Sunday November 14 1999. 06:30:
Tropical depression advisory number 16: Depression at 16° North 15° 09’ West expected to become tropical storm Lenny by 18:00 and start moving east.
In George Town, Bahamas, the 34ft sloop Force Five with Gary Brown and John Dalton onboard is sheltering from strong easterly winds. They are waiting for a weather window that will allow them to safely maneuver the boat through the reef into the open sea and complete their delivery trip to St Maarten in the Dutch West Indies. Gary is a seasoned delivery skipper but for John, who is along for the adventure, this will be his first offshore passage.
The Atlantic hurricane season is almost over and boats are beginning to move. The early fleet has left Bermuda on a southerly course, hoping to spend a full season cruising the islands. Boats that have been laid up in Trinidad and Venezuela are cautiously moving north.
Aboard the yacht Ta-Tl, at anchor in St. Maarten’s Simpson Bay Lagoon, Gary’s wife Jan waits for news of Force Five’s departure. Also in the lagoon is the yacht Ginseng, a Cabo Rico 38 owned by David and Cheryl Rice, and crewed by two friends. Ginseng recently arrived from Bermuda and the crew is in fine spirits after nine days at sea and a battle with heavy weather. Their visit to St. Maarten is part of a five-year plan. First head south, then west, then north and finally home to retire. ‘Ginseng’ is not insured.
Monday November 15. O8:30:
David Jones at the Caribbean Weather Center in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, is using the latest U.S. Navy weather tracking software and is the first to predict that Lenny –which is now a category one hurricane—will stall over the island of Anguilla within the next few days ...
Midday, George Town, Bahamas:
The crew of Force Five, working under the usual pressure found by delivery crews to get to their destination on time, has found their weather window. With phone calls made to family and friends, and keeping a cautious eye on the developing situation in the south, the crew hoist sail and put to sea.
Dawn, Tuesday November 16 - St Maarten:
The first rays of the morning sun chase the shadows from the mountains and cast a silvery light across Simpson Bay Lagoon. In the eerie calm the surface of the water shimmers like molten glass. Onboard the anchored boats people are tuned to the local weather station. Lenny is on the move, intensifying and heading east.
The last few hurricane seasons have not been kind to St Maarten. Residents believe the island has become a target, some believe that hurricane Luis in 1995 left a groove in the atmosphere for other storms to follow. Some say the island is cursed. In the summer months people look to the east, towards the oncoming weather; now they are looking over their shoulders for the unbelievable is about to happen, Lenny is stalking them from the west.
11:00. Simpson Bay Lagoon:
Hans De Zeeuw and Jos Vagevuur aboard the catamaran Kapal have made the decision to put to sea. Hans is an experienced sailor with thousands of blue water miles to his credit but Jos has never been to sea in more than twenty knots of wind. She puts her faith in her partner and the boat that he built with his own hands.
As Kapal heads out she leaves in her wake the age-old question, which is now asked by the crews of the other yachts: Should we stay or should we go? Do the skippers putting to sea know something that we don’t? Indecision adds to the tension and tempers are short. The ‘Old hands’ shake their heads and begin their preparations: Lay anchors, pick up moorings, do anything to fasten your ship to the ground. Add chafing gear, and then add more. Strip the boat of everything and anything. Take off all your valuables - if she sinks or hits the beach you’ve lost them all. Take care of your own and then do what you can to help someone else.
The bars are doing a roaring business; the unbelievers see Lenny through the swirl in a glass and hope it will simply go away.
Aboard Ginseng David and Cheryl and their two friends begin their preparations. First they strip the deck of everything that can to reduce the windage. Then they layout three heavy anchors and secure themselves to a mooring with 150ft of one-inch nylon line. Having done all what they can they set the watch and their vigil begins.
15:00. Five miles east of Samana Cay, Bahamas:
Force Five is sailing wing-and-wing in ideal conditions. The crew is listening to weather guru Herb Heligen broadcast his daily forecast from Toronto. Heligen changes the order of his broadcast to first talk to the yachts sailing south towards the northeast Caribbean and into the path of hurricane Lenny. Heligen is worried. Lenny is now approaching category five status; the storm is unpredictable, a wild card.
At 15:10 Heligen takes a call from the Swiss yacht El Punto. The vessel is a 44ft aluminum sloop with two persons and a small dog on board. She is becalmed and lying dead in the water. Her engine is down and, without the correct spares, beyond repair. Heligen reads the weather report and the skipper of El Punto, in a calm voice, requests that a call be made to the coast guard. He asks that they send a helicopter to take him, his wife and their dog off the boat. For what seems an eternity there is complete radio silence, then Heligen, unsure of what he has heard, asks the captain to repeat his last transmission. Unable to interfere in any decision the captain of the yacht feels he must make, he points out that the wind, when it comes, will come from the east, allowing the yacht to run west away from the projected track of the hurricane. The captain ponders this and decides to stay with the boat for one more day.
