The hurricane season is an annual affair for the Caribbean. I wasn’t here for last year’s so was interested to experience daily life throughout the Summer of 2017.
Every morning I flick on the VHF to tune into Shrimpy’s radio net which starts with the weather from the Windguru web site. Other eyes are east across the Atlantic looking at developing tropical waves and storms. Various systems had formed and dissipated throughout June and July.
Harvey was the first we saw as a credible threat to Sint Maarten, but as the days passed we could see it roll south toward Grenada and develop into the Hurricane that later flooded Texas and Louisiana.
“Bowling balls across the Atlantic,” my friend Gregg called them, “and we all hope for ‘gutter-balls’.”
Irma was the next potential storm slowly edging west. Starting at a more northerly latitude it normally would have turned north into the mid Atlantic and dissipated over cooler water but there was a high pressure system over Bermuda pushing the depression on a more southerly track.
The word across the lagoon was that Irma should turn north before too long and lose its power over cooler water. The forecast eventually put Sint Maarten within the southern part of the ‘uncertainty cone,’ a wide area where the hurricane could possibly track. The longer the prediction the wider the track.
Tony on ‘SV Anna’ took an early decision. Irma may miss Sint Maarten but with Irma 5 days away he up-anchored and took off South to Grenada.
Irma started to increase in strength as she encountered warm water and then lose strength again as she passed cooler water. My neighbours and I in the lagoon started to prepare our boats for heavy wind, removing sails, awning and covers to reduce windage.
Days passed and the predicted northerly turn was not forthcoming. The Bermuda high was still pushing Irma south, threatening islands from Guadeloupe to St Martin and Anguilla.
The conversation turned to whether we would shelter the storm ashore or stay on our boats if it came. Most of us opted for caution and arranged shelter ashore. Yordan on ‘Don’t Worry’ opted to tie up in a small space behind ‘Growler’ a previous wreck beached at the end of the causeway bridge with mooring lines out to anywhere solid. Carl on Kochi doubled up his anchor chain to his mooring with his Catamaran in the middle of Providence bay not far from Glee.
My dinghy and outboard were hauled onto the deck and strapped down the day before Irma’s projected arrival. Irma had grown to a Category 3 hurricane fairly quickly so we thought a Category 4 was likely and hopefully pass north leaving us with 95 mile an hour winds.
On the morning of the 5th Sept, I packed my essentials in a bag and Jacob on ‘Lark’ ferried me to Shrimpy’s. Mike announced on the VHF net that anyone was welcome but to come early to help with prep. Mike had good resources including fast Wifi and provisions should we need them. We were clear then that Irma was a Category 5 hurricane with its straight-line trajectory crossed St Kitts but the latest forecast being to curve north over Anguilla about ten miles north of us.
We stashed away and tied down as much as we could along the waterside of Shrimpy’s. Buckets were filled with tap water for flushing toilets. The Gendarmes came around and warned that the storm surge would be to the ceiling and that we couldn’t stay there. Mike pointed out the upstairs as a shelter and they departed satisfied with that. Consequently, some of the residents of the crew quarters at Shrimpy’s became alarmed and opted to evacuate to the school up the hill in Concordia. I was tempted but I consider Mike a friend and a feeling of loyalty and support tipped the balance to stay and help with prep.
Ben and Lucy from SV Mistress appeared later and boosted things along and, by nightfall, we were hunkered down in the laundry all watching the Internet tracking Irma and waiting for the weather to arrive.
It’s difficult to sleep when a monster is approaching your door so I reflected on what needed to be done and considered what people would need should I not come through the other side. So I listed all my online accounts into an encrypted file and sent them to a trusted friend to forward to my family should I not be heard from for a month. The password for the file I sent to my son. He said that this was a bit worrying but I reassured him that it was only a precaution and I didn’t believe I would be harmed.
The wind slowly built through the early hours of the morning but we felt well protected in the building. the wind was howling from the north and we were protected by the terraced buildings that sandwiched us from north-west to south-east. The wind was becoming savage. Roof panels were flying down the street. The point came that, if we were to make it upstairs for the storm surge, we would have to move now. Andy checked our path to the stairs and noticed that live power lines were down, whipping and sparking in the wind and rain and, with the sheets of aluminium roofing flying down the street, maybe it was safer to stay put. If the electricity didn’t get us, the roof panels might.
