Challenging Charley

October 2004

By Robert M. Brown, III
For Points East

The locals told us not to worry. The forecasters said Charley would run up through the Gulf of Mexico well off shore. The statistics said that for the past 40 years major hurricanes had left Florida’s southwest coast in peace. But something didn’t seem right.

Maybe, as a New Englander, I was less complacent than the locals. Whatever – I only knew that if trouble was going to come to Punta Gorda, we were going to be ready for it.

Iron Mistress is a custom 41-foot steel Ted Brewer designed cutter. She has been sailing out of Portsmouth, N.H., where my wife, Elyse, and I, are members of the Portsmouth Yacht Club, since 1988. Although we loved sailing the coast of New England and chartering in the Caribbean and many trips from New Hampshire to Bermuda on Iron Mistress, it became time for us to pull the plug and embark on a circumnavigation.

We left Patten’s Yacht Yard in Eliot, Maine, after an extensive four-year refit at our house, with the last three months spent at the boatyard. The whole crew at Patten’s was always very helpful and I would recommend it to anyone in the area. It is a full-service boatyard with a distinct Downeast flavor.

Even though we started our total refit four years ago, the last three months in the boatyard consisted of 12 to 14-hour days, 7 days a week, nonstop until our launch. Even at that pace, I still had numerous items to complete as we cruised down the coast to join the Caribbean 1500 in the fall of 2003. I promised myself that I would not be one of the last people on the dock installing equipment right before the race began. I wanted to kick back and relax and watch the other people make last-minute additions and preparations. Unfortunately, they got to watch me, but sail the race we did, and we even won Class 8!

We cruised the Caribbean for the rest of the winter and tried to figure out how Type A personalities can slow down. Elyse has adjusted well, but I don’t think there is any hope for me. We had met a lot of nice people in the Caribbean 1500, so we had a core group that we hung out with, which was nice. Many were from New England.

Our plans included returning to Florida for the hurricane season. Now if you think about that, it doesn’t make much sense, but we had some financial and personal business to attend to in Punta Gorda, Fla. Anyway, we had been told by everyone who had spent time there that there hadn’t been any significant hurricanes in that area for 40 years.

We picked our marina very carefully for our stay and made sure that we had a hurricane plan in case they were wrong. Besides, I had brought Iron Mistress south from Camden, Maine, in 1991, when I had to take shelter in Seal Cove off of the Damariscotta River in Maine during Hurricane Bob, a Category 2, and rode it out without any problems. So my feeling was that if we had to deal with a hurricane we would probably be OK. The only difference this time would be that we were confined to a marina.

For people who have not been to Florida in the summer, it is beastly hot and without air conditioning it would be a living hell. As a New England boat, we did not have air conditioning installed on the boat, so I installed it myself the minute we arrived back from the Caribbean.

Each day the brutal sun warms up the land and creates a sea breeze that collides with the western-moving weather systems, and then it pours down rain in the afternoon. I’ll take Perry Creek in Maine any day!

Nonetheless, this is what we would have to endure every day until hurricane season ended. When I talked to the locals about hurricanes, they all told me I was paranoid and that I had nothing to worry about.

On Aug. 8 the National Hurricane Center/Tropical Prediction Center was tracking Tropical Storm Bonnie, which was going to pass to our northwest, and Hurricane Charley, coming across the Caribbean and heading for the Gulf of Mexico. When we started looking at the track of Hurricane Charley, we became concerned.

So on Tuesday, Aug. 10, we started stripping everything off the boat and preparing her for a possible hurricane, even though all the locals said it was going to pass 50 to 70 miles offshore. On Thursday we were tracking the hurricane on our computer and using our weather software to follow upper-level steering wind patterns. I became very concerned at this point that we could suffer a direct hit instead of Tampa, which was the predicted landfall. Hurricane Charley at this point packed the sustained winds of a Category 2 storm, 96-110 mph, and was moving very quickly at 18 mph.

On Friday, the 5 a.m. report indicated that Charley was still a Category 2 and was still predicted to pass us by offshore. The next Tropical Prediction Center update was at 11 a.m. and gave us our first indication that Charley might be moving toward us in Punta Gorda. It was still a Category 2 and moving north at 18 mph, and it would have to make almost a right-hand turn toward the northeast to hit us.

