Saturday, November 03, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

[Kyle]I know a lot of people have been concerned about how we fared. Here’s the story starting a few days before:

Friday, Oct 26th

Maryanne left Begonia for work with bags packed for a long weekend trip to Manchester, UK. Her plan was to get a flight after work and then return early on Tuesday. She was off to visit her friend Annie, who works for the schools, and was off for half term. It was also Annie’s Birthday, so that was even more reason to go. Maryanne also had a few things to do over there that were just a lot easier to do in person.

After she left, I was went through my usual Internet rounds over morning coffee. Being a pilot, sailor and general weather nerd, I spend a lot of time with forecasts and observations. I was aware of Hurricane Sandy, but up until then it was considered more likely to either hit the Carolinas as a weak tropical storm or curve northeastward out to sea.

The forecast had now changed dramatically. Sandy was strengthening over the Bahamas, wreaking havoc there, and was now forecast to merge with a Nor’easter and hit New York City directly as a weak Hurricane or strong Tropical Storm. The predictions were sounding pretty bad. All throughout the morning, I went back and forth wondering weather I should call Maryanne and ask her to cancel her trip. In 2003, she had cancelled a long planned trip to the UK so we could ride out Hurricane Isabel and I was still feeling a little guilty about it. {Maryanne: And I was doing the same thing from the office, wondering if it was wise to even go to the UK}

At that point, I wasn’t certain whether the safest course of action would be to evacuate Begonia from the marina as far as we could get up the Hudson, preferably as far as Albany, or hunker down in the marina. In Albany, the predicted storm surge would be less and the storm would also be weakened, meaning less wind. If we did this, we would have to motor upwind all day every day until the storm arrived and I would need her help. My concern with this option was that the river during the storm would be too deep and fast moving to trust being able to safely anchor; all the 'best' places would be long taken, and the storm was huge and headed in that direction anyway! I was also worried about the potential of being struck by floating debris. I wasn’t sure either if there would be any suitably protected docks that were useable at such a high water state.

As the first surge forecasts came in, the prediction for NY was five to ten feet, with Weehawken likely to be in the range of four to six feet. I determined our current state of tide and then went out to measure the piling to which our floating dock was attached. At the highest tide predicted for the storm before adding in a storm surge, we had six feet before the rollers on the dock would reach the bottom of the blue end cap on the piling. Begonia was well secured to the dock so as long as the docks didn’t come off of the top of the pilings, we should be safe. The marina had much better protection inside from wind, waves and floating debris than the open river. All that would be needed was to take down our jib and cockpit awning and remove loose items from outside. I eventually decided that the slightly safer course of the two actions was to stay put in the marina. The marina staff were certainly not concerned and were taking in boats from more exposed moorings for the storm. The most likely risk to the boat might be debris blocking the drains, and the boat sinking from the weight of rain water - at least I could be aboard to address that risk.

I knew Maryanne really wanted to go to the UK. I eventually decided (barely – call it 50.1%) that I would have enough time to batten down myself and there was no point in us both pacing back and forth worrying about the storm afterwards. I told her I thought it would be okay for her to go, if she was okay with the idea that she may get stuck there for a while when flights back are cancelled. She flew off and I stayed back to get ready.

Saturday, Oct. 27th

I spent the day following the forecasts and battening down in deceptively nice weather. The surge forecast for NY harbor was now four to eight feet, with a specific forecast at the Battery to be 3.8 feet above normal at Monday morning’s high tide.

Sunday, October 28th

By morning, tides were already a foot and a half above normal. I double checked my piling measurements and came up with the same result as before; we'd still be fine. The latest forecasts were predicting the storm to be even stronger than previous ones had, although it was also speeding up, which might reduce the surge or keep it from falling on the highest tide of all on Tuesday morning. Surge forecasts were getting more detailed. We had a 50% chance of more than three feet, 10%-20% more than six feet and less than 5% of more than seven feet. If the surge got to seven feet, the rollers would be past the bottom of the end cap right at the top of the piling.

I waited impatiently for each new forecast, which was issued every six hours. My stomach was constantly in a knot with dread about what could happen. Each one was worse than the one before, which was a trend I didn’t like. By the afternoon forecast, our chances were now 50% of a surge five to seven feet and 30% more than seven feet, Our chances didn’t decrease to 5% until eleven feet. High tide at the Battery was now predicted to be 4.6 feet above normal. They were now predicting Sandy to be a 100 or 200-year storm. It was already way too late to move the boat.

