On Sept. 1, Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Abacos Islands of the Bahamas with Category 5 force. For 36 hours, Marsh Harbour was the worst place in the world for a living being, with the possible exception of an exploding volcano. The death toll for the Abacos and Grand Bahama island, where Dorian hit next, was expected to be more than 1,000, with 70,000 homes and buildings destroyed.
Astoundingly, a handful of cruisers remained in the Abacos, suffering through a 20-foot storm surge and four and a half days of winds from 50 to 225 knots. Joe and Sandra Chilberg were among them, with their Grand Banks 49 Mud Puddle Rose, which you may recall from the blog he has shared with Passagemaker readers over the years.
The Chilbergs, Baci the dog and a visiting couple survived Dorian, but Mud Puddle Rose did not. She sank at the dock despite having been secured with a spiderweb of more than 1,000 feet of line.
More than 40,000 passagemaker.com readers clicked on Joe Chilberg’s blog post “How We Survived, But Not Our Grand Banks,” and some said they were moved to tears. But other longtime sailors asked an obvious question: What were the Chilbergs and their friends doing at ground zero in the first place? Especially since six days before Dorian struck, the National Hurricane Center predicted a likely direct hit on the Bahamas.
One Facebook critic noted that the Chilbergs were only 250 miles from Florida, a 36-hour passage: “Joe spent one day prepping his boat, one day at the pool and still had plenty of time before the storm arrived. He commented about how the weather on these days was great but yet chose to remain in the path of a storm: ‘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.’”
That critic was accused of Monday-morning quarterbacking, of course, but the man was innocent. You cannot attribute to hindsight that which has been predicted with foresight from the National Hurricane Center.
More of that foresight came from weather router Chris Parker, who specializes in the Bahamas and Caribbean. A full five days before Dorian hit Marsh Harbour, Parker was advising Abacos boats to head south to the Exumas, which by then had zero chance of being struck. Crossing the Gulf Stream and then heading south to the Florida Keys was another alternative.
“Especially with a strong Category 3 hurricane, the best thing to do is to get out of the path and the potential path of the beast,” Parker said.
Skip Gundlach is proof of that concept. He was in the Abacos aboard his Morgan 46 Flying Pig when he heard the forecast. He motored in calm conditions to Vero Beach, Florida, arriving after 36 hours underway. At that time, Vero Beach was within the hurricane’s potential path, but his elderly mother-in-law was there and may have needed help evacuating. He figured the risk there was less than the risk in Marsh Harbour.
Chilberg says he stayed in Marsh Harbour because of what he saw as confusion in the forecast “spaghetti models.” He said that he just didn’t know where he should go; he succumbed to what Parker calls analysis paralysis.
“There are lots of models which offer the trained analyst or meteorologist an unprecedented amount of information on which to base conclusions,” Parker said, “but models are not equally skillful, and it’s important to know which models to use and how to use them in any situation.”
More information, he adds, is not always better. “If one cannot separate the wheat from the chaff,” he says, “then one may make the wrong conclusions or be unable to arrive at a useful forecast until it’s too late.”
Safety professionals assess risk by weighing three factors: severity, probability and exposure. Severity is an event’s potential consequences in terms of damage, injury or impact. Probability is the likelihood that those consequences will occur. Exposure is the amount of time, number of occurrences, number of people and amount of equipment involved.
So, for the Chilbergs with Hurricane Dorian approaching, safety professionals would have assessed the risk of staying at Marsh Harbour as having an exposure of four people, one dog and a 49-foot motoryacht; probability as almost certain; and severity as high, meaning injury or death.
“Were there uncertainties in the forecast for Abacos? Sure. But by the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 28, no plausible alternative forecast scenario would have changed the fact that you wanted to go somewhere safer than the Abacos,” Parker said. “And that left you three days to make your move.”
Chilberg says that if he had known then what he knows now, he would have taken different actions.
“The fact that we lost the boat,” he says, “proves I made the wrong decision.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue.