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We followed Irma from the time it was a named storm.  Me, because of having been raised on the Louisiana gulf coast and Chuck having lived in the Texas hurricane zone for years, make following storms from the moment they leave Africa just something we do, whether we are within the storm tracks or not.  So, with great interest we followed Irma.  Freedom being berthed in Stock Island Marina Village less than a mile from the Florida Straits increased our interest in Irma.

As the storm tracks increasingly indicated that Irma would make land fall in South Florida, our interest morphed into concern and worry.  Both of us had seen on way more than one occasion what even a direct hit from a Category 1 or 2 hurricane could do.  We hoped Irma would follow a more easterly track and fade harmlessly into the Atlantic.  But, by the Tuesday before the storm it was more than obvious there was a high enough chance of a hit, if only a glancing blow, that we had to start preparing Freedom from the potential effects of the storm.

We removed the two head sails and tied our main sail securely to the boom.  We removed the four dorades and installed their plugs.  Everything not absolutely hard connected to the boat was removed or disconnected and stored below.  The bimini and dodger, along with any other canvas was removed and stored.  All lines were recoiled.  We put out eight fenders.  We made sure the boat had sufficient food and water to last us a week.  And, then it was time to secure the boat to the dock.

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Stock Island Marina essentially sits at the end of the Safe Harbor Channel.  It is short and straight shot of about a half a mile or so from the marina to the Florida Straits.  Freedom was berthed on the dock that was the closest to that channel.  We weren’t happy with that.  We requested to move just one dock in so as to be protected by the potentially huge swell that would rage right up that channel should the storm hit even a little bit to the west of Key West.  There were multiple slips available when we made the request to move.  Just one dock closer to land would make a huge difference should the storm directly hit the area and the floating outside docks start oscillating.  Our request was denied.  We were given a roundabout bull shit excuse that other boats might be coming in with reservations and the marina didn’t know which boats would actually make the move and show up, and which ones wouldn’t.  Quickly it became apparent that the real reason was that the charter yachts would move there; they were even more exposed than we were.  Trying to argue with this marina is moot and a useless exercise.  So, we settled into securing Freedom where she sat.

After securing the dink as best we could, we laid out our fenders and secured Freedom’s starboard side to the floating dock.  There were ten lines, two at the stern, four amidships, and four at the bow.  In addition, there were lines from each of our port cleats to the floating dock cleats of the vacant slip next to us.  A total of fourteen lines holding Freedom to the dock.  All were three quarter inch lines; all but three of them were three strand nylon.  At the end of the day, we sat in the cockpit reasonably assured we were tied off well.  We did debate adding additional lines as well as pulling Freedom off the floating dock in a classic spider configuration, even discussing the issue with our good friend Vanessa.  In the end, however, with two days to go and with the storm now more consistently seeming to be on a track to hit somewhere between Key Largo and Miami, we decided to lay by our rows.

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We spent the last day or so doing whatever we could to help our friends, Nancy and Fernando, secure their boat.

And, following the weather.

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We didn’t like what we were seeing.

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From being through more than a handful of hurricanes we were fully aware of a hugely important point…there is a tremendous advantage from being on the west side of a hurricane.  The wind is less, the rain is less, and the storm surge is less.  One doesn’t even have to be that far west.  Forty or fifty miles can be the difference between a very blustery day, and major damage.  The day before Irma hit the National Hurricane Center (NHC) was predicting the storm to make landfall around Key Largo, well over a hundred miles to our east.  The National Weather Service (NWS) was predicting winds in Key West to be in the 70-80 knot range, strong but manageable.  We felt OK about things.

But, later on, the forecast began an ominous change for the worse.

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Later in the afternoon on Friday, the NHC began indicating the storm was tracking a bit more westerly…the NWS gradually began increasing its wind forecast for Key West as well.  All along the NHC predicted a northerly turn but to their credit readily admitted they didn’t know when or where that would occur.  As time went by, it seemed that each six hour forecast discussion put the storm moving more and more to the west…bringing Irma closer and closer to us.  Some of the storm tracks even predicted Irma would track to the west of Key West.  Honestly, for me, it was like living in a slow moving nightmare.

We briefly but seriously entertained whether we should leave the Keys, but after careful consideration decided not to.

The Saturday morning early before Irma hit, Chuck and I packed everything of value we could think of and were picked up by our friends Nancy and Fernando.  We had much earlier accepted their invitation to ride out the storm in a double concrete block building that was the current location of a local television station…located a very short distance from our yachts.  There were seven of us:  the owner of the station, Nancy and Fernando, and other friends, Jeanne and Sean.

