Category Archives: Adventures

Hurricane Preparation and Aftermath, Hurricane Irma

Forgive me for making such a long blog post this time. I have a lot to say about our hurricane preparation for Hurricane Irma. ~ Tom

hurricane preparation for Hurricane Irma
Hurricane preparation in the mangroves

We live on our Endeavour 43 sailboat, Pearl Lee, so we keep a close eye on tropical weather systems. Watching Hurricane Irma since well before she was a hurricane was almost a hobby for us. As she strengthened we became more concerned.

Since Hurricane Irma looked most likely to go up the eastern seaboard, our concern was mostly for friends in her projected path. Boot Key Harbor was expected to be effected, but due to distance, was predicted to get only tropical storm force winds. We were prepared to stay on our mooring with just a bit of hurricane preparation. Knowing that food and water might be hard to get immediately after the storm, we stocked Pearl Lee accordingly.

On Monday, September 4 the computer models changed drastically. Suddenly Hurricane Irma was headed right for us! We thought about it all day as we anxiously checked every update. By the end of the day we made the decision to activate our hurricane preparation plan.

To understand hurricane preparation, you should understand a bit about hurricanes. Damage from hurricanes is by two modes, wind and water. Wind force goes up exponentially with velocity. Doubling velocity, results in 10 times the force, and reports for Hurricane Irma at this stage were in the 150 mph range. That’s 100 times the force of 37 mph wind! Storm surge is caused by the wind and low pressure, making artificial tides that can be far higher, or lower, than normal. I have read that after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, all of the keys were under water due to a 20 foot storm surge. Wind driven waves can also be immense. Because hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise the direction of the wind depends which side of the storm you’re in, and will change as the storm moves. Pearl Lee is a good, strong boat, but even aircraft carriers avoid major hurricanes.

With the help of our friend Jeremy, who drove down from Fort Lauderdale, we began hurricane preparation on Tuesday, September 5. The entire harbor was abuzz with activity, as many prepared for Hurricane Irma’s arrival. Here’s a run down of what we did, and why:

  • We removed all sails. I believe this was essential to saving the boat, and the sails. Even a furled sail, or a sail cover can represent a lot of drag with hurricane force winds. Many damaged boats litter the harbor with remnants of tattered sails still blowing in the wind.
  • Our solar panels were all removed. Being horizontal, our solar panels don’t catch much wind, but in a hurricane the boat will sometimes be sideways to the wind. At that point she’ll heel (lean) allowing wind to catch those big flat surfaces.
  • Canvas and frames were removed. By now you’re getting the idea. Even the one inch tubing of our dodger and bimini frames can add significant load during hurricane strength wind.
  • We removed both booms. Not a problem with a head wind, but we knew Pearl Lee would get hit with some side wind.
  • All running rigging (ropes), were taken off to reduce windage. We kept the running backstays, feeling the extra support for the masts was more important.
  • We moved Pearl Lee to our predetermined hurricane hole. With our 5’6″ draft we were somewhat limited in our choices. I picked a 90 degree corner in a canal for the best possible wind protection. A narrow canal that you can tie to both sides of would be better, but we didn’t have that option here.
  • We tied into the mangroves with seven lines, each from a different hard point on the boat and going to different mangroves. Spreading the load is important. All lines were a minimum of 50′ long to allow for storm surge, and each was tied with a bowline knot around several large roots.
  • Of course we  used chafe protection on all lines. We had a few bits of fire hose, but also used 3/4″ garden hose. Both did their job effectively. We had no visible chafe on our lines. That may have been because Pearl Lee was pushed into the mangroves most of the time.
  • We set bow and stern anchors to help hold us off the mangroves and land. More would have been better, but time and materials didn’t allow it. We had the anchors but not enough rope.
  • Since our topping lifts attach at the mastheads, we wrapped a halyard several times around mast and topping lift to keep everything secure.
  • Cleared the deck of everything that could become a projectile. We both gave the deck a final walk before leaving, making sure everything that could be removed was, and everything else was secure.
  • We closed through hulls to minimize chances of sinking. Anything can happen.  Through hulls are big valves that let water in or out for drains, engine cooling, etc. Closing these simply removes some catastrophic possibilities.
  • The refrigerator was emptied and turned it off to preserve battery power for our bilge pumps. We actually turned off power to everything except our bilge pumps for two reasons. Fire safety in the case of water getting in or wires chafing, and to give our pumps the best chance of running until our return if necessary.
  • We stored our dinghies in the concrete marina building. If we hadn’t had this very convenient option, we would have filled them water, sinking them for later retrieval.
This aerial photo was our first evidence of Pearl Lee’s condition after the storm.

