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Nightmare in the Lagoon

Mari_Sanchez_in_1995This vivid, dramatic and moving account of how Sailor/Cruiser Mari Sanchez and her husband battled to save their yacht and their lives, as Hurricane Luis tore through St. Maarten’s Simpson Bay Lagoon, was originally published in Nautical Magazine All at Sea, and was generously provided to the WEEKender for republication by All at Sea’s original publisher T.P. Parson. This story is full of nautical terminology and some crusty language; the nautical terms are clarified in brackets by WEEKender and the crusty language is left in for emotional authenticity. Our apologies to sensitive readers, motor boaters and the French. Boat names are printed in italics.

 

Nightmare in the Lagoon

By Mari Sanchez

 

 

Like the Mayor of Hiroshima said - “What the f**k was that?!”

 

So there we were, in St. Maarten and the beginning of the hurricane season was upon us. Everyone said it was going to be the worst season since 1933, but many of the long-timers said they say that every year. So, as I had a good job which I didn’t want to walk out of, and as my husband Lincoln was also doing well, we decided to stay - to take a chance. With the amount of warning one gets around here, we could always run south at the last minute, right....? Wrong! The best laid plans, etc...

 

Our first real scare was Felix. He was heading northwest and we could have run south if he approached because of his track towards us, but he turned up and went north of us in good time, so we were safe - phew! At least for another week. Then came Iris. She was a sneaky one and got pushed way south by Humberto. She was heading straight for Dominica/Martinique, so if we went south we ran the risk of being caught slap bang in the middle of it and heading north might’ve meant being caught by Humberto, so we had to sit tight in the relative safety of Simpson Bay Lagoon on our hurricane mooring block and our many anchors. Being the sneak that she was, Iris made a sharp right turn at Dominica and wound her way up through all the Leeward Island. So there we sat, tracking her position on the chart on the boat all Sunday. She was only packing 65 to 75 knot winds though, so although everyone was anxious about her arrival, there was still plenty of banter and bravado on the radio on channel 10. On Monday morning at 02h00, Iris passed 70 miles east of St. Maarten and brought nothing more than rain and 20 knot winds. Phew! Made it again! That was a real close shave, though, and the whole island had a jubilant feeling about it; everyone thankful that we’d been spared yet again.

 

BUT THEN came Luis. He was a nasty bugger and was a tropical wave as soon as it left the coast of Africa. In 24 hours he had been upgraded to a tropical storm, and 24 hours after that, upgraded again to a class 1 hurricane. He was way south at 10 degrees and was not making as much “northing” as we would have liked.

 

It was interesting being at my job in Philipsburg. We would get all the weather info for the benefit of yachtsmen and have everyone coming in with opinions: “No, it’s taking the same track as such and such hurricane in ’85 - it’ll never hit us,” or “It’s coming straight for us, it’s going to be a bad one”... “It’s going north/south”... every man and his dog became a meteorologist. Some boats did leave and go south. As it turns out, they did the right thing, but it’s a calculated risk, you might run straight into it. By Friday, Luis was a class 4 hurricane, at 140 knots in the centre and hurricane force winds extending 170 nautical miles.

 

WE KNEW at that stage that we could not escape some sort of bad storm, even if we didn’t get the eye. We all hoped, of course, that the high pressure system in the north would strengthen and push it further south, as by now it was too late for it to pass north of us. The panic in the air was tangible and, as it turned out, warranted.

 

We spent the entire weekend taking everything off the deck and duct taping windows, checking anchors and getting as ready as we possibly could. Sunday the weather was already pretty sh*tty and having done as much as possible, we went ashore to Soggy Dollar Bar, where there was much back-patting and hugging, “Good lucks” and “We’ll be alrights.” Everyone knowing that we probably wouldn’t be.

 

Monday morning I went to the office, where we disconnected the computers and put everything in plastic bags and watertight containers, and I made it back to the boat by 11:00am. The water in the lagoon was pretty choppy and it took an incredibly long, wet ride in the dinghy. We then took our hard dinghy and sank it in the mangroves (Linc would later have to wrestle it off looters), and sunk our deflated inflatable next to the boat. Now we sat tight.