Once unloaded in what we began to call the Bunker, we settled in for what we knew would be a long eighteen hours…and watched the weather.  Each forecast brought the storm further west, closer to Key West…and not by a few miles, but 40-60 miles at a time.

Eventually we lost power and the television feed…shortly after that cell service went down.  The last forecast I personally saw was that Irma was going to hit where it eventually did…just east of Key West.  Stock Island was just at the western edge of the eyewall.  The worst of the storm for us was between 0300 and 0700.  It was a near sleepless night, at least for me; I slept on the floor of the cat room, with five growling cats…a towel for a pillow.

When daylight came the wind was still quite strong.  Mid-day, the wind had subsided enough that we decided to brave things and go check on the boats.  Chuck and Sean went in one car, Fernando and I went in his.  Though the storm surge was not very high it was enough for there to be some flooding on the way to the marina.

Once at the marina we went to our boat first, Chuck and Sean were already there when we arrived.  After a bit I saw our mast and it was upright…I was relieved.  After we parked I saw Chuck walking toward me.  From a distance I could see the dock rash on our starboard side.  Chuck said we’d taken a major hit against the dock, thousands of dollars in damage, he said.  I was stunned, from a distance, it didn’t look that bad.  As I walked up to our finger pier I was amazed at the severity of the damage we had sustained. 

Though Freedom was floating with no list, proud as ever, her starboard side looked like it had been attacked by a jack hammer and chisel.  Most of the stantions on the starboard side were bent or broken.  Roughly a third of the rub rail amidships was simply gone.  A full third of the corresponding cap rail was destroyed.  Ten feet or so of the hull was severely gouged as though some monster had pounced…the fiberglass was demolished almost to the core in places.  Our television antenna had disappeared. 

After inspecting the damage we feel the damage went down something like this.  The major wind, out of the north, pushed the starboard side of the boat against the dock.  Initially we feel the fenders and lines protected the hull.  But, it is obvious as the wind picked up, Freedom started rocking as the more robust gusts came and went.  This oscillation eventually increased to the point that the solid teak rub rail managed to start hitting the 2” X 12” protection boards on the side of the floating dock.  These protection boards on the dock, only nailed in place, eventually came loose.  The same protection boards served as a cover for the roughly ¾” steel studs and bolts that actually hold the floating dock together…once the protection board came loose Freedom was at the mercy of these bolts.  First the rub rail was destroyed.  And, as the winds increased, the bolts chewed right up the fiberglass hull, taking the cap rail down.  Once the protection boards that shielded the bolts came loose, with the steel against wood and fiberglass, the mighty Tayana never had a chance.  From looking at the height of the dock and distance from the rub rail to it, we figure Freedom had to be rocking back and forth from center at least 30-40 degrees.

The damage was significant.  Here it is:

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IMG_0517Sean and Fernando’s boats didn’t appear to have been damaged much, though Fernando’s boat did have his swim platform demolished.  Sean also had another boat that had been on a mooring ball during the storm.  He has since located it with manageable damage.  After we took a few pix we returned to the bunker to wait for the still strong winds to subside more.

Later, Nancy, Fernando, Chuck and I visited Nancy’s home on Key West; it survived.

We had a Honda portable generator the bunker needed.  We made three trips back to Freedom before the winds and chop died down enough for us to actually board and retrieve the generator.

After we got the generator back to the station, the wonderful comradery of our bunkermates aside, Chuck and I were ready to get back to the boat.  Fernando and Sean were understandably elated their yachts had survived with the relatively minor damage they took.  But, for Chuck and I, there was little at that point to be joyful about.  We needed to get back to the boat and the alone time required to fully process our situation.  Fernando and Sean were the bomb, helping us to load all of our things and get them on the boat in spite of the blustery winds and continuing rain.

Once on the boat, we turned on the gen set and sunk into the misery of knowing our boat, though seaworthy, had very severe damage that would need to be addressed; damage in all probability that could not be repaired in Key West.  I suppose the overwhelming feelings we had were ones of just…hassle

Perhaps I may have initially handled things a bit better than Chuck did for he, rightfully so, felt the entire issue would ultimately fall on his shoulders…but I was more than a bit demoralized myself.  With the cats keeping close to us, we had a good nights sleep in our bed, genset humming.

The next day, Chuck started to go down the coulda-woulda-shoulda road regarding how we prepped the boat.  I put an abrupt stop to that from the get go.  Sure, in hindsight, we might have prepped the boat differently now that after the fact we saw the consequences.  But, the truth of the matter is there were boats tied up exactly as ours was, no more than a hundred feet or so from us, who had come through the storm unscathed.  Boats that were prepped way less secure had also weathered the storm with little to no damage.

