"Utterly compulsive and unputdownable--the most exciting, authentic, and humanly moving of all the recent Storm books. Brilliantly paced and perfectly balanced. . . . Carrier is a marvelously trustworthy narrator. . . . A terrific book."--Jonathan Raban, author of Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings and Bad Land: An American Romance
"A wonderful story. An extremely well-written account of the events as I knew them. I commend Jim Carrier for a magnificent job."--Jerry D. Jarrell, Director, National Hurricane Center
In October 1998, the majestic schooner Fantome came face-to-face with one of the most savage storms in Atlantic history. The last days of the Fantome are reconstructed in vivid and heartbreaking detail through Jim Carrier's extensive research and hundreds of personal interviews. What emerges is a story of courage, hubris, the agony of command, the weight of lives versus wealth, and the advances of science versus the terrible power and unpredictability of nature.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
October 27, 1998
A lesser sailor might have panicked by now. A Category 5 hurricane was bearing down on him. The ship he'd been able to handle so well would no longer answer its helm for another jog to the west in the lee of Roatan.. The waves and wind around him were the worst he'd ever experienced in his life at sea. But Guyan March was not given to panic at sea. On the bridge of a ship he wore a look, born of ability, seasoned with success, of calm and assurance. "Never in his life did he lose control of a situation, certainly not at sea,"said his brother Paul. "Calm and controlled was the way he managed and thought things through. He was very methodical and calculating."
So successful had March been as a young sailor that problems almost surprised him. Those who knew him saw this aspect occasionallya passing, stunned look. "He would never actually express it verbally, mainly because there were people around who would pick up on it,"said Jeremy Linn, his old sailing instructor. In 1986, while still in sailing school, March was motoring the 72-foot Hoshi into a lock in Scotland when the engine failed. He was doing 4 knots. If he had kept going and popped the gate, the ship would have dropped 30 feet. "A look of total horror appearedonly momentarily,"said Linn. "He was very quick thinking. We both dove into the engine room and turned the key. The old diesel had been running too slow and stopped. I saw the same thing in handling sails when things weren't quite right. There would be a look of just complete horror. He would take a moment to think about it, and come up with the right solution 99 times out of 100. He was calm and collected. He wouldn't shout or scream."
March impressed his shipmates from the start of his Windjammer career. As a mate on the Fantome in the late 1980s, he took control of the bridge when the ship went aground in Antigua. When the captain seemed powerless, Guyan "was all business,"said Sharon Patterson, the purser. He was "so self assured and confident about all things pertaining to sailing that no one ever doubted his suggestions. He could weigh the large and the small, the crew, passengers, weather, ship, responsibility, business, fun, girlfriend, life, love, and laughter and keep them all orbiting in pretty much a well-balanced scheme. Like juggling a dozen balls at once. There were times when you could see rings under Guyan's eyes and knew he needed rest badly, but he never complained about it. I don't understand how he did it, but the man never showed a grouchy side."
Ed Snowdon, who served as mate under March aboard the Yankee Clipper, recalled, "I have never met a man, and I've been around a lot of circles, who had more of a sixth sense and innate ability to make the right decision and know the right thing to do. It was uncanny. He didn't have to stop and scratch his head. He was not at all daredevil. He was always making the most prudent decision. When I was sailing down a coastline, he might say, ‘Ed, you're two miles off a lee shore. What happens if you lose an engine and a squall comes up? You're going to be set down. If you're another mile off, you're in better standing.' He taught me that kind of thing. He would always err on the safe side."
March had tasted rough weather. He'd crossed the English Channel in small boats with winds of 40 to 50 knots. "At home, in the dinghies, we would be the first ones out and the last ones in,"said brother Paul. "In marginal, rough seas, everyone waited. If we started in, they knew it was time to head in. Everyone gauged it on us. It went to ability. If we thought it was marginal, it really was time to go in."At Windjammer, he'd seen waves sweep the top of the Fantome and felt its heeling in big waves. He'd known the edges of several hurricanes. March, like most sailors, had a fascination with sea storms and disasters and an encyclopedic knowledge of them, according to Patterson. "He told me about rogue waves: massive waves that appeared unexpectedly and took ships and crew by surprise. We talked at length about disasters at sea, ships that encountered storms and lost crew."