 

TWO BOATS HAD already run aground during the night with only 30 knots of wind, so we knew it was going to be a horror show in anything stronger. Especially with 65 charter boats that had arrived in the previous couple of days and had just thrown out two anchors on rode [rode: anchor line, either chain or rope]. Nobody got much sleep Monday night, even though the wind didn’t gust to more than 35 knots. Luis had been keeping its track on 17 degrees and was headed straight for St. Maarten. There was no happy banter or bravado on the radio, although the camaraderie between sailors was something to be experienced.

 

By 9:00am on Tuesday, boats were dragging all over the place. A huge 90ft stinkpot [‘stinkpot’ is what some sailors call powerboats] came on the radio in a panic. There was a 40ft wooden boat stuck on her anchor chain, banging herself to pieces against them. She was shouting that the boat was breaking-up next to them and she could see an elderly man inside shouting for help. Now, we knew the boat, and her skipper was a cripple and couldn’t possibly get off the boat unassisted. What he was doing onboard in the first place was beyond us. We heard later that he was saved shortly before his boat went down by Harry Bosch from Caribbean Dry Dock.

 

AT THIS STAGE we were still holding fine, although the wind was +/- 80 knots and the water was rough. The radio was alive with reports of boats in trouble and we heard a friend of ours saying he’d been driving all night avoiding drifting boats and that as he would not be able to carry on much longer, he was going to attempt a controlled beaching. That was the last we heard of him that day and you can imagine how worried we were until we caught up with him two days later.

 

About 11:00am we saw straight ahead, a white boat with a thick green stripe (hereafter referred to as The Green Boat or The F**cking Frenchman) drag onto a little beige boat. The F**cking Frenchman had anchored the day before and high-tailed it back to shore. Anyway, George on the beige boat got out on deck - now you must appreciate the courage it takes to do that on a boat that’s flying around like a dinghy - cut his own anchor line to get away from The Green Boat that might have pushed him under, drifted past us at speed and threw out another single anchor further down which held him through the rest of the hurricane!

 

THE GREEN BOAT was not headed for us. It snagged one of our anchors, but didn’t come too close to us, because we always have so much scope [scope: long anchor line] out. It did, however, start pulling our bow [front of the boat] around, so we got on our radio and warned Nyati [a friend’s yacht] and everyone else behind us to watch out, we might be coming down, that we would try to miss them, but couldn’t guarantee it.

 

We started the “donk” [engine] and tried to hold station. Another of those ‘best laid plans’... If we power into the wind with our 220 horsepower, we can hold in up to 60 knots of wind, taking that amount of strain off the anchor gear, right?... Wrong! You power into the wind, but with the engine noise you cannot hear the lull, so you give too much power, surge ahead and then get caught broadside by the next gust, slamming you sideways against your anchor gear, which of course doesn’t do it any good and you risk breaking it out of the ground. If we had been able to let our anchor gear go, we would have been in a far better position today, having been able to drive the boat into the mangroves, but the chains were so tight in the bridle system we’d put them in that there was no chance of slipping them at this stage. Cutting them loose was not an option, one could not stand up on deck, much less traipse up to the foredeck with bolt-cutters or a hacksaw, and if you did succeed in cutting them, having your face broken by a loose chain end under pressure.

 

Anyway, we were holding station, Stentor [their yacht] bucking and swerving like an Optimist [a tiny wooden dinghy], trying not to hit the boats around us. Visibility was getting very bad. Lincoln was at the wheel inside (he’d rigged up inside engine controls for such an eventuality) and I was looking out of the hatch giving directions - “Tranquility astern, watch her lines in the prop - tap off - right, clear. Green Boat to port, go starboard, give power - little boat ahead, should miss her stern if our bow comes around NOW - okay, clear,” and so on.

