Friday, June 1 is the first day of hurricane season 2012! This post first appeared June 1, 2011, but it’s still relevant today! Be sure to check out all the hurricane preparedness information under the Leaving The Boat, Afloat and Magazine Articles tabs! In the meantime, here’s the story of our latest, and hopefully last, encounter with a hurricane!
Trying to reason with hurricane season is not always, in fact usually never, a good idea as Winterlude discovered by accident. It was Fall 2009 and we were getting ready to sail from Shelter Bay Marina, Colon, Panama. We’d spent the last two winter seasons cruising the Panama coastline, the San Blas Islands, and the Colombian coastline to Cartagena. Now we were hoping to return to the Northwest Caribbean to spend the winter gunkholing the offshore atolls of Belize … and if the wind blew us there, snorkeling the south shore of the forbidden island.
It was early November, not quite the end of hurricane season, but then Panama is not in the hurricane zone. We were headed north so that was a consideration, but we really wanted to be in Roatan by November 21 for a good friend’s birthday party. Here’s an excerpt from my Update:
I love Providencia! Especially after the 53 hour passage from Colon to here. The weather forecast was for winds 5-10 and waves 3-5. Perfect. Last Tuesday morning a squall came through Shelter Bay and we opted to delay one day for better weather … three different forecasts agreed that departing Wednesday would give us the best passage. I guess no one told the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone)… anyway, 2 days and nights of the tilta-whirl on steroids left both David & I were ready to sell the boat & forget about cruising, IF we lived through the passage. Needless to say, after some sleep, we’ve reconsidered.
Reaching the south end of Providencia – a tiny Colombian island off the Nicaraguan coast – gave us much needed relief from the huge swells. Immediately the sun shone brightly, the mountainous island blocked the waves and some wind … and pods of dolphins came out to play alongside the boat. Frigatebirds soared overhead and soon we were anchored between two other US boats, the only boats in the anchorage. Last time we were here there were easily 15 boats. Nice to have the place to ourselves. Squalls continued to come through, but now, in flat water safe with the anchor secure, we were happy to have a good boat wash. Winterlude was so covered with salt that you took your life in your hands ice skating on the decks above. A fresh water rinse is always good after an ocean passage.
Unfortunately just after I wrote this update, Hurricane Ida formed exactly where we had experienced the nasty waves and winds south of Providencia. This was NOT in the forecast models or even in Chris Parker’s long term observations which are usually spot on in predicting longer term concerns even if they’re not officially forecast. If you’re not familiar with Providencia, it’s a tiny Colombian island located off the coast of Nicaragua, a popular stop with cruisers heading either north or south to or from Panama. Providencia harbor is big, well sheltered, surrounded on 3 sides by mountains or Isla Catalina, but open to the west except for the underwater reef jutting out from the northern end.
We spent several tense days monitoring the hurricane tracking via e-mail on our SSB Radio and Pactor III Modem. The update e-mails with Hurricane Ida’s position and forecast positions over the next 72 hours came in 4 times a day. 4 times a day we anxiously imported the National Weather Service e-mail position data into our hurricane tracking software, plotting the hurricane’s forecast positions visually. The closest it was forecast to get to us was 100 miles. But 100 miles is nothing as we learned when Hurricane Charley took a sharp right hook and hit Winterlude dead on in Burnt Store Marina, 5 years earlier. All Ida had to do was take that same sharp right hook and we were sitting ducks in Providencia’s harbor, open to the west, almost taunting Ida to turn.
Because of the islands well sheltered harbor, we ended up getting some gusts and whirlwinds, but nothing even tropical storm strength for winds and waves — the torrential downpours were another story! The skies were ugly to the west and looking uglier all the time. Luckily for us, Ida never formed into more than a Cat 1 hurricane packing 80 mph winds when it made landfall in Nicaragua. The islanders were happy to tell us all about the last hurricane that made a direct hit on Providencia, Hurricane Beta in October 2005. According to them, most of the boats at anchor washed ashore and some were destroyed on the reef. Yikes, not a tale we wanted to hear right then!
Needless to say, we were not happy to be cruisers at that exact time. We thought we were being cautious by not leaving until November when hurricane season is winding down, but we caused ourselves a scare by wanting to be at our friend’s birthday party. As it turned out, we tossed like a tiltawhirl sailing in to Providencia through the developing low pressure just south of the island (no way we could have known this from the weather forecast, even the morning it developed), endured several days scare waiting to see where Hurricane Ida would decide to go and then rocked from rail to rail in the leftover swell for two days after the hurricane made landfall in Nicaragua. Not exactly one of our top ten cruising experiences!
Do yourself a favor and stay WELL away from ANY possibility of a hurricane forming on top of you!!!