A Hurricane, an ‘Evacuation’ and a Rescue Of Sorts – Weathering Hurricane Isaac

8 Sep

Here’s the story to go with those photos. I’ll have at least one more post coming up on Isaac- about what seemed to work and what didn’t for weathering the storm- and then I’ll stop flogging this particular horse (real classy turn of phrase, huh?) Here’s how the storm went for me.

Isaac wasn’t much on anyone’s mind here in the city until the night of Sunday the 26th when predictions of its erratic spirals began to settle in on Southeast Louisiana. I was leaving a noisy punk matinee when all of a sudden the storm was on everyone’s lips and it seemed that now might be a good time to see how that forecast was going. Turns out it wasn’t looking good. Tropical Storm Isaac was not expected to remain a mere tropical storm for long and its predicted path was narrowing down on New Orleans with increasingly slim margins of error. In a short few hours the possibility of sustained hurricane force winds hitting the city had gone from nice, abstract ‘maybe’ to a very real ‘quite likely’. By the time I got home and got my head straight these dire predictions had jumped from cheesy disaster-sploitation network news articles (Remember ’em? ‘Ferocious Isaac Rears to Crush New Orleans on Katrina Anniversary’ sort of thing) to NOAA Weather Bulletins.

My boat, mind you, is here:
You’re looking for the little green point, bottom-center

Having unceremoniously dumped this half-finished boat in the water a month prior, I am completely unprepared for a hurricane and Southshore Marina, where my friends and I keep our boats, is completely unprotected from the wind and protected from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by only a single seawall. Here’s the close-up.

Not exactly a hurricane hole! The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to get my boat out of there. Only it was now 9pm on Sunday night with the storm expected to make landfall Tuesday or Wednesday. Time was running short. I did have a plan, of sorts, in that I knew of a reliable hurricane hole just twenty-odd miles away on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain. The NOAA forecast gave a reliable twenty-hour window of perfect sailing weather so there was still time to sail up to Bayou Castile, the inlet where my family’s Ingrid 38 had safely weathered well over a decade of Gulf Coast storms.

Bayou Castile – Now that’s a hurricane hole

So I had a destination and I had a nice weather window. Easy, right? Well there were a few complicating factors. Like I said, it was now 9pm on a Sunday and we had to leave right away in case the storm made landfall earlier than expected. I had no particular crew lined up for the trip, nor did I have any charts of the area or a gps to go with them. This would be the first trip of more than a couple miles since launching the boat. Oh, and I wasn’t sure exactly where we would be able to put the boat once we got to Bayou Castile!

 It was time to make some phone calls. I started with my friend Luke, co-owner of the s/v Margaret. He loaned me a chart of the lake. A couple calls later I had a gps. Now for the difficult bit, I needed a crew of at least two in order to handle the boat and keep a reliable watch, and maybe even get a little rest myself. Finding crew wasn’t the hard part- the city was electrified by news of the coming storm and everyone was out enjoying their last taste of freedom before the inevitable hurricane shut-in. I knew worse come to worst I could always round up a couple friends at the bar. The tricky bit was that in the midst of this madcap pre-storm atmosphere I wanted to find a crew that was (at least mostly) sober! I started at a small show space where some friends were showing videos they had shot themselves. In an intermission I rounded up two and as we were preparing to leave others came trickling in. By the time we made it to the boat just before 2am everything was in place- we had our navigation gear, we had a steady breeze and a nearly full moon to sail by, and I had a sleepily enthusiastic crew of five- large in numbers if not in sailing experience. All told, things were shaping up nicely.

Crossing the lake under moonlight

It was a phenomenal sail. We worked our way upwind under moonlight with the headlights of cars evacuating on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway as a guide. The wind was mild but in the air and on everyone’s lips was knowledge of what was to come in just a few short hours. Even though we were all headed back to the city the next morning we allowed ourselves just a hint of vainglory to be, at the last minute, evacuating by sailboat while everyone else was plying the highways! We were moving steadily but  somewhat erratically as in our rush I had forgotten the dividers and parallel rules and was piloting instead with measures taken between thumb and forefinger and angles transferred by the latter outstretched. Between this and wind right on the nose it was late morning before we made it to the mouth of the Bayou. I hadn’t slept a wink but somehow this didn’t matter. While my energy had flagged a bit in the night it rose again alongside the most furiously red sunrise I have ever seen. The sky left little doubt about what was coming and while we were feeling pretty self-congratulatory about our jaunty little hurricane evacuation we still had no idea where we were going to actually berth the boat.

Dawn breaks

Brett at the helm, Sasha behind him
Coming into Bayou Castile

I hadn’t expected finding a spot the day before a hurricane to be easy, but I thought I had a trump card. Gerald, the owner of Northshore Marine, is an old friend of my parents and even if he had no room I was confident he could help direct us somewhere. Well turns out the marina is closed on Mondays and so Gerald wasn’t around. Instead we met Peter, a very nice guy who had a slip at Northshore. He told us about a slip we could probably use a bit further up the bayou so we cranked the engine again and went to investigate. What we found was not re-assuring. We didn’t find the spot he mentioned and as we kept going we ran into an unfortunate trend in ‘yachting’ which goes something like this- the nicer the marina, the more expensive the boats, the less friendly the people. There were dozens of empty slips but none were open to boats in need of a safe place to weather the hurricane- you had to pay for six months if you wanted to do that! We kept moving but not having a large enough scale chart of the area meant we didn’t know quite when the marinas ended. I figured we might have passed the last one when the mast started dropping tree branches on deck and moments later when we rounded a corner we found the channel too narrow to turn around in and promptly ran aground. Whoops. Well have I mentioned how much I love having a small boat?.  I coaxed my intrepid first mate overboard and he pushed the boat around while I cycled the engine between forward and reverse. Minutes later we were headed back to where we started.

Putting the crew to work!

Sasha clearing the decks after his impromptu dip

On our way back we decided to hell with these marinas that wouldn’t help a boat in a storm. If it came to it we were just going to find an out-of-the-way slip and tie up right before things got hairy and then slip out just after the storm. But first we wanted to talk to Peter again about that elusive slip. When we got back to Northshore he took the time out of his hurricane prep to find the owner of the slip, Dick and introduce us. After a couple rounds of verbal drubbing by yachties caught up in an each-man-to-himself attitude I was pretty tentative asking this stranger if we could use his slip for the storm. His answer? ‘Of course! I’m not using it’. And then- ‘I took the bow lines off though, there are just spring lines on there. Do you need me to go get the rest of the lines for you?’. Next Peter offered to drive me over to it so I would be able to find it again from the water. Now I get why my parents chose this spot to keep their boat for fifteen years, these are my kind of people! In a couple hours we had the boat tied up and were sitting at the Rusty Pelican eating burgers and drinking a beer. We were the last customers before they closed up for the storm.

Tying up for the storm:

The next few days are a hazy blur. In sixty hours between Sunday morning and Tuesday night when the storm hit I managed to sneak in one two-hour nap. The rest was spent in a mad dash between my house, my workshop, Sasha’s house, and back to my boat trying to get everything ready for the onslaught that Isaac seemed increasingly likely to bring.

I finally collapsed in bed Tuesday night only to wake up a few hours later to the full fury of the storm. A solid wall of rain was being blown in every direction by wind which whipped the tops of trees around like a giant hand flicking a spring. Naturally we couldn’t resist going out. I put my camera in a ziplock bag and my friend Tommy and I went to have a peek at the Mississippi. The force of the storm was so great that this mighty waterway appeared to have reversed direction. As the wind blew rain against our faces so hard that it hurt we watched frothing whitecaps push their way upriver. It was not a sight to inspire confidence.

Outside my house on Wednesday morning

It was Thursday morning before the weather had cleared up enough to be outside for more than a few minutes at a time. I had had no news of my boat but the little I had heard about the storm did not bode well. While weak for a hurricane Isaac had done just about the worst thing it could after making landfall. Not only did it hit on the West side of Lake Pontchartrain- meaning that its counter-clockwise rotation was pushing water upriver as well as into the Lake and up to the Northshore- but immediately after hitting land Isaac slowed to a walking pace moving through SE Louisiana at a few miles an hour all the while pushing storm surge up from the sea while pummelling the area with torrential rains. While New Orleans’ levee system protected it admirably the slow pace and large size of Isaac meant storm surges and flood damage far worse than expected in surrounding areas, particularly Plaquemines Parish and the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain. Precisely where my boat was…

I finally spoke with Peter, who had stayed on his boat in Bayou Castile. The conversation was brief -all he could tell me was that he hadn’t been able to take a look at my boat because the flooding was so bad and that the water was higher than in Hurricane Katrina. He estimated nine feet of storm surge in the Bayou. I was quaking in my boots but there was nothing I could do- all roads to the Northshore were still closed. I couldn’t check on my boat but I had to do something to keep from going insane so I went to have a look at Margaret instead.

