Sailing Around in a Hurricane

Take Two has changed hands a few times since Captain David Brockman wrote this account of sailing during Hurrican Marilyn.  The current owners have quite an exciting blog of their adventures with Take Two.  I would recommend you take the time to visit their site and read of their adventures!

Hurricane Marilyn …

Sailing Around a Hurricane?
A Sailor’s tale…

British Captain David Brockman and German Mate Gudren Vilser own and operate the catamaran charter vessel Take Two, featured in these pages. Their adventure may not be for every sailor, but one must note that the outcome is much happier than it was for many other vessels and crew.

Anchored in Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas with hurricane “Marilyn” fast approaching (she traveled from Barbados to southeast of St. Croix in just 24 hours) the question of what to do in the little time available arose!

To cripple a perfectly safe seagoing vessel by tying her into the mangroves of a hurricane hole with a dozen lines and anchors, as we did for hurricane “Luis” just over a week before … and hoping the storm wouldn’t come too close — just didn’t appeal to us any longer. We have seen the damage that can result from just one vessel coming loose in a hurricane hole, not to mention the damage resulting from “Luis” in Antigua and St. Maarten.

Our catamaran “Take Two” can cruise at about 10 Knots (12 mph) and with a top speed of about 18 Knots (21 mph). She is faster than the average hurricane, so this time we decided to sail around the storm!

Armed with a short wave radio to receive the position of the storm at all times, we sailed south in front of her. “Marilyn” was heading northwest. On the northwest hemisphere the winds blow counter clockwise around the eye of a hurricane, so theoretically one can go for a “nice” downwind sail all the way around without getting too close to the dangerous center.

And it worked! On Sept. 15, at 11 am we were at the same latitude as Marilyn, just 78 miles west of her center. The seas were high (we didn’t even try to estimate their height), but the wind speed didn’t go over 30 Knots… a good sailing wind for “Take Two”. Everything is down hill now… we’ve made it… we thought.

As the wind came around we changed course as well. The seas were confused by the change in the wind direction and the winds became stronger and stronger. With 55 Knots of wind and sailing 15 Knots under a heavily reefed Genoa we waited for the next update from the Hurricane Center in Miami.

This gave us the clue: “Marilyn” had slowed down significantly while she whipped St. Croix and St. Thomas, and we were actually catching up with her! This was the first time we had ever wanted Take Two to slow down. More reefing didn’t help at all and in torrential rain.

Fatigued from being in the storm for 30 hours, we remembered the old tales of sailors — who used to “heave to” in a hurricane. We decided to try this maneuver and experienced sudden quietness, as if somebody had turned off the storm. We were drifting sideways at about 2 Knots riding softly over the long high waves and old swells. After having slept for about 5 hours, the wind speed had fallen to a comfortable 25 Knots, the sun rose, the seas were still high, but the breaking crests were no more.

Having circumnavigated “Marilyn” we sailed home, expecting the worst, but were glad to discover that the crew charted fleet had survived Marilyn without any major damage and all of our friends were safe and sound aboard their yachts.

Last revised: Fri Sept 29, 1995