Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Hurricane Sandy

I had spent the preceding 2 months moored in Hoboken, NJ at a nice little marina that unfortunately isn’t all that sheltered. The piers on either side are up on pilings allowing the tides of the Hudson to flow through and rather than a breakwater to absorb the wake of passing boats there is a front line of twisted and disconnected floating docks, likely broken free by one wake too many. Every morning and evening the high speed ferries linking to the financial district would blast out from the next pier up, their unimpeded wake tossing my boat against the dock, certainly not the place to ride out a hurricane.

I got back on Friday night, just before the storm, and prepared to depart first thing in the morning. I was surprised to see how many boats were still in the marina, I had figured everyone else would have gotten out early, my own departure being delayed by my location on the west coast when it became apparent where the storm was heading. My original plan was to run as far up the Hudson River as I could and at 9am Saturday morning I started up and headed for the fuel dock to take on diesel. Upon hearing my plan to run upriver the dock crew reminded me how badly upstate New York had been hit during last-year’s Hurricane Irene. I made the quick decision to take my chances and head east instead.

There was a problem with heading east however, I was in the Hudson River at Hoboken and had to make it all the way around Manhattan Island in order to get to Long Island Sound. Getting down the Hudson to the Battery was easy enough but the current in the East River was running in the wrong direction and I had to battle it at a horribly slow 2-3 knot crawl for many hours just to get to open water. Finally passing Throgs Neck I had to turn straight into the chop and building wind to make my way out into Long Island Sound.

Hours of phone calls ensued as I motored east, unsure of where I would end up either for the night or the duration of the storm. I had a spot lined up at a marina near Albany but now that I had changed my plan I had to find a new harbor. It quickly became apparent that all of the marinas were already backlogged with boats to haul out of the water and mine would have to ride the storm out afloat (a much riskier proposition). My first goal was to make it to Stamford, Connecticut and hide behind its hurricane barrier, a giant gated seawall that can be closed to separate the inner harbor from the storm surge on the Sound; unfortunately I found myself just outside Stamford 30 minutes after the barrier had been closed and it wasn’t opening again until after the storm. The next harbor to the east with a barrier was New Bedford, Massachusetts; nearly on the limit of how far I could travel in 2 days under good conditions, which these certainly weren’t. My new plan was to make for the Connecticut River and head up to Middletown or Hartford if possible. I settled into Stratford Harbor around midnight to tie up and get a few hours sleep.

The next morning I untied from the dock and got underway again. Clearing the mouth of the harbor and turning east once more it was immediately apparent that the wind and chop had gotten worse, where I was at least able to make reasonable headway on Saturday I was once again reduced to 3 knots over the ground. I also realized that in my haste to get underway I had forgotten to take on more diesel before departing Stratford, with the extra effort required to fight the wind and waves this meant I would run out just as I reached the mouth of the Connecticut River, my deep keel prevented me from taking shelter in any of the more shallow harbors between New Haven and Old Saybrook, and the amount of time it would take for me to return to a dock and fuel up would waste half the day. I turned north into Milford Harbor to make my stand.

Just outside Milford is a bay, bounded on the west by a shallow sandbar, often exposed at low tide, connecting to Charles Island just offshore. The inner harbor takes the form of a narrow channel on the northeast edge of the bay that twists back around on itself as it heads inland. As I entered the bay a Coast Guard boat came blasting across the bay, followed shortly by a police boat and fire boat coming out of the channel. I initially thought they may be coming to figure out what I was doing there (it seemed like I was the only other boat left moving on the Sound by this point) but they passed right by me and began circling just off Charles Island, then the distress call came out on the radio: apparently 2 individuals had decided to go kayaking in the bay just before the storm and had capsized in the chop. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived on-scene a few minutes later and began searching. One of the victims was pulled from the water alive but the other, reported to be wearing a t-shirt and jeans, wasn’t found. After a few hours the search was given up due to the deteriorating conditions and the unlikely chances that anyone so unprepared could survive in the chilly water for very long. I was very glad that I had outfitted my boat with harnesses and tethers to prevent anyone going overboard in rough weather.

