But, Then Came Charley
What The Doctor Ordered
Work as a delivery and charter captain, and sailing instructor, so taking a
cruising vacation to the Dry Tortugas might not seem the thing to do to “get
away from work”. BUT, it was what the doctor ordered.
this case, the doctor was Sandy, former owner of my boat (WindigoIII) and my
original sailing mentor. His life has been so hectic this year that he has not
been able to launch his MX20 in Green Bay for the short Wisconsin sailing
season. I owe Sandy big-time for my current station in life, so a request to go
sailing was well met.
Dry Tortugas seemed a perfect choice for a short vacation, as they are
positioned exactly 200 miles south of my current home in Clearwater Beach, FL.
They appear as a tiny speck on most charts, yet the photos I have seen make it
appear to be an idyllic tropical setting. The reef-protected harbor provides a
last stop for Mexico- and Central America- bound cruisers; To just sail there
as a destination seemed frivolous enough for a vacation. We would Key-hop and
check out a couple ICW coves on the return trip.
The 48-hour voyage down
was without incident. [As we approached the Dry Tortugas, Charley was just
an unnamed tropical depression off the coast of South America.] The views were magnificent and the weather
ideal. Everything was completely relaxing. We swam from the anchorage, as
we didn’t wish to be burdened with a dinghy on this cruise.
had spent the first day at the Dry Tortugas National Park snorkeling and
exploring Fort Jefferson. Only two or three other boats shared the anchorage,
and tourist ferries came from Key West spending a few hours during midday. A
most enjoyable day, topped off with a nice meal cooked aboard; I even hauled
out the sewing machine to make minor repairs to our bimini and mainsail. BUT,
that evening, an email and weather fax revealed that a Tropical Storm was
curving its way through the Caribbean toward the Gulf.
Charley Is Born
morning of our arrival, Charley had become a Tropical Storm. Its predicted path
included the Dry Tortugas and the West Coast of Florida.] Plotting the
coordinates, the prediction had it becoming hurricane strength at exactly our
position! We had three days to get back to Tampa Bay where I was familiar with
several effective hurricane holes. BUT, another storm, Hurricane Bonnie,
was spinning away in the northeastern Gulf.
preparing Windigo for a lively dash home, we decided that we would start the
journey very early the next morning, after a full night’s sleep, to face the
challenges ahead. We left at sunrise the next morning as the VHF buzzed of
evacuation plans for the next two days. The Research Vessel Bellows
left with us to return to its homeport of St. Petersburg via a direct route
across the Gulf. We decided to angle up to Charlotte Harbor and then continue
the trek to Tampa Bay in the protected waters of the ICW, just in case Charley
sped up or changed course. [That evening, as we were halfway to Charlotte Harbor,
Charley had become a Category 1 Hurricane as it approached Jamaica.] We sailed
and motorsailed into Charlotte Harbor, anchoring just behind Gasparilla Island
north of the entrance a couple of hours past daybreak BUT, we had now
sailed 72 hours of the past 96 hours, and thought it best to stay well rested.
a late-morning nap, we weighed anchor to finish our journey to Tampa Bay. BUT,
I noticed an acrid odor as we headed up the ICW.
seems a contaminated electrical connector had caused a current surge in the
wiring harness and melted
wires, connectors and the voltage regulator. Another failed component
turned out to be the starter motor for the inboard diesel engine. BUT, an announcement over the VHF got
Coast Guard and the Department of Transportation (now two separate entities)
picked this moment to start “locking down” bridges across the ICW – over 24
hours before the storm was predicted to arrive, to facilitate land evacuation.
The list of bridges included ALL bridges further north of us. They were forcing
me to return to Tampa Bay out in the Gulf without an engine, at the mercy of
variable winds present at the time, and I told them so. As we made our way out
of Charlotte Harbor, night fell as we pushed on with our plan to head north.
continued to tack out into the Gulf of Mexico engineless. BUT, upon
reaching the junction of the Gulf and entrance channel we found no wind and big
seas, with huge breakers across the transition between deep and shallow water.
conditions were not what we needed to return to Tampa Bay, 70 miles distant. We
decided we did not want to be caught out in the Gulf away from a harbor of
refuge, so we crawled back into Charlotte Harbor, and studied charts to locate
a place to weather a storm. [That evening, Charley became a Category 2
Hurricane as it approached Cuba, and was predicted to remain a Category 2 until
it made landfall at Tampa Bay.]