 

THEN WE looked next to us and saw Intaka go broadside to the wind. I think that’s when we realised we didn’t stand a chance of saving the boat with the tackle [anchor gear] we had. Duncan and Viqui had hired a 2000lb ships anchor with a dirty great big steel buoy attached to it, that everyone KNEW would hold. At first we couldn’t believe it. Linc said “Oh sh*t, we must be bolting forward” - I informed him that it was in fact Intaka dragging. Duncan had been so sure of his mammoth anchor that before the hurricane he had very kindly offered that if we should find ourselves dragging we should just come and tie-off on the back of his boat. So, as you can imagine, we were very sorry to see him drag in our present situation.

 

She dragged into Ghostdancing, a cold-moulded (plywood &West System) 39ft Bongers, where she held, just astern of him, tangled up in his mooring lines with a great big steel buoy banging on his stern. This at least bought us some more time to manoeuvre, without Intaka on our starboard side. But with all the muck in the water, our engine started overheating - obviously a blocked cooling water intake, but we kept it running on idle and we seemed to be holding.

 

THEN THERE was a call on the radio “Stentor, d’you see what’s coming?” We saw it. Two forty-footers coming straight at us. The first one was easy. A wooden schooner hit us, her beam on our bow - she looked like she was going to impale herself on us so Linc gave it full throttle and bounced her off. She came scraping down our side, but she’d lost her anchor chains, so she didn’t snag us. The next one, a blue steel ketch was a bit more difficult. It took a good few rammings with Stentor to get her off.

 

Having made it through this crisis, we looked around again and noticed that we were dangerously close to Ghostdancing and Intaka. The F**king Frenchman was still attached to one of our anchors and merrily keel sailing back and forth. As it turns out, she is a plywood boat, but looked like steel because of her hard chine construction. If we had known she was wood, we would have rammed and sunk her to prevent her doing any further damage, but since we thought she was steel we didn’t do it. The result of her being attached to us was that we were making a perfect drag net with our anchors, so that if we dragged onto someone, The Green Boat to one side and us on the other, we would snag everything behind and take them with us.

 

OUR MAIN concern was obviously boats with people onboard. We didn’t want to endanger any lives. So we told Henry on Ghostdancing and Duncan and Viqui on Intaka to attempt to move to starboard, we would attempt to come down their port side. Henry came back and said he couldn’t do it and Intaka’s engine was down and they had that great big steel buoy beating on their stern and restricting their manoeuvrability. Just then the wind changed anyway and there was nothing more we could do, Stentor went down their starboard side and The F**cking Frenchman went to port. We hit Ghostdancing a few times as we tried to get astern of him as quickly as possible - ripping off his pulpit [metal frame at the bow] and roller-furler on one of our stanchions. Poor Henry was stuck between two 40-plus-ton monsters in a little plywood boat.

 

By now all of us were dragging down in one big heap. We were alongside Intaka with only our bow overlapping Henry’s stern. To avoid hitting Henry, we would turn and power out as far as our chain would allow us and when it snapped us back in towards the pile, we would go full steam ahead towards Intaka, turning just before ramming her and broad-siding her so that we would again bounce out away from Henry.

 

IT WAS now 3:00pm and the wind had already reached 140 knots. There were white-outs where the amount of water in the air didn’t allow us to see our own stanchions, let alone the boats banging alongside us. We no longer posed a threat to Henry as we’d dragged further back, so we gave the engine a rest at idle, seeing she was running at 100º Celsius.

 

Tom, the local radio net controller, came on and said that they had predicted the eye of the hurricane would be on top of us at +/- 6:00pm. This would mean about two hours calm for everyone to re-anchor or whatever before it hit us from the other side. Great! We thought, just hold out for another three or four hours and we can do a controlled beaching. The wind can’t get any worse in the meantime, right? Wrong again! In fact it only got worse. There was to be no eye for us - it passed just four miles to the east of us.

