Isabel vs. the boatyard

September 2003 is a month that will not soon be forgotten by most folks

living along the U.S. Central Eastern Seaboard, particularly those who own boats. Hurricane Isabel made her presence known in many graphic, violent and destructive ways, reaching Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Mercifully, Isabel diminished to Category 2 before making landfall in North Carolina, although even in her weakened state she managed to carve a swath of devastation through much of that state, Virginia and Maryland, as well as causing heavy damage and loss of life in surrounding states.

U.S. boatyards from Texas to Maine contend with the regular threat of hurricanes from June through December every year. Every boatyard manager and owner watches, or at least should watch the formation of each tropical depression in the Atlantic or Gulf regions with great interest. As the storms intensify and begin their trek westward and northward, tension for waterfront businesses intensifies, particularly for boatyards and marinas. Ordinary businesses must contend with the potential effects of the storm, violent winds, tidal surges and wave action. Boatyards, however, must also contend with floating assets, such as docks and customers’ boats. On Sept. 18, 2003, Zimmerman Marine, the boatbuilding and repair yard on Virginia’s lower Chesapeake Bay where I am the manager, experienced the ravages of Isabel firsthand.

As the hurricane made its way through the Western Atlantic, the Zimmerman crew anxiously awaited each updated position and predicted track chart. On Friday, Sept. 12, the decision was made to begin hauling boats Monday morning. As hauling began, NOAA’s predicted track had Isabel’s eye traveling directly over the Chesapeake’s western shore — and the boatyard. As time progressed, however, the track moved inexorably westward, still leaving the boatyard in the dangerous semicircle.

Hauling, blocking, sail and canvas removal, along with building and yard preparation commenced at dawn on Monday the 15th and ended at dusk each day until Wednesday the 17th, when all the boats scheduled to be hauled, and a few that weren’t, were safely blocked ashore.

Isabel roared through the area Thursday afternoon and evening, causing heavy flooding and downing countless oaks, pines, cedars and poplars. With a great sense of trepidation, I drove into the boatyard on Friday morning, the day after Isabel had visited upon southeastern Virginia tidal surges, damage and destruction the likes of which had not been seen since the great hurricane of 1933. During that storm, New Point Comfort Lighthouse, located a few miles from the yard, became detached from its peninsula and remains an island to this day.

The yard had been spared any serious damage; however, the fixed docks were covered with debris, and some trees and many tree limbs had fallen. A telling line of flotsam, which stopped just a few feet short of the lowest buildings, snaked its way around the waterfront, stopping a mere three feet short of the lowest building, evidence of the highest tide.

The greatest problem at that point was the lack of electricity. Judging by the number of fallen trees and broken telephone poles in the area — when power was eventually restored, some 9,000 poles had been replaced — the prospect of getting power appeared distant at best. Adding to the dismal outlook was the extremely remote location of the yard and the number of hard-hit urban areas nearby, Norfolk, Hampton and Richmond. Surely, I thought, they would get the utility company’s resources first. The thought of the yard being shut down for several weeks was simply unthinkable to Zimmerman Marine’s owners and employees. There was work to do; boats to haul, launch and repair; and of course, bills to pay.

As long as I’ve worked in the marine service and boatbuilding industry, I’ve always marveled at the vast array of skills that are found under the roof of any quality boatyard. Skilled marine craftsmen and women are, given the need, capable of figuring out just about any mechanical or electrical task on land or sea. Isabel provided the catalyst in this case, and the yard’s mechanics and electricians rose to the challenge. On the Monday after the storm, the yard was running at nearly full capacity, thanks to a little ingenuity and a generous customer who allowed us to use his vessel’s 20-kw generator.

Fortuitously, Reflections, a 55-foot Fleming motor yacht that was hauled out for minor repairs when the storm hit, provided enough power to run all essential equipment and offices via a 50-amp, 240-volt shore power cord. The heavy cable had been installed in the yard several months earlier, for the express purpose of powering vessels during haulout periods. Now the roles were reversed — and the vessel was running an entire boatyard. Boats could now be repaired and launched, and 25 employees continued to get paychecks.

Initially, cooling the genset presented a mild challenge, since its raw-water intake was far from any water source. The fix involved plumbing the genset’s intake into an aluminum skiff, which was filled with water and placed on the ground just astern of Reflections’ transom. The generator exhaust was then extended into the skiff. Scrap aluminum pipe and sheet were immersed in the cooling tower, as the skiff became known, acting as heat sinks. With the aid of a small gasoline-powered trash pump and a long hose, the water in the skiff could be refreshed with cool seawater from the bay every four hours. Thus, twice a day, the cooling water would be “turned over,” and the genset pumped out kilowatts for the yard’s tools, computers and well pump.

Nine days later, utility power was restored, and the hum of Reflections’ generator was gone but not forgotten. Nor would we forget the generosity of Reflections’ owner for allowing a resourceful yard crew to transform his vessel, however awkwardly in appearance, into an efficient power plant.

Steve C. D’Antonio

By Ocean Navigator