Surviving Irma in the Florida Keys

Surviving Irma in the Florida Keys

We often think of Real Estate as being in a stationary location and never moving from its original place.  It is stable and does not travel about.  Homes are subject to wind, and storms of course, but, generally will be located in its correct spot.  If your home is a sailboat, however, everything you have always been comfortable with is changed.  Additionally, when the sailboat is in the path of a super storm like Irma, all bets are off.

Here is an accounting of one Berlin local, that gave up land for water.  This is my daughter’s story.

“I became a “liveaboard” in the fall of 2013, at 41 years old. My boyfriend and I purchased a 31 foot sailboat, and headed down the coast to spend the winter in the Keys. He and I parted ways the following summer up in Essex, but I was hooked on the sailboat. I bought him out, and returned to the Keys that year as a “singlehander”. I have since traveled down the East Coast in the fall of each year, and back north again in the late spring, working the summer seasons in various locations. For the winters, however, I always headed back to Marathon.

This past winter I completed my fourth winter season down here. As much as I love the nomadic lifestyle, I decided this year to become a year round resident of the Conch Republic in order to save up the money that will enable me to do some serious, long term cruising in my fifties. I have a pretty great job, and the community here at Boot Key Harbor is fantastic. The city runs a mooring field with a little over 250 moorings, and then there are two other areas where boats can anchor if they prefer. There are private showers, laundry facilities, spacious work areas, a community room with a small library, and a tiki hut out on the water for hanging out. The marina has a wifi signal that I can grab with the antenna on my boat. We all travel around in skiffs/dinghies, tying up to the marina dinghy docks when we need to go ashore.

Community volunteers run a “cruiser’s net” each morning at 9 am on the VHF radio, keeping everyone informed and connected. “New arrivals/departures”, “announcements”, “questions/comments/need help”, “buy/sell/trade/give away”, these are the categories. You say your boat name, and wait to be recognized by the net controller du jour, then you say your piece. It always wraps up with a few rounds of trivia.

All in all, just a fun and interesting place to live; that is, until a monster hurricane is bearing down on you.

I am very, very happy to say my sailboat did survive Irma here at Boot Key Harbor in Marathon. There is an unoccupied island that borders the harbor called Boot Key, from which the harbor gets it’s name. Whiskey Creek runs into the heart of the island, surrounded by nothing but mangroves. This was my saving grace, thanks to the wise advice of some old school local fishermen.

Where my boat was anchored

I took her up into Whiskey Creek on the Tuesday prior to landfall, fearing that if I did not go in early, there would be no room. As it turns out, that fear was unfounded. Only 13 or so boats sought refuge there. There was room for many more. This just kills me when I see all the wreckage that is currently everywhere here in Boot Key Harbor. Boats piled on top each other along the shoreline, crammed in half sunken pieces into canals, piled up under the old bridge at the west end of the anchorage. Carnage. But all of the 13 boats that went in to the creek did OK. Only about one fifth of the boats that stayed on the moorings remained attached, and many of those had damage from collisions with boats that had broken free.

I am aware of five people that rode the storm out on their boats in the harbor. Two were able to climb off their boats in the middle of the hurricane after they hit the mangroves and began sinking. Two made it through, still attached to their moorings. One died trying to get off his boat where it ended up wrecked in a residential canal. There was a recording of a VHF conversation from that one; he had called for the Coast Guard during the hurricane after his boat was struck by another vessel. They told us all from the beginning, when they told us not to stay; no one will come to help you in the storm. You stay, you are on your own.

Dude. When they tell you to go, just go.

On that Tuesday prior, I motored up to where Whiskey Creek splits, and hung a left towards the narrower upper reaches. I did not make it past the first bend, however. The water was shoaling quickly, and there was a boat in the second bend, so I settled for the spot. Really I was pretty happy with it.

