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Special Report

In the first two months of 2016, extreme weather events have impacted the cruising
fleet in Fiji and the Bahamas.

may 2016

28

S C O T T

N E U M A N

A N D

M E R I

F A U L K N E R

A TALE of TWO TEMPESTS

n the following two stories, sailors who are currently on opposite


sides of the globe share their wild weather experiences from early
2016. First is Scott Neumans report from the Bahamas Exuma
Cays, where a violent windstorm in January took cruisers by surprise.
Meri Faulkner then recounts her firsthand experience with Februarys
Cyclone Winston, the most powerful storm on record to hit Fiji.

Peace before the storm: Sailors in George Town, Bahamas, report that the weather had been settled the day of the
derecho. When the clouds came, no one expected the 70-plus knots of wind that swept through the islands.

TAMMY SWART

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B Y

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may 2016

30

et the ditch bag. If worse comes


to worst, we will get off the boat,
but not until it hits the rocks,
Liz Kennell recalls her husband, Bob,
shouting over the 60-knot winds that
had plucked their anchor from the sandy
bottom, and which were now tossing
Arapesh, their Benetau 411, toward a limestone-fringed cut near Fowl Cay, in the
Bahamas Exuma Cays.
It was January 6, 2016. Months before,
the recently retired Canadian couple
had joined the annual migration of cruisers hoping to trade a winter in the north

for the warmth of the Exumas. Like the


Kennells, many of those same cruisers
spread out along the 130-mile-long
Bahamian island chain were now in full
survival mode.
Kathy Barth, a Seven Seas Cruising
Association commodore, and her husband, Curt, were anchored off Pig Beach
at Big Majors Spot when the powerful system overtook them. In all our years of
cruising, weve never seen anything like it,
Kathy says.
For Ken Pimentel, the first sign came
at about 1600, in the form of a cloud bank

with structure looming over his evening anchorage at Normans Cay, in the
northern Exumas. Aboard the Leopard 40
Dream Catcher, he and his wife, Beth, and
their 12-year-old daughter, Jeanette, had
sailed up earlier in the day to meet friends.
Normans is a popular stop among cruisers
for its beautiful scenery and the nearly allaround protection of the inner anchorage
a rarity in the low-lying Exumas.
Early that morning, Ken had listened
to the synopsis delivered by Chris Parker
during the weather routers SSB broadcast:
possible squalls, some that could be strong.
Even in the fairly protected anchorage
at Normans Cay, the powerful winds
kicked up a chop, and several boats
dragged anchor.

KEN PIMENTEL

NIGHTMARE ON THE
EXUMA BANK

SPECIAL REPORT

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Something to keep an eye on, Ken thought,


but nothing to cause alarm.
In the hours before dark, the sky didnt
look too unusual. There was something
going on there, but it wasnt something
obvious, he says.
Parker says that in the days preceding
the storm, his best-guess forecast called
for winds out of the south and west with a
few squalls of 45 to 50 knots.
Thats a possibility that Peter Malloy
and his wife, Mary, at Staniel Cay (not far
from the Barths), say they were prepared
for. We were expecting squally weather,
Peter says. Even so, what approached them
at about 1800 that day looked no different

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BC_046908_CRW0216P.indd 1

than an ordinary squall.


It wasnt until the following day that
cruisers learned from Parker that they
might have experienced a derecho a rare
self-sustaining storm of intense straightline winds (rather than circular, as in a
tornado) that blow perpendicular to the
motion of the system. A distinctive shelf
cloud often marks the approach of a derecho. But even now, Parker isnt certain
thats what it was.
I cant say for sure, he says, but he
notes that it seems to have met all the criteria to be defined as such.
One thing that Parker can say
definitively is that in his 13 years of

forecasting the weather in the Bahamas


and Caribbean, hed never seen a weather
event like this one. The low that produced
the system also spawned Alex, a highly
unusual January hurricane, the first of the
2016 season.
For the Pimentels, three-year veterans
of cruising in the region, the wind gradually increased from 20 to 40 knots, accompanied by a wind-driven four- to five-foot
chop that pulsed through their anchorSCHOOL OF HARD
KNOCKS
For the full derecho Q&A with
Marine Weather Center forecaster
Chris Parker, and to read the lessons the Bahamas sailors learned
from their derecho experience, go to
cruisingworld.com/1605derecho.

