Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne


We started 2004 with rather innocent plans.After skiing in Colorado through March, we returned to Florida and prepared the Amberjack for an extensive cruise.We were to travel across the state on the Okeechobee waterway and spend a little time on the west coast.Then we would go south to Marathon in the Florida Keys and spend some time all along the keys.After that, if the winds cooperated, we would head across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.We would return to Florida and head out to Colorado for the hot summer months.


The first part of the plan goes without a hitch.We arrive in Florida and get the boat out of storage from the mid-Florida yard.Back at our slip in Fort Pierce on the east coast, we do the periodic maintenance and provision the boat.The trip across the Okeechobee waterway goes with good weather.We stop in the Marina at Indiantown on the canal a few miles east of Lake Okeechobee.The next morning is clear and quiet.As we head for Port Mayaca, the eastern port to Lake Okeechobee, we watch an interesting tradition.There is a rather old railroad bridge over the canal with a vertical clearance of 49 feet.This is the minimum clearance on the entire cross-Florida waterway, everything else is 55 feet or higher.Sailing vessels with masts a little higher than 49 feet can avail themselves of a unique service.A man comes out with a dozen or so 55 gallon drums and a pump.The drums are arranged on deck on one side of the sailboat and filled with water.While the vessel is rolled to one side, the vertical height of her mast has gone below 49 feet and she is slipped under the low bridge.Then the water is emptied out, the guy with the drums goes home and the sailboat proceeds along the waterway.


The trip across Americaís second biggest freshwater lake goes without incident.There are a number of alligators slipping into the water from the banks as we transit the canal that borders the lake on the southwestern shore.


We lock through the lock at Moore Haven and head down the Calusahatchee canal to the town of LaBelle.The options here are to tie up at the town dock, where there are no facilities, or go to the motel dock on the north side of the canal.The motel dock has limited power and water, but dockage is $20 per night, and it is the best deal in town.


The next morning, we depart LaBelle and head west to the swing bridge at Denaud.This bridge is worth a mention.Clearance is only about five feet, so it is necessary to get the bridge opened for our passage.Once the request has been acknowledged on VHF, the tender walks from the tenderís shack on the riverbank to the center of the bridge.From there she operates the bridge from a small console.When the bridge is open, she is cut off from the mainland.


Once through the Denaud bridge, we make our way west through the town of Alva and come to the Franklin lock, which will drop us down to the water level of the Gulf of Mexico.After the lock, we proceed down the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers.We tie up at the Fort Myers City Marina for a couple of days.Marilynís parents had lived in this area for decades, so it is a little like coming home.


We spend the next few days renewing our acquaintance with restaurants and attractions in the area.One morning is spent at Thomas Edisonís summer estate and laboratory.Edison discovered Fort Myers before there were roads to it.He built a comfortable mansion and laboratory and spent many years there.His widow gave the complex to the city to be used as a museum.Edison had friends who also had estates nearby.They were Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.Edison used batteries and electric motors to propel his boat for excursions on the Caloosahatchee River.Similar boats carry tourists on the river today.He and Henry Ford liked to explore and camp in the area, so they developed a modification of Fordís automobiles that could be used off-road.They remind me of todayís sport utility vehicles.These guys were having all the fun decades before the rest of us Ďdiscoveredí it.


The day we are to depart, Marilyn wakes up at 3 am with severe abdominal pains.They persist, so we have no choice but to take her to the emergency room.Lee Memorial is a superb medical facility, and we have been there several times over the years.The good doctors diagnose a severe gall bladder problem and recommend removal.The surgery goes well.They do not recommend any travel, especially shoving 40-foot trawlers around, so I renew our slip and rental car leases.Itís time to kick back and convalesce.


A week of healing goes well, but we decide that it would be wise to truncate our trip and head back to our home port on the east coast.But before leaving, we need to spend a few days at our old boating haunts.Our first stop is Cabbage Key.Reachable only by boat, this inn has excellent cuisine and an interesting dťcor.For decades, visitors have plastered the walls, ceilings, and any fixed surface with dollar bills.Each bill has a scrawled greeting on it.Bills hang from the ceiling in festoons.It is a little like dining in a mossy cave, except for the dense tropical foliage outside the screens.


During dinner, a tropical storm washes the island with a deluge.This would be ok, but there is a considerable roof leak not far from our table.The leak is pouring onto the blades of a running ceiling fan.It isnít so bad once we get the fan turned off.


In the morning, we make the short run to Caya Costa State Park, which forms the southern shore of Boca Grande Pass.The park is only accessible by boat.It has unspoiled beaches on the Gulf side, and a protected dock on the Pine Island Sound side.The nice feature is that, while the dock has no water or electric, it costs the same for a slip as any campsite, about $ 14 per night.Also, you can run your generator, so long as it doesnít bother other people.There is an excellent protected anchorage just off the dock, as well.The park rangers run an open shuttle over the mile between dock and beach, so it is easy to spend time at the beach.†† We spend two days here, shelling and relaxing.


Six or eight miles to the south, we pull in to the ĎTween Waters Inn on Captiva Island.This 4-star complex is aptly named, as it spans the narrow isthmus between the Gulf and Pine Island Sound.The hotel has rooms and cottages, a swimming pool, tennis, and a gulf beach, as well as extensive docks.We reserve beach chairs and look like tourists for a day or so.


This entire area took a direct hit from hurricane Charley, and suffered considerable damage.We know that the commercial establishments are back up and running, but we donít know about Cayo Costa Park.††


From Captiva, we make our way back to Fort Myers for an overnight.Then it is time to start back to the east.Our first leg takes us to the small town of LaBelle, where we tie up to the motel dock again.This dock fronts on and parallels the waterway, but is well inside a no-wake zone.Our stay is marred by a 60-footer who just has to make the bridge opening.He roars up the waterway on full plane.Iím able to hold off the Amberjack a little, but she still comes down on a piling and suffers some damage to the fiberglass.Iíve never heard the language the bridge tender lavished on the skipper.But he never responded.I considered calling the lock upriver and having them get the identity of the boat and operator, but it was just too much of a hassle.


Our next leg takes us to the town of Moore Haven, which is on the western shore of Lake Okeechobee.Moore Haven has a large dock facility with 50-ampere power.The overnight cost is 50 cents a foot.Again, the dock is well within the no-wake zone.In the morning, I go for a walk through the town.As it is with so many towns these days, the town center consists of many boarded up buildings.On the outskirts, there is a small food market and some other necessities.We lock up to lake level, which is 18 feet above sea level.


I should take some time to talk about the Okeechobee lock system.It is built and run by the Army Corps of Engineers.On the western segment between Fort Myers and Lake Okeechobee, there are three locks, on the eastern segment, there are two locks.One lock is located at the lakeís edge at Port Macaya, and one lock is near Stuart.The locks have large floating gates which also serve as the valves to change the level in the lock.When the level is to change, the appropriate gate is opened about six inches and water pours in or out.When the differential between levels diminishes to about a foot, the gate is opened further.Eventually, it is opened fully to allow passage of vessels.On this system, for most non-commercial vessels, lines are provided by the lock and are fixed to the lock, so you must tend each line all the time.Of course, you should do this for safety in any lock.


Our procedure has been worked out over the years.A radio call on approaching the lock gets you information as to whether it will be a port or starboard tie up.We get our fenders set and wait for the green light.(Lock traffic is controlled by red and green traffic lights.)†† We move into the lock chamber and position the boat.Marilyn takes a lock line to a breast cleat near the bow.When she has the line under control and I have the boat in position and stopped, I shut down the engines.Then I go from the flybridgeto the stern and take up a line there.From this point, we adjust the lines to keep the boat more or less parallel to the lock wall.It can get rather wild.The water pouring into the lock creates a circulating current which can be surprisingly strong.Sometimes snubbing the line works well, sometimes just brute force heaving is needed.Nothing much will happen if the boat gets out of line, but it does look clutzy and unseamanlike.Once the lock gates open, you simply drop the lines and proceed.The only problem is that boats turn by kicking the stern around.This will become painfully obvious if you do not push the boat off the lock wall as far as possible.Remember, there still are stray eddies in the lock from the recent water flow, so you want to be as clear of the concrete walls as possible.


As with all federal locks, commercial traffic takes precedence.There is not much of that these days in Florida, so it is not a problem.But a pleasure boat being ferried by a professional captain is, by law, a commercial vessel.


The day is beautiful, fuel is cheap, so I put the Amberjack up on plane and off we go on the perimeter canal.All is well until I hear a soft thud and pick up a slight vibration.Perhaps Iíve just picked up some errant vegetation, so I stop and reverse to throw it off.No such luck, the vibration stays with us.Iíve hit something and bent a prop.There goes another $600.( $100 for a diver, $200 for prop alignment, $300 for epoxy antifouling)Fortunately, the vibration is slight, and we can handle the repairs at our leisure after we get home.We pull in to Clewiston for the night.


