|From Ocean Navigator #143
January / February 2005
But one of the most unlikely stories bears repeating. It was sent to us by Kevin Hughes, who, in the week prior to Hurricane Charley being classified as a named storm, had been hoping for a quiet weeklong sailing vacation to Florida’s Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West, aboard his boat Windigo III.
Hughes and a friend arrived at the Dry Tortugas’ Fort Jefferson when news of the storm’s upgraded status was announced. They immediately cut the trip short and attempted to return to Tampa by way of Charlotte Harbor. By ducking into the bay, they were hoping to get a night’s rest at anchor; they would press north the following day to home waters through the Gulf ICW.
When they awoke and got underway, however, they learned that the swing- and drawbridges over the GICW would remain closed. Windigo III’s engine then quit, apparently the result of an electrical fire, which meant either sailing offshore in the heavy swells in variable pre-storm winds or seeking a viable shelter for Windigo III among the mangrove swamps and shallow rivers.
Unfortunately, Charley, now a Category 4 storm, was heading straight for them. Hughes reported: “The wind picked up as we sailed towards our new chosen hurricane hole in the mouth of the Peace River north of Charlotte Harbor. We had 12 hours before the hurricane was predicted to pass west of us. We made it around the point into the mouth of the Peace River just north of Punta Gorda and anchored – far inland and away from Charley’s predicted path.
When they awoke and got underway, however, they learned that the swing- and drawbridges over the GICW would remain closed. Windigo III’sc engine then quit, apparently the result of an electrical fire, which meant either sailing offshore in the heavy swells in variable pre-storm winds or seeking a viable shelter for Windigo III among the mangrove swamps and shallow rivers.
Unfortunately, Charley, now a Category 4 storm, was heading straight for them. Hughes reported: “The wind picked up as we sailed towards our new chosen hurricane hole in the mouth of the Peace River north of Charlotte Harbor. We had 12 hours before the hurricane was predicted to pass west of us. We made it around the point into the mouth of the Peace River just north of Punta Gorda and anchored &mdash far inland and away from Charley’s predicted path.
“We affixed four 3/4-inch snubber lines to 200 feet of 3/8-inch stainless-steel chain. At the other end was a self-designed, handmade 70-pound stainless-steel claw anchor that has never dragged in 7,000 miles of cruising. Secured to the chain 30 feet above the claw was a 35-pound CQR plough anchor, which on its own had served Windigo III as the primary anchor just fine for the 20 years previous. That’s more than 400 pounds of ground tackle, dug into a muddy bottom with a scope of 14 to 1. I have always been very confident of my anchoring.”
“The wind speed increased from 40 knots to 60 knots, and then to 85 knots. Eighty-five knots (100 mph) could be described as really, really windy. But the winds I experienced that day of more than 100 mph have a power that is indescribable, so I will tell of the effects:
“Windigo was flailing in the wind at the end of its ground tackle, and the seas became completely airborne. We were anchored in water only one foot deeper than our keel, and the turbulent seas kicked up mud and grit. Although Windigo has never had a leaking problem, she took on water through every conceivable nook and cranny. Seeing that the electric bilge pump was not keeping up, we started to pump manually, from the cockpit and the cabin. On one of the two-minute pumping drills in the cockpit, I observed the wind speed at a steady 131 knots. That was the way both wind and seas were steady. No big gusts, no real waves.”
After being shorn of its wind generator and solar panels, Windigo then broke free from its anchor and began to drift upriver at a speed of 8 or 10 knots.
“As I sailed on a broad reach under bare poles, I prepared to set another anchor to save Windigo from its fate at the bridge. I joined three 50-foot dock lines that were handy and attached them to the bit of chain on the 22-pound Danforth anchor I carry on the stern rail, but I was unable to deploy the anchor before reaching the bridge.
“I was able, however, to maintain a course through the main section of the bridge. And the angle of heel was sufficient to clear the top of the mast as we passed under the bridge. The VHF antenna just barely scraped the underside of the bridge deck.
“I turned the bow toward the main span of the second bridge and deployed the stern anchor. I was surprised at how rapidly the anchor rode paid out, and was just barely able to get the end secured on one of the stern Sampson posts, but the line did no more than go taut for an instant before going limp, and I hauled in only two of the three dock lines I had attached &mdash the third one had parted. Anchor number three was gone.
“Guiding the boat through the main section of the second bridge became more difficult. The apparent wind moved forward as I turned the boat from a broad reach to a beam reach, and finally, to a close haul. Windigo began to stall and drift sideways, so to regain some control, I turned downwind and aimed for the nearest bridge section, but this section was considerably lower than the main section.
“She may have even cleared this at the extreme angle of heel, but as Windigo passed under the bridge, the boat gybed and the masthead struck the underside of the bridge deck, folding over the top 14 feet.
“But this may have been a blessing in our current situation since numerous high-tension electrical lines were strung over the river just past the second bridge. Even though we did not pass under the wires at their highest point, I was able to guide Windigo clear of the hazardous lines.
“So now we were in a wide, shallow river with another low bridge, 2 nautical miles downwind. I was able to sail the boat in a fairly controlled fashion as Sandy dug out our last anchor, a 25-pound CQR. I attached it to the end of the remaining 200 feet of parted 1-inch anchor rode at the bow and deployed it from the bow. At last, we were secure on another anchor.”
When the surge diminished, Windigo III’s keel was resting in the muddy bottom. The boat was eventually towed free with the help of two commercial assistance boats, but despite hiring a diver and having carefully logged the GPS coordinates, Hughes never recovered his silt-buried anchors.