It was a lot of work, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking THIS could be the detail that saves Pearl Lee from Hurricane Irma. At about noon on Wednesday, September 6 we left Pearl Lee hoping we had done enough, and for some luck, as we headed to safety in Alabama with Jeremy’s family.

Friends and family supported us the whole time, offering their homes and any other help they could. It was truly incredible. We are truly blessed to know such wonderful people.

On Sunday, September 10 our hurricane preparation was put to the ultimate test. Hurricane Irma hit the keys as a Category 4 storm about 25 miles WSW of Boot Key Harbor. The most dangerous NE quadrant of her eye wall grazed Boot Key Harbor with winds near 150 mph. She was the most powerful storm to hit the Keys in half a century.

Each number represents a mooring that had a boat attached before the storm.

Here is a picture showing the part of the mooring field that Pearl Lee is normally in, after the storm. Each number represents a mooring, and they were all full before the storm. Unfortunately the boat that occupied “our” mooring is gone.

Our second Pearl Lee sighting came when NOAA released satellite images of the area.

So, how’d we do? Approximately 80% of the boats in Boot Key Harbor were total losses. Many of our friends and neighbors, on water and land, lost everything. Pearl Lee survived with no structural damage. Pearl Lee’s port side has a lot of paint rubbed off from the mangroves Hurricane Irma pushed her against. A mangrove branch punched out a portlight (window) in our head (bathroom) and damaged the headliner. A lifeline stanchion was ripped out by pushing against the mangroves as our boat heeled (leaned)in the wind. Our bow mounted fender holders were bent, but repairable. One was ripped off and found six feet away on a mangrove branch. We found scuffs of her bottom paint on mangrove branches five feet above the water. All in all, I’ll give us a B+.

We broadcast live video of our return to our Facebook friends. You can see that video here.

Here are some things I think we did right:

  • We had a hurricane preparation plan in advance. We made our plans when we were calm and had plenty of time. Part of that was scouting out locations, so we knew where to find shelter and enough water depth.
  •  Once our decision was made we didn’t look to see what everyone else was doing. Confident in our plans and abilities, we moved ahead rather than relying on group think.
  • We were educated, if inexperienced. Literally decades of research, plus talking to hurricane survivors gave us the confidence to make a plan and stick to it, regardless of what those around us were doing. Still, imagine how we felt doing things we’d never done before that we hoped would save our home.
  • We weren’t concerned with overkill. After a hurricane, no one ever says “I wish I hadn’t done so much hurricane preparation.”
  • I was scared. Fear is a great motivator, and I think it was an asset. We didn’t bother listening to the people saying it wouldn’t amount to much, we acted quickly and thoroughly to save our home.

Just after climbing aboard I made this short video of the apparent damage. We had not yet found the broken port, and the port side of Pearl Lee was still against the mangroves.

As for lessons learned, we have a few.

  • Pack your bags before taking the boat apart. Once we stuffed all the equipment from above deck down below, it became nearly impossible to access the things we needed.
  • Ditto for the through hulls. I’m also going to tie open four that are attached to our cockpit drains. In my haste, I closed one of those.
  • Keep our bottom and prop clean, even if we don’t plan to move. Ours was a bit fouled, and that can limit how far we can move the boat as well as effect our maneuvering ability.
  • We need more rope! We lost a couple 50′ dock lines over the last year, and I was slow in replacing them. I won’t let that happen again.
  • I’ll buy and set up spare anchor rodes (ropes) ready for our spare anchors. This would have allowed us to set a couple more anchors. That might have saved us some paint, or maybe not.
  • Our two bow anchors have 5/16″ chain making them very hard to set out with the dinghy due to weight.  I really need to be set them from the mother ship before we tie in.
Untieing lines deep in the mangroves.