age. Ken started Dream Catchers engines


and began powering into the waves, hoping to stay anchored and steer clear of
other boats that had already begun to
drag. During one particularly strong gust,
a monohull went beam to and suddenly
began making sternway.
That boat was coming toward us, Ken
says. I couldnt get to my anchor because
he was right over it.
A trawler grounded on the sandbar next
to the narrow channel. More chillingly,
Channel 16 crackled with a Mayday from
Highbourne Cay, just north of Normans
Cay. A woman came on and she was frantic, Ken says. She could barely explain
that the engine on her and her husbands
26-foot sloop would not start, and that
they were about to go on the rocks. A
nearby marina was able to dispatch a boat
that made a harrowing rescue of the couple as their tiny sloop was left to drift away.
Discovered a few days later, Rum Belly was
described by the skipper who found it as
little more than a debris field scattered on
an adjacent cay.
The radio was alive, says Bob, of
Arapesh. You could hear so many anxious
moments from sailors who had their own
problems to deal with. Amid his familys
own concerns, he admits, the VHF became
mostly an unwelcome distraction.
By the time things started to settle
down for Dream Catcher, which had managed to stay put and avoid everyone else,
things were just beginning for the Kennells
aboard Arapesh at Fowl Cay and dozens of
other cruisers at Big Majors and Staniel
Cay. At those locations, darkness and torrential rain were added to the mix.
Arapesh was pulling hard at her rode
within a few hundred feet of the razorsharp rocks that litter the Exumas. Like
nearly everyone else battling the storm,

12/15/15 6:23 PM

forward as best as I could.


As the possibility of dragging onto the
beach became a probability in her mind,
Ziga contemplated how she might maneuver Bamboo in for a soft landing.
Suddenly Triumph, owned by a longtime
cruising buddy, smashed into her bow.
According to accounts from several
cruisers, a skipper trying to reposition
himself had apparently panicked and
was motoring full-throttle through the
crowded anchorage, snagging anchors as
he went along. Triumph, an aging Morgan
Out Island 41, and another boat, Anania,
were cinched into a scrum, choked up
on their rodes and squeezing Bamboo

3/6

between them. The middle boat was pummeled. Eventually rodes were severed, and
a badly battered Bamboo limped onto a
mooring just downwind.
Weeks later, Ziga sat aboard Triumph as
she readied to fly back to the U.S., leaving
her irreparably damaged boat behind. She
says the rogue skippers insurance company
has denied her claim because the two boats
did not actually make contact.
Ive lost my most valiant friend,
Bamboo. She was the coolest boat. Smarter
than me. She took care of me on many
occasions, she says wistfully. Still, I didnt
expect it to end so horribly.
Scott Neuman

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Bob had tried to motor into the wind to


keep his 44-pound Bruce (attached to 110
feet of 3/8-inch chain) from tripping. I
was mostly successful, but when the boat
would fall off the wind, there was an unbelievably tremendous tug on the anchor, he
says. Eventually it let loose.
As they drifted toward a rocky cut, Liz
says she recited the Lords Prayer. The
flukes on the Bruce snagged the sand once
more. Arapesh held firm.
Others not far away werent as lucky. A
catamaran broke a bridle, went abeam to
the wind and waves, and plowed ashore.
Miraculously, it washed up on a dock, but
not without considerable damage. Two
monohulls ended up on the rocks nearby;
one of them caught fire and burned a few
days later. Both were declared a total loss.
The Barths hefty anchor rode snapped, but
Curt and Kathy were able to keep Five &
Dime, their Beneteau First 42, off the beach.
Bahamians, of course, were also in the
thick of it. Despite dealing with their own
problems, many managed to help out the
community of cruisers, who contribute
a vital boost to the local economy. At the
height of the storm, Bahamians set out in
sturdy center-console runabouts, going
from boat to boat to make sure everyone
was safe. When the electricity failed at
Black Point settlement, residents pointed
their cars at the broad anchorage and
turned on headlights to provide shoreside
reference points.
As the derecho moved south and east
through the islands, it intensified. By the
time it reached the cruising mecca of
George Town at about 1900, winds were
reportedly in the 70-knot range, with gusts
even higher. Its approach was also preceded by a distinctive sky.
It was a really calm night. We were getting the grill set up, says Cathy Kreyling,
of White Bird, a Saga 43. She and husband,
Peter, had just made a pitcher of rum
punch, thinking they were in for a peaceful evening on the hook at Honeymoon
Beach, off Stocking Island.
Cathy describes the sky as incredibly
dramatic. There was a wall of thunderclouds to the south. And if you looked
to the north, it was just black, she says.
There was actually a rainbow with lightning behind it. I had never seen anything
like it.
In the adjacent anchorage, 52-year-old
singlehander Ziga York looked up from
her book and realized that the wind had
picked up. She saw that the transom of
her Pearson 33, Bamboo, had swung toward
Volleyball Beach, dangerously close to
where it becomes shallow close to shore.
By then it was dark, Ziga recalls. Soon,
she says, The winds were so high that
you could barely do anything. I powered

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may 2016

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n Sunday morning, February 21,


2016, my palms felt sweaty as my
husband, daughter and I drove
past Savusavu Bay, located on the south
coast of Vanua Levu, Fiji, and saw rows of
sailboats heaped in mangled piles on the
rocks. The three of us sought out Hotspur,
our 41-foot Tartan Offshore Cruising
Ketch, among the wreckage. There she
is! said Carolyne, our 16-year-old. She
pointed to our mooring. I dont believe
it, said Jim. There in the midst of what
remained of the fleet, Hotspur bobbed
gently right where wed left her. With
the exception of a wayward solar panel,
Fijis strongest cyclone ever recorded had
spared our boat.
Wed expected Tropical Cyclone
Winston to hit Savusavu late Saturday
night and prepped our boat the day
before. Winston was ranked a Category
4 storm, and Id felt uneasy when wed
decided Jim would remain aboard while
Carolyne and I stayed at a house our
Fijian friends offered us. But Friday
night, when Winston was upgraded to
a Category 5, I panicked. Please dont
stay on the boat, I asked Jim. If we lose
Hotspur, we can replace her. I cant get
another you.
Saturday morning, wed finished adding
extra chafe gear to our mooring lines
when a light sprinkling morphed into
a downpour. Hotspur began to buck in

3/9/16 12:03 PM

protest against building winds. Winston


wasnt scheduled to arrive until after
dark, but the cyclone caught us off-guard
by making an early grand entrance. We
barely made it to the house in time.
The power went out. Water blew
sideways through windowsills. Agitated
winds transformed rain into a thick,
atomized froth. The milky atmosphere
masked our view of the outdoors except
for the palm trees closest to the house,
which were snapping back and forth

Tropical Cyclone Winston (above) was


the most powerful storm on record to
strike Fiji, and the damages to both
the cruising and local fleets (top), and
to homes ashore, was substantial.

MERI FAULKNER (TOP); COURTESY OF NOAA

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may 2016

36

like giant bullwhips. The


world roared outside, and we
huddled away from the glass
windows. The neighbors tin
roof screamed through the
air and flew past our porch in
a crunching metal ruckus. I
reached for Jims hand. Im
so glad you didnt stay on
Hotspur, I told him.
He was quiet a moment and
said, Im still torn.
The decision to leave our
boat our home during
the cyclone wasnt an easy one.
Jim felt there were things he
could do to save Hotspur by
remaining on board. If our
mooring dragged, he could
deploy anchors. If boats
dragged down on us, he could
fend off or motor away from
them. If lines chafed, he
could invent a solution before
breaking free.
But we werent alone.
Other cruising friends
also opted to stay on land
during the cyclone. Heinz
and Andrea Bichl on Yab
Yum prepped their sailboat
and left for higher ground
with crossed fingers, as did
singlehander Johnny Byrne
on Cirripedia. Like us, the
Bichls returned to find Yab
Yum virtually undisturbed on
her mooring. But Cirripedias
lines chafed through, and she
dove headfirst toward the
mangroves, stopping short
when her keel dug deep in
the muck. Still, Johnny feels
fortunate. My boat will be
fine, he told me in a rolly
Irish brogue. Theres no
damage I can see.
But other friends risked
riding out Winston on their
boats. Canadian cruisers
Karen MacFee and Cheryl
Dawson stayed aboard their
Morgan 39, Interlude IX. Even
though their mooring dragged
during Winstons worst, their
biggest challenge was fending
off vessels dragging down
on theirs. We couldnt see
them until they were right on
us, Cheryl says. The women
acted defensively, and Interlude
IX suffered only minor hull
damage. The wind and water
made visibility terrible, Karen
says, but if Winston hit us
at night like projected, we

wouldnt have been able to do


anything in the dark.
Good News, a 36-foot
Pearson belonging to Ohio
native Lonnie Rupert and his
girlfriend, Bona Gordovez,
sustained serious damage when
the boat was pinned between
three dragging vessels, even
HELP FOR
FIJI
Based in Fiji and the
United States, Sea
Mercy is a nonprofit
organization that uses
boats to reach remote
islands in times of
need. For more information on how you can
help the relief effort in
Fiji, visit Sea Mercys
website (seamercy.org/
FijiRelief ).

though the couple revved


the engine to try to break
free. Their only option was
to fend off from the deck.
The rain hurt, hitting us like
sharp pins, Bona says. When
Lonnie thought the eye of
the storm might be passing
over, he and Bona made a
daring decision. Though Bona
isnt a strong swimmer, they
climbed over the starboard
vessel sandwiching them and
jumped into the churning sea.
There wasnt anything else
we could do, Lonnie says. He
was worried about additional
damage if the cyclone switched
around and winds came from
a new direction. They swam to
shore in strong currents, and
good Samaritans offered them
shelter for the night.
Our Hotspur was lucky. For
the villagers and the 22 boats
grounded in Savusavu, it will
be a long haul, though recovery
efforts have begun.
Meri Faulkner
Scott Neuman and his wife, Noi,
are cruising the Bahamas and
the Eastern Caribbean aboard
their Tayana 37, Symbiosis. You
can follow them at svsymbiosis.
blogspot.com.
Meri Faulkner has been cruising
full time with her family since
2008. Follow their adventures at
hotspur41.blogspot.com.