 

By now we had dragged onto a traditional Vagabond-type of boat and her bowsprit was banging its way through our transom, upsetting some petrol cans we had in the lazarette. We had to shut down the engine for fear of sparks setting off the petrol in the bilge. We got past the Vagabond and hit several other small boats, taking down their masts on the way. One of those masts we saw go over and then heard the thud as the mast, still attached to the rolling boat by the rigging, came shooting up beneath us. We thought it would certainly hole us underwater as we listened to the scraping of the rigging against our barnacles. Thank God it didn’t though, as we were still in deep water and sinking out there would most certainly make chances of survival slim. It was impossible to breathe out on deck without a snorkel, never mind at sea level. Just in case we got into our wetsuits and life jackets and put our passports and boat-papers into a Ziplock bag. Stentor was shuddering as if she was being lifted out of the water by the wind. We could see Intaka’s keel as the two boats rose and plunged into the waves. Now there was no more frantic activity of motoring away from boats. All we could do was sit there and wait for Luis to expend his fury.

 

STRANGELY ENOUGH, there was no panic. Just a sort of acceptance that we had lost the battle. We just hoped that we would run aground soon. I remember noticing the strangest things, like how the mugs were swinging on their hooks and not bumping into each other. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. The bows of boats were hitting our coach-house and I very calmly ducked when I thought one might come through the window - it didn’t. Then behind us we saw the 20ft bowsprit of a huge Dutch Botter. We knew that if we got tangled up in that one she’d definitely sink us. She was just too big and plunging so violently that we had to get clear of her or all of us would drown. Linc started the engine again, gave it full throttle and pulled us all clear. The engine then made the most unbelievable noise and died. The last job she ever did - and a good one, too. Ghostdancing and Intaka were also very glad we did that.

 

At about 5:30pm we felt our keel bump and Linc saw a palm tree. We never thought we’d be so glad to run aground. Unfortunately, we bumped right over the shallows and onto the rocks underneath the bow of a fishing boat and the stern of a huge catamaran. At 7:00pm, on Tuesday, September 9, 1995, Stentor started to sink. I first saw water running into the bilge. We tried to get as much as possible onto the high side of the boat, but the water started rushing in covering everything on the starboard side from the bottom of the saloon seating to the gunnels. The engine room wasn’t holed, so we tried to block up all the holes in the “watertight” bulkhead that we’d missed, but the bulkhead had cracked from all the pounding on the rocks and because of our 45 degree angle, an old bilge pump line from the forepeak that we had forgotten about, flooded the engine room in minutes. It was pretty scary for a bit, but then the water level stopped rising and we just sat in the wheelhouse waiting for Luis to go away. We felt this to be an appropriate time to scatter Lincoln’s father’s ashes, it being the end of his dream and all, so we set him loose into the hurricane - he would have liked that.

 

THAT NIGHT we saw people who were still out in deep water flashing lights at us and we felt completely helpless. We had to block off the aft section of the boat, stuffing saloon cushions into the doorway leading aft, as our batteries were underwater and were letting off chlorine gas, which could really ruin your day by eating away at your lungs without being noticed. So then we had no more radio contact with anyone. We hadn’t had time to eat all day, but we did manage to save some salami and some crackers from the galley, which we then devoured. Funny things happen on a sinking boat - there, floating down the saloon was a (still half dry) cushion, and on top of it a lone dry toilet roll! Thank God we’re so untidy.

 

The next morning was horrible. We looked out of our window and there were only three boats at anchor between us and the other shore. There were just wrecks and masts sticking up from sunken boats everywhere.

 

We stepped on deck (there was a mere 50 knot breeze blowing) and saw Intaka just ahead of us with signs of life and hot coffee. We clambered over four wrecks and went aboard where we were very relieved to see Henry. His boat had sunk and we had lost communication with him early on. He had apparently climbed onto Intaka at the height of the hurricane, his boat being under Intaka’s bow. He had huddled in his cockpit, which was still above water-level, waiting for the opportunity to climb off as soon as the boats were hard aground.

 

A net controller came on the radio and asked everybody to check in with their boat’s name, number of people onboard and state of boat and people. From this, we established that most everyone we knew was okay, although most had lost their boats. So far only one person we know is dead, but many more are missing. The island itself is all but wiped out, so it’ll take a long time before we can get together in the old local watering holes - and then I think there will be a lot of “I wonder what happened to the guy with the ponytail, what’s his name? Haven’t seen him since the hurricane,” which will prolong the sadness of the situation.