In St. Maarten the Simpson Bay Bridge opens for the final time and the fifty-year-old Danish beam trawler Our Confidence puts to sea. On board are owner/skipper Sean Paton, and the mate, Arthur Emslie. The trawler’s bottom is foul and her speed slow, but Paton is now more afraid of the poorly anchored commercial vessels that have entered the lagoon and taken up station around him than the approaching storm, and he decides to run.
Wednesday November 17. 15:30:
The captain of El Punto--his voice shaking with emotion—once again requests to be taken of his vessel by helicopter. Still in calm conditions, but having moved only eight miles in 24 hours and with his batteries failing, he listens to the following message relayed by Herb Heligen: “Captain I have the U.S. Coast Guard on the phone right now. They are aware of your situation but regret to inform you, you are out of helicopter range and all their aircraft are secured on the ground in Puerto Rico. Do you understand this message? Over.”
The skipper of El Punto once again demands to be taken off the yacht but his batteries are now dangerously low and finally radio contact is lost.
On board Force Five the skipper copies down the latest on the storm: the central pressure has dropped to 934 millibars and Lenny is packing sustained winds of 130 knots with gusts up to 160. The eye is predicted to stall 35 miles northeast of St. Maarten, and there is talk of it re-curving. With the mention of a re-curve new courses are laid off that will put Force Five with in reach of the safe haven of Luperon in the Dominican Republic or even San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Thursday, November 18. 06:15:
Hurricane Lenny is now 35 miles west of St. Maarten. Winds are blowing at 135 mph and the eye is forecast to pass over the island by midmorning.
Abeam of St. Kitts and still fleeing south the crew of Our Confidence is battling mountainous seas and, as the eye of the storm approaches, a new wave pattern begins to emerge. The waves are no longer coming from one direction, and with a change in the angle of the wind a vicious cross-sea has developed making steering difficult. At 06:45 the stern of Our Confidence is picked up by a huge breaking wave. The wave lifts her stern clear of the water until the ship is almost vertical and her bows are forced deep into the sea ahead. With her rudder and propeller out of the water, all steerage is lost. Tons of water smash onto the aft deck, demolish the engine room doors, and pour below. There is so much water in the engine room that it rises above the air-intake and the engine comes to an immediate, shuddering halt. The ship, now out of control, continues her downward plunge along the face of the breaking wave until her foredeck is buried as far as the main bits. Slowly the reserve buoyancy in her bows takes hold, her plunge towards the depths slows and she begins to broach. Still traveling down the face of the wave she rolls nearly 90 degrees before shaking the water from her decks and righting herself. She has been thrown through 180 degrees and now faces north; her engine is flooded and her floorboards awash … Two miles to leeward the jagged rocks of St. Kitts are waiting.
The Dutch catamaran Kapal is also running out of time, her attempt to get south has failed and Lenny is almost upon them. Catamarans don’t have a good record when it comes to storm conditions, but her skipper is confident. Based on his knowledge of seamanship and an unshakable faith in the strength of his boat, they turn to face the storm. With the help of Jos Vagevuur, De Zeeuw drags his new parachute anchor to the foredeck. The anchor was bought a week earlier and stowed below, hopefully to be forgotten and never used. Now it is deployed from the bow and their battle with Lenny begins.
The pressure has bottomed out at 935 millibars. The eye of Lenny has stalled over St Maarten and the Simpson Bay Lagoon has turned into a seething cauldron of destruction. Ginseng, her bows throwing water as far aft as the cockpit, is holding station, but her crew are exhausted and with the surface of the lagoon in flight it’s hard to see and difficult to breath. The constant trips to the bows to check the chafing gear become harder and finally impossible. During the afternoon the one-inch nylon mooring line parts and the yacht is thrown backwards, Ginseng is now totally reliant on her anchors.
Off the north coast of East Cacos, Force Five is on the very edge of the hurricane and beating into 40 knots of wind. The skipper, torn between the safety of the vessel and its crew and the desperate need to get home to the destruction that he knows must lay ahead, tunes in to the latest weather report. He learns that St Maarten is being battered by 140mph winds but that the storm is expected to start moving away and weaken. Armed with this information he decides to keep going, but as a precaution alters course to pass to the west of Grand Turk, putting Luperon within easy reach.