We also learned that we are “abnormal” enough that government agencies can’t understand us. While we are self contained, making our own power, and with water and cooking gas for a month or more the county commissioners refused to let us back in until utilities were restored. This was nerve wracking, due to possibilities of damage that needed immediate attention, and looting. They finally let us, and all Marathon residents, back in a week after the storm. Five days after FDOT said the roads and bridges were passable.

Unfortunately at least one family lost their home/boat when it sank at their dock after the storm, but before they were allowed to return, due to no power to run the bilge pumps.

Questions we’ve been asked:

  • Why didn’t we take Pearl Lee and run? That’s pretty simple. Hurricane Irma was a giant storm, hundreds of miles wide. All of Florida was within her possible path. Anywhere we ran, we risked running right into her teeth, and in unfamiliar territory at that. Pearl Lee goes about 7 mph, and at that point Hurricane Irma was traveling at 15 mph. Outrunning the storm just wasn’t possible.
  • How did you know where to put Pearl Lee? We made plans months ago. Kristi (Keg) and I spent a day exploring by dinghy, checking depths and scouting out locations. This way we knew exactly where we wanted to put Pearl Lee in the Boot Key Harbor area. We also identified backup spots in case someone beat us to our first choice. We even scouted some sites near Key Largo and a couple on the mainland.
  • Why didn’t you stay on your mooring? That’s a good question since Boot Key Harbor is the best protected anchorage in the keys, and the moorings here are hella strong. The answer is simply, other boats. With hundreds of boats moored, anchored and docked here, every one of them had the potential to break loose and turn into a battering ram. They can then break other boats free to be more battering rams. In fact, that type of chain reaction is exactly what happened, destroying boats and docks.
  • If you had a do over, would you change your hurricane preparation? Apart from the lessons learned (above), no. I’m satisfied that we did the right thing. Hurricane survival requires a bit of luck, but with good hurricane preparation, I still believe you can put the odds in your favor.

Here’s a video, shot by friends, showing what Boot Key Harbor suffered. Keep in mind that most of these boats represent someone’s home, hopes and dreams. As you can see, our damage is comparatively trivial.


Demoplis, AL to Mobile, AL


That sense of urgency we were feeling after Fulton, MS was kicking into high gear now.  After Demopolis we were leaving the Tombigbee to join the Black Warrior River, the final river on our trip.

Leaving Demopolis Yacht Basin we started seeing alligators. Lots of alligators! They seemed to be everywhere, just enjoying the warm sunshine. This is pretty exciting stuff for a couple of yankees on a mastless sailboat!

We passed the remains of the US 80 (Rooster) bridge, where the tugboat Cahaba was caught by the current and capsized while being swept under the bridge in 1979. Miraculously there were no major injuries, but I suspect everyone needed clean underwear.

Thanks to advice we received from locals in Demopolis we spent a peaceful night anchored in the mouth of Bashi Creek.

Pressing on the next morning, the excitement of the day was going through our LAST lock, Coffeeville. After all the locks we’d been through, or in some cases over, this was a big milestone. From this point forward tides would begin to effect the water, and it would get increasingly salty as we moved south.

We anchored for the night in the Alabama River Cutoff, just over 50 miles from the Black Warrior River’s mouth.

Our destination for the day is Mobile, AL! In fact we were both focused on being at Turner Marine by nightfall. As we approached Mobile Bay we encountered a lot of tugs and ships.

This is a very busy port, with international shipping, Naval yards, tugs going in every direction, and that’s before you get to the bay! We had definitely become the small fish in a big pond.

Once we got into Mobile Bay things settled down a bit. Not due to fewer ships, but much more room. We were off the channel the big guys use, so it was pretty peaceful. Dolphins welcomed us to the saltwater as we chugged along to our destination. What could be better?

We wound our way through a long narrow channel that was deep enough for us and finally reached Turner Marine. At first they were putting us on a dock with no finger pier, but with our dinghy on the back of the boat, and a tall bow pulpit at the front, this just wasn’t going to work for us. After a bit of “negotiating” they directed us to a side tie area.

