Making an ill-timed appearance just before the 2005 Fort Lauderdale boat show, Wilma took a lot of yachts by surprise. The 152-foot Montigne was one of them.
“I said to my weather router, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is about to happen.’ And he said it wasn’t meant to be!” says the yacht’s then-captain, Martyn Walker.
When you’re in the path of a hurricane, the prevailing wisdom is “don’t be.” But between forecast errors, the boss’s demands, and not being fully operational in the yard, there are plenty of ways to get caught out.
Since then, Capt. Walker has fielded more than his share of hurricanes, fortunately escaping unscathed each time. During Wilma, knowing where the wind would blow from was key. Walker faced Montigne to the south with Pier Sixty-Six’s face dock to port. Yacht Chandlers supplied him with super fenders and he set his starboard anchor out. When the wind initially came from the south, he felt pretty protected with his bow into it. But 151-foot D’Natalin, situated east-west around the corner, didn’t fare as well; she was blown away from the dock, the pilings broke, and the dock crumbled.
Across the Intracoastal, the Marriott was Montigne’s normal base, but they said he couldn’t stay there. “They were worried about the roof blowing off, which it did. The tile would have hit the boat and would have caused a lot of damage,” Walker says. That drove the lesson home for him to not be around anything that can hit you.
In 2012, he was running 80-meter Pegasus V in New York when Sandy — forecast to be a rain event — hit hard. Chelsea Piers kicked him out so he took advice from the Coast Guard and dropped one anchor at the George Washington Bridge. “If I put two out I felt that they would have gotten tangled. I might have lost both my anchors or been stuck with anchors dragging. I had nine-and-a-half shackles out on that one anchor. And I had a massive mooring buoy tied to it, so if I had to let it go, I would’ve had a chance of recovering it.”
Pegasus V had variable pitch propellers, so he knew he could keep the yacht in gear with a little pitch on the propellers giving some forward motion. If it became unsafe, plan B was to let the anchor go and steam up and down Manhattan. Fortunately, they rode it out securely.
But between forecast errors, the boss’s demands, and not being fully operational in the yard, there are plenty of ways to get caught out.
Four years later, he joined 88-meter Fountainhead at the BAE shipyard in Jacksonville just days before Matthew’s eyewall skirted the coastline. There he was on a yacht that was brand new to him with almost two-thirds of the crew on leave and no fuel. BAE tried to make him move and he considered riding it out on the river, but in hindsight was glad he didn’t. “It could have been catastrophic, actually,” he says. “It flooded so badly on that river and the tide was so fast.”
Instead, he convinced BAE to let him stay on his dock next to the Intracoastal. “It was a fixed dock, so my biggest fear was the tide coming over the dock and putting me on the hard.” With the wind pushing 15- to 20-foot swells into the river mouth, the water couldn’t escape during low tide; then came the next high tide and Fountainhead came within two feet from the top of the dock. “We had the bow and stern thruster going for a good three, four hours. We popped some fenders but had no damage to the boat. That was a pretty gnarly sixteen hours, but I had no choice with the staff and fuel situation.”
He said he wouldn’t make that mistake with fuel again, but when he found himself in Irma’s path at Rybovich in West Palm, it wasn’t an oversight that Fountainhead was light on fuel — she had to be because of the depth going in. He was also light on crew with many doing courses in Fort Lauderdale and several scared to return.
“I kept saying to the boss I’m going to stay here and I never heard from him; the night before the storm came in, he said, ‘Why are you still sat there?’” Walker chuckles. He answered calmly, “Because I think we’re fine.” It was that demeanor that also pacified his anxious crew.
Fountainhead was fine on Rybovich’s Category Three-resistant docks. Walker got super fenders from Yacht Chandlers again, put lines across to a dock to starboard, put the anchor out, and pulled about 20 feet off the wall. “There was a bunch of scaffolding and stuff lying around (the yard),” he says. “I had quite a big argument with them about clearing it because I was worried about that blowing into me. So they did do that. As a captain, you need to be very aware of what’s around you and do everything in your power to have the powers-that-be get it cleared.”
Clearing his own decks included moving the WaveRunners into the side passageways. “I’m pretty sure they’d have been picked up and blown off if we hadn’t done that.”
For each of these storms, he relied on Ocean Marine Nav Inc. for weather — using professionals during hurricane season is a nonnegotiable for him. Even so, getting out of the way isn’t easy. “It’s a tough call. Invariably, the boats that get caught out, for instance in Lauderdale, are doing yard work. You’ve got a massive yard list to get completed in a short period of time and you need to call it a week before to get up to Long Island Sound or Maine. The boss isn’t going to give you that time back. And let’s say you leave and there’s no event — your boss thinks you’re an idiot.
“It’s a no-win situation. You just have to make your decision and then do the best with the decision you made.”
This article originally ran in the October 2021 issue of Dockwalk.