Hurricane season

I love the fact that our newest old boat is named Hurricane. After months of careful nursing and a lot of hard work, she is finally behaving like a graceful old lady should: no more mechanical drama, no bad fuel, no spurting garboard seams, no electrical shorts – just a dignified, old New England boat dependably steaming down the river with her cargo, turning heads as she goes. As Neil Young said it, “You are like a hurricane: There’s calm in your eyes.”

I admit to a fascination with the terrible in nature – with things like avalanches, rogue waves, rattlesnakes, sharks and big storms. My interest in hurricanes began early. I recall a September afternoon in 1969, when the sky over Marblehead was a strange, yellow overcast. I worked with my father to haul our Boston Whaler in advance of the approaching Hurricane Gerda. Dad was a Navy veteran, having experienced Pacific typhoons on the destroyer escort USS Lovelace during the war. He knew from experience that the odd sky indicated severe weather on the way.

If you would be further intrigued by the dark magic of hurricanes, study, as I did early in my early nautical self-education, the storm section in the “Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book.” There is a chart showing the path of notable hurricanes and information on precautions, the dangerous right semi-circle, the navigable left semi-circle, ways to tell the location of the eye by the wind direction at your location, and where to sail once you do. It is both fascinating and chilling.

This afternoon, we took a group of high school students from High Mowing Waldorf School in Wilton, N.H., out to the Shoals in the Hurricane, over a placid Bigelow Bight. The sea was flat-calm all day, and temperatures were in the sunny low 80s. The faithful gray seal colony on Duck Island and nearby Mingo Rock presented their usual amazing display. White-sided dolphins were visible from the high deck. The students enjoyed a lovely cruise in the presence of history, tradition and great natural beauty. All of this took place in the heart of hurricane season.

In Texas and Florida, residents were still reeling from the damage wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The extent of misery and property damage in those areas is painful to contemplate.

My brother and his family live in Houston. He sent me a photo last week of his sons piloting a remote-controlled boat across the two feet of water in his family room. Across town, my mother’s home was completely destroyed when five feet of water inundated her neighborhood. And they are among the lucky ones.

In the midst of the storm, I called to see how they were all doing. My brother sent a photo of his house surrounded by a lake where his driveway and front yard should have been. After his car disappeared beneath the flood late that night, he texted back in his typically understated way: “Water is powerful.”

While such weather is rare on our coast, New England is statistically overdue for a major hurricane. History proves it. The impact of the legendary Hurricane of 1938 is still visible to the informed eye in the hills and mountains of central New England. That storm, in the days before weather radar and satellite imagery, arrived with little warning during a period of fine late-summer weather, leaving people no time to prepare.

In 1954, the year before I was born, Category 3 Hurricane Carol hit our local coast with southerly winds strong enough to destroy Frisbee’s Wharf at Kittery Point. Carol was followed 10 days later by the Category 2 Hurricane Edna.

Into the 1960s, weather data was still collected mostly from strategically-placed observers. I remember watching the legendary Boston weatherman, Don Kent, reporting updates on barometric pressure, wind gusts and wave heights from the Nantucket Lightship as Hurricane Donna approached in 1960.

During the 1985 Hurricane Gloria, New England experienced the worst widespread damage since 1954. I had my first cruising sailboat, the 26-foot cutter we called Finner, on a mooring in the cove off the rebuilt Frisbee’s Wharf. I remember driving over the interstate bridge to see how she was faring as the eye passed over and the sun came out.

By the time I reached Kittery Point, the clouds had returned and the winds were again raging, with gusts to 65 knots, but still not hurricane-strength. Out in the Cove, Finner was tacking back and forth on her mooring, sailing hard by the force of the wind on her hull alone. It took two hands on the rail at the edge of the pier to keep from being blown across the parking lot.

In 1991, the edge of Category 2 Hurricane Bob grazed the coast. We were out of state, visiting family, when it passed through. Returning home the next day, I drove through a darkened Kittery Point, past downed power lines, to see about our sloop Hopestill. There was no moon, and it was difficult to see across the harbor. The quiet voice of Frank Frisbee came out of the darkness behind me. “She’s OK,” he said. “The worst wind was northwest, and the waves never built up.”

In 2005, the remnants of an October hurricane decayed into a violent nor’easter that lashed the Maine coast. Wind gusts over 60 turned the nearly empty harbor white. I had returned to town on the bus to retrieve my truck after having shuttled Aloft back down south to be hauled out in the nick of time. I remember walking along an empty rain- and wind-whipped Main Street with great difficulty. From Rockland, I headed northwest toward Sugarloaf. High up on the grade over the Belgrade Lakes, the heavy rain turned to snow, leaving a record-breaking three feet in the mountains. Hurricane snow.

I was on Star Island in August 2011 with a small group of caretakers during Hurricane Irene, the last hurricane to impact our coast in a major way. The Shoals did not experience a direct hit, but wind gusts over 70 knots were recorded from this Category-1 event. Sixty feet up in the tower of the Oceanic Hotel the timbers groaned and the old building swayed from side to side. During the worst of it, our little group ventured out to the Smith Monument on the exposed ledges of the eastern shore. There 25-footers, carrying the full force of the Atlantic, sent spray over 100 feet to douse us on the high ground, where we stood bracing against the iron railings. We could see white water reaching the top of the lighthouse at White Island a mile or so away.

Aloft was alone in Gosport Harbor during Irene, moored by an extra-long pendant in the relatively flat water behind the breakwater. Since I had to be on the Island to keep watch, and since Pepperrell Cove is notoriously dangerous in a hurricane, I opted to leave the sloop at the Shoals, where I could keep an eye on her. Her sails and loose gear were stowed below, and she rode out the gale through the afternoon within sight of the caretaker’s cottage.

Giant granite blocks on the breakwater were being joggled about by the waves. Water seethed through gaps in the granite and into the harbor, creating great heaps of lingering foam as the sun set. At dawn I was relieved to see the boat still on the mooring and undamaged. The storm had passed by overnight, leaving a quiet harbor that resembled a snowfield, still covered with left over foam.

One of the fascinating truths about wind is that its force increases exponentially to increases in its speed. For example, a 126-mph wind produces twice the force as a 100-mph one. I have never seen the likes of a really strong hurricane, and I hope I never do.

Hurricane season lasts until November. As I write this, the prediction models are beginning to suggest that Hurricane José may produce significant impacts in Southern New England waters in a few days. Will we be ready for it? As it goes in the captivating Brandi Carlile song, “You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye.” And then only briefly.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack now focuses on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront.

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