Close Encounter with Hurricane Patricia

Being mandatorily evacuated from your boat with the prospect of a direct hit by the most powerful hurricane in the northern hemisphere in recorded history was enough excitement for me, even if it did turn out to be just a dry run. Someone commented that preparing our boat for this hurricane was like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. Except in dress rehearsals, you know there is no one in the audience. It wasn’t until the storm had passed that we knew that the performance hall was empty, acting the part as if our lives and the safety of our boats were at stake the whole time.

At first it was just a tropical storm watch, scheduled to pass by sometime around Saturday, October 24. I was busy trying to finish some canvas sewing projects on the boat while I still had Cool Change to myself, since Rick was in the U.S. on a brief trip to get a warrantee repair completed on our watermaker. So I planned on doing canvas work through Thursday, then prepping for the storm on Friday. Rick wasn’t to be back until Sunday.

But then I heard the storm was upgraded to a Catagory 3 hurricane and was moving faster than anticipated. I started hurricane prep earlier, when the storm was still 550 miles away. Then the news reports started, that they had sent special planes into the hurricane and discovered it was faster and larger than … any…other…hurricane…in the western hemisphere…in recorded history! At this point, it was scheduled to make landfall south of us, but the estimates for landfall kept inching northward as the time approached.

Of course, adrenaline pushed me into high gear by Thursday morning. I had written the hurrcane plan for Cool Change by studying several different sources, so I had a good initial list of things to do, which mostly focussed on clearing the deck of all the stuff we had on Cool Change, reinforcing and preventing chafe on the docklines, stowing everything below deck so it wouldn’t get tossed around, and getting my own personal stuff together to get off the boat in a hurry.

But as my own obsessions with making lists and being super cautious about safety drove me nearly insane, Rick’s concern for me and the boat drove him close to insanity as well; he felt powerless to help since he was so far away. He made up for it by trying to comfort me with regular facebook messenger conversations, which became hourly in the last stages. Unfortunately, such conversations inevitably lead to adding new items to my list of things to do and took away from the time that remained to do them, which only heightened my own anxiety!

Fortunately, we had not yet recommissioned Cool Change from its summer storage state, so the headsails were already removed and stored and most halyards were replaced by messenger lines. In no particular order, here were some of the things on my list to do:

Clear the deck of all sun shades and all loose items
Charge handheld radio
Prepare my own ditch bag in the event of evacuation
Update the boat’s ditch bag in the event of abandoning ship
Remove and stow solar panels
Once everything is stowed in them, lock the dock boxes (I had borrowed several neighboring boxes to stow all my stuff)
Wrap all interior glass items and secure them
Tie down the boom securely with 3 lines
Load more money onto my phone
Remove the BBQ from the rail
Check the automatic bilge pump for operation
Close all hatches securely
Put all portable electronics in the oven
Remove all canvas except the dodger (bimini, covers)
Tie halyards away from mast
Tie off swim ladder more securely
Add chafe guards and more docklines and adjust docklines, including to adjacent boat (I must have adjusted them 5 times)
Ready whale pump (the handle had become horribly inaccessible)
Organize lines under the dodger and secure so none would fly
Close the 2 under-sink thru hulls
Move AC unit below
Dig out the spare manual sump pump and make it available with a bucket
Buy extra provisions at the store (the store closed before I got to this)
Get out flashlights
Get out the handheld wind meter for the iphone
Get out my snorkel mask
Charge the Delorme tracker and have it with me
Fill the forward water tank
Write family and friends

In my personal ditch bag, I had my purse, water, snorkel mask, Delorme, a little tequila(!), toiletries, a small towel, a change of clothes, a marine radio, phones and chargers, ipad, contact lenses, life vest and some food from the fridge.

An announcement went out on the marine radio on Friday morning that all boats in the marina were required to be evacuated by 1 pm in the afternoon. It felt very real at this point. The hurricane had reached a Category 5 (the highest) and was headed for landfall just south of Puerto Vallarta, so close that a little twist could make for a direct hit, and certainly close enough in any case that we would get at least 50 mph winds and lots of surge. It was already raining, not hard, but very continuous. The marina and resort housing thousands of people had decided the threat was sufficiently great to evacuate the entire complex. I had visions of a near future of battling my way through fallen power lines and diminishing but still threatening winds and rain to see if Cool Change was still afloat.

