A visit from Isabel

Midwinter 2004

By Betsy Morris
For Points East

My husband and I call a certain Maine passage Eggemoggin Beat, since its wind has been on our nose as often as its been on our beam. Doesn’t the wind seem to be on the nose more often than not?

So we were pleasantly surprised when we enjoyed an unusually good trip south before the wind last September in our 39-foot Gulfstar sloop, Salsa, from our homeport of Marblehead, Mass. Northwesterlies, then northeasterlies, pushed us past Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

Because Hurricane Fabian, then east of Bermuda, was kicking up huge swells along the entire eastern seaboard, we elected to take the long dogleg up Delaware Bay. That decision was not made lightly, since previous sails in that bay had proved it to be the breeding ground of every insect that flies, bites and stings. But that plague was only a weak prediction of trouble to come.

By the time we anchored in Solomon’s in the Chesapeake, Isabel had replaced Fabian as the ingénue star of the VHF weather forecasts. By the time we reached Great Bridge, south of Norfolk, she was pegged as a category 5 hurricane with sustained winds in excess of 150 mph, and on bright, sunny, calm Sept. 15, my husband, Monty, and I felt the early warning signs: dry mouth and arm hairs standing on end.

In Maine, where we spend many summers on Salsa, we know where to hide and have often sought refuge in the Basin on the New Meadows River, at Duck Harbor on Isle au Haut, in Mud Hole, or in any number of hideaways up rivers, down creeks, and in small protected bays. We’ve tied off to stout spruce tree trunks and sometimes roots, put out extra anchors, and felt safe, if wary.

But here we were clueless, and the forecasters predicted landfall at or near Norfolk – in just three days. The local boaters were packing up and leaving, some north, some south. The authorities were issuing mandatory evacuation orders for the Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina coastal communities. Most marinas that we phoned just laughed. “We’re giving our best customers 24 hours to get out!”

We pored over the charts and found a town two days south with a deep-enough creek to hide Salsa and an inn to succor ourselves – Belhaven, N.C. The day before Isabel came ashore, we went into the creek, tied off Salsa to pine trees, stripped off canvas, duct-taped hatches, and moved ashore.

Isabel had calmed a bit, and when she came ashore and tracked her eye directly over Belhaven, her sustained winds were down to 105 mph. When we walked to the creek in the eye’s calm, we were glad it was almost over, but we were curious about several things. Why had the Coca-Cola distributor removed all the vending machines in town? Why did we see a car chained to a tree? Why did everyone we saw have on high rubber boots?

We got our answers when the back wall of the eye hit, and Pamlico Bay flooded the land. The car chained to the tree didn’t float away, but it would have. Outbuildings floated down the streets, as did snakes (Aha, boots!). The vending machines were somewhere safe, but ice machines and propane tanks were floating everywhere.

We took the eye of Isabel on the nose, but the nine lines to Salsa all held. The next morning, when the four feet of water in the streets receded, we found our boat safe under a carpet of pine needles and cones.

“Y’all come back and see us,” said the folks at the inn.

No thanks!

Betsy and Monty Morris have moved Salsa south and are searching for a second boat for New England summers.