The bike ride to the lake was absolutely surreal. The day was almost idyllic, beautifully cool with the sun shining, and everywhere people were out of the houses after days of being cooped up. Yet though the damage was not particularly bad Isaac had completely altered the face of the city. Sidewalks and streets were carpeted with leaves, small branches, signs, trash, anything that could be blown around. Every now and then I had to pick my way around downed trees, power lines, and one flooded street. I saw a house with a tree lying fully across its roof and many more which had barely avoided disaster.

As I neared the lake things got crazier. At the top of the bridge over the industrial canal I could see that the entire lakefront airport, including the terminal and many vehicles, was under two feet of water. This flooding blocked my way to the marina so I had to backtrack. When I finally found a way in I was met with a scene which was chaotic, though not as bad as I had feared. The high docks were under 1-2 feet of water while the boats were floating easily four feet above the finger piers to which they were moored. Most had weathered the hurricane admirably but not all were so lucky. Shredded sails fluttered in the light breeze and many boats floated at odd angles to the docks where certain lines had been tied incorrectly or simply parted under the force of the hurricane. Then there were the losses. I counted four boats which seemed totalled, either flipped by gusting winds or sunk in their slips. One could be made out washed up on the seawall to the Northwest of the marina. Nearly all of the losses were small boats which had been tied in the outermost slips on the piers with almost nothing between them and the oncoming storm.

Th public boat landing near the bridge was completely submerged
My usual approach to the marina

Boats were floating high and cockeyed

I had been wading the docks and taking photos for about an hour when some friends showed up to check on Margaret and a couple other boats. All of their vessels were undamaged but on some other boats which were cockeyed to the docks it was obvious that loose or parted lines would mean serious trouble when the storm surge receded. Of course these weren’t our boats and according to the laws of property the most we were entitled to do is take photos of these impending disasters. Once again, the hell with that. With extra hands about we decided we couldn’t just leave them in this state and we spent the next few hours wading around the docks, hopping onto the boats of complete strangers to furl torn sails and re-secure parted bow and stern lines.

Re-tying a failed bowline

Our pice de rsistance was the Sun Dance, a boat which had snapped a bowline and was lying completely across its finger pier. When we tried to pull it back we found that it was hard aground on the dock. Luckily it was equipped with some spare lines in the cockpit (though as to why these lines had not be used to back up the single set of bow and stern lines one can only speculate). We ran them to the dock and cranked in on the genoa winches until I was worried the lines would part. Still no dice. Next I undid the mainsail halyard and passed it ashore. My friends walked it out about 100′ from the boat and put their weight on it, heeling the boat nearly thirty degrees while I went back to the winches and furiously cranked. Finally, with a surprisingly fluid motion, the boat slid off of its finger pier and settled smartly into the center of its slip. We tidied up the lines and moved on, feeling pretty good about saving a stranger’s boat. (When I returned a couple days later with the water at almost normal levels I saw another boat which had apparently been in the same situation. When the water receded this boat settled rudder-first on the pier, completely destroying the rudder and severely damaging the skeg. It was still sitting like this when I arrived- cockeyed with the stern on the dock and bow barely above water. This, or similar, would likely have been the fate of Sun Dance)

Rescue of the Sun Dance:
It’s hard to make out but the finger pier is directly under the boat!

Luke tries to straighten her out

To no avail
We bring out the big guns. Even puppy is trying to help!

Nearly there…

And she’s off!

The triumphant return of the halyard

Tidying up

Eventually some of out party had to attend to their own situations and we left the marina. Once again, as inactivity set in I started to go crazy with worry. Finally, around four in the afternoon, the Causeway re-opened and my friend Elyse offered to drive me to my boat. Once on the Northshore we had to pick a path through downed trees and flooded streets until finally I gave in and called Peter again to ask for directions. He gave me the street and then casually dropped that he had made it out to my boat.
‘Well, the one next to it sank…’
There was a pause where my heart stopped and then:

 ‘Your boat’s fine’.

And he was right, it was fine. Perfect, actually. Not a scratch on it and not an inch more water than usual in the bilge. I even had a couple feet to spare on the docklines.

I’m on the right, thank god.


That night, for the first time in what felt like months, I actually slept. I even relaxed for almost a whole day. Then with another crew I retrieved my boat from the Northshore and then I moved out of my house. Next week I move onto the boat. It’s been quite a month so far!

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


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