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Surviving Hurricane Hugo Aboard a Yacht in the Caribbean

A breathless tale of shipwreck and natural fury.

It was 13th September 1989 and I was in Curacao aboard my Hartley ketch “SOLILOQUY”. I had purchased her some 15 months before in Tortola from an Australian who had built her in the late 70’s and sailed her from Australia to the British Virgin Islands with his wife and young children. They had taken her unscathed through a South China Seas typhoon and sailed across the Indian Ocean, through the Red and Mediterranean Seas and then across the Atlantic.

For a year, I operated her as a crewed charter yacht, based in St Lucia, with a hired skipper, Jorn, and his girl-friend Silke. But in August 1989, the urge to cruise became overwhelming and we set sail from St Lucia, heading west for Bonaire and Curacao.

In mid-September, we decided (foolishly in retrospect because that date fell during the height of hurricane season) to head north to Tortola. We set sail from Curacao and set off on a close reach to the north. Three days later, we picked up radio broadcast warning of a Category 3 hurricane, Hugo, which was less than 1,000 miles east of us – but, more importantly, slightly south of our latitude. Hurricanes in the northern hemisphere tend to re-curve northwards so her position to the south of us was potentially dangerous.

We pored over the charts for several hours, wondering whether to run north to St Croix, the nearest landfall, or to turn south. Usually, one would, perhaps, have instinctively turned south, but because Hugo’s latitude was somewhat further south than ours, I was concerned that there might be a risk of encountering Hugo at sea – a sobering thought. We decided, therefore, to forge ahead and take shelter in St Croix. I had on many occasions heard the verbal bravado of many yachtsmen who had insisted (usually over a few beers) that they would “put to sea” in the event of an impending hurricane, but having experienced one some years before from the relative safety of a 45,000-ton aircraft carrier in mid-Atlantic, I did not feel that it made sense to do so from the cockpit of a 30-ton ketch.

The dawn of 17th September found us some 50 miles south of St Croix and we spotted a US Coast Guard cutter which slowed down and informed us that they planned to board us. I told them that it was fine to board, but that in view of the advancing hurricane, we would not heave to but would maintain our speed and course. Four of their crew sped towards us in an inflatable dinghy, carried out an inspection of the yacht, cited us for having an un-gimballed stove, gave us an up-to-date weather report and returned to their vessel which promptly headed to the south at great speed.

Late that afternoon, we approached the south coast of St Croix, and chose to enter Krause Lagoon which appeared to be a well-protected anchorage with mangroves at the head of the lagoon. We were safely anchored by 5.00 p.m and set about preparing the yacht. We dropped three anchors, several hundred feet of heavy chain and stripped the upper deck of all loose objects, including the sails We felt, justifiably, I believe, that we were fairly well secured.

There were 31 other vessels in the anchorage, and as dusk approached a dinghy passed by and a young American called out to us to tell us that he lived in the area, had a classic yacht which he had recently salvaged and re-built to as-new condition, and that if there was anything that we needed, we should call on him as he was very familiar with local conditions. We were appreciative.

By 0700 the following morning the sky was grey and a light drizzle was falling. The weather reports indicated that Hugo had edged slightly north and was forecast to pass some 50 miles south of St Croix. Although somewhat apprehensive, we were in good spirits, knowing that we were well secured. We double-checked our anchors and lines, and later in the morning we dinghied over to an adjacent yacht, a large ketch called BARLOVENTO, and enjoyed a few lunch-time drinks.

At around 1300, BARLOVENTO’s wind meter registered a 50-knot gust and we turned around to look at SOLILOQUY and were astonished to see that she was dragging her anchors. We were anchored in approximately 25-feet of water and the bottom appeared to be sand and mud, but SOLILOQUY was a heavy yacht and clearly not holding so we jumped into the dinghy and headed back to re-set our anchors. Jorn, somewhat heroically, then jumped into the water and took out a brand new one-inch mooring warp which he doubled back from a tug mooring buoy which purportedly had a 1-ton weight on the sea-bed, and then also doubled back a brand new mooring warp ashore, securing it to a steel post which was cemented into the ground. With 3 anchors and these brand new lines all set, there was no way that we could possibly drag again.

By 1600, the wind was sustained at 50 knots and gusting higher. We sat below and switched on the radio. The weather reports continued to forecast that Hugo would pass some way to the south of us and so we remained confident that we would be a fair distance from the worst of the storm. By 1800, it was getting dark, but the wind strength continued to increase and our sense of apprehension increased with it.

We pulled out the backgammon board and started to play, a beer in one hand and the die in the other. The wind increased and the noise became louder. Hugo was now classified as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 hurricane and at 1900, a terrifying gust of wind destroyed our wind meter. The rain became heavier, thundering down with astonishing force, and swept horizontally by the force of the wind. We looked at each other somewhat nervously, but continued our game of backgammon and lit a spliff.

By 2000, all hell was breaking loose and the noise was as if we were standing alongside a railway line, with a train running just a few yards past our ears. We crawled into the cockpit and were horrified to see that SOLILOQUY had dragged back, breaking her mooring warps. Close by our port quarter lay a steel fishing vessel whose davits had swung outboard and now threatened to catch our rigging as we passed down her starboard beam. I started the main engine, a 75 h.p. Volvo, but, running her at 3,000 rpm, was unable to make any headway. We slowly fell back and the fishing vessel’s davits caught under our shrouds. I tried to put out fenders, barely able to stand in the wind conditions, but the fenders burst and I realised that we were now up against unassailable forces of nature.

