One thing above all else gives sailors the willies: the chance of running into a hurricane at sea. The advice that legendary sailor Bernard Moitessier gave to Bob was to stay away from them! That advice isn’t as glib as it first appears. Once you know how to recognize the signs of a developing storm and understand what actions you need to take to avoid it, you may be able to stay out of its way—or at least avoid getting sucked into it.
Regardless of those words of wisdom, we three sailors have all had brushes with hurricanes, or tropical cyclones as they are known generically. In July of 1982 Alan and his crewmates aboard Second Chance raced Hurricane Gilma to Oahu through seas as high as forty feet before the storm lost strength and veered off to the south. And just four months later, together aboard Ron of Argyll, we narrowly avoided Hurricane Iwa that pounded the Hawaiian Islands. We describe both of these events in Beer in the Bilges, Sailing Adventures in the South Pacific. Our next memoir will describe how Peter and crew cruise from Samoa to Fiji aboard Ron of Argyll between two developing cyclones with another forming behind them. Talk about timing!
Hurricane, typhoon, or generic tropical cyclone, these terms all refer to intense winds circulating around and flowing into a central zone of low pressure, with winds of force 12 on the Beaufort scale (equal to or exceeding 64 knots or 74 mph). And that’s something you really should avoid. As Bob says, if you’re in harbor, you’d be better off putting your boat on a trailer and dragging it 400 miles inland to avoid a hurricane rather than trying to ride it out.
The people in the U.S. northeast, particularly the low-lying areas of New Jersey, recently experienced the other danger of a hurricane: tidal surge. The enormous power of the winds that can generate seas up to fifty feet high, combined with the high water levels caused by a full moon and the intense low pressure zone, resulted in a storm surge that lashed homes and other buildings along the coast. For those of us watching the television reports in awe as the hurricane struck, we saw the storm surge transport enough sand ashore to bury the landscape to a depth of three feet in places, and inundate miles of coastal cities and communities.
As the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, running from June 1 to November 30, draws to a close, there have been a total of 19 tropical storms, 10 hurricanes, and 1 major hurricane. This puts 2012 in a tie with 1887, 1995, 2010, and 2011 for the third most active Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history. Some argue that climate change will result in more, and more intense, storms in the future. If that is true then sailors all over the world may need to be even more vigilant if they are to follow Moitessier’s advice and stay out of their way.