The water was already noticeably very high. At high tide, it was no longer practical to get off of the docks. The gangplanks, which normally acted as ramps down to the docks, were sloping up, requiring a pretty big jump at the end if going towards the boats or a giant waist-high step to leave.

At low tide, the water was already 2.41 feet above normal. I took advantage of the window of not-so-high water to get out and take a walk to try to burn off some of my nervous energy. Along the way, I noticed something I hadn’t before. The rollers on the docks are mounted on cube shaped boxes with rollers on the top and bottom squares. If the top set of rollers came off, the dock system would be weakened, but there was another foot before the bottom rollers would come off. Also, there was plenty of underwater structure in the dock’s flotation chambers. If all of the rollers came off, it would make a huge mess when the water came back down, but the docks wouldn’t float away, just until they jammed on the pilings. The water would have to be two feet or so deeper still before the docks would completely clear the pilings and we would all be driven aground en masse. I REALLY hated that it was coming down to grasping at these straws for Begonia’s survival.

The subject of whether or not it was safe to leave the boats unattended started to be talked about in the marina. My mother also called me, politely pleading with me to abandon ship. That poor woman, she has seen me go through so many potentially dangerous things. In the end, I decided that even if the docks broke free, Begonia would not likely sink, thus I would not likely drown if I could keep from being blown off of my feet into the water by gusts. The chance of fire or electrocution seemed about the same either way. Well, maybe electrocution was higher, but fire HAD to be less. The thing that pushed me toward staying was knowing that I absolutely wouldn’t be able to stand pacing back and forth in some hotel room not knowing what was happening. I am well aware that there’s not much that can be done at the very height of such a storm: Lines are bar-tight and can’t be adjusted, the boat doesn’t have nearly enough engine power to counter the forces of the storm and leave the dock if necessary, it’s dangerous to even go outside in wind that strong. After watching Footprint destroyed from Enzo’s balcony in Italy, I couldn’t leave Begonia alone. I would rather drift ashore with her than see it happen from a distance.

Monday, Oct. 29th

I slept about five minutes out of every hour overnight. The wind and motion of the boat were increasing. I was too nervous about what was coming. It started to rain. The surge had levelled off briefly at around three feet. The morning high tide was the higher of the two for the day. The fixed dock on the breakwall protecting the marina was being washed over by three-foot waves in the Hudson.

Morning high tide

United Airlines had already cancelled all flights for two more days and New Jersey Transit announced suspension of all public transport until further notice. Across the river, I could see what looked like the whole New York Police Department heading out to begin the evacuation. There were at least two hundred cars with lights and sirens going.

Evening high tide was now predicted to be 12 feet. That’s a 7.22-foot add-on from surge. As a precaution, I moved our folding bicycle from the parking garage to higher ground by the marina office. I went for another walk at a low tide that was higher than the usual high tide. When I got back to the marina, The Captain of a tour boat called the River Princess was evacuating his dock using marina staff as deckhands. Five of the six pilings they were laying against had broken and they were in danger of smashing the break-wall. They managed to get her to the fuel dock even though it was now blowing like crazy.

Moving of River Princess and one of the broken dolphins (pilings)

The River Princess formed the corner of the protective box of the marina. The water was already washing over the breakwall and the waves in the Hudson were now three to four feet. If the swell started coming through the gap as the water rose, Begonia would be THE first boat hit with the waves. I was fairly comfortable that I had enough fenders to protect me against the dock, but I was really worried about the additional up and down motion at the dock rollers. There wasn’t much I could do at that point but hope it would turn out okay.

The last of the people who were leaving their boats left. It was hard to tell who remained because I was all hunkered down in the cabin avoiding the weather, but it seemed there were about six or seven boat owners stayed with their boats.

The tide started coming up just as the storm started getting really bad. Begonia’s wind indicator was now reading continuously in the high 30s with gusts to near 50 knots. At 5pm, the surge was already up to 6.7 feet. Water was coming through the gap left by the River Princess. By 7pm, it was at 7.44 feet with two hours left until high tide. There was a big boom and the marina lost power.