We went back below and, whilst none of us was religious, I believe that we all started to pray. The night was dark but the air was white with fume and rain which was now falling horizontally and with such strength that, exposing one’s face to it, felt as if dozens of fine needles were flying into your cheeks. The radio went silent, the transmitter torn down. Our ears started to pop and we had to clear them constantly, as if in an aircraft falling from some great height. We noticed that, within a matter of 15 minutes, the barometer had fallen some 10 millibars, to 928 Mb.

The wind continued to increase. Attempting to gauge its strength was impossible. When it’s over 100 knots, it’s impossible to believe that it can get stronger – but strengthen it did, and a US meteorological ship, alongside the dock in Krause Lagoon, later told us that they had measured sustained winds of 180 mph, gusting to 220 mph, making Hugo a fearsome Category 5, or, in the words of Miami’s National Hurricane Centre, a ‘catastrophic hurricane’. For us, though, it was simply a matter of hell becoming more hellish.

We saw a bright light on the water outside and crawled into the cockpit. An ocean-going tug was directly astern of us, with an out-of-control flat-topped barge secured alongside it. They were not more than 20 yards away from us and a searchlight was trained in our direction. Seconds later, the barge crashed into our stern and I was thankful that there was a watertight bulkhead between the stern lazarette and the remainder of the yacht. Regaining control, the tug and barge moved away, leaving our stern caved in.

At 2230, there was a loud crash. I turned around from the navigation table and said to Jorn:

“The mizzen’s just entered the aft cabin”.

British under-statement, I guess.

It turned out that the top of the main mast had snapped and that the pressure from the wire connecting the two masts had driven the mizzen mast through 2 inches of concrete and steel, right into the master stateroom.

Our companionway hatch was shut and the boards were in place, but a fine, atomised spray forced itself through the miniscule crack between the boards. Water started to pour through the gaping hole left by the mizzen. We started the bilge pumps, of which there were 2 electric and 2 manual. The water level started to rise. On lifting the cabin sole, we found the bilges full of soil, mud, debris and leaves. All pumps failed, and we grabbed a garbage can and started bailing water into the cockpit. The water level continued to rise, and we heard the sound of the remaining piece of main mast snapping again. The batteries went under and the lights went off. The engine was underwater. The boat was sinking. We were aboard in the pitch dark with blinding rain and the fury of a catastrophic hurricane on top of us.

We grabbed a life jacket and snorkel gear (sounds funny, I know, but it was virtually impossible to breathe outside otherwise) and made the decision to abandon ship. Crawling out into the cockpit, we made our way on to our starboard deck and hauled ourselves up onto the deck of the steel trawler to which we were still ‘married’. On our stomachs, we made our way to the wheel-house and went inside. An American voice said: “Welcome aboard”.

We could not make out his face in the dark but he shook our hands and told us to go below to the hold. Dripping with water, and in a state of mild shock, we climbed down the vertical ladder and sat on a bench in the bowels of the vessel. As our eyes became accustomed to the light, we could make out the shape of another human being sitting on a nearby bench, swinging from sound to side as if holding a baby in her hands, and gently moaning. We later discovered that the ‘baby’ was a teddy bear.

After half an hour or so, the American voice shouted down to us:

“The eye’s coming over! Come on up!”.

We climbed back to the wheel-house and looked around us. The wind was no more than 10 knots and above us was a starry sky. We were hard aground, the fishing vessel heeled over at about 15 degrees, and a sorry-looking SOLILOQUY caught alongside her below deck level. There had been a tidal surge of around 18 feet, exacerbated by a full moon.

The anchorage was a scene of devastation. We could make out up-turned vessels and up-rooted trees, and there was an eerie silence which belied the gentle breeze and twinkling stars. Aware that an eye can pass quickly, and that the most fearful winds can return without warning – and from the opposite direction – we did not linger for long above decks but went back to below to the safety of the hold. We sat there for 30 minutes, waiting anxiously, and then, all of a sudden, we felt a tremendous gust of wind which must have been in excess of 100 knots – from the south-west, the opposite direction from which the initial onslaught had come. The vessel lurched and it felt as if we were being sucked out of the mud and dragged across the lagoon. Time became intangible and we were exhausted. Sitting upright in my life jacket, I fell into a deep sleep as the wind battered the vessel and the wrath of Hugo passed overhead.

I came to at around 0630. It was quiet and the three of us headed to the upper deck. The wind was blowing around 40 knots with stronger gusts and the skies were a dark grey and a light rain was falling. Speechless, we looked around us. Of the 32 vessels that we had initially seen in the anchorage, we could make out perhaps a dozen. Every tree had been stripped of all its leaves and most of the branches had gone. A road, close to the anchorage, was flooded. The oil storage tanks at the Hess Oil Terminal were flattened as if a giant had dropped out of the sky and stamped upon them. Buildings were destroyed, roofs had gone It was a scene of utter devastation, natural carnage, and when I first beheld it, Hiroshima was the only name that came to mind.

It took quite a while to get over Hugo and many lessons were learned, not least of which were to respect the forces of nature – and to carry a portable bilge pump! Interestingly, we found that similar-sized yachts using similar ground tackle and securing arrangements had had varying experiences even though they may have been only 100 yards apart. During Hugo’s height, we witnessed what appeared to be tornadoes hurtling across the water at lightning speeds and with a noise and white-out effect that were more intense than the surrounding storm itself. Those vessels unfortunate enough to have found themselves in the path of these ‘micro bursts’ appeared to have been those that sustained the most damage. SOLILOQUY was one.

The good news is that SOLILOQUY was salvaged and is now alive and well, living in Trinidad with her owner, Jorn Grote, who remembers just as vividly as I do the horrors of the night of 18th September 1989, a date that will remain etched on my mind as long as I live.

Narendra Sethia

Narendra Sethia is an accomplished sailor who lives in the Caribbean.