Clewiston is the sugar producing capital of Florida.Cane from neighboring regions is brought to Clewiston for processing.The town has an interesting approach.Early in the twentieth century, hurricane winds moved great quantities of lake waters out onto surrounding land, killing thousands of people by drowning.To prevent a recurrence, the Corps of Engineers built a dike that surrounds the lake.At Clewiston, there is a lock gate through the dike.Normally, this gate stands open, but if a hurricane threatens, it would be closed to keep the waters in the lake.Once you pass through the gate, you are at the long floating dock of Clewiston Marina.


The next morning, we head out across the lake for Port Macaya and the Okeechobee waterway.Before reaching open waters, we must traverse a long canal-like section.Then there are 2 miles of marked channel that takes us between rock shoals to the open water.Many boats have come to grief in these waters.It requires strict attention lest a crosswind put you up on the rocks.GPS is a great help here, but we do not let our attention wander.Once past this section, the lake is fifteen miles of open water, about ten feet deep.


AtPort Macaya, you must pass from the open lake waters into the lock.If the seas are up on the lake, this can be a dangerous passage, but today the lake is calm.The drop in the lock is only about a foot, and we are soon on our way.Twenty five miles east and we are at the Stuart Lock.But we have to stop somewhere, and there is an excellent federal park with a marina at the lock.A slip there, with 50-ampere power, is just $15 per night.


We get an early start and catch one of the first lock transits of the day.This lock has a 12-foot drop, so we need to be extra careful with the lines.From the lock, we are back in tidal waters.We pass first north, then south, on the St Lucie River until we reach the junction with the intracoastal waterway just inside the St. Lucie Inlet.The trip up the Indian River Lagoon is uneventful and we are back at the dock in the Fort Pierce City Marina by mid afternoon.


June rolls in, and with it comes the 2004 hurricane season.The season gets off to a quiet start, but in July, a compact storm named Charley heads up through the western Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico.Weíre getting ready to leave for Colorado, and we decide that it would be wise to put the Amberjack on dry land for the time weíll be away.So we run a mile north and haul out at Harbortown Marina.The storm is expected to proceed north in the gulf and make landfall somewhere in the Florida panhandle.Instead, it suddenly intensifies and makes a sharp turn to the east into the Port Charlotte area.It crosses Florida and exits in the Daytona Beach area.This path is not near but not very far from us in Fort Pierce.We get some wind and rain, but no serious weather.In any case, I am glad the Amberjack is safe and sound on the hard.


In September, hurricane Frances is born and makes her way across the Atlantic to where landfall is predicted in the general area where the Amberjack is.We are following this on the Weather Channel in Colorado.Our daughter, who has a three-year-old and a newborn baby, calls to ask what they should do.They are in a home that is only three years old, but that has never been through a hurricane.We call hotels and motels and find a very accommodating Holiday Inn in Orlando that will take the four of them and their 90-pound Labrador mix dog.They go off to Orlando and we all wait for the storm.Frances officially makes landfall ten or twenty miles south of where the Amberjack is stored, but this puts the boat in the north eyewall.The north eyewall is the most destructive area.


The hurricane moves ashore, and then the uncertainty starts.There are no communications, so you canít find anything out.Leigh Ann and family decide to return to Vero Beach.When they get there, they are, of course in the communications blackout.They eventually are able to call us and report that the house survived the storm with just some trivial cosmetic damage.The great spreading live oaks on the property were not so lucky.Branches over a foot in diameter lie on the lawn.


Their power is out.They have no water, no refrigeration, no air conditioning.The emergency generator we had just purchased ran for four hours and died.I bought this from a man who had run it only a few times.DO NOT BUY ANY USED GENERATOR.This one had a bearing problem, but when that was resolved, the engine would not run.The machine had been stored with gas in the carburetor.The gas evaporated to varnish and clogged the carburetor.I did not get this machine running reliably until 4 months after the storm.


We decide to leave Colorado and get back to Florida.In southern Illinois, we buy one of the last available generators.All generators have been diverted to Florida.Meanwhile, a new hurricane, Jeanne, is following much the same path as Frances.We stop in Kentucky and buy 20 sheets of plywood for boarding up windows.As we enter Florida, our van is worth its weight in gold with the generator and plywood.


We get the generator running and restore electricity to the house.But the water pump refuses to come on, so there is still no water.The pump motor has a leak in the watertight casing and is destroyed, so it is necessary to replace the pump.We get the water going, but we find that whenever the pump goes on, the voltage dips so much that the TV loses its memory and has to be reset.Oh, well, at least we have water and refrigeration.By shutting off everything else, we are able to turn on a water heater and get hot water for showers.


