I’ve recently had my first experience in a Category 1 hurricane. On Tuesday September 6, 2016 the Category 1 Hurricane Newton slammed the Baja California peninsula from Los Cabos through La Paz and right up past Puerto Escondido. That’s where my husband John and I were with our sailboat, Ingenium. It then gathered more steam as it crossed the 80 or so miles of the Sea of Cortez and hit Guaymas and San Carlos, Sonora on the Mexican mainland.
As I write this, Hurricane Matthew is a strong Category 4 hurricane approaching Jamaica, Haiti and the Bahamas. Category four is BIG. Before I get into the details of my experience with Newton, here’s what the Saffir Simpson hurricane wind scale means:
- Category 1: Wind speeds of 119 – 153 km/h. These are very dangerous winds which will produce damage.
- Category 2: Wind speeds of 154 – 177 km/h: extremely dangerous winds that will cause extensive damage.
- Category 3: Wind speeds of 178 – 208 km/h. A cat 3 is a major hurricane that will cause devastating damage.
- Category 4: Wind speeds of 209 – 251 km/h. Catastrophic damage will be produced from a cat 4 major hurricane. Even a well-built framed structure can expect serious roof and structural damage.
- Category 5: Wind speeds of 252 km/h and higher. Catastrophic damage that will destroy framed structures and cause total wall collapse.
Preparing for Hurricane Newton
John and I knew there was a risk we’d experience a hurricane when we decided to stay on our sailboat in Mexico through hurricane season, which is approximately June through the end of October. We’d done our research, developed a written hurricane plan, and even got to practice our hurricane preparedness. In August, we were in La Paz and thought we might get hit by Hurricane Javier. Thankfully we didn’t and it passed to the west.
As we watched the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) forecasts we could see the predicted track of Hurricane Newton coming right through Puerto Escondido. Two days before Newton’s anticipated arrival we started our preparations.
We removed everything from our deck that wasn’t bolted down: lines, sails, BBQ, solar lights, life preserver, fenders, etcetera. The cockpit needed to be completely cleared of anything not tied down. In the cabin below we made room for everything that usually stays up on deck. We securely lashed the mainsail cover, the fuel tanks, removed the outboard motor from our dinghy, hoisted the dinghy up onto the foredeck, where we turned it upside down and lashed it thoroughly to the boat.
NOAA was updating its forecast information every three hours. We were glued to those updates, which told us Hurricane Newton would hit us overnight Tuesday, September 6 and into Wednesday morning. So all day Monday, we thought we had 36 hours to finalize the prepping of the boat.
Change of plans
Our plan had been to ride out the storm on the boat. We had previously weathered 50-knot (58 mph or 92 km/h) wind gusts when we were up in San Carlos last winter, and we were cautiously open to adding a minor hurricane to our list of experiences.
But the 9 p.m. update Monday changed everything: Newton was picking up forward speed, as well as strength, and it was now a Category 2 hurricane. It was going to arrive in Puerto Escondido’s Hidden Harbour much sooner than originally forecast: it would arrive more than twelve hours earlier and it was expected to continue to gain strength.
We had to change our plan. We didn’t feel we could risk spending the night on the boat and starting the evacuation the next morning: we would see heavy rainfall before 8 a.m. And making a twenty-minute dinghy ride from the boat on its mooring ball to the dock, in pouring rain, with bags and our two howling cats did not sound like the best plan.
We had to fast-track the rest of the boat preparations and start packing what we needed to spend a few days off the boat: a few clothes, toiletries, our computers, some food for us and our cats, their litterbox, our boat registration and insurance and our passports. And we headed to a nearby hotel. The only nearby hotel.
D-Day, or should I say, H-Day
The next morning when we awoke, we’d lost internet and cell coverage so we could no longer check the forecast. WYSIWYG: what you see is what you get. By eight a.m. it was raining heavily but the winds were still fairly light. There wasn’t anything else we could do for the boat except trust that we’d done our best. There wasn’t anything else we could do for ourselves except try to relax and get some rest. Not easy with a big-ass storm coming. Ingenium, our floating home and everything we own, was out of sight and right in the path of the hurricane. It was stressful.
We watched, in awe, as the wind picked up in the afternoon. At one point in we actually ventured out of our room and walked around the hotel grounds to feel what it was like. The rain was falling pretty hard and despite our foul weather jackets, we were soaked in no time. The wind was strong enough that it was pushing me around, tossing the palm fronds like feathers. We didn’t stay out long.
Eye of Newt
We watched as the winds shifted from east and southeast, indicating we were forward of the eyewall, to a definite turn in wind direction. After a 10- to 15-minute lull, which we later realized was the eye passing, we got southwest winds and the strongest yet. Debris was flying through the air, we watched as material from the hotel roof started flapping. We had water flooding in under the door to our room. I was taking periodic videos with my iPhone, and I really wanted to see what these stronger winds felt like.
We left our room again, which was fairly well sheltered from the southwest winds. We climbed the exterior stairs that would take us to the open second floor, and felt the full force of a weakened Hurricane Newton: he’d been downgraded to a category 1.
Nearing the top of the staircase, I had to hang on to the railing with both hands. I could not stand up in this wind. I was still recording video, and this was the first time I was really frightened. We were vulnerable to all manner of flying debris. As the wind whipped across a valley with homes and trees, all sorts of items were ready to transform into flying projectiles. After only a few seconds, we retreated back to the safety of our concrete-walled hotel room.
There were two or three boats whose owners chose to stay on board their boats. We were thankful for their periodic VHF radio reports saying that the boats in Hidden Harbour, including ours, were all holding fast on their moorings. Until the call about three in the afternoon that our friend’s boat, Due West, had come free of the mooring ball and was aground in the mangroves and the rocks.
Once the storm was finally over, we made the trek back to the boat, where we found minimal damage to Ingenium. Thankfully.
- We lost a stainless steel cover for our diesel heater vent (no, we haven’t had need of a cabin heater so far here in Mexico).
- Our Canadian flag was shredded.
- The wind unzipped our mainsail cover but didn’t rip it.
- And the wind had lifted our well-tied dinghy off the deck to stand on its side against our lifelines.
Had the wind persisted much longer, we believe we would have lost the dinghy.
What this experience taught me is that I don’t need to ever experience a hurricane stronger than a Category 1. I don’t ever need to stay on board my boat during a hurricane if I can help it.
And as the strong Category 4 Hurricane Matthew approaches Jamaica, Haiti, Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas, I urge the people there to take shelter and stay safe.
This is mother nature at work, and she’s pissed.