were now submerged and I had no idea of our position relative to the main river. The Loran antenna had blown loose and its information was too erratic to believe. During the first half we had dragged our anchor about one mile downstream but due to careful choice of location, we were still ideally placed for a drag upstream with 3 miles of river virtually clear of obstructions - assuming you are still dragging an anchor. The changed motion and response of the boat finally convinced me we had lost our anchor and I realized we were in trouble. All I could do was try to keep the bow pointed upwind but this was virtually impossible in the conditions. There was no thought of venturing on the fore deck to drop another anchor.
Coming periodically broadside to the weather caused severe rolling but well within safety limits. Below was a mess and Lea had given up trying to protect things - she was content to hang on and find a relatively dry spot. We next experienced a knockdown, the worst point of the whole adventure. Yandina is 75 tons of very stiff boat and we have never before had more than about 20 degrees of heel but suddenly all hell broke loose. I had just put the engines in neutral to minimize damage to the propellers because I suspected from a rumbling below that we were running into shallow water. I learned during this experience that the fancy digital depth sounders we commonly put on yachts are useless when the sea turns to foam during a hurricane. Except during the eye, it said "E" for error most of the time and meaningless values for the remainder. An old fashioned rotating flasher or fish finder type depth sounder would have been much more useful - at least I could have attempted to interpret the garbage on the display and get some idea of the depth instead of leaving the job to some electronics which just said "E".
We realize now we had passed over a shallow headland and the keel caught on some small trees which were under water and tipped us over about 45 degrees. We had never before put the port holes under water and although they were well dogged down, they don't seal completely and enough water came in to set off all the bilge alarms. Meanwhile water had entered the control panel of our burglar alarm which is connected to a large bell and also to the air horns, adding totally unneeded panic. Punching in the security code would silence it for about 30 seconds but it continued to keep going off until I used a pair of cutters on the power lead. It is hard to believe how much water can find its way inside a tight vessel when driven by hurricane winds even though the boat had been well sealed for the storm. Although I had removed all deck vents and replaced them with the storm covers, water still came in everywhere - just carried with the wind - even backwards up the drain holes of my capped off dorades.
Since we now had no need to worry about using the engines and the helm due to the shallow water, we set about picking up some of the major items thrown about by the knockdown and inspecting for damage. Despite alarms everywhere, all bilges had very little water and the automatic pumps had taken care of it. About this time we ran aground again. You can't imagine how black it was but seeing wasn't necessary.
Lea opened the pilot house window and a pine tree branch popped in so we knew we were out of the river. Our spotlight showed us to be upright against a steep earthen bank. The wind was forcing us broadside against a couple of fallen trees which were holding us from riding up the bank.
Having determined that we were relatively stable with no damage to the hull, I turned the engines and generator off to avoid overheating and we both lay down on the salon floor to rest and catch our breath. It had all been too hectic to be frightened - the magnitude of the stress did not hit me until the following day although Lea says she had some whimpering sessions during the storm. My concern at the time was how far from deep water we might be when the surge left. I decided to keep an eye on the depth and if we were lucky enough that the wind dropped before the surge I planned to start the engines and back us off into deeper water. No such luck - by the time the water level started to drop the wind was still screaming over 100 miles per hour and I had no desire to leave our stable position and face that music again. In addition I did not know how much anchor chain we might be dragging, there was floating debris everywhere, and I only had a hazy idea from our spotlight illumination as to which way to go. We stayed and settled onto the marsh. We ended up living in this marsh for over 4 weeks with a 10 degree list. 10 degrees may not sound much until you try to live with it 24 hours a day!
After a fitful night we surveyed our situation and started clearing some of the mess. Helicopters started buzzing overhead in increasing numbers and we were able to report to the authorities that we did not need any help. There was up to 18 inches of water under the boat at high tide so we put an auxiliary pump over the side to supply cooling water for the generator. This kept up our fresh water pressure and batteries. The power was not on long enough to keep refrigeration running however most of our provisions were canned or dry. We were able to get the dinghy into the water for transportation and the cellular phone was working so we required little outside help. Lea's favorite comment to friends on the phone or radio was "We're not out of the woods yet."
If you are going to be shipwrecked, rule number one is to do it with a CREATIVE cook. We had ample fresh water and what Lea can create with some canned meat, herbs and magic can make surviving much more bearable.
We stayed with the boat to prevent looting despite attempts by the Coast Guard to evacuate us. With power, food, water and phone we were better off than most people ashore. Where would we go if evacuated that would be better? We arranged with a 250 ton crane on a barge to pull us out on the very high tide which occurred late in October. The tide was the highest in about 10 years giving us over two feet of water under the boat. With considerable difficulty they pulled our 75 tons of steel through 300 feet of marsh to deep water, leaving a groove in the marsh which we named "Yandina Creek". Some damage occurred in getting us off - a small dent in the side, broken rudder cable - but overall the boat was still sound. The greatest losses were the cost of the crane, the extensive cosmetic damage and our new $1,000 Bruce anchor which is still holding out there in the Wando River.