Eye of the Storm
“Will you all please come down to the day cabin below as there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What’s up, Alan? You look so serious.”
“Please, Val. Just go below.”
I thought back to our plane’s descent to Santa Domingo airport in the Dominican Republic and the appearance of those wispy clouds outside the windows. The gradual descent from 30,000 feet went unnoticed until the plane’s wheels were almost touching the ground. That was three weeks ago. The weather had gradually become duller over the last few hours and the wind had clearly increased in strength. I left the cruise control engaged and climbed down the stair-ladder from the roof cockpit to await the others. The padded bench seating in the day cabin at deck level formed a U-shape around the central table on which stood a book and several maps. The cooling atmosphere above deck was very much at odds with the days that had passed when that earlier brilliant sunshine and gentle breeze off the sea had made cruising on this fabulous vessel a truly enjoyable experience. I turned on the radio receiver as I busied myself organising some drinks and considered how I’d start what I had to say.
The launch had been hired at Santa Domingo and we'd sailed through the Mona Passage that runs between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and then eastwards onto the group of the Leeward Islands. We had last re-fuelled at Plymouth in Montserrat and were now heading west on the return leg to Santa Domingo.
“The National Weather Service has issued a hurricane watch.” I got straight to the point, as the news wasn’t something that could be broken gently. “It’s too early to be sure, so we have to listen to the radio for updates to monitor developments.”
“Hurricane? We are all going to die,” blurted out Susan.
“No, no, Dear. That isn't going to happen,” purred Richard in his usual disarming and laid back manner as he tried to console his wife. This time it didn’t have much effect.
“Don't patronise me,” she wailed. “Hurricanes are deadly, aren’t they? And here we are on the High Seas. Double deadly.” I was quite taken aback by Susan's outburst and Richard just sat motionless in his seat. The subtle change in mood over the last few days had suddenly landed.
I was well aware that I needed to revitalise my own marriage, as it had become increasingly stale over recent months, especially since our children were now grown up and had left home, but until that moment I had thought it was just Val and myself who had the problems. I was wrong. Darkening clouds could be seen assembling above the horizon to the east behind us and they must have been several miles high to be visible so far away.
“I found this on one of the shelves," I continued, pointing at the book on the table. "It has some information on weather patterns in this area of the World. The Weather Service bulletin updates will tell us if we face only a tropical disturbance that should blow itself out in a couple of hours or something more serious. A hurricane watch doesn't mean a hurricane is going to happen, but it is warning of the possibility,” I explained, trying desperately to restore some calm in the stormy atmosphere brewing in the cabin that almost matched the outside conditions.
“More serious? I told you we are all going to die,” Susan blubbered. Val moved towards our friend and put her arm around her. Susan turned to look at Val and tears flooded down her face. It was though she was emptying herself of some grief she had contained for too long.
I asked Val, my wife, how she felt. She tossed her raven hair away from her tanned face and fixed her gaze squarely on me.
“Excitement at last.”
I was surprised, though took this as an indication of the dullness in her life. I responded with a gentle nod.
“I am not going to misrepresent our situation and certainly don't want to alarm you unnecessarily, but this is something you have to know about, even though it may just be a storm in a teacup.”
“For Heaven's sake, Alan, do you have to make a joke of it?” Val hissed at me as she tried to comfort Susan.
“Sorry, I wasn't thinking,” I managed.
“No, Alan, you certainly weren't!”
I must have looked as haunted as I felt.
“Look, Alan, don't beat yourself up. This problem isn’t your fault.” Val had quickly reverted to her usual soft tone as she spoke.
An announcement on the radio confirmed the worst. A hurricane had been declared and it was moving in our direction at a little under 20mph. We were experiencing only the beginnings of what was coming.
Val’s description of ‘problem’ and not ‘disaster’ or ‘mess’ gave me an insight to her thinking and her attention to our friend showed how kind, considerate and caring she was especially in a desperate situation. In that instant I felt a surge of desire for this woman. How could I have been so blind to not appreciate what a lovely person she always had been? I felt awful, excited and frightened all at the same moment. Val was such a special person. Suddenly, respect for her flooded over me like a wave. I didn’t know if it was a new respect or what I used to have, but had long forgotten. It was a wonderful feeling anyway, though Val was right. It wasn't my fault, even if I did feel terribly responsible.
