By Lisa Davis-Burnett
“Well, you must be wondering, and the answer is, “yes, we did survive Hurricane Luis.’” These were the first words I wrote to a close friend on September 13, 1995. Our small family of three had come through the storm in the Lagoon on board our 42ft sailing yacht Balegane. My husband Tom and I were both licensed captains who lived aboard the boat. It was our only real home and only real valuable possession. We were, in those days, the owners/managers of two dive shops, Trade Winds Dive Center at Great Bay Marina and Maho Watersports on Mullet Bay Beach. We also had a small retail store on the dock of Bobby’s Marina called “Just add Water.”
We chose to stay together onboard to work as a team to save our home, and we chose to keep our three year old son with us, because we couldn’t bear the thought of being separated and leaving his fate in anyone else’s hands. Our insurance covered the boat against damage during a hurricane only under the conditions that a licensed captain be on board and that she be anchored in Simpson Bay Lagoon. So here is my story of Luis, written on the yellowed pages of a book of family recipes. A letter that was never sent, and remains to this day stuck in a cookbook on a shelf in my kitchen.
The storm hit us a week ago yesterday, on Tuesday, and since that time, time has meant very little indeed. We managed to save Balegane – only just – and also our Dive Boat (D.B.), but both dive shops are rubble. We expected as much and moved a lot of the important stuff out into a friend’s house and that’s fortunately still standing, too. So we can be back in business in a few weeks.
THE ISLAND WAS really devastated, but over this last week we have seen some basics come back. We have water available at many pump stations for free and the lines aren’t too long. There is some electricity and one radio station. Those first two days, Thursday and Friday were very bad for the island. A lot of looting (free shopping) and no water or food, no electric or radio stations, no phones, no communications – terrible.
The military planes began arriving Wednesday night and then the U.N. and other planes whose markings and style I have never seen before. We are anchored where we ended up after the storm subsided, in Simpson Lagoon, which is like a salt water lake inside St. Maarten. There are four or five small islands inside the lagoon and just about everybody from our marina anchored out around Explorer Island. That’s near the airport area of the island.
We put down two big anchors with heavy chain and anchor line and we kept two extra anchors on deck to be used in case one of our working anchors was lost or started to drag. We decided to stay on board the boat to keep her as safe as possible. That decision has taken a lot of criticism, especially since TB, our three year old son also stayed aboard with us. We don’t regret it and also don’t know of anything else we could have done. TB slept or feigned sleep the entire 36 hours of the storm. He now knows the meaning of the word seasick. He was very scared, but I’m sure he would have been scared in any house, and if he had not been with his mom and dad, he would have been much more scared, upset, confused and even mad. We are sure the two of us were needed to keep the boat from being washed ashore. So we three were here for the duration and we did endure.
MONDAY NIGHT the storm began to build and we were ready for it. We had our dive boat, a 30ft rigid hull inflatable with twin 150HP outboards, floating way out behind Balegane, with a yoke of heavy line going to two different towing eyes. On board Balegane we had taken everything down off the decks. We took all the sails off and stored them and even took off the boom and lashed it to the deck. The solar panels and the wind generator are now in the main saloon. The only things remaining on the deck were a plywood box, which housed two propane bottles and was screwed and glued down to the aft deck, and our bimini - which is more like a stainless steel cage than a bimini. We had added a wooden frame for two solar panels to the top of the bimini and U-bolted it to the framework. As a result we couldn’t take it down without cutting off the sunbrella canvas top, and so we elected to leave it up for whatever protection from the wind and water it offered. We assumed at some point we would have to cut it away, but amazingly it held throughout that whole blow and gave us some much needed shelter.
Tuesday morning never came. Actually, there was just enough visibility to make out our closest neighbours, the Lindsay Moran – a 100ft-plus inter-island freighter - off our starboard beam and Prima Donna, a 50ft ketch off our port. We had already been attacked by another boat and the winds were not yet even up to hurricane force. A grey sloop, about 50ft, had been slowly dragging down on us throughout Monday night. We watched her for hours wondering if her anchor would catch something and hold her, or if the wind would switch and send her in another direction. Sometime in the night she was on us and she unhooked our anchor. Somehow the encounter caused her anchor to dig in and ours to trip!
We didn’t drift back; we flew back, downwind, past a boat called Sassafras, a 34ft sloop from Canada. We almost wiped her out as we careened downwind to the south. Our dive boat came along side us on the leeward side and it seemed as if we would roll over her and sink her. Tom and I ran forward and threw out more scope (length) on both our anchor lines and thank God they dug in. Balegane righted herself and the dive boat went back to her position 50 feet behind us. We took a breath and looked around. We were behind Sassafras, just behind her. She had never moved.
Tuesday morning early we could make out the gray sloop moving down on us again. As there was no one on board we felt free to curse her and threaten her. When visibility allowed, we could see that many of the boats we knew were gone.
THUS BEGAN one long wet day. We wore soaked layers under even wetter foul weather gear. Tom and I took shifts on deck, while the other huddled in bed with our son. He would occasionally sit up and ask for water or a cookie, but he could keep nothing down. The on-deck person wore a dive mask and snorkel in order to see and breathe. The wind was so strong you couldn’t open your eyes into it or even breathe in air without it. Whenever we left the cockpit we had to clip in for safety and we would slide along the deck on our butts, unable to stand.
Our chores on deck were simple and scary. The main job was to go forward and move the anchor rode out five inches every half hour, if the wind increased we would do it more often. We also needed to check the dive boat’s painter for chafe and watch for boats dragging down on us. If we started to drag, we were to call for help to the person in bed to come and help and then go forward to increase the scope. If that didn’t work, as a last resort we cast out one of the spare anchors, which were already attached to the mast and lay atop their coiled lines. We kept the engine on to lessen the tension on the anchor lines, and to dodge away from oncoming boats.
