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Trawlering During Hurricane Season

My wife and I left Los Angeles on November 3, 1996, to begin a five-year cruise aboard our trawler, Gracias. She is a 38-foot wood DeFever, built in Japan in 1970. Gracias is powered by a single Ford diesel.

We spent the winter months in the southern portion of the Sea of Cortez, enjoying outstanding diving and fishing. Unfortunately, the southern Sea falls within the hurricane belt. As a result, many cruisers elect to spend the hurricane season (June 1st through November 1st) in the northern end of the Sea of Cortez, which is generally free from the threat of hurricanes. That was our plan-however, the 1997 hurricane season proved to be an exception to the general rule.

We spent August through October at the islands that surround Bahia de Los Angeles. The Bay of LA is located on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez, and is approximately 300 miles south of San Diego, California. Limited provisions, potable water, and small quantities of fuel are available in the Bay of LA, but the big attraction for most of the cruisers is the hurricane hole known as Puerto Don Juan. Puerto Don Juan is a secure anchorage located 6 miles south of the Bay of LA. A narrow channel opens into a small, protected bay that forms Don Juan. The bottom is hard packed sand, affording good holding characteristics under most conditions-and it is also full of clams and bay scallops.

Almost all cruisers in the area carefully monitor the daily weather report provided by the Chubasco Net. The net is found on Ham radio frequency 7294; it is an amateur endeavor, but surprisingly accurate.

The Chubasco Net began reporting on Hurricane Linda around the 12th of September. Linda was turning into a Class 5 hurricane, with sustained winds of 160 knots and gusts to 185 knots. Indications were that Linda would remain west of the Baja Peninsula, and not pose a problem for us, but we were still concerned because the wind speeds were so high. Linda turned out to be uneventful for those of us in our location. She did bring 30 knot winds and heavy rains, but no serious problems resulted.

Several days after Linda had dissipated, we began hearing about another storm, Hurricane Nora. One early model of Nora predicted that she would remain in the Pacific, travel up the outside of Baja, and make landfall somewhere near Turtle Bay, on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Turtle Bay is also approximately 300 miles south of San Diego, and 120 miles due west of Puerto Don Juan. Later projections were that once she made landfall, Nora would likely cross the peninsula and enter the Sea of Cortez. If she acted as predicted, those of us in the hurricane hole of Don Juan were seeing a worst case scenario developing. Hurricane hole or not, Puerto Don Juan was definitely not the place to be...unlike Linda, Hurricane Nora was going to be a problem.

As Nora approached, Puerto Don Juan began filling up with cruisers and local fishermen. When she struck, there were a total of 28 boats anchored in the bay, with maybe room for another ten boats. Surprisingly, the anchored boats were evenly spaced out over the entire bay, due in part to the cooperation between skippers (cruisers and fishermen alike), and just plain common sense.

Because of the accurate weather forecasting, everyone had plenty of time to prepare for the arrival of Nora. Knowing the arrival time within four or five hours was an enormous help in getting everyone's boat ready for the coming event. Compared to the cruising sailboats, preparations aboard Gracias were fairly simple. We removed the bimini top over the flybridge, all the topside cushions were taken inside and secured, any removable instruments, canvas rail covers, anything that could be removed was taken inside the boat and stowed out of the way. Our kayak was left on deck but tied down securely.

Our inflatable dinghy is normally suspended from reinforced davits off the stern, and we felt that would be the best place for it, although we did tie it down with additional lines. We also took out the drain plug at the transom because of the likely torrential rains, and removed any loose items in the dinghy that might clog or prevent water from flowing out that drain hole. Many other cruisers removed their outboard engines and deflated their dinghies. Several skippers partially filled their dinghies with water to prevent them from being blown away by the high winds. One skipper actually sank his dinghy to prevent any damage.

Most of the sailboats removed all their sails and dodgers, and of course they generally had lots more gear on deck that needed to be secured or taken below.

Anchoring techniques, types of anchors, and length/type of scope can be controversial, and it is no surprise that many variations can work well. During the night that Nora skirted past us, we were blasted with sustained winds of 50 knots for most of the night, with much higher gusts, and virtually no variation of wind direction. As near as I could tell, we did not drag, and we stayed secure that entire night.

Here is what worked for us: Two anchors, one ahead of the other, attached to one, all chain anchor rode. Many of the other boats in the anchorage used a similar arrangement, and only one boat dragged, but more on that later. Several boats deployed 40-pound sentinels off their anchor rodes-these all held up well and none reported any problems.

Our anchor rode consists of 300 feet of 5/16- inch proof coil chain. I would have felt better with high test chain, but I foolishly saved a few dollars by purchasing proof coil chain over the more expensive and stronger high test. Our primary anchor is a 44-pound Bruce, which has served us well for the past year.