I won’t devil you with all the details, but for three days I prepped her back in the mangroves, and packed the things I was taking with me. It was melt-your-face-off hot in there, except in the mornings and the evenings when the noseeums came out so thick they were in your ears, up your nose, in your eyes. I had never noticed my eyelids sweating before. I spent the days removing all canvas and sails, my wind generator, solar panel, grill etc. I even removed the davits from the stern for fear that if the guy behind me broke loose, it was just one more thing with the potential to get hung up in his rigging and rip a hole in my boat, or at best hold his boat to mine, beating each other to death. Perhaps I have an overactive imagination, but hey, an ounce of prevention….

I cleared her decks, and duct taped down anything that the wind might catch, such as my cockpit seats/locker lids. They do not have hasps, and I didn’t want them ripped off, or falling open and allowing rain inside. Once I locked her up for the last time, I even duct taped over the companionway to try to stop any water intrusion there. I also taped over my dorade vents (type of vent that permits the passage of air in and out of the cabin or engine room).

I closed all the thru hulls, which are essentially holes in the bottom of the boat to allow water to drain from the sink, for example, or allow water in to cool the engine. All below the waterline thru hulls have valves to shut them off so that your boat doesn’t sink in the event of a rupture in a hose. I was unable to close the thru hull for the sink in the head (bathroom for you landlubbers) because it has no valve. I suppose this is because it is slightly above the water line. I was afraid it may be a way for water to get in if she were laid over, or god forbid, being drowned by her lines, so I filled the thru hull with caulk. I need a new one with a valve anyway. As it turns out, she appears to have spent a good bit of time laid over on that side, so I believe this to have been a good choice.

As for lines, I had ordered 320 feet of 1/2″ three strand nylon line, along with some chafe gear around the time I made the decision to stay. I had intended to cut it into lengths, and splice the chafe gear into the loop, and have it on hand in the event of a storm. I never had gotten around to it, nor did I know how to splice line until that Wednesday in the mangroves. But I knew it was the strongest thing I could do, so I watched a You Tube video and got on with it. I guess I work well under pressure! But hey, I’m a sailor 😉

320 ft line

 

The first one was a little sloppy, but after that it was on. I measured out the lengths to the mangroves I had picked to tie off to, and customized the lines accordingly. In order to secure the boat, I had to dinghy over to the mangroves, and crawl up in to them to get to a suitably sturdy branch to attach each line. If you’ve never met a mangrove, they grow right up out of the water along a shoreline, thick as thieves, making said shoreline almost impossible to see. So, I had to tie the dinghy to the exterior, smaller branches so it wouldn’t drift off in the tidal current of the creek, and step into the water on to the mangrove roots, and then climb back in to where the stronger branches could be found. It’s a good thing I was a tomboy growing up, or this wouldn’t have ended well.

In the end, I had six lines with a larks head knot on the mangrove branches, leading back to the various cleats on my boat. Chafe gear all around, anywhere the lines might get friction. I also put my Danforth anchor out to the port side stern with about 100 feet of 5/8″ rode (rope), and my 33 lb Rocna anchor off the port bow, with 75 feet of 5/16″ chain, and an additional 20 feet of 3/4″ rode. The curve I was in was about 7 feet deep along the east bank, and only a few feet along the west bank, so I wanted to keep her in the east bank of the curve so she didn’t end up hard aground. My boat needs at least four feet of water under her to keep her off the ground. Of course, they were calling for a 10 foot storm surge, so plenty of water, but I didn’t want her coming to rest on the shallow bank. Or on a house. Or in a tree.

Tied down before Irma

I took this shot as I dinghied away, praying it wouldn’t be the last time I saw her afloat. I noticed as I was leaving that I had left an old halyard (rope) on the deck, and I grabbed it and threw it in the dinghy as I left. This turned out to be a lucky thing.

I had intended to drag the dinghy up on a small beach near the marina and tie it off to the mangroves there, and just hope it didn’t break loose or sink. The plan didn’t work out because so many boats had already tied up into that tiny beach area, there was no more room. Disheartened, I rode around into the marina docks, trying to resign myself to the idea that I would have to let her sink, and hope I could recover her after the fact. Then I saw where one  of my neighbors had pulled his dinghy up on top of the floating dock and lashed it down. I had 110 feet of halyard to tie it down with if only I could drag it up there! It wasn’t easy, dragging a ten foot skiff with a 15 hp motor up on that dock, but I did manage it after a half an hour and some choice expletives. It’s a good thing, too, because the inner dinghy dock area was practically crushed by several large boats that were pushed in there. But good fortune smiled on me, and my dinghy survived as well.

As for the big boat, well, the Danforth anchor off my stern held its ground, which is the only thing that kept her from swinging around. You see, when I tied her up, and still when I finally evacuated on Thursday night, the eye was forecast to pass to the east of Marathon. As it turns out, the eye passed to the west, completely changing the wind directions. I had inadvertently tied her to be stern to the wind as it clocked around. And my girl has a big fat stern, so that was a bit of a problem. Better to have the wind on the pointy end. She broke three mangroves, but my anchors held as did the remaining three lines.

Of course, I didn’t know this for days. We weren’t allowed back in to the Keys for about a week. I had come back to Maryland to visit during the evacuation, and was waiting there to find out if I was homeless. In the days after the storm, I had heard on Facebook that NOAA was uploading post storm satellite imagery. I was waiting patiently to get some word about my boat, for them to finish uploading the images. On the Wednesday morning after the storm, I awoke to a text message from a friend with the satellite image of my boat, still more or less where I left her. I immediately went on to the NOAA site, and zoomed over to where I had left the dinghy. I was thrilled; I still had my “house” and my “car”!!

Satellite photo confirmed my boat was intact!

So in the end, I am very fortunate. I did lose my battery bank, and my solar controller (which moderates the current coming in from the solar panel), but it’s all good. Apparently when I shut the fridge down, I didn’t click it all the way over. It ran the whole time. Well, until the batteries died. It is a good thing that I do my best to keep a dry boat, because I imagine my batteries were dead before the storm even hit. That means my bilge pumps would not have been working.

[[ Mental note to self: install a breaker in the galley for the refrigerator!! ]]

I tried to put a charge back on the batteries, but at a badly abused three years old, they were having none of it. As for what killed the solar controller, well, who knows? Maybe it was already going. All I know is that it is currently refusing to play my little sailboat games. Time for justifiably purchased new gear!! That is exciting, as new tech gear is always going to be better at it’s job than the old stuff. I also took the opportunity to increase the size of my battery bank, also a quality of life upgrade. So, a bit pricey, but all in all, very cool.

When I returned, I had gained a few gallons of water in the bilge, and that is all right with me! There are obvious signs that she had been laid over on her starboard side. She is stained on her starboard topsides as well as on the deck along the toe rail. She has stains from mangrove bark rubbed into her starboard shrouds (wires that hold the mast up) as well as all over a halyard I had clipped to the starboard side toe rail. Other than, she was perfect, a sight for sore eyes!!

Just a few observations from the area, and the less than lucky boats;  A lot of people left sails on, stuff all over their decks, etc. That stuff turns into high speed projectiles. The sails will end up opening, one way or another, and will exponentially increase the odds of that boat breaking free. I also noticed lines that had been chafed through, still attached to the mooring leads. One of these was a single (bad enough), polypropylene (worse!?!) line that I wouldn’t use that to hold my dinghy. It is simply not strong enough.

The marina recommends a setup using three lines to the mooring pendant, which is displayed in the office/community room. I guess whoever was on this ball never noticed that display. It is unfortunate for people who were more conscientious in their preparations. It is difficult enough to be prepared for hurricane conditions, but to have boats that have broken loose striking your boat on top of it all…..just a shame. That was my number one reason for hiding in the mangroves; to get out of the pinball machine.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little peek into an alternative lifestyle, and my brush with Irma. I think I might write a book about it, so stay tuned! lol. If you have questions or comments, feel free to hit me up: Candace at livingthesaltlife423@gmail.com

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