Although we somehow beat our masts there by a few days, we eventually became a sailboat again. We stayed here a bit to rest,  see the sights, take a trip to New Orleans by car and watch the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

Tupelo, MS to Demopolis, AL


With fine weather we left Midway Marina in Fulton, MS and pushed on south.  We were starting to feel some urgency. In our minds, Mobile, AL was our river destination. In Mobile we would start a new trip… with masts… as a sailboat… in saltwater!

It was an uneventful day and we spent the night anchored off the Blue Bluff campground near Aberdeen, MS. We were able to take a nice walk through the campground and chatted with other boaters as well as campers.

We had another beautiful sunset, and slept to the sounds of owls and coyotes in the distance.

In the morning we were eager to move along and got an early start.

We had a nice view of the Tom Bevill dam from inside the lock. Otherwise it was another peaceful day of churning our way down the Tombigbee.

We spent the night anchored in an ox bow off the Tombigbee.

The next morning we were met with very low river fog. It was interesting to watch the tiny vortexes form and break apart as we headed out for the day.

Of course the sun quickly took over and the wisps of fog were gone. It was a beautiful day to see the white cliffs near Epes, AL. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we weren’t disappointed.

If you click to see this picture enlarged, you can see a couple fishermen to give you a sense of the scale of these majestic white cliffs.

The cliffs have some mysterious features, and we’d love to learn the full history. They continue for five miles or so. What a beautiful area to cruise through in a slow boat!

You can see the fall colors just starting to pop out. This far south I don’t know if they get much more, but it seemed about perfect to us.

We kept humming along, making miles before nightfall. We had a very tricky refueling stop due to a large tug blocking most of a narrow entrance, but we made a plan and the plan worked. We docked for the night at Demopolis Yacht Basin where cruising boaters have a nightly meeting to discuss the state of the river ahead. This is the last marina before Mobile, AL 200+ miles away.


Becoming a Lock Expert

We started our trip from Racine, Wisconsin to Mobile, Alabama with some trepidation about going through locks. After a lot of reading, we still had some lock anxiety. All that melted away after a few, and now we think we have a pretty good idea what we’re doing.

After going through more than 20 locks as high as 57 feet, we think we have it down. I hope this helps ease your anxiety.

Step One: Call the Lock Master. Never assume he knows your intentions. It’s best to call as far ahead as possible. If he’s busy with barge traffic, he’ll let you know and you can slow down or stop for lunch. Sometimes he’ll say “come on ahead, I’ll have it ready for you”. Either way you save time and fuel. Important: All crew on deck must wear personal flotation devices (PFD’s). Ialso recommend a Cubs hat.

Step Two: You will also know by now if there’s a required side to tie on. Usually they let us tie on either side, so we took our preferred starboard tie. Have plenty of fenders out and just loop your midship line over the bollard. Do not tie to the bollard, just put your line around it and back to the boat. This is a floating bollard which floats down, or up in its channel as you move. Keep an eye on it and be ready to release your line in case it jams. Ours never had a problem. We only had two fixed bollards during the trip. In that case you have to adjust your line as the boat goes down or up. Floating bollards are easier, but even the fixed type aren’t really a challenge, they just take more attention during the process.

Step Three: The lock master will close the doors behind you, and signal when the water level is about to begin changing. This is all done with valves and all you do is tend your boat. Here you see Kristi using a boat hook to keep our boat straight. I’m doing the same at the stern. This is necessary because our sailboat tapers at both ends. Boats with straighter sides tend to lay along the wall better.

Step Four: After the giant whirlpool stops… Just kidding! It’s really not very dramatic, the water level just slowly goes up or down and you float with it. Depending on several factors this takes around 10 – 20 minutes in most cases. When the doors open in front of you wait for the lock master’s signal that it’s safe to move. If you’re sharing the lock it’s simply first in, first out unless you’ve made other arrangements. There typically is some turbulence on the downstream side,but it’s not terrible. Just power through it and go on to the next lock.

Here’s a look around just after we dropped 31 feet.

I always half expect King Kong to be on the other side of these doors.

