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Fiona McCall takes down the sails before superstorm Sandy hits. (Paul Howard)
Fiona McCall takes down the sails before superstorm Sandy hits. (Paul Howard)

How we survived Hurricane Sandy on our yacht Add to ...

When we left Toronto aboard our 40-foot catamaran we were excited about our upcoming trip to Alaska via Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal, Costa Rica and the B.C. coast. But my husband and I never dreamed we’d be sailing into a late-season hurricane headed up the Atlantic Coast.

On Oct. 27 we pulled into our slip in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., and thought we’d be safe. The marina is protected from all winds except from the east – but the eye of Hurricane Sandy was predicted to come ashore about 80 kilometres south.

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Then we got some local advice.

“You might want to go up the Navesink River,” a fisherman suggested. “Twenty-seven boats were swept from their moorings in Atlantic Highlands during a hurricane eight years ago.”

We sailed 11 kilometres up the shallow, narrow-channeled Navesink and anchored in front of houses we were told were owned by Bon Jovi, Paul Newman and Bruce Springsteen.

We threw out our heaviest anchor and 61 metres of chain, then a secondary anchor. We made ready a third anchor in case the other two dragged.

“Shouldn’t you be on the other side of the river?” asked another local, stopping by on his outboard runabout. “Everything that gets blown down the bay lands on my beach. I hope you have your liability insurance paid up – I’m a lawyer.”

We disagreed and stayed where we were – even though we were in a direct line with the lawn of his house! We took off our foresail and stowed the bicycles below decks.

By Monday morning the gusts were gale force and the boat was bucking and heaving, and the wind whistled in the rigging with the occasional shrieking gust.

We listened to National Public Radio. The Category One storm was nearly 1,609 kilometres in diameter with hurricane-force winds extending a 240-km radius from the centre. When she hit Atlantic City she would be packing a punch of sustained winds at over 120 kilometres an hour, with gusts to 144 km/h. It was a monster.

Paul spent more time outside than I did, checking our position against the houses ashore, the wind now shrieking in a number of different tones, underscored with what sounded like the deafening roar of an airplane.

The anchors started to drag so Paul crawled on deck in the ferocious rain with a wind chill that was off the charts to put out the third anchor.

The barometer fell to a horrifying 957 millibars – the eye of the hurricane was coming closer, which meant the worst was yet to come.

With wind so extreme, we felt the anchors slip and the boat drift relentlessly backward. The rain pelted down in sharp needles. We were dangerously near a couple of small piers and edging closer.

“We’re going to lose the boat if we hit those piers,” yelled Paul over the howling noise.

Cowering in the companionway, I watch him start the engines and push the slowly dragging anchors from shore. Though in full foul-weather gear, he was getting very wet.

In the bright lightning flashes , we watched a large sailboat break from its moorings and hurtle past. We could see the fiery flying sparks and small fires as hydro lines shorted out and we heard the crash of trees falling over.

At 2200 hours we faced another challenge. Something got caught in the propellers and they lost power. The starboard engine’s instruments screeched and flashed red: The propeller had caught the third anchor’s rope rode and stalled. The port engine was also fouled with some kind of debris but at least it was still working, barely.

We crawled up to the bow to have a look and found a tangle of anchor lines. “I’ll have to straighten these out – nothing can hold well with this mess,” shouted Paul.

Lying flat out in the icy rain and deafening wind, Paul managed to untangle the lines and cut free the third anchor. It was midnight – and we were keeping our position.

By 2:30 a.m. the winds had lessened to strong gale and the main anchors were holding.

In the morning, we safely anchored again, and Paul counted 13 boats near us that either swept ashore or sank. We had lost an anchor and would need a diver to clear our propellers – but we hadn’t ended up on the lawyer’s beach.

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