Ever wonder how a big hurricane seems to sneak up on vacation places like Mexico and the Caribbean Islands? We got a to experience that first hand years ago when Hurricane Gilbert dropped in on our Caribbean sailing vacation. Here’s how we ended up bailing water from a sinking dinghy while friends in the US had many days of advance warning from someone like “Weather Stud” Jim Cantore!
“Will we be able to take off with this hurricane coming?” I asked the woman behind the counter at an old RAF airfield. That aging facility now functioned as an airport for the British Virgin Islands. She handled guest relations and security such as it was back in September of 1988. “What hurricane?” she responded blankly. I think of that woman when I hear news of those unexpected hurricane disasters in the Caribbean.
The four of us finally boarded a packed prop plane for a choppy flight to Puerto Rico and our Delta connection back to Atlanta. Once on that flight, the Delta captain announced, “Congratulations, folks. We are the last plane cleared for takeoff. This airport is shutting down for Hurricane Gilbert.” Finally, someone spoke the dreaded “H” word.
Tiny British Virgin Islands
My husband Hank and I started off the week sharing a bareboat charter with his friend Greg and Greg’s new girlfriend. Greg was a very experienced sailor and thought Hank and I would enjoy the British Virgin Islands, an area he had visited many times.
The BVI is made up of sixty islands in the Caribbean, spread across 58 square miles. The Sir Francis Drake channel is the strait that separates the main island of Tortola from the smaller islands to the south. This strait is popular with boaters because it is like a sailboat superhighway, allowing them to race wing on wing directly downwind.
Days of Sun, Nights feeding the Barracudas
We spent days swimming in lagoons and exploring Sandy Cay, Little Jost Van Dyke and groupings of park-sized atols called “The Dogs” and “Little Sisters” In the evenings, we moored at places like the Bitter End, on the eastern edge of Virgin Gorda where the next landfall was Africa. Nightly, sleek barracudas would circle our 45 foot Irwin. Like well-mannered hounds, these toothy visitors hoped to gobble down a foil wrapped chicken or bacon-wrapped filet when we got careless turning the silver packets on our transom grill. The ship’s store had stocked us with a variety of frozen entrees and plenty of Red Stripe beer. The more beer we drank, the more foil packets the barracudas consumed.
On Thursday, September 8, we stopped at Cane Garden Bay to try windsurfing. The wind was so erratic that we left early and sailed to Norman island. Uninhabited except for wild goats, Norman Island and true tales of its buried treasures are thought to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island. T
Sleeping in hurricane pj’s – yellow life jackets
Our crew was more interested in an old schooner named the William Thornton which operated as a bar and restaurant, As the sun set, cumulonimbus clouds made it obvious there was a storm brewing but how big and where? Hank and Greg dinghied over to a large yacht that was moored close by. The big boats had the luxury of weather radar. Crews from smaller boats were heading over like ducklings converging on their mama.
There was a fast forming tropical wave south and east over the Barbados islands. Growing winds and rain squalls were fanning out hundreds of miles. We spent the night in our yellow foul weather gear with life jackets close by and two sea anchors set out. We ate a cold meal and barracudas were absent. Our boat twisted round and round on her sea anchors and squalls pounded us
The Caribbean is blasted by Hurricane Gilbert
On Friday, the tropical wave strengthened into a tropical storm named Gilbert. Greg piloted us across the eight mile strait with Hank in the dingy bailing out water. Several times, rough seas threatened to capsize that little vessel and finally we pulled Hank back to the Irwin.
On Saturday, Gilbert became a hurricane. The news had apparently not reached the woman in charge of the BVI airport. Gilbert intensified rapidly to a category 3 and then a category, so destructive that Gilbert’s name was retired by the World Meteorological society and replaced by Gordon.