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Riding Out Hurricane Hugo Turned Sailor's Adventure Into Nightmare

September 16, 1990|CHARLIE THOMAS | Thomas is a former company president who retired to skipper his own charter yacht in the Caribbean. This article is reprinted with permission of Yachting magazine. and

CULEBRA, Puerto Rico, 10:30 a.m., Sept. 17 — A year ago, Charlie Thomas rode out Hurricane Hugo aboard his 63-foot charter yacht Zinja at Culebra, Puerto Rico. During the 24 hours he was alone on board, Thomas recorded his preparations for the storm, his fears and emotions, and documented his fight to save himself and his boat. The following is an edited transcript of his tapes.

This is my first hurricane afloat, so I've been asking people who have been through six or seven for advice. They tell me to get everything done now because when the wind really starts blowing, I'll get disoriented and start doing things backwards, like writing with the wrong end of the pencil or holding the flashlight at its beam end rather than its handle.

It's blowing about 25 m.p.h. now. I just put out my second anchor. The deck is stripped. I've checked with boats around me to determine how many anchors they have out. I guess this is really going to be one hurricane, as they are saying on the radio:

"We are expecting combined seas of 15 to 20 feet and 75 m.p.h. winds, with gusts over 100. There is great likelihood of major damage. There will be rain such as you have never seen before; as much as 10 inches is expected by tomorrow. Stay inside. With the surge, manhole covers will blow off. The hurricane is scheduled to hit 24 hours from now. At noon we will have new official coordinates. Stay tuned now for the CBS news broadcast."

11 a.m.: Things have settled down a little bit. When Hurricane Gabriel went through last week, I elected to stay at the dock in Yacht Haven, St. Thomas. I felt comfortable it would pass wide. They predicted 12- to 20-foot swells outside. With the surge in the harbor, I snapped three lines. I thought, these hurricanes aren't a fair fight. I decided I would never ride out a hurricane at the dock again.

I had the boat about 80% ready to move. Two boats I really respected said they were going to stay, but I checked the weather fax and it said there is an 80% chance that it will hit here. I chose Culebra over Hurricane Hole in St. John, even though it was farther away, and I decided to go without sails. I thought I should go early, so I left Sept. 16, while the hurricane was still 300 miles from Guadeloupe.

I got into Culebra three hours later and looked around. I knew there were a lot of boats behind me. The one thing I didn't want was a boat dragging down on me. I decided to go out on a point, where I figured no one would want to be near me.

11:30 a.m.: I put out 400 feet, 1,400 pounds of chain plus a 105-pound anchor. I'm out on a point with two inlets on either side. A fellow I knew came in to the left of me 100 yards away, and there's another boat 150 yards away. Two tour-boat "pirate ships" with a lot of freeboard anchored in a little cove to the right of me. I don't like their location, but relative to other boats, I have three times as much room. If the wind does what's expected, I can drag a mile.

I then went around to each of the other boats to find out what kind of anchors they have out and how much scope. All agreed to monitor Channel Six. At one point, the anchor hung up on the Zodiac (a motorized rubber raft) and I thought for sure it would puncture it. A guy on a nearby boat was watching me and got his oars out and was ready to help if I needed it. That's the thing about the people here: Nobody gives you advice, nobody tells you anything, but they all watch and they all help.

Noon: More and more it looks as if Hurricane Hugo is going to hit 540 miles south of St. Croix. They say this is a Class 4 hurricane. I don't know what the hell that means but I know it is the worst. They say that at 175 miles from the center of the hurricane the winds are about 25 m.p.h. At 150 miles, winds are 40 m.p.h. At 140 miles, winds really start to build up. This one is sustained at 150 m.p.h.--on open water with no obstructions.

The anchorage we are in has a narrow passage, a quarter-mile wide, and all but 100 yards are covered by reef. This place is safe as safe can be and there are now 300 boats in here. It looks like Newport Harbor in the mooring area. Most boats that can be are pulled up into the mangroves. I'm happy out here. I have a strong aversion to bouncing on the bottom.

12:30 p.m.: The main saloon looks as if Moby Dick swam down here and deflated. All the sails, cushions, motors, everything is stripped off the deck. All halyards and lines have been taped down, and emergency gear is out. I have informed the local Civil Defense boat that I am staying aboard. Other people are going ashore, but I don't feel any danger. I think I will be safe on the boat and can help it ride through by starting the engine to keep the shock off the anchor.

The radio brings the noon weather: "Winds in the hurricane are still sustained at 130 m.p.h. Barometric pressure is at 29.8 inches and dropping. . . ."

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