Just before dawn, the floor started to flood millimetre by millimetre as the sea level began. A minute or two later, water started to pour in around the edges of the dock-side doors as the waves surged over the submerged dock and beat at the wooden doors. Holes and conduits on the street side began to pour water as the level rose op the street. We still had power and were concerned that we would get fried. I think it was that Ben switched the power off at the main panel, I don’t remember whether it was that or whether the power finally failed, but we were now in the dark except for portable LED lamps. The water was already three inches high indoors but, estimating the height of the holes that water was pouring in, was at least knee high on the street side. The waves at the dockside door were climbing slowly, halfway up and water streaming around the hinges on every wave. These heavy wooden doors opened outwards and, as long as the hinges continued to support them, I wasn’t worried that they breach inwards.
The burning question was, how long and how high would the surge continue? I looked around then stashed my bag and laptop on top of the tumble driers eight feet off the ground. Around the room, there were tables we could stand on to get our heads up to the ceiling, a good 15 to 18 feet above sea level, surge being predicted to be 12 to 15 feet.
Daybreak came and the wind began to subside noticeably, and realised that this must be the eye of the storm. Quickly we decided to evacuate upstairs. The water pressure pinned the front door shutter closed and the sea-surge was still braying at the back door.
The window shutter was wound up to reveal a river on the street strewn with cars, sofas, fridges and general house contents and hopping out the window revealed calf deep-water laced with dead electric wires. Sally, Mikes wife is elderly and infirm so Andy carried her up the stairs to the first-floor apartment. The apartment is usually empty and unused and so has no facilities and, by then, was 2 inches deep with water, but at least we could see daylight through the windows and there was no risk of flooding. Mike has seen a few hurricanes in his time on the island and was concerned about the aftermath of looters and decided to stay to guard the business. Ben valiantly volunteered to stay with him but I was hungry for daylight and morbidly curious about what Irma had done and would do on the back end.
The scene was shocking. houses flattened and leaves stripped from trees, boats upside down in boat yards and we were only half way through the storm.
The eye of a hurricane is a strange feeling: an uncanny calm amidst the destruction but conscious that this is a brief interlude and more is to come. On one hand feeling thankful to survive and on the other, reminding ourselves that this is not yet over.
I guess we had about half an hour of calm, enough to get established upstairs. The ridgeline of the mountains disappeared from view replaced by a battleship grey curtain of rain. This was the eye-wall of the hurricane and it was heading our way. Already, the water had drained from the street, revealing asphalt half buried by sand and debris. We could sense the breeze building now from the south-east, thankfully pushing the water out of the lagoon seaward.
We retreated to the balcony to relative shelter and observe what was going on. My phone was wet and beginning to fail, wet fingers failing to register on the screen but I still managed to get some footage. The wind continued to build as I took in the scenes across the channel with the remains of the houses and boats. Leaning out from the balcony The horizontal rain felt like needles in my face and visibility was deteriorating fast. We retreated indoors and closed the sliding glass door, settling down away from the windows. I stood on the windward side of the patio doors looking north at the storm, noticing the glass of the door flexing and bowing inwards. We retreated into the centre bedroom. This room was dark as it had rooms bordering three sides and the passage on the forth. Although the passage was a howling wind tunnel, it was parallel to the sole window that let in a suggestion of daylight. It was relatively peaceful there as we looked around in the dimly lit darkness; the howl of the wind seemed more distant. Even the echo of the door of the front bedroom seemed muted as the wind smashed its way through the windows and clawed it off its hinges.
By 10 or 10.30 the wind had dropped to a mere gale and I ventured outside. Ben and Lucy wanted to check on SV Mistress so I tagged along. The sight of the apocalyptic carnage was shocking. It was hard to identify the entrance to TOBY and the Stadium. The place was flattened and we walked over levelled chain-link fencing, past over turned cars and vans toward the leaf-stripped mangroves. People were already out on the street collecting their own belongings or other people’s. The wind was still blowing a healthy 30 or 40 knots or so and it was sometimes hard to maintain balance over the debris.