This trip had been my idea and one of the reasons I had suggested it was to try to pep up my marriage. Strain and tension had been growing between Val and me and she had definitely become less tolerant of my introvert nature recently. My lifetime's experience as a physics teacher had never made me feel comfortable in social situations. Even mentoring students is not the same as socialising. Richard and Susan were directors of their own successful haulage business that they had started several years ago and needed a break as they hadn't been away from their work in nearly five years. With Val’s agreement, I had invited them to join us on this trip. Richard’s outgoing approach to life was very different to my more staid personality and I’d hoped his influence could draw me out of myself. They had no children and immediately took up my offer, though it wasn’t a free holiday. I am not that wealthy, but the opportunity of a month in the Caribbean was too much to pass up.
“Tell us what you know about hurricanes,” urged Val.
“It’s not much though it’s very simple really,” I started to explain. “Hurricanes need lots of warm water and these waters in August are very warm at the surface. The warmer the sea, more water evaporates to feed the storm.”
“Simple! That’s it? You’re pathetic, Alan. You make us sound like bloody idiots,” yelled Susan. “Why don’t we go for an afternoon swim in the nice warm water, then?” Tears welled-up in her eyes.
Susan’s outburst may have surprised me, but it had visibly shocked Richard and I’d never before seen him look so ashen with fear and confusion. Val just looked at me with a gentle smile on her lips and amazed me by showing no fear although I felt she must be terrified. A real display of courage and I admired her for that.
“We face a hurricane and must get onto land and find some safe place to protect us from the storm,” I told them.
Susan was sobbing loudly and drawing in great gulps of air with Val doing her best to comfort our friend as I examined a map. Richard looked on with that vague expression of helplessness.
“We have another serious problem though,” I stated. “We last refuelled in Montserrat and that is now about 150 miles over to the east. The nearest landfall on our present heading is Puerto Rico to the north-west of us and we're mid-way between the two. The storm is coming from the east and at least we are moving away from it.”
“So, what’s the problem, Alan?” questioned Val.
“The problem is our fuel load. The storm’s moving our way at a little under 20mph and at full speed we can manage 30mph. That sounds like a no-brainer, but if we go too fast we will run out of fuel and be stranded on the sea. Our speed will have to be kept to the slowest to conserve fuel and that was the original plan when there was no urgency. It will take us roughly 10 hours to reach Puerto Rico and that assumes the sea current does not drag us from our course.”
“How far can we go with the fuel we have?” Susan asked.
I thought this was an obvious question, but I was surprised that Susan had been the one to ask it.
“We’ve a little over 100 gallons in our tanks and if we keep our speed down, we can make about 15mph. That’s the 10 hours to Puerto Rico.”
“But the storm’s coming at us faster than that!” said Val.
“That’s the problem. If we go any faster, we will run out of fuel. Even at the minimum engine revs this boat will do around 2 miles to the gallon, but a great deal less the faster we go. At top speed this drops to less than 1 mile to the gallon. We dare not go back towards the Leeward Islands as this would take us on a heading straight into the storm. At least now the wind is more or less behind us.”
Val did a quick mental calculation. “At full speed we could reach Puerto Rico in around 5 hours,” she told us.
“No.” I replied, “The fuel tanks would be empty well before we got there and we don’t have any reserve. We would be just floating on the sea and not stand a chance. If the wind and currents take us from our course we will need all the fuel we can to try and maintain it. The fastest we dare go will give us a chance, but with the effect of the sea current…well, I don’t know.”
“Didn’t you factor this in when you planned the trip?” said Richard.
“No. And I didn’t factor in a hurricane either.”
“What are we going to do, then, Alan?” Val asked.
“We can only hope that we can stay far enough ahead of the storm to basically out-run it.”
Richard joined Susan in complete silence.
The gentle thrumming of the engines, whistling wind and slapping waves on the hull of the launch created a foreboding mixture of sounds. The sea had gradually become noticeably more turbulent as a constant reminder of our situation. Time dragged on as the storm came towards us. The force of the wind had increased and the impacting waves threatened to push us from our heading. We still had almost 150 miles to go and that would take several hours. The storm relentlessly continued on a heading towards us and even now the launch was being pitched violently in the roughening sea. The swell and forceful sea current were taking us slightly southwards and away from safety. The atmosphere within the group was very brittle.