As Tuesday evening came and darkness descended the three most frightening words in the English language were enough to make me shake uncontrollably: “It’s still building.” Tom admitted later that he also had shaking fits, and not from the cold. The wind was 80 knots from the north and we were only a few hundred feet from a rocky lee shore by the airport road.
I WENT down below to sleep and pray. At 10:30pm I awoke and mustered my courage to get dressed and relieve Tom. I put on heavy duty foul weather gear, a PFD (life jacket) and my dive mask and snorkel. Tom was similarly dressed, sitting in the cockpit staring straight ahead. He had turned off the wind speed indicator, because it was scaring him to see the numbers so high. The last number he saw was 180. I sent him below.
We were down to checking the anchor lines for chafe every 15 minutes. I must say that it took every bit of courage I could find to clip into the safety lines and go forward and face the elements. Even sitting in the cockpit was totally unreal. The wind was screaming, the boat was pitching and pulling hard on her anchors. There was no visibility beyond the decks! Just pure white spray. I could tell the rain from the waves only by the temperature, the waves were warm.
Every now and then the visibility would break through and I would get a look around. The gray sloop that had threatened us was gone. I checked the compass and we were pointed south. Due south? When did we spin? Was the compass wrong? Would the boats that dragged past us yesterday come back at us now?
WE WERE on the down side of the hurricane, but if anything it seemed to be more furious than ever. I switched on the VHF radio to channel 10, a calling channel used here in the lagoon by all the yachties. I head a man shouting, “Look out, Pretty Woman is on the move.” And the answer came back, “Just do what you have to do.” I asked for anyone to confirm that the wind was from the south now, but got no answer. Around 1:00am Tom came back up and said he was okay. He took over and I guiltily slipped down below, thankful to get out of the elements. When I got back to relieve him, about 3:30am, I sat in the cockpit, terrified and determined. I peered out through the dive mask at the white fury. Tom suddenly jumped into my field of vision, and with a serious face, he looked at me nose to nose and shouted, “Are you functional?” Although I had to stop and think, I nodded yes. I felt like saying, ‘hey I just put on all this foul weather gear, how functional do I look?’- but decided to keep my thoughts to myself.
By this time I only wanted to know when it would end. I felt as if we had survived the worst of it, but there was no abating in the wind, the rain, or the fear. At least with the wind from the south we were no longer hanging on just above a rocky shoreline.
AS THE sun came up we did get some light and TB did rise up in bed to eat a cookie and drink some water. I convinced him to just sip and nibble a bit and it did stay down. On deck we kept to our 30 minute anchor line five inch movements and kept watching out for any other trouble. We could see D.B. behind us; she floated and bobbed on the waves, but on closer look she was swamped, riding low. Her twin 150 horse engines were bobbing at the water line and taking lots of splashes. With the dive boat behind us, low and heavy like that, she was making a fine sea anchor, keeping our nose into the wind. The fact that she was holding us steady was a blessing, believe me, being broadside to this wind is not a pleasant experience. We hadn’t planned it, we put her there because we didn’t know what else to do with her, but it was just possible that D.B. is what saved us.
By 3:00 Wednesday afternoon, the wind was a mean 50 mph and the weather was ugly, but we knew we were through the worst of it. TB got up and we celebrated with hot dogs and ice tea (warm, no ice). A lone sailor dinghied up to us. He was dressed in haggard foul weather gear and in the bow of his dinghy he had a little dog. We expected to hear of some kind of medical emergency, why else would someone be out in their dinghy in 50 knot winds? He came along side and in a strong Scottish accent asked us, “Ahoy mate, have you got any cigarettes?”
By Wednesday night two military airplanes landed at Juliana Airport just next to us. Thursday all day emergency aircraft landed and helicopters air-lifted cargo to all parts of the island. Being one of the few boats left floating in our part of the lagoon, it seemed the helicopters were using us as a waypoint. Every one passed right over us and then turned off in one direction or another. This continued for days.
BY THURSDAY afternoon the sun came out and the wind, still from the south, was gentle. We put up our wind generator and solar panels, and tried to make our boat back into our home. We did a little “bucket laundry.” TB stood on the foredeck with binoculars looking at the island. He kept saying, “Everysing is bwoken. All the things is bwoken.”
We had three anchors down and one still coiled on deck. We tried and couldn’t get any of the anchors to budge. Our diesel engine was clogged up and dead. D.B. was still swamped. We were surviving on Cream of Wheat and canned milk. At some point our cell phone roamed over to Anguilla and we were able to call family in the states and tell them we were alive and well.
By Saturday, a radio station, an emergency co-operative of two stations, PJD-2 and Laser 101, came on the air to tell us all what we could do and expect in the next few days. We listened to the station day and night. Lots of people were calling in with information or questions. One of the most memorable ones was a teacher. She wanted to tell her students she was alive. She had heard that there was a rumour going around that she had died. “I just want everyone to know that Teacher Belica is not dead, unless there is another Teacher Belica that I don’t know about, in which case I am very sorry, but it’s not me that’s dead.” You can’t make this stuff up!
LOOKING BACK now, I can say that I never feared for our lives. I knew we were close to shore and with life preservers we could surely make it to land should Balegane founder. I feared having a terrible experience and losing our home, but with planning, teamwork and luck we managed to keep afloat. By the grace of God we experience Mother Nature’s supreme wrath, faced the eye of the storm, and lived to tell the tale.