PassageMaker Contributor Joe Chilberg's 'Last Blog'

For years Cruising with the Chilbergs amused and entertained passagemaker.com readers as Joe, Sandra and their dog Baci roamed the East Coast and the Bahamas aboard their Grand Banks 49 Mud Puddle Rose. (To read them, just enter "Chilberg" in the search field at the top of the page.) The Chilbergs had a good run, but it ended last week when Hurricane Dorian roared through the Bahamas. Chilberg says he wanted to share his "last blog" with PassageMaker readers to draw attention to the plight of the Bahamian people. (Here's how we suggest you help.)

Usually my BLOGs have some cute stories, humor, and cruising experiences. This final BLOG will unfortunately be very different. I will try to walk my readers through the days leading up to Dorian, Dorian itself, and the days following,  including us being airlifted by seaplane out of Marsh Harbour.

Wednesday, August 28

Our dear friends Russ and Lin arrived from Dallas Texas. We had told them that a tropical storm had formed off the West Coast of Africa and the weather may be iffy for part of their week with us. After numerous e-mails they decided to join us on Mud Puddle Rose. If we were stuck in port for a day it could still be enjoyable. The “Spaghetti” models initially of Tropical Storm Dorian ranged from going toward Mexico to up past Bermuda. 

I wondered if it would head to Texas like Ike, or New Orleans like Katrina, or the Florida Panhandle like Michael, or the Florida West Coast like Irma and Charlie, or Miami like Andrew, or the Bahamas like Floyd, or Charleston like Hugo, or New Jersey like Sandy, or even turn out to the Atlantic and just dissipate. Now it looked like it would be a Cat 1 Hurricane as it strengthened and began to move toward the Bahamas and US. Russ and Lin arrived and we relaxed at the Marsh Harbour Marina tucked into the northeast corner of the harbor. We floated in their pool with others preparing for the storm and prepared to go snorkeling the next day. I tried to make a reservation for the Man O’ War Harbor and Marina, but they said it was only available to their long-term clients. The Marsh Harbour Marina welcomed us and said they would help us with preparations on Friday.

Thursday, August 29

Lin and Rus snorkeling at Mermaid Reef.

Lin and Rus snorkeling at Mermaid Reef.

We got up and had coffee and pulled out for a lovely day of snorkeling at Mermaid Reef and spending the night at a mooring in their harbor on Elbow Cay. The day was sunny with light winds and no appearance of what lay 450 miles to the Southeast of us. Russ treated us to lunch at the Hopetown Lodge overlooking a tranquil Atlantic Ocean and it was delightful. The only sense of a hurricane approaching was wood being placed over windows and a man in a skiff telling us we could not stay on their mooring for the storm.

The evening was beautiful as we sat under the lighthouse and enjoyed the peace and calm of this gorgeous harbor. The storm was intensifying to a Cat 2 and expected to become possibly stronger. Now the “Spaghetti” models predicted it to pass somewhere south of the Turks and Caicos to north of the Bahamas. Until it passed over Puerto Rica and Hispaniola no one could really predict its ultimate path. We went back to Mermaid Reef to feed the fish peas and enjoy our last time of snorkeling until the storm passed. We pulled into the Marsh Harbor Marina and Jason Davis, the dock master, and Desmond his assistant helped us dock and prepare our extra lines.

The first set of lines secure Mud Puddle Rose. By the time we were done there was 1,000 feet of line securing her.

The first set of lines secure Mud Puddle Rose. By the time we were done there was 1,000 feet of line securing her.

Russ and I took down the flybridge side curtains and Lin and Sandra stored them in our spare stateroom. Russ, Jason and I doubled up all lines on about a dozen pilings at the dock. We had over 15 lines doubled up on every mooring bit at every angle possible. At this point I expected to have Russ, Lin, Sandra and Baci go to the Abaco Resort & Marina, while I stayed on Mud Puddle Rose. I had been in nine hurricanes including Katrina, Hugo, & Irma and always remained on my trawlers. With most preparations done, we again went to the pool and relaxed before the hurricane arrived. 

The winds were about 10 knots and the sky clear. Still it was beautiful out and without the internet no one would know what was approaching about 250 miles to the Southeast. Now it appeared that Dorian was approaching someplace in the Bahamas and had strengthened from a Cat 1 to a Cat 3 hurricane.

Jason Davis the dockmaster in better days who helped us protect Mud Puddle Rose as best as possible. This bar no longer exists.

Jason Davis the dockmaster in better days who helped us protect Mud Puddle Rose as best as possible. This bar no longer exists.

Friday, August 30

We woke up and the winds were still only 10-15 knots. After coffee, Russ and I removed the Bimini top off the flybridge, all cushions, and tied everything down. Jason returned to help us put out two anchors off the bow and add another 300 feet of lines to the pilings. He said, “Joe, don’t stay on the boat, you have done everything you can.” One man on the dock told me not to worry because he had kept his boat here for 6 years and this was the best marina in the harbor since we were protected in the NE corner. Now with over 1000 feet of lines and rode with two anchors, we got off the boat and I retightened the lines. For me, Mud Puddle Rose has a soul and I felt guilty to leave her alone. I sadly look at her for the last time prior to the storm.

One of the men we met in the pool the day before, a local high school principal, drove us to the Abaco Resort. The Abaco Resort is the highest place above sea level that we could find and we checked into the hotel there. Still the winds were a gentle 10 knots and the skies were clear. There was no hint that a killer lurked only a hundred and fifty miles away. Dorian was now a Cat 4 hurricane and had its sights set directly on the Abacos. Knowing we would be inside for what we thought would be only a day, Sandra and I walked down to pool bar and sat in the water and shared a Pina Colada and enjoyed the beauty of the resort and the calm water over Abaco Sound.

Sandra and I at the poolside before Dorian.

Sandra and I at the poolside before Dorian.

That evening we enjoyed dinner in the Angler Restaurant at the resort marveling at the beauty of the resort and the sun setting over the Abacos. Our room was dry, clean and air conditioned. The gorgeous view was covered by a large canvas tarp over the porch window.

Baci loved everyone together and we brought some wine from the boat and enjoyed a glass as we watched the news. Everyone was quiet as the news reported that Dorian was a strong Cat 4 and may soon be a Cat 5 hurricane. I had been on my boat off the Mobile River for Katrina and Dorian appeared to be building to be another Katrina. At this point our survival became an issue as storm surge was predicted to be ten to fifteen feet. Abaco Sound was less than a hundred yards from us and we were no more than thirty feet above sea level. There would be nowhere to escape as everything was lower around us. Katrina had passed over me in less than 24 hours so I figured if we could just get thru Saturday to Sunday morning we could return to Mud Puddle Rose.

Saturday, August 31

As we got up, the winds were still under twenty knots and we went for breakfast at the meeting room attached to the hotel rooms.

Before the storm, from our room.

Before the storm, from our room.

It was beautiful out but we knew that things would change soon. Still no one suspected how much that change would be. As we returned to the room and the winds began to pick up, we moved to the meeting room that now being called the “safe room” as I feared our sliding glass window may get blown out.

Cots and chairs now filled the safe room. About 15 people joined us as Russ, Lin, Sandra, Baci and I picked out padded lounge chairs as far from the windows as possible.

Sandra, Baci and I in the "safe room."

Sandra, Baci and I in the "safe room."

Within a few hours the winds were over 100 mph and people began streaming into the room. Families with small children, Haitians and Bahamians filled the room. Now a room that was designed for up to 50 people now had almost 200.

The safe room with more than 150 people.

The safe room with more than 150 people.

The winds shook the corrugated metal storm shutters. The winds continued to increase and Rick, the general manager, announced that as the storm surge increased we would be going to the pavilion room above us. I was skeptical because we had metal shutters and a cement room here and the pavilion had wood shutters and a shingle roof. We heard a large crash and were told that the roof had been torn off the pavilion above us.

