By Donald M. Street Jr.
For anyone who followed the track of the NOAA announcements of the position, speed of advance and direction of Hugo, it was obvious a couple of days before it hit in September 1989 that Hurricane Alley — Anguilla to Puerto Rico — was going to take a major hit. A large number of boats fled to the so-called hurricane holes: Coral Bay, St. John, USVI; Paraquita Lagoon, Tortola, BVI; Ensenada Honda, Culebra, off Puerto Rico. Some hunkered down in their marinas.
Bill Skol, owner of Tradition, the 48-foot traditional gaff-rigged schooner, decided to go to sea. He headed south 48 hours before Hugo was due to hit Fajardo, Puerto Rico. He couldn’t secure a crew. Everyone insisted he was committing suicide to go to sea with a hurricane approaching.
He took off 48 hours before Hugo was predicted to hit. He set the forestaysail, foresail and storm trysail, motor sailing south at about 6 knots. When the hurricane hit Fajardo, he was roughly 300 miles south. He turned around and headed north. He had no problem with wind, no more than 30 knots. Sea conditions were easy to handle, a long, big easy swell.
He arrived back in Fajardo to discover nothing but death and destruction. Amazingly he found the dinghy that he had to leave behind, up a tree, undamaged.
Boats in the so-called hurricane holes suffered catastrophic losses. In the vast majority of the marinas, the floats came adrift, cleats came out of docks, boats suffered major damage and a large number sank. Regarding boats stored ashore, it was not a case of how many blew out of their jack stands, rather, the very few numbers that survived the hurricane in an upright position!
The one exception to the above was Marina Puerto del Rey, with about a thousand boats; fewer than 10 percent sank. At the storage facility ashore, none of the boats suffered any major damage.
I reported this and recommended that sailors keep track of hurricanes and follow Skol’s action, departing 48 hours before the hurricane is predicted to hit. Head south or southwest, sailing, motor sailing or motoring. In 24 hours, the boat will be 144 miles south of the hurricane track, and 48 hours roughly 300 miles south of the center of the hurricane. This distance will put the boat well clear of any dangerous wind velocities and dangerous sea conditions.
The reaction to the story I wrote in November 1989 was interesting. Some of the letters said that I was insane to recommend departing 48 hours before the hurricane hit. A few agreed with my advice.
At my website, read the hurricane section, which was written after I studied the NOAA hurricane data. It showed the track of all hurricanes and named tropical storms from 1871 to 1998. Now, 34 years after I first wrote “Reflections on Hugo,” especially after doing the survey and tracking hurricanes, I feel that Bill Skol was correct and sailors today should do the same thing.
A version of this article originally appeared in November 1989. The author advises mariners to check NOAA’s National Hurricane Center daily at this time of year and consult his website (www.street-iolaire.com) often.