When Corroboree left St. Barts on the morning of Wednesday, 31 August, the tropical disturbance off the coast of Africa didn’t even have a name. So we were a bit confused when we tied up at our next port, Jolly Harbour, Antigua, a mere 24 hours later, and the dock attendant greeted us by asking, “What are your plans for the boat during the hurricane?” It took perhaps two seconds for us to register that he wasn’t speaking hypothetically and he certainly wasn’t joking. While Eric and I were alternating watches on our overnight sail, the newly named Irma had blossomed into a Category 2 hurricane. Later that day, still far out at sea, Irma jumped to Category 3.
Fortunately, Jolly Harbour is one of our specified hurricane holes, and we made immediate arrangements to have Corroboree hauled out during the blow. Even more fortunate, we got the last available slot, Monday afternoon, 3 September. After us, the shipyard turned 18 more boats away. Like us, these boats were taken by surprise at Irma’s rapid intensification, and I pray they found safe harbor. I cannot rejoice at our good luck if it comes at someone else’s expense.
Over the next two days, Friday and Saturday, we watched Irma approach. Category 4. Category 5. On Sunday and Monday, we prepped for haulout. To reduce windage, we removed the mainsail, jib, solar panels, bimini canvas and frame, and stowed them below along with the sail covers and cockpit cushions. We deflated the dinghy and stored it in the cockpit along with the outboard motor, gas tank, solar shower and water jugs. We secured the lines and boom, turned off the propane and electric, closed the seacocks, and taped the hatches. It was hot, sweaty work, but having been through Hurricane Matthew last October in St. Augustine, we knew what to do.
So did the shipyard. They hauled Corroboree late Monday and positioned her on stands among a hundred or more other boats. Then they welded the stands together and strapped down our hull. Most of the other boats had been hauled months before at the beginning of hurricane season and were similarly secured. It would take a tremendous amount of force to move any of them, but with sustained winds of 180 mph and a possible 14-foot storm surge on the way, all bets were off.
Eric and I decamped to the nearby Jolly Castle Hotel, a delightfully kitschy, turreted concrete structure with a view of the harbor. In our backpacks and tote bags, we took a few changes of clothes, toiletries, computers, e-readers, satellite phone, boat papers, some food and dishware. Our third-floor room included a mini-fridge and microwave, and the hotel thoughtfully sandbagged our balcony door. Although the power blinked out briefly about 2000, it popped back on five minutes later. The hotel—hooray!—had a generator.
That night we Skyped with our son Dane and daughter-in-law Gray in Atlanta. We joked. Dane asked what we wanted on our tombstones, and we reminded him we wouldn’t be having any since we are to be cremated. So he asked instead what songs we wanted played at our memorial service, and I voted for “Good Vibrations.” With his usual twisted sense of humor, Dane proposed “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Seriously, did we think we would die? No, but in the days leading up to Irma’s arrival, we considered it. How can you not? We also discussed what we might do if we survived but lost Corroboree. We agreed that after all the effort we have put into her, after all she represents for us, we would not have the heart to continue our voyage with another boat. We would walk away with what we have in our backpacks and find a new path.
We spent Tuesday in our hotel room, watching the beautiful tropical weather deteriorate to a gloomy gray. The wind picked up soon after sunset, and by 2100 it was whipping around the building and through the exterior corridors, accompanied by ominous banging noises. In the blackness, it was impossible to see what was happening. Nevertheless, we felt safe and decided to sleep. A few hours later, between approximately midnight and 0300 on Wednesday, 5 September, 0300 Irma stormed past Antigua and directly over Barbuda about 30 miles to the north. We estimate the wind speeds here to have been in the 50-60 mph range, strong enough to allow driving rain to enter through the shuddering frame of our sandbagged balcony door. When the howling woke me about 0100, I discovered a large, shallow puddle covering the tile floor around our bed. I mopped it up with a bath towel, read for a while and dozed off again. Eric awoke around 0300 and read and monitored the Internet.
By sunup the worst was over, and we were able to venture onto the balcony with our binoculars. Several families from low-lying areas had also evacuated to the hotel, and together we surveyed the scene. No visible damage to any homes and buildings. No storm surge—the two dozen or so boats that had remained in slips at the marina, including the local fishing boats, were fine. Farther off, in the shipyard, the forest of masts that included Corroboree stood upright.
Bouts of rain continued throughout Wednesday; by Thursday morning, the sky had resumed its accustomed blue. Though the local TV station is still out, it seems the rest of Antigua was also spared. But Barbuda was devastated, and Internet photos of St. Barts, our previous port of call, show boats awash in the harbor and cars under water in the streets. St. Martin, Anguilla and the British and US Virgin Islands are said to be very bad shape. Cruising friends in Puerto Rico report they and their boats are safe, but half the island is without power. No word yet from cruising friends in the Bahamas, and all of Florida is battening down.
Meanwhile, back in Antigua, Category 2 Hurricane Jose is swirling our way.