The next comment I heard came from a surprising source.
“Look over there. Is that a mountain?” shrieked Susan with excitement. She had been looking out of the forward window and must have been carefully scanning the stormy sea. Fear can do amazing things to focus the mind.
I went up top with my binoculars and examined the horizon until I found the shadowy and rocky island that Susan had sighted. It was covered in bushes and trees and appeared uninhabited: no buildings, boats or any other signs of life. The huge looming clouds blotted out the sun as it crossed the sky and created a fantastic brilliance ahead that contrasted with the darkening sky behind. This island was the oasis in a watery desert even though the silhouette looked very sinister against the almost white sky. The speed of the wind kept increasing as the hurricane relentlessly came closer to its target. Us. It was happening and the growing winds ensured we remained within the confines of reality.
“We need to find some high ground on this place.” I advised in a raised voice so that I could be heard over the howling wind. “When the storm hits us, the waves will be driven onto the land causing a tidal surge, so we need to be inside and under cover with our supplies. Take as much food and water as we can. And be sure to take some blankets and warm clothes. We may need them.”
We reached the shallower waters of the island and managed to negotiate the strong currents to the entrance of a cove. The following waves rammed the boat up onto the beach, the bow cutting a deep furrow into the sand. The stern continued to be forced around and the bow was almost screwed into the sand. The force of the waves nearly pushed the boat onto its side, though we did come to a jolting stop. The narrow strip of sand was lined with trees that extended almost to the shoreline and through the swaying branches of the trees I could just make out the menacing mountain. I realised that we were nose-deep in sand on the upper part of what was probably a submerged volcano. Where all the sand had come from I could not imagine and the sides higher up near the top were scarred with several holes, possibly from rock having been blown out in earlier eruptions.
“This island does not appear on any of the maps,” I said in a low voice to Val. She blanched. “I think that you and I will have to search for somewhere to shelter from the storm as I fear that Richard and Susan are not going to be very reliable. Let’s go.” We were almost able to step down onto the beach and then I turned and looked slightly upwards to face Richard and Susan.
“Don’t stay a moment longer on the boat than you have to as the waves could turn it over,” I shouted. “Only water, food and blankets. We have no portable radio, but I have set the distress radio-beacon.”
Almost as an afterthought I added optimistically: “We'd better take our passports and documents too. We will need them later.”
I didn't mention that the vessel would never survive the storm. It was all too obvious. Val sidled up to me, took my arm and whispered into my ear: “Alan, I feel so safe with you. I cannot imagine being with anyone else who could make me feel so at ease.”
I held Val closely and told her I loved her and kissed her on the lips. Just a brief, yet truly meaningful kiss. I gazed for a moment into those large, deep black wells in her eyes feeling that I could drown in happiness. What passed between us in that moment would last me a lifetime, however short or long that may be. I was that kid on his first date. I took Val’s hand and we ran off between the trees.
I became aware of frantic shouting: Alan! Alan! When I had regained some of my senses, I was very cold and realised I was drenched and lying on my back in wet sand.
“What…? What happened?” I anxiously asked. Val told me that a falling coconut had knocked me out, but only for a few moments. Several were lying around me on the ground, but we had literally stumbled on the rocky slope that led up to an opening. My head was aching terribly, but with Val’s help I managed the difficult task of climbing over the jagged pathway that presented considerable dangers. We peered inside to discover a small cave. It was perfect. Safety. My sense of relief was amazing, but was short-lived as after a few moments we forced our way against the fierce wind and driving rain as fast as we could manage back to the boat. We found Richard and Susan talking heatedly to each other. My head was throbbing painfully.
“Will you two be quiet!” I yelled, holding my head in my hands wishing I hadn’t shouted.
I was staggered that these two could argue at a time like this. They’d done nothing since we had left them to search for a refuge and that was at least 20 minutes earlier so they must have been arguing for most of that time. They hadn’t even got our essential supplies down onto the beach. I couldn’t understand their behaviour, but ignored my worries. We had no time for dramatics. Val quickly explained that we’d found a cave nearby and that we all needed to grab as much of our supplies as we could and that a couple of short trips should be enough. The trees were swaying wildly now as the storm approached. The rain lashed at my face like needles. I felt terrible as we scrambled up the ramp into the howling wind and whipping sandstorm. The swelling behind my ear was very painful and had become tender to the touch as sand savagely blasted into my eyes nearly blinding me. Fortunately, Val’s longer hair offered her some protection from the effects of the wind and rain as she guided me to the cave entrance. Between the four of us, we managed to haul our supplies up into the cave.
