Sailing capital’ flooded by Isabel

Hurricane Isabel wreaked havoc in Annapolis, Md., as well, despite

missing the city by 100 miles on Sept. 19, but her catastrophic track left dozens of yachts smashed up against a seawall, and much of the sailing capital of the world’s marinas, boatyards and yacht clubs under water.

A tidal surge measuring 7.58 feet eclipsed the all-time high-water mark — recorded in August 1933 — by more than a foot and gave much of downtown Annapolis the appearance of a sinking Venice.

“The marina is gone,” was all Tom Stalder, fleet officer of the Eastport Yacht Club, heard when he came to check on the boats that were tied ashore on the morning of Sept. 19.

The speed with which the water rose took even the most experienced sailors by surprise, and the sight of the waves crashing through the yacht club and the pilings under water convinced many they would lose their boats. The boats were strained on their pilings, but there was no way to haul them out or get to them.

As the hurricane approached, some less prepared boatowners decided to bring their boats away from shore and anchor. But the winds shifted, placing the vessels over the seawall that fronts the Naval Academy, which had been flooded by the storm surge, only to be left high and dry as the water receded. One boatowner was reportedly onboard at the time.

Stalder spent most of the day after the storm returning checks for the canceled J/22s East Coast Championship, which was scheduled to start on Sept. 19.

“We canceled that regatta; we had to,” Stalder noted. “In the middle of downtown there is a bronze statue of author Alex Haley reading to some children. The water was up to Alex Haley’s neck, and I thought someone should put a life jacket on him.” Many people who didn’t have waterfront property before the storm had a sudden change of status after Isabel.

Meanwhile, the fate of the prestigious Rolex International Women’s Keelboat championship, scheduled for Sept. 25 with 67 teams from all over the world en route, was also in jeopardy. Molly Hughes of Annapolis, regatta organizer of the biennial event, heard rumors that the regatta was canceled before she even left her house on Friday morning.

“I live a mile from the water, and I didn’t think it would be that bad. But when I saw that the entire downtown was flooded and the Annapolis Yacht Club’s first floor was under water, we weren’t sure of the logistics. The key ingredients for a regatta are wind and water, and we had plenty of that. The biggest problem we faced was we had 67 J/22s coming in, and the three cranes were under water, and we had no electricity for a week. We weren’t sure how we were going to launch the boats. But we hoisted a Rolex flag from the flagpole and began making phone calls.”

Four South-African sailors arrived from Cape Town at New York City on Sept. 19. With their flight to Baltimore canceled, they rented a car and drove to Maryland. Passing through abandoned tollbooths and over deserted bridges and along empty roads, they pulled into the city at the height of the storm, having no idea that the region was in a state of emergency. Despite the chaos, the race went on.

As the winds and tidal surge grew, others in the marine industry fretted over the fate of the pending Annapolis Boat Show scheduled for Oct. 9. As the preparations for the boat show were ongoing prior to Isabel, 300 floating docks, and about 60 30- to 40-foot-long pilings used to display the boats were exposed to the elements. Under the leadership of Tim Dowling, who is the boat show dock master and general manager of the Annapolis Sailing School, a team hauled all 300 docks to higher ground. Seven crewmembers spent the night with the gear, enduring 60-mile-per-hour winds.

“The shows are too important to the city of Annapolis and to the boating industry to even consider any other option but to continue,” said Kathy Wood, president of Annapolis Boat Shows Inc.

While the high-water mark brought on by Hurricane Isabel was a record breaker in the region’s log books, the storm is now part of the shared history of the city.

“Everyone was out in the streets on boats, canoes, wading, talking, looking,” Stalder said. “People pulled together and put this town back together rapidly.”

Laurie Fullerton

By Ocean Navigator