But at 1 p.m. our marina got a call from Lee County Emergency Management, which now predicted a direct hit on Punta Gorda in approximately 2 hours. To make matters worse, in the past two hours Charley had gone from a Category 2 to a strong Category 4 with sustained winds of 145 mph with higher gusts and was moving even faster at 18 to 20 mph. Officials told everyone to evacuate the marina immediately. They expected an 8- to 10- foot storm surge, 4 to 8 inches of rainfall, and a direct hit from the eye wall, which was spawning tornadoes.

The marina staff shut down all the power and left. Out of 500 boats, approximately 8 people stayed on board; we were two of them.

We were in the North Basin portion of the marina, protected on all sides by large condominium buildings. We had double half-inch stern, spring and bow lines set. We were anchored to an opposite dock with our anchor chain and our stern was tied with a second anchor line 150 feet out to another set of pilings.

With everything battened down, we sat together in the cockpit and waited for Charley to pay us a visit.

The proverbial calm before the storm is real. There was no rain. It was very quiet because no one was there. We were very concerned that the storm surge might lift us off the pilings and then we would float away. To combat that, I used a clove hitch for each line with an extra half hitch so that the line would tighten under pressure and hopefully not come off. We had no sails on the boat and I even took down all the external halyards and any other rigging that would create windage.

At around 3 p.m. our waiting was over; Charley was on top of us with his full fury. The winds initially came from the east, and I was glad that I had put out my stern anchor line to the opposing pilings. As the wind built from the east, things started to happen, and it wasn’t pretty.

The biggest surprise was the water below our keel. Normally it is about 7.5 feet at MLW. Within a short time, Charley had sucked 3 to 4 feet out of the marina as if it was draining a bathtub, and the winds started to clock to our port side. Iron Mistress and the other boats fell to the bottom and were being thrown around like toys.

My lines, like those of the other boats, were tied high for the surge, but I had not expected 38,000 pounds of steel to be hanging from pilings like a marionette. Instantly, we had a couple of half-inch, double-braid lines snap like rubber bands. We also had a solid half-inch stainless steel fairlead that is welded to the deck snap along with the lines as if it were a piece of plastic.

The most important piece of equipment on Iron Mistress at this point was my rigging knife. Dressed in full foul-weather gear, I went outside and started adjusting lines. The ones I couldn’t budge I had to cut. Yes, you can move around in a hurricane, but it is extremely difficult.

At this point our bow had dropped so low that we had smashed our dock box and broken the front part of the dock. But Iron Mistress has a massive 3-inch OD stainless steel A-frame bowsprit. The dock lost that battle. Other boats were doing the same, and as their sprits came off their rigs came down.

Anyone who left a roller-furling sail up made a huge mistake — the sails opened up above and below where the sheets were tightly bound and tore themselves to shreds. The shock loads were immense, and that was the main reason that masts started to come down. With the wind now on our port side, a Morgan 41 next to us snapped some pilings, which fell on their deck. I was really concerned at this point because there was nothing else I could do. I lay down with cover from my starboard house on the starboard deck and held an extra fender between the starboard piling and Iron Mistress. Throughout the storm, Elyse was below recording barometer readings so that we could know when the monster that was on top of us was leaving town. She was also managing the VHF because there were a number of people who were in contact with us on the other boats that stayed and ones ashore who were concerned.

Finally, the wind started coming directly from the west and the marina filled back up as fast as it had emptied. We were now bow into the wind and on our anchor chain. I was glad I had put that out because we only had two remaining bow lines, and one was ready to part. It was interesting that the shock loads caused the lines to actually heat up before they parted. I had read about that in the past but had never experienced it first hand.

Now I had the task of letting out lines because the docks and the electrical boxes were immediately submerged. We did get the 8- to 10-foot surge, but it did not take us over the pilings because we had dropped to the bottom at the beginning of the storm, a blessing in disguise.

By 5:45 p.m., it was basically over. The one good thing about Charley was that it was compact and it was moving very quickly. It completely obliterated a lesser quality marina about 4 miles up the road from us. It also devastated the towns of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, among others. We were lucky, and I was glad that we stayed on board to tend after our boat, which suffered minimal damage as a result.

Now that we have witnessed the strength of a Category 4 hurricane, it is something I hope never see again. So for any of you who might consider leaving your boats in Florida during hurricane season — or any place in the Caribbean — let me know how you fare, because I won’t be there.