by Don Street
In 1984 I got caught at St. Maarten by a late-season hurricane. Hurricane Klaus barreled through on November 8th. Due to a warning about an approaching hurricane, I had positioned my engineless yawl, Iolaire, on the north side of the island, where weíd be safe from winds from the south. Then we discovered that the hurricane was coming east toward the Virgins, turning our sheltered anchorage into a deadly lee shore. It was too late to get to a safe harbour.
Klaus was the first hurricane on record to hit the Leeward Islands from the west, catching many of us by surprise. At St. Maarten, the seas wrecked a cruise ship; the passengers and crew swam to shore. Iolaire survived by deploying six of the seven anchors aboard (see "Surviving Klaus" at www.street-iolaire.com).
After that, I decided that I had to do some research.
I obtained the NOAA book Tropical Cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean (downloadable from hurricanes.noaa.gov/pdf/hurricanebook.pdf) and studied the tracks of hurricanes approaching the Eastern Caribbean in the Atlantic Ocean, from 1871 through 1984.
Anticipate the track
I learned that that as hurricanes or potential hurricanes originating in the Cape Verde area move west, if they stay below below 19∞N they normally track westwards, never altering course more than five degrees in 24 hours. With very few exceptions, all alterations of course were to the north. If a hurricane took a zig to the south it seldom lasted more than 48 hours. The only ones that have made a big jog to the south are the ones that have started in the low latitudes ó 12 to 13 degrees north ó and even these have never tracked south more than five degrees in 24 hours.
Hurricane Irma, in 2017, was an anomaly. Irma was the first hurricane since 1851 to go above 19∞N and then head south: she went to 19∞06N then took a five-degree jog south. She was only the second hurricane since 1851 to head south for three days before turning west and then north.
Knowing how hurricanes track across the Atlantic makes it easy to figure out where one will hit the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. With the predicted track or the direction of movement in its center, draw a 10-degree cone extending from the position NOAA weather gives for the center of the hurricane. When the hurricane is 600 miles away, the cone is 105 miles wide; when it is 300 miles away, the width of the cone will be 35 miles wide, etcetera. This will allow you to predict the probable strike area, and the danger zone.
As they approach the Caribbean hurricanes are often very intense but usually small in diameter. Generally, hurricane conditions prevail approximately 80 to 120 miles to the north of the center and 40 to 60 miles to the south of center. When Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica in 2017 its neighbors on the south end of Guadalopue and the north end of Martinique did not suffer major damage.
Make a plan accordingly
With this information in mind, as the hurricane forms, start making your plans a full 72 hours before its approach. Make a game plan, execute it and stick to it. If the boat is in the water and you can move entirely out of the stormís path, do it. If you must shelter in a marina it is important that you secure the boat with a catís cradle of lines, not secured to the cleats on the dock (they come out under heavy load), but rather to the pilings that support the dock. If your boat is properly secured ashore ó with the mast(s) out and the hull either tied down with straps to ìdead menî, secured in a special cradle, or well chocked with plenty of screw stands properly tied together ó then the chance of your boat surviving a hit by a hurricane is good.
As a result of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 I wrote ìReflections on Hugoî in all four of my guides. This was followed by 18 articles published in Caribbean Compass and in magazines in the US and UK. Had my advice been followed hundreds of boats would not have been sunk and millions of dollars of insurance claims would not have had to be paid as a result of the storms of 2017.
After the hurricane disasters of 2017 I obtained the new Tropical Cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean, which covers the tracks of all hurricanes from 1851 to 2006 with updates through 2017. I again studied the tracks of all hurricane approaching the Caribbean below 19∞N, and confirmed what I have said above. I very much doubt if anyone else in the world has sat down and studied hurricane tracks approaching the Caribbean as often and as carefully as have I.
History of Eastern Caribbean hits
I compiled the information below, which shows how often the major Caribbean yachting centers have been hit by hurricanes, tropical storms or major depressions. It gives location, the number of hurricanes recorded there during the total period for which hurricanes tracks are available (1851-2017), the number of hurricanes recorded there during the period since yachting became a major industry in the Eastern Caribbean (1975-2017), and comments on how the hurricanes have affected the location.
• EASTERN PUERTO RICO: Experienced 14 hurricanes between 1851 and 2017, seven of which were between 1975 and 2017.
In addition, there were three tropical storms and one tropical depression overall. Marina Puerto del Rey proved to be safe for stored yachts during Irma and Maria in 2017.
• VIRGIN ISLANDS: Experienced 22 hurricanes between 1851 and 2017, six of which were between 1975 and 2017.
In addition, there were five tropical storms (three of them in 1933). Recent hurricanes have inflicted significant amounts of damage or total losses to boats stored ashore, in marinas or in hurricane holes.
• ST. MAARTEN: Experienced 21 hurricanes between 1851 and 2017, eight of which were between 1975 and 2017.
In addition, there were five tropical storms (three of them in 1933) and two tropical depressions. All recent hurricanes have inflicted damage or total losses to boats left in crowded anchorages. In 2017, boats stored in heavy wooden cradles at Bobbyís Marina yard with their masts out were safe.
• ANTIGUA: Experienced 17 hurricanes between 1851 and 2017, four of which were between 1975 and 2017.
In addition, there were five tropical storms prior to 1900, including two hurricanes in 1899. In 2010 TS Gaston sprang up 90 miles east of Antigua and suddenly developed into a major hurricane. Luckily it swept across the island very rapidly doing little major damage.
• MARTINIQUE: Experienced 20 hurricanes between 1851 and 2017, five of which were between 1975 and 2017.
In addition, there were five tropical storms and three major tropical depressions. None of the hurricanesí centers scored a direct hit on the southern part of the island; a direct hit on Le Marin would be catastrophic in terms of insurance losses.
• ST. LUCIA: Experienced 17 hurricanes between 1851 and 2017, six of which were between 1975 and 2017.
In addition, there were 12 tropical storms. Hurricane eyes passed either just north or south of the island; no major damage to the yachting sector was reported.
• ST. VINCENT & THE GRENADINES: Experienced 24 hurricanes between 1851 and 2017, six of which were between 1975 and 2017. Since 1986, there have been two tropical storms and two hurricanes.
There were 16 tropical storms and two tropical depressions overall. There is nowhere to hide from a hurricane in the Grenadines.
• GRENADA: Experienced three hurricanes between 1851 and 2017, two of which were between 1975 and 2017.
The vast majority of inpacts here have been tropical storms. Grenada was hit dead on by hurricanes in 1856, 1955 and 2004, and was brushed by hurricanes in 1877 and 2005. In 1963 a hurricane passed south of Grenada and ended up stalling for three days over eastern Cuba.
• TRINIDAD: Has never experienced a hurricane, but is has had five tropical storms, all hitting south end of the island.
Beyond into the Caribbean
Once hurricanes pass through the island chain into the warm waters of the Caribbean they usually increase in intensity and size. Also, once in the Caribbean, their tracks are hard to predict. For example, in 1994 one made a right turn after hitting the southern islands and ran off northeast back into the Atlantic. Similarly once north of the Caribbean their tracks are extremely difficult to predict.
Regarding active hurricane seasons, many of the most active seasons did not affect the islands in the Eastern Caribbean. The hurricanes formed in the Gulf of Mexico and knocked hell out of the States. If you get a copy of Tropical Cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean and look at the tracks of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico you can see that trying to predict the course of a hurricane there, or trying to dodge one, is virtually impossible.
Visit www.street-iolaire.com for more hurricane information.
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