My fears about swell coming in through the gap left by the River Princess never materialized. The big eighty-foot fender they left behind jammed in the hole, acting like a boom, which prevented the swell from entering. The water was surprisingly calm inside. Most of Begonia’s motion was from wind gusts.

Pier building floods

By 8pm, the surge was at 8.52’. We were all braving the outside every couple of minutes to check the water depth. At 8:13, I texted Maryanne reporting that the top roller was even with the top of the piling. It came off at 8:30. I had a quick walk around to see how other parts of the marina were fairing. E dock (our dock) was still pretty secure. Half of D dock had floated clear of its pilings. It appeared to be holding in place so it would just recapture them on the way down. The parking garage on the pier housing the marina offices was flooded. The nearest dry land was far on the opposite side of Harbor Blvd, maybe ¼ mile from the docks. We were marooned. There were starting to be lots of big, blue explosions followed by darkness – transformers blowing out. Just before 9:00, there was a huge flash/explosion in downtown Manhattan and most of the financial district went dark, including the Freedom Tower.

At 9:36, the surge was up to 9.23’ feet. We had three inches before the bottom roller came free. The water level at the Battery reached 13.88 feet and then slowly started to come down. Since we’re upriver, our high tide is just a bit later. The water in the marina rose another inch just as it got too gusty to stay outside. I kept peering fruitlessly through the rain-covered window at the piling and waiting for a bang or a strange motion or anything else that would indicate the docks had let go.

The piling the keeps the finger pier of the dock in place, the one that Begonia is tied to

The graph showing normal tide (blue), actual surge (green), and actual water levels (red) for Hurricane Sandy; Our piling only just was long enough (the water rose another 6" after this photo!

At 9:52, there was a lull in the wind and I went out for a piling check. At 9:55, I reported to Maryanne that the water appeared to have gone down three inches, although I couldn’t be 100% sure because of the motion left over from the wind blast.

I had a quick look around. The garage was flooded to about five feet. The marina office, which is higher, was in two feet of water. The bike was up to its hubs. Then a gust came and it fell down, submerging it. Damn! From the docks, it was strange to be looking down into the office. I was even looking down at the big Lincoln Harbor Yacht Club sign at the entrance to the docks.

At 10:10, I texted Maryanne to say that the water was definitely on the way back down again. We had come down six more inches and the top roller was just even with the top our piling. After it had come down another foot, I knew it was time for a big glass of wine and then to go to bed. It had been a really long day. There had been talk before amongst those who stayed about having a big impromptu party should we survive, but in the end, I think we were all just too spent. By the time we all understood the water was really going back down, we all just gave smiles and friendly waves to each other and disappeared into our boats to collapse.

[Maryanne]From the UK, and with the time difference, I didn't get to bed until about 2:30 am, when I was finally sure both Kyle and Begonia were safe. During the build up I was on the internet checking on things and texting back and forth with Kyle. Not a night I wish to repeat, it all seems so precarious until the very last minute. It was very hard to really believe we were finally safe. Thank goodness we were! It already seemed clear that so many others were not so lucky.


Karen said...

OMG Kyle - what a nail-biter! My heart rate didn't start to slow down until after I read the last paragraph. (And I know Maryanne was just as nervous as you were through every minute of the storm.)

SO glad to know you and Begonia made it through safe and sound. And I bet no one will even be able to tell your bicycle survived Sandy after all your TLC. :-)

May you (and Maryanne and Begonia) always have such wonderful luck!

kate said...

yeah, i have to agree, this was the proverbial nail biter no boater wants to endure! (or as the media kept calling the presidential election, "razor tight," even though i'm pretty sure they meant "razor close") when you mentioned how strange it was to be looking DOWN at the marina office, that's when it hit me. that is a very, very wrong thing! i suppose you think you've now experienced something worse than the meltemi - haha, don't worry, i assumed that from before sandy even hit! i'm so sorry for all the damage the marina sustained, but hope things are moving along with repairs. amazing testament to how the place was built and the strength of those pilings! good job, kyle! and maryanne, i know how nerve wracking the whole thing must have been for you - i can picture you, busily texting and clicking away on your laptop/iPhone. being far away and so worried for your husband is an agony all to itself. cheers to you both - and congratulations on the survival of begonia :)