Making our way through the stadium grounds, the astroturf underlay was everywhere carpeting the shore promising a soft impact if you fell but cloaking nails and shards beneath for the unwary. A surreal island of astroturf lay in the tangled bare mangroves but SV Mistress survived, still afloat amongst sunken and upturned boats at Time Out Boat Yard (TOBY).
Lucy and I left Ben busy preparing his boat ready for the following Hurricane, Jose, due to arrive in three days time and to inspect the damage made by solar panel frames that were peeled off the stadium roof and hurled through Mistress’ deck and hull like javelins.
The flooding at Shrimpy’s meant that sea water had corrupted the cistern tanks of drinking water. Drinking water became a priority if we were to survive for more than a week or two. the buckets we collected for flushing the toilets were collected and stored, now using seawater for cleaning, washing dishes and such.
The water flowing back out of the lagoon had a sage green colour and was tainted by diesel for the rest of the day, slowly clearing over the next day or two. we had to become conscious of hygiene and pollution as we started to clean up Shrimpies.
I slept pretty well, the night after, having been up two days straight. Hearing gunshots across the channel had drawn me to the dockside. Looking across to Sandy Ground, across the channel and out to Marigot Bay revealed nothing, there was only darkness where before there had been lights marking the line of the shore and the streets of St Martin. This felt like a new dark age.
The morning came peacefully and we stirred into life to continue cleaning up. Jaco came by and relayed his account of his knife-edge survival with his family. His shelter barely held together and he was vulnerable to the looters that came out mercilessly after the hurricane. Jaco’s boat, Osler, was not on its mooring and as far as we knew lost. Andy launched a dinghy and revived a waterlogged outboard and we headed off to check on our own boats.
Passing the lagoon bridge, we noticed some debris tangles around a column, barely recognisable as a green monohull. Sticks, wires and broken panels lay flat on the surface. Rigging tangled where the bridge control room used to be. I guessed the mast was still up as the vessel was swept under the bridge in the storm.
The Boat yards either side of the channel were a chaotic mess. Catamarans upside down and monohulls on their sides dismasted. The scale of the devastation on the shore and emptiness of the lagoon that was previously bristling with yachts was breathtaking. My stomach knotted up with emotion as I tried to take it all in. Boats lined the shore either side, well up out of the water. Mount fortune, stripped of its vegetation was half a mile south. Around that peninsular was Providence Bay, home to Glee and my closest neighbours. I tried to resist imagining what I would find there.
The outboard spluttered its way around the peninsular revealing a handful of vessels dismasted still on their moorings a couple of masts sticking out of the water, spindly gravestones marking the position of their sunken vessels and wrecks scattered on the shore. There was no Glee. We went to check on Yordan who nestled his small vessel between Growler, wrecked in 2014 by Gonzalo and the shore. His hatch was tied down from the outside indicating he had made it out and onto shore. SV Providence was perched high on the causeway bridge next to the road. A sorry looking state but a relief to see Gregg on deck doing what he could to secure his vessel.
We continued the search for Glee south of the causeway past Port De Pleasance, taking in the scale of the destruction and circling around toward the airport back under the bridge, Andy spied Osler, Jaco’s boat, resting at an acute angle well up on the rocks without its mizzen mast but otherwise looking fairly sound. Andy had been moored near Jaco and we continued around the shore to where he had left her. She wasn’t there but as we moved toward a mast 50 metres away sticking out of the water with a deflated dinghy flying like a tattered flag from it, Andy recognised it as his boat; now sunk in the lagoon.
Neither of us displayed any emotion for our lost vessels, I felt disconnected and in awe of how different the world had become. Andy lit a cigarette looking at what he could see of his boat, blew out a cloud of smoke and turned the dinghy north to make our way to Marina Royale, eyes open for a needle in a haystack: Glee in a jumble of beached craft. No joy; of any description. Returning to Shrimpy’s and spying my rucksack had me realise how little I had salvaged. I remember when I was packing thinking “I’ll leave that, I’ll pick it up later…”