Using Scuba gear, I secured a 40-foot length of 3/8-inch chain to the lifting eye of the Bruce, and ran the chain forward of the primary anchor. I then attached a 75-pound plow anchor to the end of the 3/8-inch chain, and set the plow anchor by hand in the sand. (We later learned that the additional length of chain and second anchor should not be attached to the lifting eye of the primary anchor. Using the lifting eye as an attachment point could prevent the primary from holding under certain conditions. This is probably what caused one boat to drag during the sustained high winds. A better attachment point for the chain securing the heavier, second anchor would be in the chain rode of the primary anchor, about four or five feet from the end of the shank of the primary. The lifting eye was not a good idea, although we were lucky.)

Having Scuba gear aboard made setting, deploying, and checking the anchors much easier.

We normally use a rope anchor bridle, consisting of two 12-foot lengths of 3/4-inch nylon line, attached to a notched stainless steel plate. The notched plate fits into a link of the anchor rode chain, and the lines are then attached to cleats on the bow. With the expectation of sustained high winds, we felt our normal bridle setup might strain the bow cleats, or even the bridle itself.

We decided to add two additional lengths of line to distribute the load further, using our midships cleats in addition to the bow cleats. A fellow cruiser suggested I use a rolling hitch to secure the new lines to the chain, which worked well. Of course he had to dinghy over and show me how to tie a rolling hitch, but that this was just another example of how cooperative everyone was during the ordeal of Nora.

Nora finally made her appearance on September 25, 1997, at around sundown. Winds were light to moderate in the beginning, but began building rapidly about 2100 hours. The highest wind velocities experienced in the anchorage-gusts to 60 knots-came at 0100 on the 26th. Nora made her landfall northeast of Punta Eugenia, which placed the eye approximately 85 miles east of Puerto Don Juan. She was a particularly intense hurricane when she came ashore, with sustained winds of 75 knots gusting to 90 knots. Sunrise at Puerto Don Juan the next morning left us with 15-20 knots of wind and clear blue skies.

Several hours before Nora struck, the 28 boats in the anchorage were divided into several groups, and separate anchor watches were established for each group. The watches were formed so that one skipper would be assigned to monitor each boat in his/her group via radar to determine if anyone was dragging. Each watch lasted one hour. Needless to say, all of the crews were in constant contact over the VHF radio, and nearly everyone was awake the entire evening.

As I mentioned, only one boat dragged; he was contacted and advised that his position had changed on the radar screen. The skipper, a very competent seaman, at first did not want to believe that he was headed for the beach. The alerting skipper, Marv aboard Endurance, began announcing over the VHF the changing position of the dragging boat. The announcements went something like this, "You are now .321 miles from the beach." A minute or so would pass, and the next announcement would indicate, "You are now .292 miles from the beach." (Such information would have been impossible to determine without radar, which proved to be extremely valuable during this ordeal.)

These announcements finally convinced the skipper that he really was getting closer to shore, and he re-anchored without incident. The crew of that boat deserve a lot of credit for their efforts. I have never tried to reanchor a boat in 50/60 knots of wind at night during a very heavy rain, but I know it is no simple task.

When Nora left us and conditions improved, I made another dive on the anchors. The Bruce was totally buried, and the secondary plow (the most forward anchor) was only half buried. The Bruce did most of the work during the night, but may have dragged without the additional strength offered by the secondary anchor. When the anchors were finally recovered-getting the 75-pound plow aboard was another story-the flukes of the Bruce were shiny, which suggested that the Bruce moved some amount while buried in the sand.

The bottom line is that we didn't drag, and probably could have handled higher winds without difficulty.

As it turned out, none of the boats anchored in Don Juan sustained any damage. We heard that one sailboat anchored at Isla Partida Norte, which is approximately 25 miles east of Don Juan, had some of its ondeck gear damaged, mainly the self-steering vane and the boat's dodger. Another cruising boat that had been securely anchored at Partida elected to run to Isla Tiburon, about 75 miles east of Don Juan, to place more distance between him and Nora. Unfortunately, the boat dragged anchor and went aground on the beach at Dog Bay. The good news was that no one was injured, however the boat was a total loss. The Mexican Navy was contacted and eventually recovered the crew. Rescue efforts were delayed because of high seas and intense winds.

There were two trawlers anchored in Don Juan during Hurricane Nora. Neither vessel sustained any damage or experienced any significant problems. A few well-meaning sailboat owners suggested that anchoring a trawler in high winds would be difficult compared to a sailboat, due to the higher profile. That certainly was not the case during Nora, as Gracias and the other trawler, Tai Wan On, hung in there with the rest of the cruising fleet.

The two boats kept their crews safe, dry, and comfortable throughout the ordeal.

As it should be.