March must also have known that a career at sea sometimes requires periods outside the comfort zone. That's how sailors grow, through longer crossings and bigger waves. If they survive, the bold ones revel in newfound confidence. "Everytime you go out there is a risk,"Windjammer owner Mike Burke believed. "That's part of the beauty of it. When you've got a bone in your teeth? And you wonder. That element of danger. It's a good feelingif it holds together."But the wise ones recognize that their survival sometimes has as much to do with good luck, or a guardian angel, as their own ability. On Tuesday afternoon, October 27, Guyan March, full of pride and trim, was in the hands of the gods.
"I started to feel fear from him,"said Michael D. Burke. "He wasn't too forthcoming with his acceptance that we needed to run to the east. I think he was afraid. Look at his circumstances. He is leaving a lee. He is heading out. It's going to get dark in a few hours, if it's not dark already. He's in hell. He's already facing pretty horrendous conditions. His circumstances will get worse, right at dark. There wasn't a whole lot to say."
Almost immediately, Roatan's protection disappeared. From the high point of a 700-foot peak, the one sailors still use to find Port Royal, the land sloped off rapidly into the sea to the northeast. Two low islands, Morat and Barbareta, stood offshore with no lee. Then came a 14-mile stretch of deep water before the ochre bluff of Guanaja, invisible beyond the dark squalls, towering seas, and veils of spume, rose abruptly from the depths. Running under bare poles, the Fantome was making 7 knots on a compass bearing of 90 degrees. As Roatan passed by the port beam, the wind on deck increased gradually, from a "garden variety"hurricane to something above 80 knots. Sea conditions worsened dramatically and rapidly. Within an hour, waves jumped from the 10- to 15-foot range to 20 to 40 feet. The waves generated by Mitch's outer winds were still piling in from the west-northwest around Roatan's south side, more or less behind the ship. But in the open channel these waves encountered others refracting around both islands, and monster seas surging directly south through the channel from Mitch's eye wall, which was now just 30 miles to the north. The highest sustained winds in the eye wall were 133 knots. Gusts could have reached 198 knots. Mitch was right on the border between a Category 4 and Category 5 hurricane. The 282-foot steel Fantome plunged on, unprotected from the most powerful force on earth.
"Confused seas,"the term used by March to describe the colliding wave trains, could not come close to describing the steep, irregular boiling that now surrounded the ship and its crew. The water leaped and sank, built mounds and cut cliffs. The seas had no rhyme or logic. According to wave theory, when 20-foot seas from one direction meet 15-foot seas from another, the coincident crests rear up an average of 25 feet, with periodic peaks of 37 feet and an occasional 50-foot giant. Around the Fantome, steep waves appeared from nowhere, then broke into cascading faces that crashed like breakers and hissed over a sea surface already white with wind-blown spume.
The rolling of the boat increased violently30 to 45 degrees to port and then to starboard, March reported to Michael D. Burke. Waves struck the hull and poured water into the A-deck "lobby,"forward of the dining saloon where most of the crew were huddled, and over the sidedecks between the bulwarks and the Admiralty cabins. "He had gotten hit by a bow wave, a big wave, with lots of water on deck,"said Burke. MDB was worried about broaching, a loss of control in which the ship would turn to windward, exposing its broad side to the forces of wind and sea. He questioned March about ways to prevent broaching, using a launch as a drogue trailed astern, or sailsjibs or staysailstied to a mooring line as a sea anchor deployed over the bow. But the ship was rolling so much it would not have been safe for crewmen to be out rigging lines or wrestling a 3,000-pound boat over the ship's stern. Plus, March said he didn't think it was necessary. "The bow of the ship is broad and deep, so it is not squirrely. So when it surfed, the ship would ride straight. It didn't turn off,"said Burke.
At some point, Guyan March apparently left the deckhousewhen Burke telephoned, Brasso answered and said the skipper wasn't therewhich would have required him to open the sliding hatch and struggle out onto the bridge. Grasping ropes and railing, or clipping a harness into one of the jacklines the crew had rigged, he would have pushed or perhaps crawled through wind and spray capable of etching a bloody tattoo on his face. The twenty feet across the exposed party deck to the closest stairway at the muster station would have seemed like traversing an earthquake. "He must have been blind as a bat,"said Neil Carmichael, captain of the Windjammer ship Polynesia. "I don't think people appreciate what it's like when you start getting 50, 60, 70 knots and rains as torrential as that. I've been in 50 to 60 with a snorkel mask on. You can't see 10 feet."Having descended the forward stairs, March could have staggered aft along the port or starboard sidedeck between the Admiralty suites and bulwarks, crossed the exposed welldeck "lobby"seventy-five feet aft, and pulled open the unsecured wooden door to the dining saloon in an interval between periodic deluges of solid seawater. Or, making his way forward twenty feet, he could have opened a watertight hatch and descended a ladder to Deck B, and from there reached both the engine room and the saloon. He might even have braved the length of the top deck and descended the duke's original stairway into the lobby and saloon.
Guyan March and Michael D. Burke never talked about where the men were, but Burke assumed that engineers Constantin Bucur and Pope Layne were in the engine room, perhaps with other engineers, sealed off by waterproof hatches. They would have kept busy, monitoring engines and hydraulic pressure, watching the water level in the bilge beneath them, thinking about sediment in the fuel. Routine work would have been impossible as they grasped pipes and worried. Pope Layne had been through Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 aboard Windjammer's Flying Cloud, the company's smallest ship, which was too slow to outrun hurricanes and was tied to a mooring ball off Peter Island in the Virgin Islands when storms threatened. Pope and other crew stayed aboard to run the engines against the force of the wind. "He was scared to death. He said he had to crawl, literally crawl, on deck,"said Rhonda Epperson Hall. "You couldn't hear anything. The wind and rain were just so intense. The wooden covers to the benches were flying off. He couldn't communicate over the radio because of the noise. So people were sending messages back and forth by crawling on the deck."
By Tuesday afternoon, the rest of the Fantome's men were presumed to be in the saloon, based on March's decision to leave one of its wooden doors unscrewed. "That's where I'd be,"Burke said later. That would have put 20 to 26 men in a room that had once been filled with rum and laughter and the twinkling brass lights of a cruise. Now grunting, nauseous men, trussed into bulky life jackets, strained to stay in their seats and hang on to the macramé-covered posts. The burnished brass lamps, if not dismounted and stowed, would be describing crazy arcs overhead, as would the gold chains on the crew's necks. The men would have been suffering great fatigue. Their muscles had been tense for 24 hours as they moved or hung on in the rolling ship, fighting to stay in a bunk or not be tossed about. Their last good sleep had been Saturday night, three days before. Ever since, they had been in a flight or fight mode. They were scared. Several of the men couldn't swim.
Deckhands and the more experienced crew, including bosun Cyrus Phillips and bosun's mate Jerry King, would have probably walked through escape routes in their minds. From where they were, they would have to climb an exposed stairway and make a suicidal dash to the top-deck muster station and life rafts. The hotel department heads, chief steward Chrispin Saunders and chef Eon Maxwell, and their staffs most likely were petrified. Without normal duties to occupy them, their minds were free to roam, to their wives and kids, to plans for the future, to beautiful women, to random promises, prayers, and regrets. The scene outside the saloon's quarterdeck windows encouraged their worst fears.
Phillips, at 40 the old man of the Fantome, Bequia-born and twelve years with Windjammer, was the closest any of the West Indian crew came to being a sailor from birth. He "wanted to get money together and have his own boat for freighting through the islands,"said his brother, Julian Peterson, who crewed on Windjammer's Yankee Clipper. "It was supposed to come time in 2005."
Jerry King, in his last call home, had told his sister how homesick he was. He hadn't been home since January. When the ship next docked in Trinidad, he told her, "I'm going to roll in all that mud."
Friday, three days away, was engineer Vernon Brusch's twenty-seventh birthday, and he had promised his mother he would be home to celebrate. In his last phone call from Omoa, Brusch had laughed and said that he would be the one bearing gifts. "Oh God, Mommy, my cabin is full."Piled on his bunk before the storm were a VCR, more CDs, and a plastic tricycle for Otaphia, his pretty child who liked to wear red and white beads in her hair. "He had no room on the bed to lie down,"said Arthurlene Brusch, who set her mind to a birthday cake, a homecoming meal, "and those kinds of things."
Kevin Logie of Trinidad, who had followed his brother to Windjammer, was due to leave the Fantome in a week to become lead chef on another Windjammer ship. He still dreamed of saving money to open his own tailor shop. On his last trip through Miami, Logie had 20 minutes to spend with brother Kevin. "He had footage on his camcorder of my three-month-old baby. I told him I would look at it another time. He was coming back to Miami with the camcorder, CDs, a TV, VCRseverything was in that little cabin."
Jesus Hernandez, deckhand, the Honduran dock hire without a visa, was 25 miles from his estranged wife and two children, who were soon to be in the hurricane themselves. When he was10 months old in 1974, Hurricane Fifi barreled through the strait between the Honduran mainland and the Bay Islands and devastated the country. A small stream running through the village of San Marcos became a roaring torrent through Jesus' mother's house. "I couldn't hold all the children,"she said later. "The river was taking Jesus away. But a neighbor came and grabbed him by the hand."