Through the gap between the sides of the cave opening, I could see the approaching storm on the horizon and feel the powerful wind even though we were sheltered inside the cave. The trees were swaying wildly as the rain continued to drop out of the sky with a force I had never witnessed before. The wind got stronger and stronger as the storm came nearer and the terrifying noises of cracking trees being ripped from the ground filled the air. It was getting cold and since we had no means to make a fire the blankets were very welcome. Richard had one arm around Susan’s shoulders as they had settled into an uncomfortable silence.
The gloomy daytime light had gradually turned into darkness and I could hear the screaming wind and fierce rainfall crashing down outside the cave. The inside of this cave was dry and comforting, but the noises around us were so loud that even plugging my ears with my fingers made no difference. I held onto Val. The incessant roar of the storm was torture and sounded like a herd of fatally injured animals. And on it went into the night. We huddled together in the dark for what seemed like days, but was really only hours. By the time daylight arrived the winds had died down. The hurricane had continued to move westward and had left us in its eye as though it were watching us and waiting like a hungry predator stalking its prey. After the last eight hours of rain and the screaming noises of the wind, to be met with such stillness and near silence was eerie. An odd thought occurred to me and I almost laughed: the ridiculous combination of the violence of a hurricane and the relative calm at the centre in its eye. But that’s what it is. I guessed that the eye was more than 10 miles wide since I couldn’t see any cloud movement at the horizon. The threat of the unseen made it more frightening. Shortly afterwards, the dark tumbling clouds appeared in the distance. In less that an hour we would be swallowed up by the storm and forced to listen to those terrible sounds again.
Those approaching dark swirling clouds in the eyewall held me mesmerised. The dense black clouds fascinated me as they spiralled upwards at an impossible speed, like a waterfall going backwards. The force rolling towards us appeared limitless and I felt so humble and powerless. I could do nothing except wait and experience what fate had in store for us. We had survived the first half of the hurricane and shortly we would be subjected to more terrors. Forty five minutes later the storm hit us again as the peaceful eye moved away and the violently tumbling clouds rolled over the mountain. It was truly frightening and made worse by comparison to the respite of the still centre of this storm. We were thrown back into that maelstrom of confused turbulence and it was so sudden that I imagined a switch had been thrown. The huge waves crashed into the side of the mountain and frequently warm water flooded into the cave.
“Even when the storm has passed us we will feel the winds for several hours,” I shouted near Val’s ear so I could be heard above the screams of the raging storm. “They can have an effect for over 200 miles from the centre of the eye itself.”
Val squeezed my arm gently as she placed her forehead against my neck. I could feel warm tears and her soft sobbing. I pulled her even closer towards me.
The winds eventually began to die down and the lashing rain eased. Over the next eight hours the storm moved completely away from us and disappeared over the horizon staying on its destructive path north-westwards into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico and probably the New Orleans region of Louisiana. It would live on for a while longer until it reached the land where it would quickly break up as its source of fuel ran out. No more water. The hurricane would die of thirst. When the storm around us had subsided, we dared to venture outside into the bright sunshine. The boat had gone. Vanished from the beach without trace as though it had never existed, probably washed away as matchwood. I hoped that the radio-beacon would survive any battering it received as it sent its distress signal indicating our location. It began to get dark again, but this time on a cloudless star-filled night.
How differently I felt about everything. Even the New Moon in the southern sky seemed to signal change. I suddenly knew that I wanted to retire. I had been thinking of this for some months, but now I had made up my mind. The raging storm had calmed my inner turmoil. To leave all that lecturing behind me and spend more time with Val was a wonderful prospect. Could I build a better relationship with my children now that they had left home? Was it too late? It's never too late to try. I saw Richard and Susan in a different light. Susan had revealed fragility and Richard had shown he wasn't quite so strong as I had always imagined. I felt a great compassion towards them as I realised how insecure they must really be, but they were good people and I was glad we had them as our friends.
And Val and me? We had each other and I looked forward to whatever our future together may bring.
© Louis Brothnias (2005), Rev 5.2 (2008)