And finally, a boater who obviously did it wrong. Just follow the simple rules above and you can avoid this.

Bonus Step Five: Your fenders will get very dirty in the locks. Barkeeper’s Friend will clean them very efficiently.


Pickwick Lake to Tupelo, MS


After our refreshing stay in the waterfall cove we bid Pickwick Lake a fond farewell. We joined the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom) and headed south with fall colors starting to come out. The Tenn-Tom was a huge public works program by the Tennessee Valley Authority. As the name implies the Tenn-Tom joins the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers. Completed in 1984, more earth had to be moved than for the Panama Canal! The waterway has a minimum width of 300 feet and minimum depth of 9 feet for it’s 234 mile length. This greatly shortens travel for commercial shipping going to places like Nashville. It’s also more accommodating to recreational boating than the lower Mississippi.

Shortly after leaving Pickwick Lake we had to travel through the Divide Canal. This 25 mile section of the Tenn-Tom is 100% made canal. There is no stopping allowed in this section, so be prepared. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s also necessary.

Because we wanted some time to explore Tupelo, we anchored for the night in Natchez Trace Recreation Area. This way we could get to the Tupelo area early enough for some land fun.

On the way to Tupelo, we had to go through the very impressive John Rankin Lock, taking us down 31′. Those are the entrance doors towering above us just before we moved out on the other side.

We docked for the night at Midway Marina in Fulton, intent on getting to Tupelo. They have loaner cars, so no problem right?

When we got in the car we found a note that said the car is to stay within Fulton city limits. Being pirates, we found a way and got to have a brief visit at Elvis Presley’s birthplace.

It was very illustrative of just how poor his family was during his formative years. There was also lots of Elvis memorabilia from every stage of his career, but we found his home to be the most interesting.

Only two rooms in total, the other being a simple bedroom. We didn’t get to see Paul Thorn though, so I was a little disappointed.

Iuka, MS and Lake Pickwick


We had a lot of fun meeting people and generally hanging out at Aqua Yacht Harbor.  Since they have loaner vehicles we got a chance to see the surrounding area, including Shiloh National Military Park. Of course we also found some other fun  and mischief.

We found a shark, even though we were still on the rivers. After looking around we decided this wasn’t the place we were looking for.

On down the road we found a wonderful little place, apparently owned by Big Foot(or is it Sasquatch?), but we weren’t sure what he was doing. We didn’t ask. The food and service were great though and the place had a very woodsy feel.  It’s on Highway 57 across the dam. You can’t miss it, just look for Big Foot.


AssWhaffle Yacht Club members Terry and Marlane showed us their beautiful motor yacht, treated us like family and gave us a boat tour of the area. This lead to a little detour for Pearl Lee, as you’ll see.

Wayne and Beth just “wanted to see what the sea gypsies were up to”. That chance encounter became a weekend of fun, laughter and several docktails. The boating community is full of wonderful people.

We really enjoyed our few days here, but eventually it was time to move on. However we had one more thing to do. A slight detour and one more night in the area was in order because Terry and Marlane showed us a hidden gem of an anchorage on Pickwick Lake.

A tiny cove with a waterfall. Completely protected, and even at winter pool it was 14 feet or so deep! Here’s a 360 degree video just after we anchored.

As you can see, being late in the season, we were the only boat here. Terry said it fills up on summer weekends though. This was such a beautiful spot we really hated to leave! There was even a steep trail to the top  the falls.

The night was lit up by a full moon. How perfect is that? It was like we had a full day of Zen.  We had a brief visit from a small power boat and a visit from a jet skier who just wanted a few minutes watching the water. What a place! Thanks Terry and Marlane, this was an awesome gift.

I’ll close with a video we shot from the base of the water fall.



While staying at Aqua Yacht Harbor we decided to take a short trip to Shiloh National Military Park.

If you go, we highly recommend the CD audio tour. It lets you see the various battle fields in chronological order while explaining the what’s and why’s.

Although the orchard is no longer an orchard and other vegetation has changed you get a clear idea of what went on.

Particularly interesting to us was the naval bombardment from the river, which we had just come down in Pearl Lee.