Alvin and Alan George, the Spice Brothers from Grenada, men taught by their grandmother to cook, were chefs at heart. Alvin, the neat one, had two kids at home. Alan, the good-looking brother, the life of the party, was saving his money to open a restaurant in Grenada. "I'll see you in November,"he had said in his last phone call to their mother, Margaite. When she protested again about his life at sea, he had said offhandedly, "If I have to die at sea, I'll die there, instead of on land."
Francis Morain, deckhand and father of six in private school in Grenadahad turned 37 on October 10. After enduring a $350-a-month job, he had the letter he'd worked for, the letter from Windjammer recommending a visa to the U.S. He had told his wife, Elizabeth, to join him in Trinidad for Christmas shopping.
Carl "cool and deadly"James, engineer, was looking forward to Christmas when he could take his sister's children downtown in New Amsterdam for ice cream.
Django Ramsudh, refrigerator mechanic, had been an accolyte in the Lutheran church as a child. If he was to meet his Maker, at least he'd taken care of his three children with the $60,000 won at the casino.
Colin August, the launch driver, no doubt wished he'd saved some leave, like brother Chuckie, who was safe ashore.
Rhon Austin, deckhandwas experiencing his first tour at sea.
Maxwell BhikkamBlinky, they called himwas a Muslim deckhand who never missed prayer time with Mohammed Roberts, another Muslim and first-year engineer. They were from Guyana, too.
Steadbert Burke and Vanil Fender were Jamaicans, a first-year carpenter and a cook. They had wives at home.
O'Ryan Hardware, the ladies' man, had followed his brother to Windjammer and become an engineer. Brother Orville had reached his dreamenough money to marry and get off the boat.
Deodatt Jallim, the first-year carpenter, had followed his brother Harry to sea. He had called his wife by cell phone from Belize and told her to expect him in two weeks.
Carlisle Mason, deckhand from St. Vincent, and Wilbert Morris, the quiet, muscled welder from Guyana who helped keep the ship together, huddled with the others. Anibal Olivas, the Nicaraguan dock hire, two weeks on the ship as steward, was there. Bobby Pierre from St. Luciaso helpful and joyous as Chrispin's assistant steward and such a good dancerwas there too. He looked remarkably like a smaller version of Horace Grant, the basketball star, and lately had been dating Chrispin's sister, Beverly, who had gotten off the ship in Belize. Pedro Prince, the Honduran galley aid stuck without a visa, was thrown together by circumstance with Rohan WilliamsDr. Stone, they called himanother deckhand. Whatever these men were thinking was shoved aside with each bang and howl that brought the storm back like a question from St. Peter. At some point, they became too seasick to care.
When a storm is violent enough, even experienced mariners will eventually begin to suffer from a type of motion sickness, not the nausea most think of, but an enveloping fatiguethe "feeling that we want to close our eyes whenever we get the chance,"according to Carlos Comperatore of the Coast Guard's research branch. By itself, that might not be a problem. But when it combines with sleep loss, stress, and desynchronosisthe maladjustment of the body clockendurance drops significantly. Even the most durable mariners begin to retreat into a personal shell, walled in and enervated by the motion of the ship, lack of sleep, the physical exertion of staying upright or in a bunk, and worry. It is the first sign of deteriorated performance that sooner or later overcomes any sailor. First, the man gets quiet. As conditions worsen, he becomes forgetful. It becomes tougher to do mental arithmetic. He is apathetic and slow to respond. He might forget to check critical information, or he might act when what is called for is no action.
When he reached his men, Guyan March would likely have told them the truth about their plight, about the loss of Roatan's lee and his hope for the run east. He would likely have reviewed safety matters, especially the use of life jackets and life rafts. His presence may have had a calming effect on the crew, who would have been praying and pushing back the moments of panic welling up in their throats. These would have been held back only by the rational thought that of all the Windjammer officers they knew, Guyan March, Brasso Frederick, and Onassis Reyes were the best. "He would have gone through every single scenario in his head,"said crewman Julian Peterson, brother of bosun Cyrus Phillips. "If there was one person I would want to be with, it would have been March because of his control over himself and his ability to handle the vessel."
At some point, March rejoined Brasso and Onassis in the deckhouse. Knowing what they knew, the minds of these three men would have raced with all the things that could go wrong. How far would she roll before the ship no longer cared whether she came upright or kept going? At what angle of roll would water downflood, and from where? Would watertight doors hold? Would the square portlights on B-deck shatter and flood? If the Fantome was laid over, would the large, rectangular saloon windows surrounding the crew stand up to wave crests? Would the wooden dining saloon doors withstand the battering of tons of water on the well deck? Could the ship's most vulnerable spottheir deckhousestay together? The highest, forwardmost, and flimsiest shelter on the ship must have been hell, the rolling and pitching exaggerated, the noise debilitating. In one grunted exchange with Miami, March described a chair flying.
Their conversation limited to brief shouts, the officers, too, likely withdrew inside, to that private space forced open by the knowledge that they could die. When the weather was rough, Brasso liked to sleep below the saloon, in a C deck cabin near the center of the keel, where motion was dampened. Now, in the worst possible place on the ship, he could well have imagined time at home in his big new house on Antigua. Built from scratch on his Windjammer earnings, it was probably worth $400,000. So big in body and spirit, a rock in the midst of crisis, even Brasso could have legitimately concluded that if the ship came to grief, it would be impossible to get anyone into a life raft.
Onassis, full of vigor and promise, could have flashed on the crewmen he knew who couldn't swim, his girlfriend Glenn and their Christmas plans, or the feeling of being trapped underwater that he had experienced when a launch had flipped and he'd been snared in the canvas top. It had scared the hell out of him, Parkinson said later. "It was a realization of the reality, a random fluke. He knew how dangerous it was."He must have considered the irony that failed love had put him there to replace a heartsick mate. Or, maybe, he recalled his last E-mail to his mother, sent Friday night for her birthday. "Remember that you finish a new year everytime you begin a new day. So it's never too late to start something new. Like doing more exercises or writing a new diary, etc ...My time in these waters will end soon because I finish on December 26...I'm very healthy. Running 30 miles a week (in the mud) and lifting weights. I have to buy some vitamins. Take care of yourself Mama and you will be hearing from me soon. Your son loves you. Onassis."
At 2:30 p.m., on Guanaja's southeast shore, veterinarian Alex Patterson watched his beach house slide into the ocean. He was 100 yards away in his sister's hillside house. "There was so much salt spray, I could only see the top of it."Shortly after, the house he was sheltering in began coming apart. "The roof started leaving. The walls started leaving. There were seven of us inside. Two of them were seventy-five years old."He helped them into the crawl space beneath the house. He and his wife, Monique, then fought their way 50 yards behind the house to the 2,000-gallon concrete cistern. The others didn't think they could make it there. The cistern, eight by eight feet, had a square hole on top covered by a heavy concrete lid, two feet square. The shed over it, used to collect rainwater, had blown away. "The wind was blowing like crazy. The sand was coming out of the ground. It felt like it was sandblasting us, hitting us from the back. It would blow like crazy for 20, 30 seconds, and you'd have a 3- to 5-second lull. You've got pieces of trees falling around you. I got there ahead of my wife. I waited behind the cistern to get out of the sand blast. I waited for the lull and then, here she came. She probably got blown down three times in 100 feet."They climbed into the cistern.
North, across the island, Black Rock, the size of a barn, and the cute cottage tucked in its lee, were underwater. The storm surge, at least 20 feet high, poured into the raised home of Doug and Mary Solomon. By 3 p.m., all but eight of the 150 homes in Mangrove Bight were gone. In his elevated home on land, Kerston Moore could feel the waves slapping against the plywood over his windows that faced the bay. Looking out through a crack, "it was like an airplane in fog. Like a white wall. It was too much for a person to witness."
At 3 p.m., the Fantome was midway between Roatan and Guanaja. The storm's center was 40 miles to the northeast, but the eye wall was less than 20 miles away. Winds and waves from the outer edge of the eye wall surged straight south at the ship through the channel. The wind speed rose to Category 2 level, 95 knots. Since the wind's force increases with the square of velocity, it had more than doubled compared with the wind over Roatan. The effect both on the sea and the ship was tortuous. March reported waves so high that three feet of solid "green water"poured repeatedly onto the ship's main deck. On the top, party deck, barrels of water arced over the bow and sides and surged around like surf on a rocky shore, breaking apart the horseshoe bar and cabinetry. "As the water sloshed, it would break up a lot of benches and tables,"said Michael D. Burke. "It was not unexpected. They were made of 1-by-3s. There was a lot of water on deck."The deckhouse, the nerve center of the ship containing all the electronics, was built of the same wood, bolted to an angle iron frame. The roof over the officers' heads was plywood reinforced with fiberglass mat.
March also reported water cascading into the whaleboats that hung 25 feet off the water on the top deck,
"Cut ‘em off. Don't worry about it,"Burke said.
It was a moot point. The deck of the Fantome had become a no man's land. Walking anywhere was impossible with the deck at a 45-degree tilt, steeper than a home stairway. As the ship's well deck rolled toward the water, Guyan, Brasso, and Onassis, trapped in their deckhouse, braced and fought to remain upright. In Miami, Michael D. Burke paced by the phone, biting his lip. "Shit,"he kept saying. "Oh shit."
At 3:40 p.m., the Fantome cleared the channel between Roatan and Guanaja and was seven miles south of the tip of Guanaja's West End. Burke asked March if he could get into the lee of the island, which lies northeast to southwest. The wind was blasting the ship on its port rear quarter.
"There's no way,"March replied.
"What about turning, putting the wind on the beam and running northeast?"
"No way."Fantome wouldn't answer her helm to that extent, even if she could have, exposing the full length of the ship's topsides, superstructure, and rig to the force of the hurricane was what March and his mates had been struggling to prevent.
Fantome plunged east.
Flying toward Mitch in NOAA's P-3 turboprop, researchers James Franklin and Michael Black were afraid that they had missed their hurricane party. As their boss had warned, Mitch appeared to be weakening. When they had taken off from Tampa just after noon, Mitch's eye was clouding over, and Miles Lawrence was reporting winds down to 135 knots, a borderline Category Four-Five storm. In keeping with their weird habit, Franklin and Black had stocked up on junk food. Black, who never got sick, usually carried a greasy burrito. Franklin, who always got sick, still tried to eat a lot to keep his stomach "busy."He'd gone to Subway for a sandwich and "really good chocolate chip cookiesgood and buttery. I like Hershey's chocolate with almonds. Barbecue potato chips. Generally, nothing healthy. I've never thrown up. I get nausea and incredible headaches from the noise and vibration. The whole airplane is in a low-grade vibration from the turboprops."
The scientists still hoped to observe other details within the eye using doppler radar and GPS dropsondes. Armed with a belly radar, spear-like wind probes, and the "score"of 200 hurricane penetrations painted on its fuselage, the P3 was a veteran. "It's a four-engine turboprop. It can take a beating. We frequently overstress the airplane past its design specifications,"said pilot Phil Kenul. "You don't do it intentionally. Sometimes the storm flies you."
Black-bearded and with the roundish, gentle look of a manatee, Michael Black was typical of hurricane researchers. One side of his brain loved the mystery of storms, while the other mourned their havoc. He loved flying into hurricanes.
"I've been flying into storms for fourteen seasons. I always look forward to it. Sometimes it is extremely rough, though usually not. You never know what you're going to get. The strength of the storm is not equal to the roughness of the flight. We flew into Gilbert (the lowest pressure on record888 millibars in 1988). The stronger ones are like being on a roller coaster; the upward motion is so broad that the plane will rise up and descend very smoothly, down into the downdraft. At times you actually float. Briefcases have flown and hit me. We've had computer paper fly around the cabin. We have a coffee urn, a commercial cylinder with a bungee cord around the top, and at times that has come off and coffee grounds go all over the back. We have obvious scientific objectives. Hurricanes, still, in a lot of ways, are mysterious. There is a lot we don't understand. It is such a potentially beautiful sight when you go into a strong storm, with a clear eye and mountains of clouds. It is truly an awesome sight."
At 3:30 p.m., an hour from penetration, the storm showed up on the nose radar.
"You can see the outer and inner rain bands and the eye walla circle. It is phenomenal,"said Kenul. On the plane's belly radar, the colors were measured in "decibels,"a measure of return echo from the rain. "Black is innocuous. Green not much. Yellow, caution. Red basically means stop, you're going to get the shit kicked out of you. Magenta is for extremely high decibels, plus turbulence. That we avoid like the plague. Red and magenta are basically the ‘holy shit' colors."As they nosed toward Mitch, red and magenta stood out in its circle of doom.
Coming up to his 4 p.m. deadline for another forecast from the National Hurricane Center, Miles Lawrence surveyed the computer models with dispassionate dismay. The storm had been moving southwest for twelve hours, but none of the models showed the slightest interest in going along. Like the blind reading a blind man's guess, Lawrence began to sketch out a track with a bit of southern motion, and then a landfall in Belize in 36 to 48 hours. He fixed the center of Hurricane Mitch at latitude 16.8N, longitude 85.8W and described its motion as west-southwest at four knots.
Mitch was now directly north of the ship18 miles from Guanaja and 32 miles from the Fantome. With an eye radius of 10 miles, Mitch's eye wall was now over northern Guanaja. Winds were still near 134 knots with gusts 50 percent higher.
Doug Solomon, lying soaking wet beside his wife and cowering dogs and cats on Guanaja's northeast coast, tasted the eye wall's arrival. The rain mixed with salt water, blown out of the ocean. "The worst thing was the sound. You have no comprehension. It was like having an express train blowing steam right next to you. What we could see were huge, high, wide mangrove trees self-destructing. They were 40 or 50 feet high. Gradually they wore down to stumps. Breaking off to nothing."As the sky darkened prematurely, Solomon watched his barometer drop to 960. "I knew we were in real trouble then. The wind speeds picked up. It felt like it was right above us."
From his little West End cabin with five employees, David Greatorex described the hurricane noise by inhaling and making the sound "Wvzzzsssss. And every ten or fifteen minutes, it would go Who Who WhoWhooooo. And the cabin would go Ssh Shhh Shsssh, shaking, then all of a sudden, Whoo whho whooowhoo and quit."
Greatorex tuned a portable radio to a station from La Ceiba, on the mainland. Someone was interviewing a weather station in Florida, with translation to Spanish.
"What about the Bay Islands?"the Honduran interviewer asked.
"The Bay Islands. Just a moment. Oh, you mean Isla de Bahia?"
"What should they be doing there?"
"Oh dear, everyone on those islands should evacuate immediately."
In Omoa, Fantome's home port, the storm was now upon the little fishing village, with wild surf and winds. It reached 50 to 60 knots. Waves were striking the wooden window pulled down over Carlos Arita's tiki bar.
At 4 p.m. the Fantome was approaching Mitch's longitude. Michael D. Burke thought that was good news.
"Soon,"Burke assured Guyan. Soon, the ship would be east of the center. It would be in the "navigable quarter."Wind would be blowing the ship away.
Shortly after, Captain March reported that, in fact, the wind was clocking more westerly. It was coming over the stern. Burke was elated. Things were working out. Things couldn't get worse. "I asked Guyan to bear a bit south of east, to get as far away as possible."March toggled the ship's big rudder to 93 degrees.
But aboard the Fantome, the suffering only increased. The ship was surrounded by chaos. The sky overhead was turning a charcoal gray-black. The rain beating on the deckhouse was horizontal and as heavy as a fire hose. If he could have opened his copy of "Bowditch,"Captain Guyan would have seen the book's classic description of the view now outside his ship:
"As the center of the storm comes closer, the ever-stronger wind shrieks through the rigging and about the superstructure of the vessel. As the center approaches, rain falls in torrents. The wind fury increases. The seas become mountainous. The tops of huge waves are blown off to mingle with the rain and fill the air with water. Objects at a short distance are not visible."
In good times the Fantome creaked comfortably. Now she would have brayed. The hull, rising and falling, would have shuddered, slammed, and struck water as if it were stone. Rolling through a 90-degree arc, the beefy masts waved like willows. Even well-stored items would have come loose. Cans on shelves, glass in the refrigerator, spilled milk, rum bottles, books and batteries would have mixed in a great, cacophonous salad. Standing water sloshed around. Doors, windows, and seams would have leaked water.
If they could see anything, March, Brasso, and Reyes in the deckhouse and the men in the saloon would have watched the slate-gray, white, and turquoise mountains rise above them; then, as if riding an elevator, they would have risen to look out on a frightful battlefield where wind and spume raged. Down again they would go, into a trough, the seas hissing around them before cascading seawater covered everything. "The radar, if working, would be giving a dubious picture,"said Neil Carmichael, captain of the Windjammer ship Polynesia. "They're inside the bridge, with limited visibility, three or four small windows. The bridge wasn't set up to be used on the inside."Maneuvering to avoid the worst breaking seas would have been impossible. Even if visibility had permitted it, the chaotic nature of the waves would have made the effort futile.
Michael D. Burke remembered the captain's description: "It was terrible, squalling, dark and dirty, yet it was not like he was about to die,"said Burke later. "He was not out of control. We didn't have far to go. It was a race. If we could get to the east, with the winds southwest, we'd have the Honduran mainland to protect us from heavy seas. It was a matter of time before we and the storm got further apart. We never discussed getting into rafts or the lifeboats. We weren't of the opinion that all was lost."
In Typhoon: The Other Enemy, retired Navy Captain C. Raymond Calhoun sketched the domino effect of a hurricane (called a "typhoon"in the Pacific) on his destroyer, Dewey. Halsey's Typhoon, which struck the Third Fleet in the Pacific on December 18, 1944, was similar in strength to Hurricane Mitch. When the typhoon's center was 50 miles away, the aircraft carrier Monterey reported rolls so heavy that airplanes on its deck broke loose, caught fire, and rolled into the sea. Steering systems on light carriers failed. Two men went overboard on the Independence. The carrier Cowpens had a fire on deck. The Langley began rolling 35 degrees to both sides.
"At 0911 our voice radio went out...electrical failures now became a recurring problem. Everything was being short-circuited by the driving rain and spray. Our helmsman was having to use from 20 to 25 degrees of right rudder to maintain a heading. At 0928 with the ship rolling 40 degrees to starboard the Dewey lost suction on the port main lubricating oil pump. We had to stop the port engine in order to prevent wiping the main bearings...the Dewey was corkscrewing and writhing like a wounded animal. The inclinometer registered 55-56-57, then 60 degrees. I tried to recall the stability curves...my recollection was they had shown that the Dewey could recover from a roll of 70 degrees."
The wind "drove spray and spume with the force of a sand blaster. Capillary bleeding was etched on any face exposed directly to it."The doctor reported several men injured by falling, some with fractured ribs.
The Navy ship was "tossed, shoved, beaten."Metal covers ripped away, despite heavy screw-down hasps. In two hours, despite "watertight"hatches, a foot of water filled every living space. "The pounding and rolling grew worse. We were now going over consistently to 68 and 70 degrees. Each roll I would dispatch a silent prayer, ‘Dear God, please make her come back.' Engineers reported that on each starboard roll, the blower intakes, on main deck, were submerged and 500 to 1,000 gallons of water gushed into the fire rooms. Water tenders grabbed fittings and hung like monkeys. Sometimes they fell into the starboard bulkhead, shoulder deep into sloshing water, striking machinery and pumps. During one roll, a starboard hatch sprang open. Seawater poured on switchboards. There were flashes, short circuits, fires. The power went out. Steering went out. The wheel required 6 to 8 men.
"Many times I found myself hanging by my hands, with feet completely clear of the deck, in such a position that if I released my hold, I would drop straight down, through the starboard pilot house window into the sea. Several times I looked down past my dangling feet and saw the angry sea through the open window, directly below them,"Calhoun wrote. The men prayed aloud: "Don't let us down, now, dear Lord, bring it back, oh God, bring it back."Each time it did, they shouted, "Thanks, dear Lord."
Outside, guy wires on exhaust stacks slackened and snapped taut with each gust. One broke with a noise like a cannon. The stack collapsed. The steam line broke. A whistle and siren and roar went off. When a fireman burned his pants, he told Calhoun: "It didn't really matter, Cap'n, I'd probably have had to burn 'em anyway."
At 4:20 p.m., Glenn Parkinson called Windjammer's headquarters and learned that Onassis Reyes had asked March to relay a message to her. "He loves you,"said a voice in Miami.
"Tell him I love him, too,"she answered. Later she said, "I don't know if he ever got the message. I went home and watched the storm on TV."
For moral support, as much as anything, Michael D. Burke asked Captain March to stay on the phone, to keep the satellite line open. "Me and Captain Paul, we were not doing a lot of talking. He's in a battle for his life."
Captain March reported waves of 30 to 35 feet, "right on the sternexcept for confusion. He was saying the sea was terrible. Rough. He indicated it was getting worse. He was starting to lose the lee, which was all the more scary to me. I fully realized what he was going into over the next few hours."
"Don't worry about the lifeboats,"Burke repeated to March. "Even if you lose a mast, don't worry. The debris on deckit's not an issue. Get through it. We'll fix the ship later."He asked March if the water pouring on deck was falling off.
"It's discharging,"March said.
The seas were terrible. "Confused,"March yelled. The ship was making 7 knots.
"You could feel the grimace. The ship was rolling heavily. And that's pretty scary in itself. He would have to hold on. You'd hear sounds of exertion. I heard him groan. I heard him say, ‘That was a big one.' "
"Is it falling off? Is it shedding?"
"Yes, that's not a prob..."
At 4:30 p.m., the satellite telephone went dead.