Our first two hurricane seasons, which run from June 1 to November 30 were spent tucked safely up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, Central America’s favorite hurricane hole. Many of our fellow cruisers opt to leave the Bay Islands and find refuge in the Rio and now, as hurricane season draws to an end, we welcome them back for the winter.
Some are here for six months, others are passing through on their way to exotic locations like Panama; some are heading through the Panama Canal, like Jim and Jeanie, on their way to the Sea of Cortez on Mexico’s North West coast. We will catch up on news as they pass by. We’ll ask about our old friends in the Rio and they’ll want to know about the hurricanes.
Most tropical storms pass to the northeast of the Bay Islands and historically it’s a much safer bet than most Caribbean islands, but there are exceptions and hurricanes do strike here. Mitch (1993) is the most well-known of the Bay Islands hurricanes, hovering over Guanaja for days and causing much damage.
Captain John and I had three brushes with tropical storms this season. The talk starts four or five or six days before the storm hits, as we all watch it form and cross the Atlantic. The first order of business each day, well the second, after the kettle goes on for coffee, is opening our laptops. NOAA is just one of the weather nets we check, there are many but Facebook is quicker because all our friends are watching also and the approaching tropical storm is the topic of the day.
If the mainland of Honduras is hit and the ports on the north coast and roads are damaged, the ships that bring everything over to the Island won’t run. So we drove down to French Harbour, where all the big, modern grocery stores are located and stocked up on basics, coffee, milk, sugar, etc. Power can be out for days or weeks, resulting in banks being closed, so we stocked up on cash.
We filled two 5 gallon jugs with dieselfuel for the generator on the property because power outages are a given. We loaded everything from the car into El Tanko, the boat we use to get over to La Punta, and then unloaded it all onto the narrow dock in the boat house and hauled it over to the Diamond Lil.
In our own town of Oak Ridge we loaded up on 5 gallon jugs of drinking water and any of the supplies that we can get here. The shelves empty quickly as everyone does the same thing. John makes sure the generator will start and as the storm draws nearer the boaters all ask each other “Are you staying or moving?”
The large shrimp and lobster boats begin to trickle in, docking across the waterway from us at the Shrimp factory to unload their cargo and then seek setting off to seek refuge. Many of them head to Calabash Bight and our friend Mark posts pictures on Facebook. We watch closely, they are our first clue as to what the locals expect. When they start tucking these giant vessels into the mangroves, we pay attention.
Decision day, the storm is about a day away. If we move the boat, we want to do it by daylight. We prefer not to. Which way will the wind comes from? If it comes from the southwest, we are pushed away from the dock, not a bad thing. If the wind comes from the northeast or north, we will be pushed onto the dock, which isn’t appealing. In case of this eventuality, we dropped two anchors out in the channel, with lines left loose until the storm arrives. Then, we will loosen our lines to land, pull out away from the dock and count on these anchors to hold us.
We anchored Joe’s catamaran, Lana Kai, in much the same way, so she wouldn’t be tossed forward into La Feets, the little shed that serves as laundry/workroom. We also tied her to a tree on shore, and added a couple of additional lines to Diamond Lil to tie to shore also.
The Captain cooked up a large pot of chili so we will have plenty of food. All our friends are doing the same thing, cooking hurricane food before the storm arrives. We are ready, the storm will hit during the night, so I try to prepare with an afternoon nap. Facebook is a flurry of activity, all our friends as nervous as we are.
Our elderly neighbor Miss Jessie packs up and heads high up the hill to her daughter Alana’s house. We will keep an eye on your place, we tell her.
Our other neighbour Lourdes, who speaks no English, comes by in her boat and we exchange phone numbers and tell her to put her boat in our boathouse for the night, so it won't fill with water.
The winds are building as we crawl into bed but we try to get a little sleep. The forecast calls for the storm to veer north but we will still expect a lot of wind and rain. The boat tosses back and forth in the wind, there is no sleeping on your side, you must lie on your back or be rolled around. We’re used to it though, and we fall asleep.
It is not the storm, but the sound of about eight screaming diesel engines fighting 60 mile an hour winds that wakes us up at about 4 a.m. “Oh no”, I moan, this must mean that the storm is going to hit us after all, where are they going in the middle of the night? My worst fear is moving the boat in bad weather in the dark of night.
We shine our flashlight on the mayhem in the water beside us. Proton, a large government boat, has been at the dock for a year and a half, she never moves and I hear her engine coughing and come to life. Boats still rafted three wide are floating not far from us, men scrambling about their decks, yelling and screaming.
“Look, they have pulled the dock away”, says John and sure enough, the dock that about 8 large boats were tied to has been ripped away and large chunks of it are still tied to some of them. With flashlihts in hand, we watcedh the fiasco long enough to make sure we were not caught up in the tangle; before long they have all disappeared to find refuge somewhere else and we returned to bed.
We wake to a property flooded by rain and strewn with debris from the storm surge but Matthew has passed as a tropical storm only. I take some pictures to send to Joe and we walk over to check on Miss Jessie’s house. It is fine, no damage but her property is a mess so I take some pictures there too.
Three weeks later we are glad we left the storm anchors out and just loosened off the lines. Paula is headed our way, we go through the same routine and once again we wake to find we have been spared, she has veered off to the north to ruin someone else’s day.
Just over another week passes. Things come in threes, I tell the Captain, let’s leave the storm anchors out. Richard looms and this one really has everyone talking. John goes over to Hessie’s, the little store directly across from us and the owner, Darcy tells him that this one is coming, the fishing fleet is on its way in.
The good news is that the docks across from us are not repaired and we have no more fishing fleet to fear slamming into us. Once again we haul all the plants that are in pots to safety in La Feets and the cistern room in the house. We ferry Miss Jessie and her two little dogs across to Alana’s dock so she can spend the night safely up the hill.
The storm is predicted to hit in the early hours of the morning as we tighten up the storm anchor lines and loosen the lines to shore. Once we do this, there is no getting off the boat. We wait. Richard is no fun at all, only a category 1, but more than enough excitement for me. Our anchors hold and we suffer no damage. Once the morning comes and John can see he checks on Miss Jessie’s house and returns to the boat looking for a long line to tie down a large corner of her roof which is flapping in the wind.
I follow him over, both of us in our heavy yellow raincoats and watch as he lassoes the corner of her roof and ties it down. The worst is over, the storm is diminishing and John takes some pictures from inside the house of waves higher than buildings. The tree that Lana Kai was tied to has been ripped from the ground and has pulled the port side bow of Lana Kai into La Feets, the building in front of us. John cuts the line with a knife and the boat snaps back into place. We survey the damage and consider ourselves lucky once again.
Almost a month has passed since Richard and we feel pretty sure that we are done with the hurricanes for this year. Our friends are straggling back from the Rio. Hurricane season is over, we surely hope and now we brace ourselves for RAINY season.