Hurricane? Tropical Storm Gonzalo
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
It was probably Monday evening of last week when we really started to take the tropical depression that was spinning across the Atlantic towards us seriously. A tropical depression brings winds of up to 33 knots so nothing unmanageable. Our friend Hoss shouted across from his boat to ours that evening:
‘Apparently this thing coming at the weekend could turn into a hurricane’.
We laughed it off and continued our evening. However, it was nearing the end of July, the beginning of the time of year when hurricane formation is most likely in this part of the world. Any news like this should be taken very seriously. We had already been checking the National Hurricane Centre website and our other preferred weather forecasting tools fairly diligently on a daily basis and we could see that as our friend said, the Tropical wave had the potential to become nasty. The following morning, we looked in great detail at all the relevant information available to us. They were forecasting that it could turn into a tropical storm imminently. This was more concerning because a tropical storm is categorised as bringing between 34 and 64 knots of wind. As predicted the depression quickly developed into a storm and they named it Gonzalo which had the potential be the strongest storm we have experienced since moving onboard Polaris almost two years ago. We worried what we would do if the worst of the storm passed over us. At the time we were anchored in Frigate bay, Union island in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). Union island is part of the southern Grenadines but part of Saint Vincent rather than Grenada. Our first thought was to consider whether it would be tenable to stay at Frigate anchorage. There were just over ten boats there, most of whom we knew pretty well. We had been in SVG for nearly five months and had bonded with many of these experienced sailors. We knew that if we decided to stay, we could meet with our friends to ensure everyone was happy with their spot whether anchored or on a mooring buoy. We would let them know how much scope we had out, so everyone was satisfied they had enough room to swing around on their anchor without fear of collision.
To Stay or To Go
A few boats began to leave then though. The expected weather brought by the storm was still extremely uncertain. Gonzalo was a very small storm that seemed to be gathering momentum. Small storms tend to move faster than larger ones and are usually harder to predict. These factors put all of us on edge; it could speed up or slow down, get stronger or weaker and change course at any time. The boats that left around then were mainly headed north. A very understandable decision since this storm seemed to be coming towards the southern windward islands but more specifically the area between SVG and Grenada, our general direction. However, many of the forecasts were anticipating that Gonzalo would make a turn northward in the next day or two. We spoke to some friends who warned us that going north could be risky at this time of year. North of Union island was also, according to our insurance company, too likely to suffer hurricanes to insure us and so, we would not be insured if something happened up there. There was also a bigger and more impressive storm forming behind Gonzalo in the Atlantic which was heading north of SVG towards Martinique. We didn’t want to run from this one and get stuck dashing between the islands up north from the next one too so, we waited a little longer. We were seriously counting on the storm turning north. It felt like a massive gamble and every hour we spent in Frigate brought us closer to the expected arrival of Gonzalo which was Saturday afternoon. With an emptier anchorage now, we moved to a more open spot and let out a lot of chain. We went around in our dingy measuring the depth of the area around us where we would likely swing. We also measured our distance from the other boats. By then however, the forecasts were predicting that Gonzalo could turn into a category one or even category two hurricane within the next day. That would mean anything from 64 to 95 knots. Having ruled out going north for now, confident in the belief that Gonzalo would eventually go that way anyway, we continued to study all the weather resources at our disposal. We could not stay put if Gonzalo continued to advance on us there at those forecasted intensities. The closer it got to Saturday (Storm day) the more the various models were starting to converge on a similar conclusion; the centre of the storm soon-to-become-hurricane would almost certainly pass right over us. By Thursday night I developed a stress headache and neither Jim nor I felt hungry. Unless the forecast shifted significantly south or north, we would be in the worst location possible when it hit. Time was running out and we needed to figure out where to run to.