In the Simpson Bay Lagoon the wild darkness of the day hardens into night.
Friday November 19. 02:00:
The motion aboard Ginseng changes as the eye wall of Lenny tracks across the lagoon. The hurricane is now at the height of its fury. The surface of the lagoon is torn away. Air and water, mixed with a lethal dose of flying debris, reduce visibility to zero. Ginseng’s anchors can no longer hold her and she begins to move. The crews’ first warning is their last. David, the skipper, is sitting in the hatchway facing forward. He’s talking to his friend who is standing in the cabin below when he sees his friend’s eyes flicker from his face and focus on something beyond the hatch and high above David’s shoulder. His warning shout is cut short by an ear-splitting crash. The boat is thrown on her beam end; the starboard side implodes, once, twice, three times as the severed iron piling of a smashed dock is driven deep into her guts. In two minutes Ginseng is gone.
From the comparative haven of the boat, the crew suddenly find themselves in the maelstrom of the lagoon and are quickly separated. David and Cheryl use the harnesses on their lifejackets to clip themselves together and watch in horror as their friends are swept off into the night. In shock, David realizes where they are; wind and the fierce current are taking them towards the bridge and the channel to the open sea. Running on adrenaline, they strike out for the shore and finally drag each other, battered and bloody, across the rocks to safety. Half an hour later they find their friends and together they set off to find shelter.
The hurricane is now moving slowly east towards the catamaran Kapal and the trawler Our Confidence. On board the trawler they have managed to set a small, heavy jib up forward, the jib lasts for 30 minutes before it explodes but it’s done enough to drag them clear of the rocks of St. Kitts and into open water. The boat is still without her engine and lying across seas estimated to be as high as 45ft. Lying beam on in huge seas is what a beam trawler is designed to do, but during her working days Our Confidence would have had a full compliment of men. Today there are two men and a dog. Skipper and crew have been pumping for 18 hours; the pumps are continuously blocking from long-hidden debris in the bilge. Finally they get the water level down below that of the generator and the starboard battery bank. As Paton works on the generator the boat is again picked up by a vicious cross-sea and her stern is smashed down onto something in the water. The wheel, secured to windward, is torn from its lashings and the rudder smashes against the stops on the leeward side. A five-foot section of one-and-a-half-inch oak bulwark is ripped from the boats stern like matchwood and disappears into the sea. The crew fights on, pumping and working on the engine, determined not to lose, to get the odds back in their favor, to survive.
Northwest of Our Confidence, Kapal is now in the eye of the storm. The boat, still lying to the sea anchor, is behaving superbly in the massive seas. Only the occasional rogue, thrown up by the changing wind direction, is sweeping across her decks. For eight hours the catamaranlies with her bows to the worst of the screaming winds and heaving seas until De Zeeuw notices a change, subtle at first but a definite change, the weather is beginning to moderate; clouds are thinning and the wind is loosing its edge. It’s not blowing quite as hard, heavy gusts are further apart; the barometer is rising. They know that the worst is over and they have made it through the storm.
On board Our Confidence they are making their own luck. Refusing to give in, they have finally thrown the sea from the bilge and after 30 hours are ready to try the main engine. This will be their one and only chance - one shot. The engine, a giant two-cylinder semi-diesel, is started by compressed air. Paton has taken the pan from the bottom of the engine, cleaned the salt water from the bearings and put things back together. There is nothing left to do but pull the lever. With a whoosh the air races through the pipes to the cylinder head forcing the giant piston up the barrel, the fuel in the cylinder explodes and, with a mighty cough, the engine bursts into life, her dry exhaust chuffing into the dying storm.
Gary and John brought Force Five into St Maarten behind the storm where Gary found his wife, his friends and his boat Ta-Tl waiting.
El Punto was finally abandoned; a freighter put men on board the yacht, and the owner, his wife and their dog were taken off. Allegedly the captain of the freighter insisted the yacht be sunk, and her sea cocks were opened and the hoses cut.
Hans and Jos on board Kapal retrieved their sea anchor and returned safely to St Maarten.
Sean Paton and Arthur Emslie kept Our Confidence at sea for two more days and assisted other vessels in distress. They returned safely to St Maarten.
David and Cheryl watched as Ginseng was lifted from the bottom of the lagoon. The boat was taken to a local yard where they shoveled the mud, and what was left of their possessions, out of the boat. Many people would have walked away, but David and Cheryl refused to give up their dream and rebuilt the boat.
Eight sailors who left St. Maarten intending to outrun the storm were lost to the sea.
Gary E. Brown © 2000