I keep my sailboat on a fairly exposed bay in Down East Maine during the summer months. It does just fine on its mooring even when the prevailing southerly blows pretty hard, but it clearly wouldn’t if a hurricane marched up the coast to our little bay (an eventuality I wish was merely a one-in-a-hundred year event, but unfortunately one that has actually happened every year for the past several). Adverse weather planning is part of every prudent aviator or mariner’s tool kit, so I have an alternate mooring ready and in place in one of the best “hell holes” in this part of Maine. Hurricane Earl was the first time I had to use it.

I work about 500 nautical miles southwest of where my boat lies and just getting to either one from the other takes quite a bit of time and effort. I was at work when I started to pay attention to Hurricane Earl just East of the Bahamas on Wednesday, September 1, 2010. Looking at the storms projected path and speed, NOA put its eye either just inland of my mooring, or just off shore of it by 02:00 Saturday morning, “not good Mav”.

I did the travel math, looked at my work schedule and decided the storm timing could not be better for a commuter. I’ll catch a flight to Maine Friday morning, be on the boat by noon for the five hour sail to my storm mooring, button her down for the worst before dark and watch the storm out the window Saturday morning sipping coffee. That was the plan.

Though I’d been to my safe harbor once or twice, I’d never been to my storm mooring before. Storm day wasn’t a good time to be looking for it. My plan called for precise execution and made no allowances for contingencies. Turned out there were several. I had planned to read about my safe harbor entrance on the flight up, but my cruising guide covering it was on board. I looked at the tides, but they just confirmed that my departure timing forced me against the current most of the way. The winds were moderate but out of the south, precisely the direction I needed to go. Now to stick with the plan I had to motor and I had a short in the starter circuit that required a two hour fix. I didn’t get of the mooring till 14:30, less than twelve hours before the eye of the storm was forecast to be somewhere near and certainly adverse conditions would arrive way before then.

My speed over the ground was pathetic and I was sweating getting to the storm harbor before dark and actually finding my mooring. Would someone else mid-cruise have already found it and be thanking his lucky day? If so, then what? Only while underway did I start working on a bail-out plan. What fix would be my last opportunity to return to my starting point if it was clear that I wouldn’t make safe harbor before dark? Failing that, what were my midpoint anchoring opportunities that might offer at least some protection? It turned out about none. If I got to safe harbor, it would be at high tide. Not a good time to go into any Maine harbor for the first time let alone a tricky one like this. It had lots of turns and hazards. I had studied the chart while underway, but never did read the sailing directions.

I ultimately got on my mooring and watched the storm Saturday morning out the window with a coffee. The storm came and went and the boat only sustained minor damage, but it was from what I caused, not the storm. More on that next time, but for this installment, my major lessons learned include:

  • Don’t let circumstances push you into a bad plan.
  • Things occasionally go according to plan, but reality is that they usually don’t, so understand and plan for reasonably expected contingencies.
  • Miss by big margins. I should have been there moving the boat when the storm was abeam the Bahamas, several days before the storm, not the afternoon before. If it is not practical to do it yourself, fess-up and have a planned partner do it for you. This too takes pre-threat coordination and planning. If the storm never made it that far, I would have just had a wonderful day in Maine on a nice leisurely sail. Oh darn.
  • It’s prudent to have a “solid gold” out in your back pocket if the original plan doesn’t work out, a plan that you can have a 99.9% level of confidence in as a backstop.

The big message is: If you are sailing for fun, don’t put yourself in a position to “have to” do anything. There is an amazing relationship between time and pressure. The less of the first adds plenty of the second in certain circumstances. Make sure you have a Plan B that you can absolutely count on. In flying parlance, it is not good to be out of airspeed and altitude at the same time. Always have plenty of both!

The next installment: “I learned about Sailing from That: Rather large Chunk of Granite”.