Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Batten Down the Hatches

One day before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season, the first named storm was announced, Tropical Storm Arthur, who's remnants are currently affecting Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula. For a storm to be named, it must reach a minimum of tropical storm status, which is sustained winds of 34kts or higher. They are named in alphabetical order, the names taken from a predetermined list. It just so happens that the name chosen when the letter 'L' comes up to bat this year is Laura. I think of the possible irony of a hurricane Laura hitting Key West while I'm here, while knocking very hard on wood, of course.

The beginning of the hurricane season marks the end of Hurricane Awareness Week, which I followed with keen interest. I anticipated receiving more information than I really wanted, giving me more reasons to worry by providing me with more scenarios of just how bad things could really get. It was just the opposite though. I learned that it has been over a hundred years since the last hurricane of Category 3 (winds of 96kts) or higher has hit Key West; the last Category 5 (sustained winds of 135kts or more) was in 1846 (the categories are 1 to 5, 1 being the weakest, 5 being the 'we're all gonna die!'). Statistically speaking, Key West is more likely to be hit by a hurricane than more northerly areas of the southern U.S., but when more northerly areas are struck, they are more likely to experience a more severe hurricane, if that explanation makes any sense to you. Yes, I was a meteorologist, but I never claimed to be a good one.

Cuba actually deserves some thanks for this fact. Because of its landmass, it can take a lot of the steam out of a hurricane before it makes its way to the Keys. Hurricanes, to sustain themselves as well as to increase in intensity, require the heat and moisture of the warm sea surface beneath them. So a (relatively) weak storm hitting the Keys can go on to track offshore and up the coast, increasing in strength along the way and thus be able to do far greater damage to the mainland United States.

I have a few options for riding out the inevitable storms and my plans are somewhat in place after taking a survey of many locals who have dealt with all this before.

Up to a certain wind velocity, I should be safe on my mooring, which is very strong. The worst case scenario in that situation is being struck by another boat that has broken free of its mooring. For those who don't know and if I haven't explained this before, a mooring is basically a permanent anchor at a given location, with a buoy on a line at the surface that is readily tied on to the bow of your boat. It saves the effort of hauling up all that chain and your anchor every time, and it's normally much heavier than your standard anchor. For example, my anchor is only 33 pounds, whereas moorings can be anything from an oil drum filled with cement, an old engine block, or if you're living Key's style, your mooring may be chains tied to boats that were sunk in the last big storm to roll through.

Anything over 65 knots and I'll want to consider one of two other options. Going dockside to a floating dock is the first. Key West Bight has a small entrance, being surrounded by the town on three sides, and the fourth side is a partial breakwater. Now, one of the most dangerous aspects of a hurricane is actually not the high winds and waves, it is the storm surge that accompanies them. A storm surge is a significant and fast increase in the sea level caused partly by the high winds of a hurricane making landfall, and partly by how fast the atmospheric pressure drops in the vicinity of the low pressure system. So a storm surge can have disastrous effects, if water levels rise so high that the floating docks float right up and over the large posts that are meant to keep them in place (they slide up and down these posts under normal tide changes of a couple of feet). If they rise up and over (I think the docks down here are prepared to handle a 12-ft storm surge), the whole system comes unglued and it would then become perfectly conceivable that my boat could end up two blocks away in my friend's back yard. A new friend of mine out in the anchorage lost his boat in Hurricane Wilma a few years back, only to have it spotted by the coast guard off the coast of Miami a week later, and 200 miles away.

Option number two is a much more traditional method of procuring the safety of one's boat, and you do know by now how much of a traditionalist I am, so I am definitely leaning towards this option. You seek out an area of mangroves (low, stout bushes that are the first forms of plant life to stick their heads above the water as islands form out of coral reefs) where there is a narrow canal, and you make your boat as a spider in a web, sending lines off in a dozen directions to the sturdy roots of the mangroves. I was recently told of one of these areas not far from Key West, which I hope to head over and check out soon. It may be too shallow to get my boat in there, so I'd like to explore it well before any impending storm to see if it's truly an option. It's actually Navy property, used at one time as a home for submarines, though it has since silted in somewhat. Apparently the Navy are quite happy to lift their restrictions in the case of hurricanes and let private boaters run for safety in there. I must add that there are marinas here whose moral responsibility is not aligned with that of the Navy, and one marina actually increases its rates during storms. No, this ain't the Northeast (if you recall while in Provincetown, Massachusetts, we were approached and offered free dockage at a slip left vacant by Schooner Hindu for the duration of Tropical Storm Noel). Hindu has continued to be a re-occuring theme in my journey, though not entirely positive. During Noel, she was already on her way to her winter port of Key West. We saw that wooden beauty of 1925 as the three of us rowed ashore in Key West that first night. The crew were loitering on the dock after their sunset sail, and one of them would eventually become my temporary crew to assist me in my passage from Cuba to Mexico, and then from Mexico to Key West.

The weather, and more specifically the winds, have been and will continue to be responsible for the direction my life takes. When I reflect on how far I've come, and where I thought I'd be by now (just completing my circumnavigation of Cuba!) I see how they've decided where I will go, if I will go, how far I will get, and who will accompany me. If I had met my goals of Christmas in Cuba sipping on mojitos (Tyler, why did you have to plant that image in my brain!), many things that define my life now would be much different. The wind may not explain why it has decided all these various fates, but living this way, knowing it is a natural wonder that has this boat on its puppet strings, helps me to trust its path.

Having recently shared my contemplations on 'signs', what do you think about this: As I wrote my concluding remarks above, Bob Dylan came on the radio singing,

'The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind'

Cheesy, yet entirely true.