Third floor pavilion room destroyed by winds of more than 190 mph. The windows blown out and the roof was going.

Third floor pavilion room destroyed by winds of more than 190 mph. The windows blown out and the roof was going.

The power went off, as did the TV in the room. Now there was no power, the generator failed and cell towers fell. Now we had no water, power, toilets, cell phone & internet coverage. All communication with the outside world was lost. Shortly later the ceiling tiles filled up with water and fell onto our floor. Water falls formed down into our “safe room” and we had several inches of water.

With no toilets, the room started to smell and people began to be very fearful. There was only one door out of the room and as the metal shutters blew off the windows the danger now became acute. I left the crew there to go see if our room was intact. A man holding the door closed let me out to get to my room. I walked down the outside hall in the lee of the wind, but as I came around the corner I was knocked down by the wind and later learned that it was over 160 mph at that time.

I crawled down the windward side and grabbed a doorjam to pull myself to the stairwell. I got to our room and the window was still intact. I returned to the “safe room” and told the crew that we could not stay in the “safe room” as the people now were a greater danger than the the storm itself as the hall was filled with locals smoking dope and anger and fear were rising. Food was being stolen as well as the guests’ luggage. We had to escape. I returned to the room, but my electic key no longer worked to get in. I blew into lock and swiped the card over and over. Finally the light turned green and I pushed the door open and jammed towel in the door to hold it open and returned to get the crew. 

The winds continued to increase and the door out was nailed closed with 2-by-4s. The crew and I crawled out a blown-out door on the third floor. As we got to hotel rooms a truck had been blown into the hallway and blocked our way to the room. I went down the stairs with Sandra, Baci, and the luggage. Sandra and Baci were so courageous. I left the luggage in a small storage room with a blown off door and pulled Sandra and Baci as we crawled on or stomachs around to the windward side of the hotel to the stair well. We got to the room where Russ and Lin met us. I returned to the luggage and crawled again on my stomach back to the room. Our front door was in the lee of the wind.

Our room had water and mud in it. Lin and Sandra mopped the floors with towels and Russ and I rung them out.

We did this probably a dozen times over the next three days. The wind was howling and the water blown sideways. With no power or communication we were isolated in our room. Sandra had brought some snacks and wine from the boat Russ brought extra water from the safe room, now and all we could do was wait. I expected the hurricane to pass by tomorrow morning.

Sunday, September 1

As we got up the hurricane was still overpowering. All trees were either down or without foliage. The canvas over our porch was blown off and I would see not boats remaining in the marina. Out our front door the condos and bungalows had no roofs and many windows were blown out. Someone walked by our door in the lee of the storm and said that Dorian had slowed down to under 5 mph and we still were not yet at the eye. By about 2 p.m. the eye arrived and the winds stopped for an hour.

The long reprieve meant that we were in the very center of the eye. As we walked around, the devastation was horrific.

A reprieve: In the eye of Dorian. Just awful.

A reprieve: In the eye of Dorian. Just awful.

All boats in the marine were destroyed. The docks were gone, and these cats were up to the third floor during the surge.

All boats in the marine were destroyed. The docks were gone, and these cats were up to the third floor during the surge.

No building was left habitable, the Angler restaurant collapsed with only two walls close to standing and the entire roof was gone.

Anglers restaurant--we had eaten there Saturday night.

Anglers restaurant--we had eaten there Saturday night.

The poolside bar was demolished.

The poolside bar was demolished.

The real frightening issue was that we were at only the half way point of the hurricane. Someone with a Sat phone said that winds were clocked with gusts up to 224 mph. This was a full hurricane more powerful than Katrina. Immediately my thoughts went to Mud Puddle Rose. Was there any chance of her survival?

Was she still safe?

We got extra water from the safe room and waited for Dorian to resume his assault. Our slide glass window began to shake again and the remaining palms standing began to fall in the opposite direction and winds shifted. The next chapter of Dorian was beginning. Whatever was in the lee was now to windward. Whatever was safe is now in jeopardy. As the sun began to set it was still howling wind and pitch black. Only the flashlight in our room allowed us to move and everything was losing battery power. 

I was shocked as a tornado blew through the Abaco Resort and sounded like a freight train. Thunder and lightning was like I had never experienced. Usually only the northeast quadrant of a hurricane has tornados and extreme lightning and thunder, but Dorian was unlike “normal” hurricanes. His power was greater and his speed slower. This was a deadly combination. All we could do was wait until Dorian passed by sunrise.

All we can do is pray and stay positive and encourage one another. Russ and Lin with Sandra me and Baci.

All we can do is pray and stay positive and encourage one another. Russ and Lin with Sandra me and Baci.

Monday, September 2

As we woke up, I was amazed that Dorian and hurricane force winds were still here. How is that possible? After Katrina, the following day I lead a flotilla of boats off Lizard Creek down through the Mobile Harbor to the Dog Rover Marina. We were in day three of the hurricane. Katrina was gone in a day. Dorian was not a hurricane, he was a monster. Late in the afternoon the winds died to 70 mph with gusts to 90 mph. I had to find Mud Puddle Rose. I left the crew in the room at took off to the harbor. The rain water felt like needles on my face. I had to take two tries to find a path through the rubble to get to the road. It was still impossible to get into town or around the harbor to the Jib Room and Marsh Harbour Marina. I got as far as the corner of the harbor and found a large commercial fishing boat, Leopard, up on the road.

A commercial Fishing boat, Leopard broke from her oversized commercial mooring she had used in all previous hurricanes.

A commercial Fishing boat, Leopard broke from her oversized commercial mooring she had used in all previous hurricanes.

She had been on a commercial mooring in the harbor less than a hundred yards from Mud Puddle Rose’s dock. My heart sank with both sadness and fear. I was also angry that Man O’ War Marina would not let me go to their docks. I looked across the harbor to the Jib Room and could not see the docks. It appeared that boats were on the shore but nothing looked like Mud Puddle Rose. My sadness was indescribable. I felt like I had abandoned her to die alone. Later I was able to walk around the harbor to the Jib Room. Up on the hill, there were no boats or docks remaining in the harbor.

Looking down on the Jib Room and the remains of docks where Mud Puddle Rose and the other boats had been. No boats survived in Marsh Harbor

Looking down on the Jib Room and the remains of docks where Mud Puddle Rose and the other boats had been. No boats survived in Marsh Harbor

Boats were up on land by the Jib Room or sunk. I could still could not find Mud Puddle Rose. I saw several masts sticking up in the harbor and a large boat upside down sunk as well, but there was no Mud Puddle Rose. I was like looking for a lost child or pet during a national disaster.

I returned to the room seeing boats across the street in Marsh Harbor piled on top of each other. All we could do was mop out the room and remove the water and mud. Everything smelled like mildew and all our clothes were wet. We used rain water in puddles to fill the toilet tank so we could use the toilet. Everything had to be done during the day as it was still pitch black at night. We used my computer to charge the phones as Russ and Sandra occasionally could find service for a minute or two.

Tuesday, September 3

We still had rain and tropical storm forced winds as we woke up. The resort brought us chicken noodle soup. My chicken was a chicken neck, but I was happy for anything. Sandra, Baci, and I walked to town. A D-3 tractor had cleared the road to walk through. All buildings were flattened or severely damaged.

Boats across the street from the harbor, all destroyed

Boats across the street from the harbor, all destroyed

Boats were clear across the street piled up on cars, houses and parking lots. Telephone poles were snapped like toothpicks. One telephone pole flew through the windshield of a car and remained stuck up in the air. It was apocalyptic. I was finally able to get to the Conch Inn and my worst fears were realized. There was Mud Puddle Rose sunk partially upside down. I can’t help crying as I write this.