On Thursday morning SVG was put on hurricane watch and the government here issued a statement to that effect. That afternoon forecasts were indicating that if the storm weakened it would track more south, yet Union island would still be extremely close. On the other hand, if the storm strengthened it would track north and again, Union island might still be close enough to be very badly affected. We were stuck bang in the middle of both possibilities. I have never felt more gravely in danger at the prospect of being in the wrong place at the wrong time before this. Eventually we decided the best plan would be to get south. South enough that we would miss the swell and extremely high winds associated with a category one or two hurricane. A hurricane that could de-mast us or completely wreck our boat leaving us homeless or worse still something could easily happen to either of us. By Friday morning we were preparing our boat to sail in convoy with our friend Hoss onboard Phoenix 11 but not to Grenada which could themselves be caught in the worst of the storm but at least 30 miles south of there. The global pandemic was a further complicating factor which was causing surrounding countries to change their rules for accommodating boats seeking shelter in distress. We were informed by the Marine and Yachting Association of Grenada that we were not welcome to anchor there even briefly while staying onboard and flying the yellow quarantine flag until the storm passed. Grenada have been running a fourteen-day quarantine scheme for incoming boats and sadly the Marine Association and many of the boats who are long term guests were issuing messages to put boats off going. In the end we felt anchoring there wouldn’t put us out of the way, but it might have been a useful stop over.
To Go to Sea
The prospect of sailing south without a destination was a frightening one. We would sail towards Trinidad, but stay at sea and wait for the storm to pass before returning to Frigate anchorage, Union island when safe to do so. We might be at sea for at least 24 hours with the worry of being relatively close to a hurricane. But still we felt we had no other option; if we stayed at Frigate even if the storm was slightly south of us, we were forecast to get the worst winds because the strongest were to be north of the eye. Our minds were made up. By mid-morning on Friday Jim and Hoss sat in our cockpit having a final captain’s meeting. We planned to leave in 40 minutes. I was in the kitchen making enough lunch and dinner to last us three days at sea so I would not have to cook in potentially terrible conditions. We were talking storm tactics including hoving-to if necessary. We were imagining the horror of getting it wrong and being in the worst of it out there at sea, but we were pressing on. A new forecast came out just then. If correct, the storm was tracking yet further south. Hang on a second, we thought… how far south will we need to sail now…? It was starting to look like the only way to outrun it was to sail all the way to Trinidad. We were uncomfortable with getting too close to the Venezuelan coast and yet somehow, we were prepared to do that if necessary. We reckoned pirates wouldn’t be out in those conditions! We were also worried about the notorious currents and the oil rigs down there. Another forecast came out. The storm overall seemed to be weakening. At the crucial moment just before we pulled up the anchor, we went back to the drawing board. At the same time a message came in from a good friend who is a weather expert who was also watching these changing forecasts:
‘What about North?’
Sailors try not to sail further into the hurricane zone as a rule of thumb at this time of year but we discussed it and as Hoss pointed out, this storm wasn’t following the normal pattern so we needed to adjust for that. This storm was the ultimate test of flexibility. In a few short moments we let go of our earlier plan and agreed to do the absolute opposite. The storm was now tracking so far south of Grenada we would run out of space if we tried to go south. It was finally clear we had to go north.
Run to the North
Polaris sailed out of Frigate anchorage with Phoenix 11 late afternoon on Friday. We were headed for St. Lucia initially however after further weather reports landed it was becoming clear that the Storm was moving even further south and was going to mainly impact Trinidad, Tobago and Venezuela. We could get away with staying within SVG and hiding out in Admiralty Bay on the island of Bequia. Polaris turned into the northern end of the anchorage in the dark around 8:30pm and Jim and I tried to navigate through many mooring buoys that had been abandoned when boats there strategically positioned themselves closer to the more sheltered north west point as they anticipated the same storm. Once anchored we breathed a sigh of relief still buzzing from the adrenaline which comes from anticipating a hurricane. We were exhausted and when we awoke the high winds forecasted on ‘storm day’ never went above 28 knots in Bequia. Back in Frigate anchorage the ones who decided not to run reported winds of only up to 40 knots.
Up and down the Grenadines yachts had been dashing to and fro’ under great pressure, afraid for their lives and trying to get shelter. Some had gone north and were in Bequia, St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and even Antigua. Some had gone South and were at sea or hiding out in Grenada doing no harm whatsoever. We also knew people who fled to marinas. Wherever people ended up we were all very glad the hurricane never materialised. I will never underestimate how draining fear and stress are. I can only imagine how we would have felt if we had pushed on with our plan to sail south. In this case we made the ‘right’ choice for us. Things turned out well in part because of the decisions we made but mostly because the storm dissipated back into a tropical wave. The whole experience is a reminder that the weather is king, and we always need to be flexible and ready to run in any direction.