 

Anyway, we walked up to Port de Plaisance, since we had landed on their beach, and they gave us a room and said we could stay until October 15, free of charge. After that we’ll probably find another boat to live on and, in time, hopefully buy another boat - smaller this time - there will be a lot of bargains going. We are in good spirits and happy to have made it. Hey, if you want to be philosophical about it, everything happens for a reason. My boss has been a real star and has paid us normally, even though no work was possible for at least two weeks after the hurricane because of blocked roads, no communications, curfews to prevent looting and to enable clean-up operations.

 

Clean-up operations are going very slowly, though, and it will take several months before the place is clean and years before it looks pretty again. The boat salvage task is enormous and they are not managing to do more than a handful of boats in one day, so tempers are wearing thin.

 

The French Met Office put the wind speed at 343km/h sustained for one six minute period. The water in Simpson Bay Lagoon rose +/- six feet. Of the estimated 1,440 craft supposedly in the lagoon on Monday morning, approximately 100 vessels remained afloat 20 hours later. At least four major supermarkets were completely destroyed, while Marigot, on the French side, was described by one helicopter pilot as resembling the aftermath of a bombing raid. Local government has suppressed all news reports here and abroad to avoid panic by not allowing any journalists into the island. We are at present under a state of emergency with a large force of both Dutch Marines and French military patrolling the island. There is a constant stream of helicopters, U.N. airplanes and massive Illuyshins and Antonov supply planes flying in and out of St. Maarten.

 

Reprinted from the November 1995 edition of All At Sea, courtesy of Anthony ‘TP’ Parson, Founder of All At Sea.

 

Box----

Stentor is a 60’ Hartley Ketch. Lincoln’s father and mother began to build her in South Africa in 1975. Progress was slow. They had not anticipated the enormity of such a project and John (Lincoln’s father), being the perfectionist that he was, would not accept any work that was a mere fraction off the specs. By 1980, when only the hull and part of the deck were finished, John was diagnosed with cancer. After his passing in 1982, Lincoln, with the support of his mother, Eileen, decided to continue building the boat. Working part-time and full-time when possible, he finally got her to a launchable state (mast, engine, floorboards, basic electrics) in 1987. Two weeks after launch date, Lincoln and three friends as crew, set out on her maiden voyage from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, primarily as a trading venture.

 

Upon their return to Cape Town three months later Lincoln decided that trading was not as lucrative as one might have thought, but still wished the boat to pay for her keep somehow. After speaking to a friend in the business, he began converting Stentor into a commercial fishing boat, building a 10-ton insulated ice hold (where our saloon is now), crew quarters for 12 forward and all the ‘pens’ for the men to fish from on deck. They would go out for +/- two weeks at a time into the South Atlantic for tuna, go back to port for a couple of days to unload, restock and leave again.

 

In 1990, I met Lincoln when he’d just arrived back from a fishing trip. Many large fishing concerns had gone broke due to the unscrupulous gill netting and long-lining by the Taiwanese and Japanese off the South African coast. There just seemed to be no more fish in our waters. Linc had started managing a small boatyard and I was working for the opposition in their chandlery. I am the daughter of Spanish immigrants and although they are not to blame for my love of sailing, they are certainly responsible for my gypsy spirit. I was trying to get enough money together to buy my own fixer-upper at the time, so when I saw Stentor, it was obvious that we had to convert her into a cruising boat! The business grew and the boat was further ahead than she’d ever been. At the end of 1993, we got married and left to go cruising one week later.

 

The boat was still not complete, but it was time to go, we’d finish it along the way.

We had many adventures en-route. We loved South America, and never really meant to stop in St. Maarten, after very cool receptions on some of the other islands, planning to head straight to the U.S.A. and then to the Mediterranean, as was John’s dream. But we had to drop something off for a friend of ours and were pleasantly surprised by St. Maarten’s friendliness and decided to stay for a while - even through hurricane season!

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