I get a phone call through to the yard where the Amberjack is stored.They tell me that the Amberjack came through the storm and there is ďrelatively little damage.ĒA couple of days go by and that area is opened so I drive down to the yard.For safety reasons, no one is permitted to enter the yard, but I can see the boat from the fence.A 40-foot sailboat on the starboard side has fallen onto the Amberjack.A 38-foot sailboat on the port side has fallen onto the Amberjack.A large sailboat next to the one on the port side has fallen into that boat.They look like dominos.The stainless steel standing rigging from these boats has cut through the hardtops on the Amberjack like cleavers.The flybridge hardtop is crunched and buckled.The aft deck hardtop is also sliced up.The strataglas curtains on the flybridge are destroyed.


I cannot get on the boat or even near it due to the danger.We, of course, file a damage claim with Boat/US.Eventually, an adjuster contacts me and we set up a date to survey the damage.The yard has hired a super crane to lift the sailboats.The yard, by the way, is filled with tipped over boats.†† A 60-foot motoryacht is lying on her side.Many sailboats are on their sides.Debris is everywhere.


The Fort Pierce City Marina, where we kept the Amberjack, is nearly totally destroyed.The marina extended 600-feet out into the Indian River Lagoon.This would be like a marina extended out into Barnegat Bay.The marina was surrounded by shoals, but with the storm surge, it was open water.The seas had a ten-mile fetch, and snapped the reinforced concrete pilings that held the floating docks.Scores of boats were ground to pieces when the whole complex went ashore.We were on a fixed dock in the inner marina, but our empty slip had a section of the floating dock in it.The Amberjack would surely have been sunk had she been in that slip.The boat next to us has ridden against a midships piling and the piling has ground through about a foot of deck, rail, and hull.The estimate for that damage is 60 thousand dollars.


Hurricane Ivan is born and churns up the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall on the Florida panhandle.Ivan does not bother us on the Treasure Coast as he goes ashore, but he then does an unusual thing.Ivan proceeds up to the New Jersey area, where he goes back out to sea.Instead of moving on to the northeast, Ivan goes to the south, becoming a tropical storm again, and making landfall in Florida just north of us.Wind is no longer a problem, but Ivan dumps more rain on us than Frances did.The house is an island in a sea of water, and all that rain on the Amberjackís exposed flybridge cannot be a good thing.††


Now Jeanne is looming.She had appeared to be headed past Florida, but then she executed a loop and fell into the same track as Frances.The supercrane crew decides that they cannot safely lift the sailboats with the masts in place.So it falls to the smaller yard crane and crew to remove the masts and rigging.This takes time and we do not have that much time.Finally, everyone pulls back to let Jeanne pass, leaving the Amberjack to weather the third storm.Iím not even allowed aboard to tie anything down.


Meanwhile, back at the house, we have been chainsawing and carting oak wood for a week.We have a pile of storm debris that is 15 feet by 30 feet by 8 feet high.We decide to ride out Jeanne in the house, so we turn our attention to boarding up all doors and windows.It is a big house, and the boarding up takes days.Weíve used every piece of plywood when we get to the last window.We park our van and Michaelís truck flanking the debris pile and crisscross the pile with nylon line to keep it in place.


The storm approaches on September 25, a Saturday afternoon.The skies cloud over and rain showers begin.There is a gentle wind out of the north.We are following the progress of the storm on TV.By nightfall, the wind has picked up to 15 or 20 mph, and the rain has become steady.There is no change in track.It is coming ashore just south of us.†† This will put us in the dangerous sector, the eyewall to the north of the storm.By nightfall, the winds have increased to an estimated 30 mph sustained, with higher gusts.At that point, I am dead tired.The combination of too much preparation and some strong drinks is too much for me.I lie down on a mattress in the dining room and go to sleep.


The storm continues to increase in strength.Somewhere around 11:00 pm, the power goes out.The front doors to the house face north, and are securely boarded, but they begin leaking a screaming stream of wet air from the wind pressure.I wake around 2:00 am.The storm is in full fury now.I donít need TV to tell me that we are in the heart of the eyewall.The house is surprisingly quiet and calm.Iíve been in other houses in smaller winds and they creak and groan as if they are about to collapse.Except for the noisy front door, this house gives no sign that it is in a high wind.


I look out the sole window not boarded (on the lee side of the house).The scene on the patio looks safe, so I take a strong flashlight and go outside.I hope I never experience another hurricane, so I want to get the full experience from this one.The garage is connected to the house by an open breezeway, and the wind is screaming through this opening.There is no way that I could venture into that space without being physically carried away.The generator is located in the garage, so electric power will have to wait until the storm passes.