Milford, Connecticut is has a reputation as a town that gets battered by storms, during any major storm the local news shows video of waves crashing into people’s yards and homes falling into the sea. I didn’t think this was the best place to ride out the storm but my last minute change of plans and fuel oversight meant that I was out of options. I motored as far up the harbor as I could and tied up to the end of a dock with every line I had before proceeding to strip every last bit of equipment off the mast and deck that I could to reduce windage. Given the situation I didn’t think I was going to be seeing the boat in one piece again so I grabbed everything of value that I could before I walked away.

The hurricane started hitting Connecticut in earnest Monday morning, the storm surge coming in on the back go a spring tide, the slightly higher tidal levels that come during a full moon. Hunkered down safely inland I kept tabs on data coming from the tidal buoys in New Haven and Bridgeport harbors, on either side of Milford. The high tide peaked a several inches above normal at noon but as the tide was supposed to go out out the water stayed put, the force of the wind coming in from the east continually shoving the Atlantic Ocean into Long Island Sound creating a storm surge. The danger to a boat tied up to a floating dock is that the pilings the dock rides on are only so high, if the water level (including storm-driven waves) exceeds the height of the pilings the dock and everything attached to it floats away, usually being driven up into a nearby road, parking lot, or lawn where the shattered pieces of docks and boats will be left stranded when the surge retreats. I had received word that the docks were still intact after the noon high tide, safe for a few hours at least.

As the 6pm low tide approached the water level was still sitting right where it was at noon, a few inches higher than the normal high tide mark, then the tide turned and started coming in again raising the level further. The local news was performing its usual routine showing the waves crashing into the houses in Milford while I was watching the nearby tidal buoys performing their routine dutifully reporting the ever increasing water levels on Connecticut’s shoreline. By 10:00pm, with still another hour to go before high tide, the water level was 3 feet above the high tide mark and I decided that the docks were surely gone, I had my insurance policy out and was ready to make the call in the morning once I found out whose yard my boat ended up in and turned in for bed.

Early the next morning I received an SMS with a grainy picture attached, the boat was still there tied up to the dock, which was still there attached to the piling. Apparently around 10pm the water stopped coming in despite the incoming tide. The storm surge had begun to recede canceling out the tide just as the incoming storm surge had cancelled the receding tide earlier in the day, the water level held steady until the high tide at midnight and then started to drop back to normal levels. I drove down as soon as the roads were clear and sure enough there she was like nothing had happened. Having had stripped the sails and tossed all the battens in a dumpster in my haste to reduce windage I decided to have her hauled for the winter for new sails and bottom paint which are both long overdue. She will be ready to sail again in the spring.

In retrospect getting her through the storm in one piece was pretty much dumb luck. Evacuating Hoboken was certainly the right decision: A week after the storm I returned to the marina I had spent the summer at and found the dock that I had been tied to had in fact floated off of its pilings only to then land back on top of them, turning into a twisted wreck of wood and steel held together with the sinew of the remaining electrical and water lines. Some of the docks had been impaled by the pilings while other were still resting on top of them 10 feet above the water. I’m not sure what would have happened to my boat had it still been tied up there, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been good. Running up the Hudson might have been a better move to avoid the worst of the weather but the Hudson is a narrow river with a twisting channel, navigating it in the dark would have been much more difficult than the easy (albeit choppy) run out into the open expanse of Long Island Sound and it’s likely that I wouldn’t have made it as far upriver as I would have liked to. The marina I spent the night at in Stratford seems to have survived quite well but took a bit more of a direct beating that my final hiding place in Milford: the entrance to Stratford’s harbor consists of a broad marsh that was completely inundated by the storm exposing the marina directly to the incoming seas while the wide treeless expanse of the river channel did little to block any wind. Despite the damage to the houses along the outer bay Milford Harbor seems to have done alright due to its particular quirks of geography: the shallow sandbar connecting to Charles Island was quickly submerged allowing the incoming rush of water to keep moving west with the wind instead of piling up, the inner harbor entrance on the northeast edge of the bay was sheltered from the incoming water, the twists of the narrow channel dissipated the incoming wave energy, and the wall of trees along the channel’s banks blocked the full force of the wind. I suppose every storm is different and I’ve managed to learn a few lessons without too much of a cost.

1"Before", when I originally arrived in Hoboken.

2"After", glad my boat wasn't still tied up to that dock.

the-rest-of-the-hoboken-marina-didnt-fare-so-wellIt looks even worse at low tide.

69383_10152189878315184_2141941026_nConfirmation that she survived the storm in Stratford.