was very peaceful on the bay as we edged northward and inland 20 miles. The
wind picked up as we sailed along nicely towards our new chosen hurricane hole
in the mouth of the Peace River at the northern end of Charlotte Harbor. We had
12 hours before the hurricane was predicted to pass west of us, hitting land at
Tampa Bay. Sandy and I discussed how all the unusual circumstances had brought
us to what seemed to be the safest place on the west coast of Florida. BUT,
then the gale struck.
sure it was associated with the Charley (or Bonnie) weather system, but these
things may spring up in the harbors on the Florida coast almost any time of
year. We reefed our foresail and maintained control with the main. BUT, a few
seams of UV worn threads of the mainsail (adjacent to the ones I replaced
in the Dry Tortugas) let go and further reduced the power of that sail.
made it around the point into the mouth of the Peace River just north of Punta
Gorda and anchored – far inland and away from the predicted path of Charley. It
was still dark, and the hurricane was 10 hours away, so we fell into our bunks,
storm-weary, for a short nap. After a few hours rest, we moved Windigo to a
precise location chosen on the chart for the storm. We
affixed FOUR (4) ¾” snubber lines to the 200’ of 3/8” stainless steel
chain. At the other end was a self-designed, handmade
70-pound stainless steel claw anchor that has never dragged in 7000 miles
of cruising. 30’ from the big anchor was a 35-pound CQR
plough anchor, which on its own held Windigo just fine for the 20 years
previous. That’s over 400 pounds of ground tackle, dug in a muddy bottom with a
scope of 14-to-1. I have always been VERY confident of my anchoring.
stripped the deck of everything loose,
and rigged the baby stay and running quarter stays. All halyards were attached out to
strong points. We were all set
by noon, and the winds were 8 knots with a light rain. [At noon, Charley
was still a Category 2 Hurricane, as it made its way north just off the Florida
West Coast.] BUT, as the storm moved north, it encountered a frontal
system left over from Hurricane Bonnie (remember her?) stretching across the
A Sharp Right-Hand Turn
was this stationary front that changed the northward journey of Charley and
bumped it to the east. So now Charley, a Category 2 Hurricane was heading
directly for us. BUT, interaction with this frontal system also
increased Charley’s intensity from a Category 2 to a Category 4 Hurricane and
accelerated its march into land.
it crashed into the idyllic barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva, ripped up
Charlotte Harbor and blew full force into Punta Gorda. As the top half of
Charley moved into the neighborhood, winds increased in steps. The wind speed
increased from 40 knots to 60 knots,
and then to 85 knots. Now even this windspeed was comparable to what I have
experienced in squalls and gales. 85 knots
(100 MPH) could be described as REALLY, REALLY windy. BUT, the winds
I experienced that day over
100 MPH have a power that is indescribable; so I will tell of the
buildings and trees ashore were relocated to the west, Windigo was flailing in
the wind at the end of its ground tackle and the seas became completely
airborne. Seeing we were anchored in water only one foot deeper than our keel,
the turbulent seas kicked up mud and grit from the bottom, and it too became
airborne. Although Windigo has never had a leaking problem, she took on water
during this stint as a submarine through every conceivable nook and cranny.
Much of it through the cockpit lockers, as the cockpit remained flooded for the
most intense portion of the storm. Seeing the electric bilge pump was not
keeping up by working continuously, BOTH manual pumps (one in the cabin and one
at the helm) were needed to keep her dry and afloat. BUT, just opening
the hatch for a moment to get to the pump at the helm allowed a deluge of
seawater to enter the cabin.
one of the two-minute pumping drills in the cockpit, I observed windspeed at a
steady 131 knots. That was the way both the wind and seas were – steady. No big
gusts, no real waves; I suppose the water just wasn’t deep enough for big
swells, but it was fully airborne, whipping sideways as I never before had
seen. The intensity of sand and saltwater blasting my back was painful enough
to check for blood upon my return to the cabin.
the next trip out to the helm to pump the bilge, I observed the strapped-down
wind generator snapping its 2” aluminum mast, and knocking off one end of a
pair of 1” stainless steel braces, blowing west as if shot from a cannon. BUT,
then the shock of this shook solar panels loose, and they had to be cut free
before they pummeled the davits and stern rail to pieces by whipping at the end
of their electrical connections.
A Slight Reprieve
Then the dark and violent
water-laden air changed from dark gray to bright white and the wind dropped by
half – the eye of the storm was overhead and sunlight reflected down the empty
cylinder of the center of the hurricane. Having been in the eye of big storms
on land, I expected a reprieve from the action. BUT, the wind reduced
only to around 40 knots, and only for a few minutes.
