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Storms of the Century

26 June 2009By Kate Hubert

Storms at sea are part of our history and also have entered into our culture and mythology. The storm that shipwrecked early settlers in Bermuda 400 years ago was the basis for Shakespeare’s The Tempest....

Nowadays, we understand much more of the science behind major storms, but that doesn’t make them any less deadly. Ever since the first pleasure yachts took to the waves, recreational boaters have occasionally found themselves in the teeth of a storm that became legendary. Here are a few of the most infamous:

The Sydney-Hobart Race Disaster, 1998:

On December 26, 1998, 115 yachts set out from Sydney on the annual Sydney-Hobart Race. Only 44 made it to Tasmania. Five yachts sank, 66 retired, 55 sailors were rescued from their vessels and tragically, six sailors perished. Cyclonic conditions aren’t unusual at that time of year off Australia, but combined with strong currents, shallow waters and fierce winds (with gusts of more than 90 knots), it meant that the seas were violently confused, much steeper and more unpredictable than usual. The average wave height was a horrific 12 meters (40 feet) with yachts reporting rogue waves of more than 25 meters (80 feet). The coroner criticised the Bureau of Meteorology for not doing more to alert the race to the severity of the upgraded storm they were about to sail into.

The Perfect Storm – AKA the Halloween Nor’easter, 1991:

The “Perfect Storm” referred to by author Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book was a phrase coined by the National Weather Service as meteorological conditions conspired the form the mother of all storms off New England in the fall of 1991. This nor’easter was a vast extra-tropical low of the kind often created in October/November when cold air masses from Canada meet the much warmer Atlantic Ocean. This huge circulation of air headed south – eventually becoming a tropical storm and then a rare unnamed hurricane.

The system was strengthened when it ran into Hurricane Grace coming up from the south and its upper layers and moisture joined forces with the deepening low. At the same time, high pressure sat all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to Greenland via the Appalachian Mountains. The triple whammy of nor’easter, hurricane and pressure gradient whipped up strong winds, causing violent gusts and piling up “phenomenal” seas. Waves were commonly 10 to 30 feet with hurricane-force winds arriving by Halloween evening. Many yachts were caught up in the tempest and rescuers lost their lives in attempts to save them. Supertankers reported waves breaking over their bridges, and of course, the Andrea Gail swordfishing boat was never seen again.

The Fastnet Race Storm, 1979:

In the summer of 1979, more than 300 yachts started the Fastnet Race off the Southwest coast of the UK. Just 48 hours later they were embroiled in a storm that would cost 15 competitors their lives. Mountainous seas were heaped up by the Force 11 storm (just one category below hurricane force). Once it abated to a Force 9, 125 sailors had to be rescued by fishermen, the Navy, helicopters and the Coastguard.

The lessons learned from this race changed the way the yachting community looked at safety, and it’s hoped that these lives were not lost in vain. Many of the smaller yachts were not carrying radios; some harnesses snapped and life jackets failed. Perhaps the saddest lesson learned was that many of those who abandoned the yachts for life rafts died, while later, their yachts were found, battered, but still afloat. If they’d stayed on board they almost certainly would have survived....

Hurricane Katrina 2005:

Katrina was the costliest and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. While 1992’s Hurricane Andrew was disastrous to the South Florida recreational boating community and caused more than 60 deaths, more than 1,800 people lost their lives to Katrina.

New Orleans in particular was devastated. In the eastern part of the city lay the 38-acre Trinity Yachts shipyard. Two superyachts, the 161-foot Zoom Zoom Zoom, and the 157-foot Lady Florence were both in the water there, ready for launch. Along with several unfinished hulls and Trinity flagship Leda, these yachts were protected by a small group of volunteers who battened down for the storm inside them. Zoom’s engines needed to hold her in place once the pilings gave way and the lines exploded “like cannon fire.” The 14-foot storm surge caused the hulls to be “launched” by a few inches but they all survived. In fact, they were probably one of the only places in the city to still have air conditioning and power generation.

The company opened a second shipyard and is still doing well, thanks to the generosity of its peers at the time and its own investment in its staff; buying them mobile homes and giving them cash to start to rebuild their lives after the hurricane.