I found Mud Puddle Rose. All I can do is weep for her

I found Mud Puddle Rose. All I can do is weep for her

She was my dream boat and now the dream is dead. The first hurricane that I did not remain aboard. In nine hurricanes, I had zero insurance claims. Now I have essentially lost all my possessions. All that I had however was what was most important. Sandra and Baci were alive and safe. At this point everything else are just things. I have two pairs of shoes, two pairs of shorts, and four shirts, which at this point is all I need. Hugging Sandra and Baci has never been more precious.

I have Baci.

I have Baci.

There was no sun, still only clouds, rain, and wind. We went to sleep finally with a fairly dry floor and used the waste baskets to draw water from a green pool to operate the toilet. All I could say is, “Sandra, Baci and I are alive.

I have Sandra.

I have Sandra.

Wednesday, September 4

Finally, the sun was trying to peek thru the clouds. Sandra, Baci, and I walked a mile to the other side of the resort to a heliport carrying our possessions in hopes of being airlifted out. A man with us at the heliport had been on the third floor of one of the condos. The storm surge was over 25 feet and he said he could have stepped off his balcony onto a catamaran floating up against the condo.

 After waving at up to five helicopters over us at a time a U.S. Customs helicopter landed to tell us that their mission was to carry out the severely ill and injured. They apologized gave us eight bottles of water and flew away. Sandra was interviewed by Channel 10 News and her interview has been seen by many. We then carried our bags back to the room and waited. Sandra and I passed a wheel barrow with two feet of rain water in it and used it for a sponge bath to wash for the first time this week. Later in the day we were told that the 25-foot storm surge had wiped out downtown Marsh Harbour, Dundastown and Murphytown.

The destruction is unimaginable … it will take years to rebuild

Looting had begun. The ATM machines were broken into, the police station and gun shops were looted and all guns stolen. The general manager said that the situation was becoming very dangerous as looters would be coming this way maybe as early as tomorrow. We had to get out and get out soon. That night, as we were in bed there was a knock at the door. It turned out to be BBC News. Darren Knowles, who brought BBC News, a ferry driver for Albury in Man O’ War, said all the ferries in Man O’ War were destroyed and waves were breaking over Man O’ War and the harbor was gone. We later learned that there was a 25-foot storm surge in Hopetown, and most of the town and harbor were gone. I have no idea if the report is accurate. It may be even worse. Darren assured us that he would arrive at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning to drive us … he never showed up.

Thursday, September 5

When Darren did not appear, we began hitch hiking to the Clinic or airport. A man, Ben, who Russ and Lin had met at the airport arriving stopped and was willing to drive us. Ben’s home was destroyed and his other two cars destroyed. We drove to the clinic and police with machine guns told us to go to airport as the clinic was overrun with Haitians and the homeless. Only the severely ill and dead were being transported. Ben drove us through water over two feet deep to the airport. There we were taken to line to be airlifted out. A truck drove us over the flooded runways to the only one that was serviceable. 

A seaplane with saints from Trans Island Airways flew us to Nassau for free where Silver Airways charged us $900 to fly us to Tampa. We arrive in Bradenton, as Sandra’s friend, Chris picked us up, bought us hamburger meat and we had or first meal in five days! I turned my phone on and had 70 messages from friends and family checking on us. I figured the best way to first respond is to send out my BLOG and then return calls and messages later on Friday

We are grateful to be alive

Friday, September 6

We are awake with running water, toilets that work, and air conditioning. I was a minimalist on Mud Puddle Rose, but now I am a minimalist to a whole new level lol. I used to end all my BLOGS with “Keep on Cruising”

Now I’ll end this final 2019 Cruise BLOG with:

Keep on being grateful to be alive,

Love to all,

Sandra, Baci and Joe on behalf of Mud Puddle Rose … may she rest in peace

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