Monday, September 22, 2003

Anatomy of a Hurricane – Lessons from Ignacio, Marty, Nora & Olaf

Published in Western Outdoor NewsOctober 17, 2003

In 15 seasons prior to this year, La Paz, Baja California was visited by three hurricanes. This hurricane season produced two direct hits and a couple of near misses. The following revelations were made from close encounters of the third kind by a group of four couples in a 45 foot Bayliner – the Megabite.
Weather map of Hurricane Marty

Our party had the adventure of riding out Marty, a category 3 hurricane with moments of category 4. We experienced trumpeting gale force winds as we raced from San Jose Island to the haven of Marina Palmira in La Paz, arriving the evening of September 21st. Unsure of the dock cleats, we strapped the boat to the pilings. We consoled each other for three hours during North winds up to 140 miles per hour. Intermission was the catch-your-breath one hour eye, followed by a forget-me-not encore performance of winds from the West. The aftermath was torrential rain hiding the tears. Our boat faired well, however others were not as fortunate. Marty sank more than 100 boats in La Paz with extensive damage to many more.

Destruction in a La Paz Marina
Lessons learned — Weather service people earn their keep defining the current position and characteristics of a hurricane with updates on 6 hour intervals. They inform the mariner of current latitude, longitude, wind speed at multiple radii, movement bearing and velocity. However, their complex computer computations and algorithms for the predicted hurricane course are often surpassed by a dartboard. Predictions for hurricanes in the Eastern Pacific can be off 600 miles or more, even in the short term.

Nora’s northwest course abruptly, and unpredictably, turned 90 degrees to the east. Olaf was supposed to head for the Sea of Cortez. On the way, she hung an unexpected 180 degree hairpin turn. After retracing her steps for a hundred miles, she abruptly headed northeast avoiding the Sea of Cortez altogether.

Destruction in a La Paz Marina
Ignacio, the tortoise, plodded along with speeds of one to three knots its entire lifetime on a steady northwest course through Cabo, La Paz and Loreto. Marty, the hare, started out at three knots, then punched it up to 17 knots for most of its steady northwest course. Marty went from 300 miles south of Cabo all the way up to Loreto, a total distance of about 500 miles, in 24 hours. A surprise that nearly caught us exposed in the open seas.

Now, in the comfort of our home, we have time for reflections and new codes of conduct. If a hurricane is within four or five hundred miles, the safety conscious mariner should make preparations and act to secure the boat and passengers. The longitude and latitude of the hurricane is misleading as it pertains to the eye, not the edge. Do the math. The radius of a hurricane is typically 100 miles or more. Add another 50 miles of gale force winds and the ability of a hurricane to travel 240 miles in 12 hours (480 in 24 hours).

The Road to the Airport is Completely Washed Out
Two weeks after Marty, we cruised Espiritu Santo and Cerralvo Islands, carefully watching out for Nora and Olaf. We noted some of the aftermath of Marty. Two sailboats washed up on the shore reminded us of the many boats lost. The main green light buoy, a large cement structure on Scout Shoal at the entrance to La Paz in Lorenzo Channel, was missing. The navigation light tower at La Reina (Arrecife de la Foca) north of Cerralvo Island morphed into a twisted wreck at the bottom of the sea. Even the large cement base was tossed from its bed.

Cars Braving the Swift Waters on the Roads
These horrific observations reinforced our memory of Marty’s howling, deafening winds and tempest seas. Outside the marina, the Megabite would have been no match for Marty – just a statistic to verify Nature’s indifference.

*All photos from the aftermath of Hurricane Marty

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