In the meantime, Rick posted this to Facebook:

Rick's Facebook post

Rick’s Facebook post

Just before I left the boat with a few dockmates to walk down to the evacuation center by 1 pm, I turned off the radio and disconnected the radio breaker, turned off all breakers, turned off the battery switch, unplugged the boat from the dock and put the electrical chord away. Cool Change was as bundled up as I could make her and now I just needed to make myself safe.

But when we got to the evacuation center, it looked just like one would expect: room after non-windowed stuffy room filled with people in straightbacked chairs or on the floor, surrounded by their belongings and some with a pillow and blanket issued by the resort. Ugh.

Here is a video of what the evac center was like:

Video of the evac center, click here

I really didn’t want to stay there. I was so tempted by those who believed that no hurricane really could hit Puerto Vallarta, that I let my guard down and acquiessed to escape the evacuation center just before they locked everyone in, and headed down to the condo of a girlfriend of one of my dockmates. She had already said I could come there if I wanted, and she was waiting it out in her condo. Her boyfriend, my dockmate, had rejected the emergency evac order and planned to ride it out on his boat.

Of course, as soon as I got there, I called Rick, who was worried sick. CNN was broadcasting that it was the worst hurricane ever, and it was now only an hour or so from landfall. We watched the TV reports simultaneously. They showed satellite images of the hurricane, which illustrated clearly that it was heading directly towards Puerto Vallarta. Rick persuaded Kerri and I to move a mattress in front of the easterly facing sliding glass door, since the wind was predicted to come from the east. We would have taped the windows as well, as had been done to all the windows in the nearby shopping center, even those inside the mall, but we had no tape.

At around 6:15 pm, just as the hurricane was approaching the coast just south of Puerto Vallarta, something happened. The width of the hurricane shrunk from about 100 miles wide to just 10, and became much more concentrated. It also “danced” a bit, looking for a moment like it was going to jump north and head into Puerto Vallarta, but then it hovered and headed directly east, making landfall south of us.

We still had rain, but hardly no wind, yet our local sailing weather guru said we should still expect high winds. I waited, but no high winds came. Finally, by about 8:30 pm, two hours after landfall, I made myself a strong drink and decided I couldn’t keep up this level of intensity any more. I was going to bed. Then I heard from a friend that they had just released everyone from the evacuation center. I texted Rick and told him to go join the family party he was missing – as far as I could tell, it was over. Anything left of that storm, we could handle tomorrow.

Well, the next day I woke early to find it still raining, but no wind. Kerri and her boyfriend, who had apparently finally left his boat, were still asleep. I gathered my things and quietly slipped out of the condo – I was anxious to get back to Cool Change. As I dragged my belongings through the empty mall as a shortcut back to my boat, I passed by the woman who staffs the laundromat where I wash my clothes. She asked me how I faired. For the first time in nearly three days, the threat of danger to my boat and my life was gone. As my body became aware I could finally let down my guard, I found myself uncontrollably breaking out in tears. She gave me a hug and we both thanked God we had been spared. There was a high pressure system hanging over Puerto Vallarta that pushed the hurricane to stay south of us. Our salvation came from above, literally. There was never any wind to speak of, and only a steady rain in Puerto Vallarta. A day or two later, we had some pretty swollen rivers and high water, but nothing that couldnt be handled.

Now that it is over, I can say that I am grateful for the opportunity to test myself in hurricane preparedness. I never again want to have to do it without Rick by my side, but I am glad for the confidence boost of physically doing it alone just this once. And although I hate to admit it, some of the preparations we may have to do at sea may approximate what I had to do on shore, so it was a good dry run for that too.

Unfortunately, where Hurricane Patricia hit, the devastation was total. Farmland was destroyed and many people lost their jobs. Even so, it was so sparcely populated and inaccessible that hardly anyone covered the aftermath. Here is a link to a video taken from there:

http://thevane.gawker.com/watch-a-storm-chaser-ride-out-a-category-five-hurricane-1740598546?utm_campaign=socialflow_gawker_facebook&utm_source=gawker_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

We are hoping those who suffered from this hurricane are doing better now. Rick and I will be visiting that area by boat within the next few weeks and will be able to see how the recovery is coming first hand.

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