The debris pile from Frances is also in the lee of the house, and is not moving.I shine the flashlight on the lawn.The wind is so intense that every blade of grass is flattened by gusts.Think of how grass looks directly in front of a leaf blower.That is the way the entire lawn looks.There are a number of sand oaks within range of the flashlight.These trees are oaks about 40 to 50 feet tall.The upper limbs of these trees are moving so fast, they are just a blur in the light.I cannot see anything clearly in the trees.


The sound is intense.There is a roar similar to the sound of a freight train.The sound varies in intensity with the gusts, but it is always there.There is some indistinct lightning, but thunder does not make it past the roar of the wind.I settle into a plastic chair and await the passage of the eye of the storm.An hour passes, and then another, but the eye doesnít come.It is impossible to tell in such a maelstrom, but the wind seems to be veering more to the east.It looks like we are in the north eyewall.The eye must be passing to the south of us.We are taking the worst the storm has to offer.Of course, we are about 7 miles inland, so we arenít getting the very worst.When it has become evident that the eye is to our south, I go upstairs and go to bed.The bedroom is on the lee side of the house, and it is so quiet you wouldnít even know there was a Category 3 hurricane, except for the lack of air conditioning.


Morning does not bring very much light.The storm is still raging, but it is somewhat lower in intensity.It is like being under an intense thunderstorm.In keeping with the current Florida building codes, the house sits on a mound of earth that raises it several feet above the surrounding land.The house appears to be like an island in a sea of water.The intense tropical rains have inundated all the surrounding land.A portable TV informs us that the eye has indeed passed to our south, and Jeanne is now inland.


The wind abates enough to safely enter the garage and get the generator running.A survey of the damage shows that one ancient live oak tree, about 3 feet in diameter, has been blown down.There are many more huge branches lying on the grass.The house has suffered some torn shingles, and some aluminum trim is gone, but that is the extent of the damage.


Jeanne is not leaving quickly, however.As the day progresses, the cloud cover gets lighter, but the rains keep coming.The wind veers around from northeast to east, and then more toward southeast.And still the rains come.Every time there is a lull in the rain, we go outside to start recovery, only to be driven back inside by another squall.Not much gets done this Sunday.


Monday morning, the rains have finally abated.Itís time to start getting things back to normal.I drive down to the boat.The sailboats still rest against the Amberjack.All the vinyl from the flybridge is gone.The aft deck shelter is also gone.The short (10-foot) mast aft of the flybridge has been torn away and is lying on the starboard rail.A week or two goes by and eventually the sailboats are moved and I am able to get on the Amberjack.The saloon has some water dirt on the carpet and a water damaged lampshade.That is all the damage inside the boat.The flybridge is a shambles.The hardtop is lying on the deck, and the side curtains are all gone.I find some of them on the deck of another boat several hundred feet away.They are useless.


As the second hurricane approached, marine insurance adjusters were under considerable pressure to get estimates in for the damage from Frances.I get a check in the mail for $16,000 from Boat/US.There is a very terse report on the damage.I hire my own surveyor and have a complete damage assessment done.The damage totals $ 32,000.The insurance company sends another adjuster out to verify the survey and I get a check for the total less the deductible.


A couple of words are in order regarding the period immediately following the storm.All power in the area was out.Land telephone service was out.Most stores and businesses were closed.There were no traffic lights, so every traffic light controlled intersection became a 4-way stop.This slowed traffic greatly.Many roads were blocked by fallen trees and poles, but these were given first priority, and all the roads were open within a couple of days.There were stumps and branches perilously close to the roadside, and some of these remain to this day.There was no way to get gasoline.There was a ban on liquor sales and there was a curfew in effect at night.Ice and drinking water was in short supply and was being dispensed by government agencies.The only power came from emergency generators.These could generally supply basic needs like refrigeration, lights, and TV, but they could not supply air conditioning.Simple electric fans were in great demand.Most houses were not set up with screens, so insect control was a problem.†† Power management was a problem.Every time the well pump came on, the voltage would dip so low that the TV would shut down and have to be reprogrammed.The electric water heater could only be turned on if most everything else was turned off.Cooking could only be done with other power items off.We would have loved to have a couple of small window air conditioners, but they werenít on the shelf.


As I write this, we are in the start of the 2005 hurricane season.The Amberjack has a new flybridge hardtop and new side curtains.There also is a new aft deck shelter and we are just about finished with the repairs from September 2004.If a hurricane threatens, we will go on the hard again, but there will be some changes.We will not be next to any sailboats.We will take down the side curtains and the aft shelter and stow them safely.And then we shall see.