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i had a hurricane

csabi

With so much hurricane activity swirling around, and so much destruction, I thought that I would recount my own encounter with a hurricane, at sea, on Christmas Day, 1984. Hurricane Lili was the third hurricane ever recorded in the North Atlantic in December and it came our way as a unique and somewhat bizarre Christmas gift.

I had been hired to train a Finnish crew who were planning to compete in the 1985/86 Whitbread Round the World Race. The boat was Fazer Finland, Fazer being a high end chocolate maker and one of Finland’s most treasured brands. Part of the training was to compete in the Route of Discovery race from Benalmádena, Spain to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The race followed the track taken by Christopher Columbus on his historic voyage of discovery.

We left Benalmádena on an early December morning. The fleet was around 25 boats of varying sizes. We were one of the larger yachts. Fazer Finland was a Swan 65, stripped out, but still immensely comfortably by today’s Whitbread/Volvo standards. We sailed out of the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and then took a right turn toward a turning mark off Cadiz on the west coast of Spain. Cadiz, of course, is where Columbus famously set out from and the mark was to recognize that historic fact. From there we sailed to the Canary Islands and on a sultry evening pulled into the harbor of Tenerife. No we did not stop.

The race committee had placed a mark of the course just a stone’s throw away from the bustling waterfront. We could smell the restaurants and hear the clinking of wine glasses but instead we turned our bow to the west and continued on our way content (not) with our freeze dried food and tang. The next mark of the course would be San Salvador in the Bahamas, another stop on Columbus’s long voyage.

We dropped the high peak of Pico del Teide into the ocean behind us and set a spinnaker. The route from the Canary Islands across the Atlantic is a long downwind stretch and we were looking forward to some pleasant sailing. There is nothing quite like a wind at your back, a big kite pulling and the horizon ahead looking like outstretched arms just waiting for you, especially when you are a wet-behind-the-ears kid as I was back then.

Unfortunately our pleasant sailing was interrupted by a small trough of low pressure coming from the west. It caused some headwinds and a couple of days of lumpy seas but nothing we couldn’t manage. The low pressure continued on its merry way to the east but then surprisingly it stopped, turned to the north gathering strength in the warm water, and then looped around to head in a westerly direction. By this time it was a tropical depression and heading toward the Bahamas, same as we were. On December 20 the storm turned into a Category One hurricane.

Tropical Storm Lili was traveling at around 18 knots along the same path as the race fleet and was starting to pick off the slower boats. Astern of us we were getting reports of gale force winds, ripped sails and some damage all the while Lili gained in strength. By our calculation we would get to the Bahamas before the storm did, but the problem was that the Bahamas were not our final destination. We had to round San Salvador and then sail just under 500 miles back toward the east, well southeast to be exact. We rounded San Salvador and sailed slap bang into the teeth of a ferocious storm. Hurricane Lili was packing around 70 to 80 knots of wind and we hove to to ride it out. I remember feeling exhilarated by it all. It helps to be a little naive and dumb but that’s how you are when you are in your 20’s.

Lili’s track was directly toward the Dominican Republic and it came ashore on the small island’s north coast and quickly dissipated. It was almost like a Biblical moment. One moment we were getting royally thumped and then as if someone suddenly flipped a switch the wind died, the sea calmed down and the sun came out. Lili was no more. We had survived and continued on our merry way toward the finish. A couple of days later we sailed between Puerto Rico and the east coast of the Dominican Republic and a few hours later crossed the finish line off Santo Domingo.

– Brian Hancock

 

csabi

September 8th, 2017

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