History comes alive in places like this. Although the cannons don’t thunder, and men don’t scream, the ancient echoes still seem to linger. Seeing places that you’ve only read about gives a much greater sense of what transpired here than any book or movie ever could.

The Shiloh National Cemetery is here as well. It’s good to go to places like this and reflect on our history and what so many of us owe to so few. This is hallowed ground and hopefully will be treated as such for generations to come.

Kentucky Lake to Iuka, MS


We left early in the morning with Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water in our heads. We tried to catch the little swirling vortexes on video but were unsuccessful.

Fall was in the air, so it was time to head south again. Of course Kentucky Lake gave us plenty to see on our way. The landscape here is dominated by forests and stark cliffs.

Every now and then you get a reminder that this is a flooded river valley. Sometimes it’s just an old road that goes into the water, often used for boat launching nowadays. Other times it’s a bridge to nowhere, that once spanned the river.

Then there are dramatic reminders like this old grain loading dock. Once on the banks of the Tennessee River, it now sits flooded and surrounded by water. No one seems to know why this structure was left when the TVA tore down the other buildings before flooding the valley.

As we cruised along we saw all sorts of boats, and we often wondered how far they were going. Many were doing the Great Loop of the eastern US. We think this guy might have the perfect boat for cruising the river system. Shallow draft, low cost and all the comforts of home.

We saw catfish jumping (or maybe Asian carp again) along the way.

Anchoring in a quiet cove at night and then pushing on the next day.

The Tennessee River is truly God’s country with breathtaking scenery around every bend.

We were starting to see some fall colors, just a hint of what was to come. Of course that also meant cold weather was coming. With no real heater on the boat we had to keep moving.

We were still seeing eagles as this is their winter nesting area. Unlike us, they don’t mind the cold, but they do need open water to fish in. This pair of males seemed to be just hanging out together.

Mornings often greeted us with still water and brisk temperatures. You just can’t get tired of scenes like this. The only ripple on the water was made by Pearl Lee’s passing.

Of course we also saw where men encroach, but nature always wins. Someone has a real problem on their hands here.

We pressed on towards Pickwick Lake. This is another TVA project, smaller at 67 square miles, but deeper than Kentucky Lake. Pickwick Lake’s waters are often crystal clear.

At the Pickwick Lock we got a nice demonstration of discourteous boating, as a powerboat jumped the line to get ahead of us. We were then treated to a demonstration of how NOT to lock through by the same boater. During his, uh “maneuvers” we heard a few loud crunches. No one was hurt though.

We made it to Aqua Yacht Harbor Marina just as the sun was setting, directly in our eyes. For some reason they booked us into a covered slip with inadequate depth due to an underwater structure. We ended up docked next to another Endeavour, how cool is that? To their credit, when I mentioned the issue, they gave us a free night. Nice folks.


Kentucky Lake Exploring


After a little rest we decided to play in Kentucky Lake just a little bit. Kentucky Lake was formed when the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Tennessee River, flooding a 250 square mile area. This results in a “lake” with more little coves to explore than you can count.

This is a truly beautiful area. The TVA relocated graves there were going to be underwater. This bit of cemetery, once a hilltop, is now an island, accessible only by boat. Since they would remain above water, they were left here. What a beautiful spot to rest.

We spent the day exploring, and learning. We weren’t sure what this was, but we saw several. We later found it was bryozoans which filter the water for food, keeping it nice and clear. Cool, huh?

With the water at “winter pool” level, a lot of rocky shoreline was exposed. This normally submerged beaver hut was exposed and abandoned.

We also found lots of tracks in the mud, but being city slickers, we weren’t sure what made them. Probably raccoons, maybe beavers.

Of course every kind of wildlife abounds here, especially in the “Land Between the Lakes“, a 170,000 acre recreation area separating Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. We’re always on the lookout for butterflies and spotted a few Eastern Commas like this one. The coloring and wing shape help camouflage them among fall leaves. This one may not have gotten that memo.

We can only imagine what this place looks like when fall colors are unleashed on the hillsides. We had a fantastic day exploring, and could easily spend a long time here without tiring of the scenery and exploration opportunities. We spent a quiet night at anchor in a little cove before moving on once again.