Seventy two hours before Gonzalo was meant to hit the leeward islands, we were on our way to Bequia from Union island (Grenadines).
We had found out about ‘it’ only a few hours before, when all of a sudden there was a commotion in Frigate island and everyone had started talking about this perturbation forming in the Atlantic.
Within an hour, Frigate Island had quickly turned from buzzing place for kite surfers to open air consultation room, with sailors moving from one boat to the other, small groups assembling and dissipating, people exchanging calls on the VHF…
When we got to the Caribbeans, one year ago, everyone would tell us that hurricanes could be predicted up to 2 weeks before, and that there would be plenty of time to move far away from their eye, in one direction or another.
“Don’t worry!” – They’d say. “You’ll be sipping your rum punch in a safe place by the time the hurricane hits!” Well, it wasn’t exactly like that with Gonzalo!
Now, we all knew 2020 was going to be a very busy seasons for hurricanes, the signs were all there… it was the end of July and we had already made our way to the letter ‘G’ of the alphabet!
We also knew that 2020 hadn’t been herald of great news till then…with a global pandemic and our nostrils being closely inspected twice monthly, on average…
So it should not have come as a surprise when our friend Gonzalo started heading towards us and no one knew, up to 24 hours before, where it would end up!
I’ve very quickly learned that perturbations forming off the African coast, can either dissipate while travelling through the Atlantic, or acquire strength, become bigger and start heading north where they normally encounter more favourable conditions.
Our Gonzalo did not dissipate, did not get bigger, and wasn’t heading north but was acquiring strength nevertheless – so much so that 48 hours before its arrival it was forecasted as a category 1, possibly 2, hurricane. See, the issue with Gonzalo was that it was small and therefore unpredictable!
The two main weather forecast systems, the European one and the American one were in total disagreement, with one forecasting Gonzalo heading north and the other south.
Now, considering that I’m not particularly fond of the idea of witnessing a ‘simple’ tropical storm, you could imagine how thrilled I was at the idea of finding myself in the middle of a category one (or possibly 2) hurricane.
When we (almost) faced hurricane Gonzalo!
Panic started to take over!
Within 2 hours from Gonzalo appearing on all forecasting models, I was lifting the anchor and we were on our way north to Bequia, with the possibility of travelling further north once it would become clearer which way Gonzalo would head.
Once in Bequia, more “consultations” took place with sailors amicably discussing which way to go over a beer or two.
All this discussing and drinking, though, didn’t bring us any closer to making a decision. So 30 hours before Gonzalo was meant to arrive, all options were still on the table:
- Heading all the way South to Trinidad and Tobago (150 miles, which equals one full day of navigation). Some experienced sailors were adamant this was the best choice as hurricanes heading south tend to lose strength;
- Heading south to Grenada, (65 miles which equals roughly 12 hours of sailing) and try and find space in the mangroves. Some friends of ours were heading there, so that made this option quite appealing;
- Staying in Bequia – no hurricane had hit Bequia since 1955 and the locals were assuring us there is something about Bequia that just keeps them away. Do we believe them?
- Going to Canouan Marina (25 miles which equals 4 hours of navigation). Our friends Tom and Laurie were there, and they assured us the marina was very sheltered and the staff friendly and helpful.
- Heading North to St. Lucia (50 miles, which means roughly 9 hours of navigation) or all the way up to Martinique (90 miles, 15/16 hours of navigation).
The more we’d talk to people about it, the more confused we’d get. We kept changing our minds and the uncertainty didn’t make it easy to sleep at night.
Finally, Gc and I decided that on Friday – Gonzalo was meant to hit us on Saturday afternoon – we would wake up early in the morning, check the latest weather forecast, and decide what to do.
What did we decide then?
Friday morning at 6 am, we checked the forecast again and decided that the best option for us was heading south to Canouan Marina (only 25 miles away) for several reasons;
- We didn’t want to travel too far and find ourselves out at sea in rough weather conditions hours before the hurricane-to-be would hit;
- Being inside a marina, we would be able to prepare the boat, removing all sails, the Bimini, and anything that could blow away, and tie up the boat with as many lines as possible;
- Worse comes to worst, we would abandon ship and take refuge in a nice 5 star hotel, drink a glass of red wine and take a hot shower praying for the worst to get over soon.
I knew Gc’s heart would be badly scarred for life, should something happen to Gladan, but it was a risk I was ready to take!
And so, 20 hours before Gonzalo would hit us, we entered Canouan Marina hoping our choice had been the right one.
During our sail down to Canouan, we met several boats sailing south and several others motoring north as fast as possible. Clearly, no one had any idea of what was going on!!
Inside the marina, we spent the afternoon and evening ‘undressing’ Gladan; removing all sails, deflating our paddle board and kayak, dismantling the Bimini, and creating a spiderweb of lines that would keep us in place. After many hours of hard work we took a nice, long, hot shower in the amazing bathrooms of the luxurious marina and went out for dinner at the gourmet restaurant.
We checked the weather forecast once more, and with great relief, saw that Gonzalo had been downgraded to tropical storm and was headed south to Grenada! Great news for us, perhaps less for the ones that headed south….!
The morning after, around 7 am, Gonzalo arrived – its eye deep south on Trinidad and Tobago. For us, that meant winds of up to 30 knots, with gusts of 40 kt, and torrential rain which only lasted couple of hours. Then it was over!
I was still half asleep and I would have probably missed Gonzalo hadn’t it been for the noise Gc was making while giving a good scrub to Gladan. Who else would have thought of using a tropical storm to do some spring cleaning?!