We emerged for a quick check
of remaining deck gear and ground tackle. The FOUR snubber lines and 1” anchor
rode were all intact and as we had tied them to the chain. The anti—chafe
protection was still in place and there was no evidence of damage to the lines.
It was a good thing the deck inspection was brief, for Charlie was a compact
monster, and the 180° direction reversal began with 130 knots of force.
Although Sandy and I were
secure below, the full energy of the storm was felt as Windigo was sent driving
forward for approximately 375 yards; then when the ground tackle reached its
limit, Windigo’s 24,000 pounds whirled around to face the wind once again. BUT,
after few minutes, there was a distinct difference in Windigo’s motion.
We were no longer
submarineing through water, with wind coming over our bow at 150 miles per
hour. Visibility outside was only 50 feet, so a quick check of the GPS revealed
we were moving further than the anchors should have allowed. Emerging from the
cabin into the surreal storm conditions, I noted that we were lying ahull –
sideways to the wind – and drifting . . .
Sailing In A Hurricane
With the ground tackle no
longer attached to the boat, I went forward to attempt to raise the trys’l.
Already rigged on its own track on the mast, deploying it would be a simple
matter of snapping the shackle of the halyard to the grommet on the head, and
hoisting it into position. Closing a snap shackle in normal conditions takes a
fraction of a second. BUT, I was unable to perform this easy task on the
deck of Windigo in those conditions.
After three distinct
attempts lasting a period of maybe ten or twelve seconds, the halyard flew free
– horizontal to the top of the mast. Abandoning that option, I returned to the
helm (that action alone was extremely difficult) to try to control the path of
the boat. With no sails and the deck stripped of gear, there was enough windage
to move my 24,000-pound vessel along at 8 to 10 knots. I aimed at the main section
of the fast approaching bridge, now downwind of our position. BUT, I
knew Windigo’s mast was 4 feet taller than the bridge deck.
As I sailed on a broad
reach, I prepared to set another anchor to save Windigo from its fate at the
bridge. I joined three 50’ dock lines that were handy and attached them to the
bit of chain on the 22# Danforth anchor I carry on the stern rail. BUT,
I was unable to deploy the anchor before reaching the bridge because of our
I was able, however, able to
maintain a course through the main section of the bridge. The angle of heel was
sufficient to clear the top of the mast as we passed under the bridge. The VHF
antenna just barely scrapped the underside of the bridge deck. As we emerged
from under the bridge, I sensed an opportunity to stop Windigo’s ill-fated
journey up the river. After steering the boat close to the end of the wood crib
lining the sides of the main bridge span, I went forward to the bow with a 50’
dock line in hand. I considered trying to secure a line to this wood fender
wall to keep Windigo from getting to the second span of the twin bridges across
the river. BUT, standing there with the line for only a second or
two made me realize I did not know what part of the crib I could connect with,
and then lacked the ability to secure the other end to the boat in time.
More Passionate Attempts To Stop
So I just stood there as the
bow roller contacted the wall, was sheared from the boat, and disappeared into
the river. Returning to the helm with the dock line, 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 secure on one of the stern Sampson posts. BUT, the line no
more than got taught, then went limp, and I hauled in only two of the three
dock lines I had attached – the third one had parted without hesitation. Anchor
number three was gone.
Guiding the boat through the
main section of the second bridge became more and 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
straight downwind. BUT, this section was considerably lower than the
She may have even cleared
this at the extreme angle of heel (difficult to imagine sailing on bare poles).
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 of
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.
Lucky (?) Dismasting
Sandy came to the
companionway thinking it was safe as we emerged from the bridge. I sent him
back into the cabin to check the bilge, just to be sure he was clear of any
rigging on the deck that may become energized if we contacted the electrical
wires. Even though we did not pass under the wires at their highest point, I
was able to guide Windigo through clear of the hazardous lines. There is no doubt we would have been fouled in the power lines
had our mast remained intact.
So now we were in a fairly
wide, very shallow river with another low bridge, two nautical miles downwind.
I was able to sail the boat in a fairly controlled fashion as Sandy dug our
last anchor, a 25-pound CQR, from the bottom of the water-filled sail locker. I
attached it to the end of the remaining 200 feet of parted one-inch anchor rode
at the bow, and deployed it from the bow as Sandy kept Windigo facing the wind.
