St. John Hurricane Survivors
As many are aware, St. John and the neighboring Virgin Islands suffered direct impacts from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Salty Dog Day Sails and sister company Singing Dog Sailing lost several boats in the collective fleet.
The owners, Captains Kelly Quinn and Stephen Sloan, did the unthinkable, the unimaginable—they risked their lives and took to the ocean with their flagship catamaran to out-run and out-sail two back-to-back category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, and they lived to tell about it:
With all weather models and projections in full agreement that St. John and vicinity was directly in the cross-hairs for Hurricane Irma, a storm so fierce it is now known as being the strongest in the Atlantic Basin’s history, it was overwhelmingly clear that ANYTHING they left in St. John would not be safe. The flagship vessel of their fleet, luxury sailing catamaran ‘OFF CAY’ was saved by Captains Quinn and Sloan facing the risk of losing their lives at sea and departing 12 hours before each storm made landfall; Hurricane Irma in St. John and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico respectively. The captains successfully navigated the ferocity of each storm sailing through squall bands of 80-110kt gusts to reach distances of 160-200nm out in the middle of the ocean with the ultimate goal of traveling far enough away from their projected paths and eyes to eventually sail into conditions of less than 50kt wind bands for safety.
After Irma, the Captains came back to unimaginable destruction in St. John arriving home 24 hours after the storm passed with being out at sea for 36 hours. They were literally the first responders on the scene, arriving before the Coast Guard and the National Guard. Doing boat checks by the hundreds in efforts to address medical emergencies and secondly rescues, they persisted tirelessly for days in search and recovery missions, radio relays with the USCG and National Guard to ensure safety, medical attention and rescue was accessible to those in need as well as relaying nearly 1000 messages of safety using their satellite communications on the behalf of St. Johnians unable to communicate directly with loved-ones stateside.
Putting the loss of their other vessels in the background of importance, they directed all offers of personal charity support to verified community organizations rather than accept self-interest support of direct monetary donations and apart from a handful of charters in 18 months, the owners worked without income and with insurance payout of only 50% of invested loss to rebuild their fleet using their own labor and financial reserves now fully depleted. Being so committed to their presence within the community, they chose not to take the easy and softer way of relocating and starting afresh elsewhere, but chose to risk the long-haul commitment to St. John and its recovery.
The owners of Salty Dog Day Sails thank you for your support in your visit to this island they consider paradise.
Salty Dog Day Sails Owner’s Hurricane Sailing Experience written 6 months after the fateful time-marker: Wednesday, September 6, 2017 Hurricane Irma, St John, USVI.
Here is our story (we each have one). And although the recalled details are difficult, the humanity confirmed in our community is heartwarming. We hope that translates to great desire for people to share in that special vibe we call Love City. Come visit us in St John....
“Stephen and I together with our captain and crew all left for vacation in the middle to end of August leaving our three boats, luxury catamaran OFF CAY, catamaran LITTLE DOG and monohull SELKIE all secure on their home port moorings in Great Cruz Bay, St John. We were stateside having just recently purchased a 4th boat for the fleet, a 30' Island Hopper powerboat named Island Dog, which was still getting a refit in the yard near Annapolis, MD.
We watched as Irma formed off Africa with each day's predictions and track intensifying making travel plans from the states back to the USVI a necessity. Arriving on Sunday September 3rd, we missed the 5pm ferry so that meant an arrival in St John after dark and moving boats would have to wait until first light on Monday.
In prep for Monday, we worked like beasts that night raiding our storage unit for our inventoried arsenal of storm gear: 1200' of hurricane lines for each boat, fenders and all spare shackles and anchors etc.
Monday morning Stephen set out on Selkie and I took Little Dog and we made our way along St John's south shore toward the east end and Water Creek, Hurricane Hole. The entire day was spent in positioning and securing boats and also a trip back to Great Cruz to get OFF CAY at the end of the day. We worked tirelessly through the day and into the night and started before dawn on Tuesday all while monitoring each updated weather forecast from the National Hurricane Center and running spaghetti model scenarios via our paid weather services.
In constant communication with friends and loved ones stateside as well as fellow boaters with the same mission in Hurricane Hole, we felt an impending sense of utter hopelessness. An ever increasing severity of storm intensity and path tracking closer and closer to us, we had a rather final 'come to Jesus' meeting at 10am on Tuesday less than 24 hours before the storm.
Stephen sat me down and then took my hands with love, sincerity and utter decisiveness that you would expect of a leader and said, OFF CAY is leaving. He reassured me that he would respect my decision to stay should I not choose to join him at sea running before the storm )sailing terminology), but that he and the boat were leaving. He felt that it was an educated, much calculated and informed risk.
I did not even hesitate 10 seconds before replying, "I'm going with you!"
The plan was formed with great expediency based on much previously discussed details. We had texts from many who thought us crazy and wishing us well despite, several no replies likely from fear and at least one conveying respect for our decision but would not choose to do it himself. There was one firm support of, "Do it now! Run, run, run--sail as fast as you can!"
The reality was simple: at 6-7kn speed we would make 60-70mi in 10 hours and be beyond sustained hurricane force wind bands. Being in the 50kn wind band or better (less) was the goal.
We also had a drop dead departure time of 12pm to make that happen. Unfortunately the extra efforts made in securing the boats we knew we were leaving to take the brunt force trauma took until 5:45pm and with engines warm we set out to sea at 6pm on Tuesday evening before Irma's effects were very noticeable beyond alight wind increase and overall cloud cover marking impending doom.
Pulling out of Hurricane Hole we motored solemnly with tears in eyes and lumps in throats, fully, yes fully, knowing that what and if we returned to, would never be the same. Utter reality of the likelihood of the boats we left behind would be lost was at the forefront of our mind together with the complete awareness that our island, our community and our friends would be affected in unknowable ways. What a dreadful feeling.
The sail was faster than we anticipated and we had an incredible following sea pushing us, rather like surfing, further and further away to the west southwest. We were just riding the edge of the approaching storm, however, and at 6:30 in the morning on Wednesday got hit with incredible squall bands topping 70 to 80 kn. with top recorded/recollected gusts of 110kn. I happened to be in constant satellite communication with several trusted and experienced friends one of whom in particular who was assisting with the weather routing and had to tell them to standby for 911 situation. It was almost a boat sinker having blown out our main traveler block and now the guillotine free-flying boom with full sail and 30,000lbs of potential force on the rig. Stephen's quick thinking and my quick action immediately turned the situation back to safety with a sturdy and on-the-fly fix of a lasso style preventer limiting the movement of the boom while we installed new hardware all while underway in hurricane conditions—truly frightful in thinking of it now, but no time for emotion when you are sailing ever, let alone when you are running from a storm for your lives. We did what we do best—we sailed. It is muscle memory and the body and mind work in concert, inherently knowing what to do with each challenge.
And with every passing minute after that micro burst we seemed to watch the Kraken approach and then recede. The minutes passed very slowly. We had gained wind velocity overnight through the early morning as the storm came closer and reached its closest point of approach to us between 6:30am-10am, then as we sailed farther west and southwest it became more obvious we were moving more and more into the safe zone ultimate goal of the 35kn wind band or better.
Literally we had hourly satellite comms directing us to sail for the next hour due west, then sail southwest, then south, then back to southwest. We were being steered using 10 computer models and grib files supposedly good for 1-8km so we could route the boat while blind. Simply amazing!
We reached 160nm southwest of St John before turning back. the wind on the quarter stern eventually backed to our nose and that was clear indication the storm had passed and it was time to head 180 degrees and slingshot home before the tradewinds filled in and would prohibit easterly sailing. That longitude being almost due south of Ponce, Puerto Rico but at a latitude that we were out in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.
With Irma's trajectory moving NW and the counter clockwise rotation at a certain point the winds noticeably backed from the SE to N to NW to W then SW and we followed the wind keeping it always on our stern quarter with directed our course right back to St John on an almost reciprocal heading prior to the easterly trades filling in from the again. The only not-so-awesome part of the sail back was the wind against the Irma monster swells. The hurricane may have passed and danger from wind abated, but we still had seas to contend with. Wind against seas are never fun, but hurricane winds and hurricane seas are epic in a horrible way.
Made it back to St-John having survived the storm at sea. And sorry, but not doing a very good job at the intricate details of what that experience was like except for the broad stroke descriptions. Obviously cannot delve into the multitude of satellite communication threads we had at sea with various friends and loved ones while steering the boat away from a monster running before the wind and seas for our lives and protecting ourselves and our livelihood. Please trust that our vast sailing experience allowed an 'auto pilot' or 'muscle memory' response with respect to the technical aspects of the sailing/passage and in that regard simple act of being at sea rather intuitively. Of course there was plenty of time to think about the hurricane and it's effects, but that was balanced with concerns of safety and all the normal routine that any passage entails.
We arrived back to Port St. John proximately 12:30 PM on Thursday. For me, regardless of circumstances, I always experience a phenomenon of excitement anytime I've been at sea and I'm reapproaching port. This passage was no different. As we sailed by St. Croix and approached St-John, however, the scene of destruction was overwhelming. Greeted first not by a picture of welcome, but rather by evidence of apocalyptic demise. Concordia eco-resort on the south shore near Salt Pond was visibly decimated. Then we turned into Coral Bay and headed toward Hurricane Hole, prepared for the worst, but ever hopeful.
We were met with evidence of destruction on apocalyptic scale that far surpassed anything we could have ever imagined.
The in-our face evidence of the loss of both our boats barely registered as we had such an intuitive calling to rally for safety checks. Literally had to have a conversation and make a concrete plan that we would pick up a mooring and launch the dinghy and no matter what we saw or found that it would be important to maintain a safe distance while doing a boat-to-boat check for medical emergencies and for fatalities, being that we would be the first responders to hurricane hole for hundreds of boats and stranded people on board. We were there before the Coast Guard, we were there before the National Guard. We were literally the first responders there and we are medically trained and able to help. We were ready to help.
We encountered people waving frantically to be rescued contrasted by others obviously in shock with their head in their hands and barely responsive. We communicated our intentions to all whom we encountered. It was important that people were reassured, knew their safety and rescue was an immediate concern and that we would be back for them unequivocally, but it was also more important to address any potential medical emergencies first prior to offering any rescue for anyone not injured, just stranded. Fair enough!
For several hours we used our dinghy to approach and search each boat in each of the bays in hurricane hole in order to ensure people's safety and assist if required. All the while making radio calls using the VHF to communicate and start compiling a cohesive list of survivors with stateside contact information for relay using our satellite.
We did circle back and collected a few willing survivors and hosted them all for a steak dinner aboard catamaran OFF CAY so we could break bread, swap stories, cry and cathartically release as a group--knowing that we were not alone in this loss and this experience was a true comfort, hopefully to all.
At any rate, this communication relay, radio to satellite to stateside recipients who the rebroadcast on several Facebook boards, as I understand it, developed a cult following as apparently people with whom we were giving the information to re-broadcast on Facebook disseminated it with such comprehensive details, that the messages became a beacon of hope and a life blood-like narrative for the scene unfolding on St John. Wow! How humbling!
Obviously there are people in this chain of communication that will be inextricably linked to people they've never met on St-John, but having shared the experience through that narrative, we each played a part in being the voice of confirmation that loved ones stranded on St John survived the storm. A collective voice that resonated with the world, at least the world of St John lovers.
We were summoned VHF with hundreds of requests for direct relays using our satellite to contact various loved ones stateside. A task I willingly undertook. At one point however I had to ask the person on the other end of the VHF conversation to pause, as while with live mic I had a mini breakdown of being overwhelmed with the knowledge that I was the link that gave these poor stranded people who have lost everything, but ever hopeful, a way to reach their loved ones to reassure them that the spirit of St John and it's people was not broken. Whew. What an honor to be that bridge of hope when the world seemed so black. And with an utter lack of communication or any viable coverage of the scene on the ground within 24 hours of the eye passing, this was an amazing way to connect St John back to the world.
By Friday we had heard via VHF radio that there would be a meeting coral Bay to rally community action and support. There was a roll call posterboard that we photographed and transcribed via satellite to my stateside relay to disseminate on Facebook. We left for Cruz Bay later that day with our new lifelong friend Dirk who tirelessly assisted us in every recovery mission.
We had a heroes welcome from a St John ferry captained by Travis who was sanctioned to pick up Westin Hotel guests for evacuation. We then moved to Cruz Bay and were witness to the arrival of the National Guard. We moved to Redhook and ended up acting as radio relay for both the National Guard and the USCG Sector San Juan guiding in their helicopters and coordinating medi-vacs because the radio was not readable from the National Guard station to San Juan due to damage, but our 80' high sight mast could read both sides and we gladly did our civic duty of relaying. Dirk and I took turns all day long with constant radio traffic and even got involved with similar communication relays for Tortola BVI's Belmont Hills to Medivac in St Thomas.
Days and days of following instincts to the 'next right thing' task. We cleared cars and driveways and shifted unsecured items from storage to safe havens. It was non-stop dirty work.
What was becoming clear as more help arrived and more people evacuated, that apart from initial interventions and ensuring friends' pets' safety, the necessity of our immediate presence was waning and our boat Plan B gelled: take the boat to a safe haven marina called Puerto Del Ray in Puerto Rico with a flight stateside booked to regroup, lick our wounds, pet our dogs staying with Granny and figure out a new life trajectory & plan.
All unbeknownst to us that Maria was JUST popping off of Africa until we had already comfortably arrived stateside as the guests of generous friends and family for 24 hours. Brunch and weather check--"You've got to be kidding me--Maria just formed and its following the same path as Irma with the same intensity!"
Plane tickets were then booked to take us directly back to Puerto Rico. We arrived 18 hours before the storm was forecast to impact Puerto Rico. Boat prepped and ready for sea with departure similarly 12 hours-ish before Maria's arrival. 200 nm out to sea west-southwest. And a satellite call to confirm that Puerto Rico was similarly decimated--well darn it that WAS Plan B, so what now? we sailed to Bonaire (SAFELY out of the hurricane belt) and the rest is history.
Actually just typing this faithful narrative is tiring on my little Iphone so too many details are unintentionally omitted. One day we may flush this out for our own benefit, but for now this reflection has served its purpose of emotional release.
A reminder of tenacity, action and ultimate faith. AND, although we still do not know what the way through all of this is, we do know there is a way through it. Ultimately we are already through it!
We are rebuilding, reinventing and reinvesting. We have already been back and will soon be better than ever. Replacement boats are currently in Florida for final preparations with the new addition of ISLAND DOG our 30' power boat and LUCKY DOG our 27' sailing catamaran. A new LITTLE DOG is in the works. Attitudes of gratitude--at the ready!! Looking forward to seeing everyone in St John after November 2018.
Singing Dog Sailing and Salty Dog Day Sails will BOTH be back full time in November 2018 here in St John, but sporadically sailing from St John and Key Largo, FL until then!
Thanks for your support.