The damage to Key West from Irma was, in ways, unusual.  The amount of real property damaged on Key West proper seemed somewhat light, certainly not catastrophic.  That’s not to say there was not a lot of damage, there was.  Lots and lots of trees, shrubs, and carports were destroyed, but not what one might expect.  Most assuredly, the 130 mph sustained winds just east of Key West pretty much leveled much of the real estate from Cudjoe Key on over to Marathon…damage was substantial.  But, being just 20-40 miles east of the eyewall spared Key West, just no doubt about it.

Immediately after the storm we took stock of our supplies.  We felt if worst came to worse we were good for a good week to ten days, much longer if it really came to it.  Nonetheless, supplies were quite limited here on the boat.

As is often the case, everyone came together here.  Our Delorme inReach sat tracker acted as a lifeline for loved ones with its ability to send unlimited text messages.  We made it available and many here in the marina got messages out before cell phone service resumed.  Our friends Mike and Craig brought us a care package of bread, sandwich meats, canned goods, booze, and cokes a couple of days after the storm as well…Fernando brought us booze and ginger ale…we lent him our generator until power came back on.

I’m always pretty amazed with the outpouring of support after major calamities.  Every time, the local area rightfully brags about how their community comes together as if their community is somehow special.  The reality is there is nothing special about how Texas citizens responded to Harvey and Ike…how Louisiana citizens responded to Katrina and Rita…how New Jersey citizens responded to Sandy…how Mississippi citizens responded to Hilda…nothing special whatsoever.  They are no more unique that the response got from one in the Caribbean, or the way the community came together here in the Keys after Irma.  When there are times of need, people come together and give for the greater cause…everywhere, no matter what.  I’ve seen it before and I’ve seen it here in Key West the past couple of weeks.  It’s a wonderful thing to witness.

Things are very much on the mend here post hurricane.  FEMA, state, and county aid is coming in.  Just a few minutes ago I even saw a team of Baptist First Responders from North Carolina in the local Publix.  We have water though it needs to be boils.  We got our scooters back yesterday so we have transportation.  Electricity, cell phone service and internet is back up.  Trash is starting to be hauled off in a noticeable volume.  A few of the bars down on Duval Street are back open, as are the grocery stores and gas stations.  It’s only been twelve days…I’m sure it will look even more different and on the road to recovery a week from now.

The cliché hater I am, I have to admit there is one that holds true:  The plans of a cruiser are written in the sand at low tide.  What do we intend to do now?  The truth is we don’t know.  We feel we will be lucky if we can have Freedom repaired in six months.  With Hurricane Maria destroying even more of the Caribbean as I type, there seems to be little reason to continuing on down there.  We could go north up the east coast…or sail on down into the western Caribbean.  Chuck and I both have our own ideas relative to the possibilities but have indicated to each other we have no intention of making any decisions until after Freedom is repaired.

Lastly, perhaps some might wonder how we feel.  That’s difficult to really answer.  Honestly, we are still processing the situation.  I’m a little more of a count-your-blessings kind of person than Chuck is.  Nonetheless, it’s easy to look at our boat at the moment and not become bummed out.  It’s easy to fall into the why me blues.  While talking to someone on the dock the other day she said something that was most true.  She said she had a hard time feeling fortunate.  I think that pretty much sums up our state.  We are, at times, having a hard time realizing just how fortunate or lucky we are, particularly when we know so many here and in the Caribbean that have either had their boat sunk or severely damaged way more than ours.  Our yacht is fully insured, it’s seaworthy and all of the systems are working and intact and, most importantly, we are alive.  Many more, many more, or nowhere near as fortunate…I cry for them.

Sure we have a major PITA experience ahead of us getting our boat repaired, but repaired as good, or better, than it was it will be, rest assured.  We have a marine surveyor coming to assess the damage and look at the boat with a professional eye…he’s surveyed the boat twice before.  During the repair, the location of that repair still undetermined, we do not intend to stick around but rent a car and go on a road trip.  It’s been well over a year since we have been off the boat and are due for a road trip anyhow.  In the interim, we have several guests that are due to arrive in a few weeks that will take our mind off of things for a while.  Once they leave, we’ll get back on track and make the decisions that need to be made relative to the repair.

Well, that’s the scoop. 

Every time I go through a hurricane I hate it.  This one was no exception.

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One Comment

  1. wow!


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