At last, we were secure on another anchor approximately one half hour after the
snubber lines parted. The wind speed had tapered off at a much faster rate than
we had experienced on the other side of the eye. By the time we were anchored,
the wind had dropped below 100 knots and then slowly diminished over the next
There was little storm
surge, but the high winds had still driven us a good way onto a shallow mud
flat in the middle of the river. During the beginning of the storm, we had cell
phone contact with my wife in Clearwater.
BUT, the cell towers were damaged and service was becoming very
911 calls were being
answered in an “emergency shelter with no communications resources”(!?). With
no mast for the HAM radio antenna and email and the handheld VHF having been
mostly ignored for the past day, we were out of contact with anyone for all
practical purposes. We attempted to make one last call to the US Coast Guard
with our position as the wind dropped below 90 knots. BUT, it took over
20 minutes to receive an acknowledgment to our Pan-Pan calls.
next morning, my wife and a good friend made many phone calls and were able
to have a towboat come to get us out of the middle of the river. BUT,
the closest towboat had to come down from Englewood (a three hour trip) to tow
us off the mud flat.
A Tough Tow
When it came time to steer
our towed vessel, a stowaway seagull
would not allow us access to the helm. It was on the sole under a bit of debris
and scared to death. It would not let us near the wheel. BUT, Sandy was
not about to allow further delays and hoisted the bird over the side (the bird
managed to draw a bit of Sandy’s blood before leaving).
The towboat tried for a couple
hours to free us. BUT, was unsuccessful and called for a second
The two boats together
were able to pull us 150 feet after 50 minutes of hard pulling and finally
freeing Windigo. They deposited
us at the Fisherman’s Village
Dock in Punta
Gorda. The manager there allowed Windigo
to stay until I was able to get the engine running. BUT, I did not
expect it to take almost a week to rewire the engine and replace the starter.
Four days of driving 120
miles one way to work in the 115° heat on the engine. Normally, an o.k. job for
a boat guy. BUT, seeing there was no electricity
within a 10-mile radius of the boat, no
hardware or marine part stores were in operation even if they were still standing.
Every tiny thing I needed
for the repair I had to have with me on the boat,
or return to the Tampa Bay area to get it to bring on the next trip. The day we
got the engine running, we also had a friend with SCUBA gear search for our
ground tackle. I had exact GPS coordinates, BUT, the muck at the bottom
of the river was so stirred up and so thick, that he was unable to locate any
part of it.
friend accompanied me on the 15-hour ICW journey back to Tampa Bay on the
seawater soaked boat with the crippled mast. Upon returning to St.
Petersburg, I had the mast unstepped and cut out the damaged section. After
two more days of cleaning
Windigo was home in her slip in Clearwater Beach, 9 days after the storm. The
cleanup continues . . .
We had about 4 minutes of
reduced winds (40 knots) as the eye of Charley passed directly over us. Three
weeks later, the eye of Frances passed north of our slip in Clearwater Beach.
The becalmed winds (<10 knots) lasted four
It took two large towboats
and over 6 man-hours to drag Windigo off the mud flat that she sailed onto in
100-knot winds. The first boat traveled three hours to get to our location
because there was nothing left floating any closer after the storm. Towing bill
A diving company was
contracted to go retrieve
my ground tackle, and was successful. BUT, the 70# custom stainless
steel anchor was stolen from my dock the first night after it was returned.
Also, FEMA offers grants to
homes damaged in hurricanes that are national disasters, so we applied and were
visited by an inspector. BUT, they are only offering $4000 to repair
At the end of the day, major
projects caused by hurricane damage:
Sandy and I agree that we
did all we could with the knowledge we had and the time and resources
available. The two most important things I learned were: (1) you cannot have
too many lines joining your very secure ground tackle and your boat. I thought
5 snubber lines were excessive, now I believe 20 or 30 would be appropriate in
the extreme conditions that exist in tropical storms. And (2) a wind generator
needs to be removed from its mast during a storm of high magnitude. This was something
I knew before this incident, but did not give it enough attention as I was
distracted by many other things. I use pre-voyage checklists for deliveries; a
storm preparation checklist would be useful.
Our permanent and EXACT address:
Capt.KL & Karin Hughes
S/V WindigoIII • PMB 365
88005 Overseas Hwy. #9
Islamorada, FL 36033-3087
A temporary address here in Clearwater Beach:
850 Bayway Blvd.
Clearwater Beach, FL 33767
We have a phone: 272.458.2536
Text-only Email addresses aboard Windigo, checked often:
And of course, the Windigo Travelogue Catalogue: