With less than a week to go before hurricane Matthew hit my husband, Simon, and I discussed our options. We could keep our sailboat, Britican, where she sits in the Charleston Harbor Marina, South Carolina, on pontoon B39. Alternatively, we could move her from the marina to a space more inland by motoring and anchoring up a river. Other options included sailing Britican up to Wilmington, North Carolina (a more inland marina) or heading east to Bermuda. (Watch video below and/or continue reading below to get full story).
Video: Moving our boat in preparation for Hurricane Matthew
The weight of our decision felt heavier than lead upon our shoulders.
We eliminated the idea of moving the boat from the Charleston area due to practicalities and further future uncertainties. Who’s to know if the hurricane will hit Wilmington or Bermuda rather than Charleston? By moving we could actually put ourselves in a worse position.
Simon and I felt that our best bet was to listen to local live aboards that have lived through previous hurricanes. We started asking questions as to what river was best. How far inland could we get? Were there any depth or height restrictions? Did we have to time our travels around bridge openings or tides? Once we made it up the river, where could we anchor? In what depth would we be anchoring? Was there enough room to swing with 200’ of chain out?
When we started asking about moving our boat our intentions were to stay in the marina. Heading up an unknown river, anchoring our boat and leaving her alone freaked us out. We wanted to stay with what we knew.
We wanted to have Britican tied down to something.
As the storm grew in strength and rumors of possible devastation circled, our anxiety grew. Local boaties discussed hurricane impacts to marina’s similar to ours saying that they were totally destroyed. In a previous storm, one nearby marina completely broke loose from land, travelled across the water way and smashed to pieces.
The choice to move Britican was quickly becoming a ‘must-do’ rather than an option.
Simon and I decided to leave the marina during slack tide the following day. While preparing the boat I started to pack our things. Instead of packing for a trip off the boat, for the first time ever, I was packing with fear of loss. If the hurricane was anything like Hugo, one that destroyed parts of Charleston in the past, there was a possibility that we’d have no boat to return to.
In a daze I walked around the boat thinking, ‘what’s important to take?’ Aside from a few bits of sentimental jewelry, I grabbed enough clothes for Simon, our daughter, and I to last for a while. I also packed a book that I write in every year about my thoughts about our daughter, Sienna – it’s one of those books you update every year and when she’s 18 I will give it to her.
I thought about taking a few high priced spare parts like an extra alternator and spare starter motor but then decided against it.
The parts are heavy and the amount of money we’d get back from them paled into insignificance when considering the worst. The last things I packed were some of Sienna’s books and toys. I grabbed her prized Lego box in addition to her Shopkins collection.
Around midday an emergency meeting was held on the marina dock.
The marina manager and a local skipper explained that the boats would be safer up the Cooper River. If anyone wanted to go the skipper would take boats up, in convoy, to help anchor in addition to diving on the anchor (to check it was dug in) and provide a boat ride back to the marina if needed. The charge for the service was $500. The convoy was leaving around 3pm that day.
Considering that Simon and I were going up the river the following day, the option to go with the skipper sounded comforting. However, when we heard that around 30 boats were going we then worried about space.
Feeling our anxiety increase further, we decided to get Sienna out of school and leave as soon as possible – hopefully before the convoy. Lucky for us we had friends that had taken their boat up the river the day before so we had contacts in the area we were going.
Our plan was to go up the river, find our friends, anchor near them and have them take us to land with their tender. Once on land we’d call a taxi to get back to the marina, grab our boat and leave the area.
If it was just Simon and I we would perhaps stay on the boat longer but considering our six-year-old daughter we put her safety first.
Simon went to get Sienna, I finalized our bags to take off the boat in addition to throwing out loads of food, emptying our freezer into a cooler and removing any trash. It’s as if I had to shut down our boat in a matter of hours when usually I spent days preparing for a leave.
Just before we exited the marina, a neighboring boat offered to come pick us up, by car, and bring us back to the marina. I felt a bit of anxiety reduce. Knowing that we had a way back to the marina gave me strength.
We prepared to leave the marina with a rushing tide – something that we’d only do in an emergency. The tide is so strong at the Charleston Harbor Marina that it’s not uncommon for boats to be pushed onto other boats or the other docks making an exit impossible until the tide changes.
Friends helped us slip our lines, Simon cleared the pontoon and the boat quickly went sideways heading for the A dock. Using maximum engine and full bow thrusters we avoided hitting A dock by inches. Maneuvering like crazy, Simon backed us up towards to exit getting the boat in a position to navigate out of danger.
I stopped breathing for a few minutes.
Once out of the marina I noticed that there was loads of white smoke coming out of the exhaust. Usually that’s a sign of water in the engine. I notified Simon and then went to work getting all the lines and fenders in order.
To our horror we both noticed the water temperature on our engine rise.
My heart felt like it was being squeezed and my body shook with fear. The first thing I did was head up to the front of the boat to release the pin that holds the anchor in place. It can often take me a few minutes to get it unlatched and knowing how strong the tide was running I felt we might be forced to drop anchor if the engine started to overheat.
While I was getting the anchor ready, Sienna was asking if we could play Uno, a card game. I used all my power to smile and say, ‘sure – we can play Uno but give me a few more minutes to clear up the deck.’ I then put a movie on for her and acted as if everything was normal.
Simon navigated us under the Arthur Ravenel Jr Bridge, a massive suspension bridge connecting Charleston to the city of Mount Pleasant. After we made it under the bridge the temperature was still on the rise.
We had to anchor and see if we could find the problem.
Simon moved the boat out of the shipping channel and we looked for a suitable depth to drop anchor. The first thing that popped into my head was, ‘what if we can’t get our anchor up after we drop it?’ I mentioned something to Simon and he said, ‘Kim, that won’t happen.’ We’ve never lost an anchor nor did we ever have an issue pulling ours up…my mind, for some reason, just went into worst case scenarios.
We successfully anchored and while I stood on the bow making sure our anchor held, Simon ran down to the engine and started troubleshooting. Knowing we only had four hours of light left in the day I was anxious to get as far up the river as possible.
Simon cleaned out our raw water strainer, checked our water cooling systems and then said:
‘Okay, I cleaned a lot of gunk out, I’m sure that was the problem.’
The water around Charleston is full of algae and all sorts of grass, seaweed and gunk. We’ve never stayed in an area that’s so full of stuff. We turned on the engine, pulled up the anchor and the temperature seemed good. ‘Yippeee we yelled and carried on up the river.’
Fifteen minutes later Simon looked at me and said, ‘the temperature is rising again.’
My stomach sunk.
Just after Simon told me that bad news a beautiful bottle nose dolphin surfaced on our starboard side. I kept searching for another dolphin and then in my head I said, ‘No…don’t you do that! Don’t you cross my bow!!!’ The dolphin popped his head up, looked right at me as if to say ‘pay attention’, and then crossed our bow.
I’m not a superstitious person. We have umbrellas and bananas on our boat – both things that boaters shouldn’t have! But when it comes to dolphins I’m not sure it’s superstition. These creatures are smart.
While sailing in the Mediterranean a good friend of mine, an ex Italian Naval Admiral, told me that if a single dolphin ever crosses your bow (meaning that it goes from left to right or right to left) that you’re in danger.
The last and only time I had a dolphin pass our boat was on the south coast of Italy.
As were making our way towards a marina a dolphin crossed our bow. I remember my cousin and I looking at each other thinking, ‘Ut-oh!’ Within a few minutes of the passing the bolt holding the main alternator on our engine sheered off. It made a massive ruckus. Thankfully we were close to the marina and you don’t need an alternator to make the engine run. We were fine.
Back to our current situation…
I took the dolphins warning and told Simon we had to stop. Not only did the dolphin freak me out but as we advanced further up the river there were fewer places to anchor.
We were approaching the Cooper River Marina and I said to Simon, let’s see if we can get in the marina and spend more time trying to sort out the problem.
Simon called the marina on the VHF and the guys at Cooper River Marina helped us get in. Luckily there was space on the outside wall. The tide was rushing out so fast – Simon pulled up the marina wall, I handed the bow line to an attendant and within seconds we were all tied down. It’s scary when you have such a strong tide to work against but Simon is amazing with his boat handling skills.
The marina said we could stay on the wall as long as we needed to get the engine fixed.
They even offered us space overnight if we needed it – free of charge. Simon started taking pieces off the engine – he wanted to check that the impeller was okay. That’s usually the reason for an engine overheat. The impeller was fine.
While Simon was at the marina office determining options two off duty fire fighters walked by to ask if we were going up river. I said that we’re trying to but our engine is overheating. Without delay, the fire fighters explained that our problem was growth along the grate of our raw water intake. The firemen had a research boat at the marina and just paid a diver to clean off their intakes so they could travel up river to anchor.
Knowing the problem made things better but we didn’t have time to have our intake area cleaned.
The tide, however, was about to change. We decided to leave the marina, barely idle the engine and just flow up river with the tide doing around 5 knots. As long as we didn’t push the engine she’d stay cool enough to get us up the river.
Simon managed to meet the diver that the firemen used and the diver said he’d come tow us if we couldn’t make it. Knowing we had the number of someone that was available to help gave me a bit more strength.
With the sun setting we headed up into the unknown.
The moon was a tiny sliver, the wind was gusting at 30 knots and the river snaked from left to right. We couldn’t see anything so we had to trust our GPS plotter. From time to time we’d see channel markers without lights or random buoys. I kept thinking, ‘please don’t let us hit something or have our prop get tangled in a line.’
The fear I felt was immense. My body tensed with such a high strength. I felt like a spring being coiled tighter and tighter.
While passing bridges we noticed that the traffic was stopped going in and out of our area. I thought, ‘Oh no…our friend that’s going to pick us up will never make it to us! And if he does make it to us, perhaps we won’t be able to get back to the marina.’
A few minutes later we received a text from our friend saying that he’d left the marina. At this point we still had three to four hours to travel but our friend said it might take him that long to get to us. I felt so thankful.
Knowing that we were going to be picked up almost made me cry with joy.
It then dawned on me that I hadn’t eaten all day. With six huge tubs of frozen left-overs defrosting in the sink/counter you’d think I’d be able to take my pick of something good. I couldn’t face food. I just couldn’t eat. In the end I had to toss the food into the river before leaving the boat.
To keep my mind off our situation I went around the boat and put towels in all of the windows. I read that hurricane force winds cause water to get into all sorts of places. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to put something in the windows. I then heard Simon bang on the cockpit of the boat – usually a signal that he needs me.
I walked up to the cockpit and Simon said, ‘I can’t make out what this is.’
I looked forward and noticed a massive tanker and it was all lit up. I surveyed my view, looked on our plotter and tried to figure out what I was looking at. We couldn’t see any green and red lights and considering the tanker was so close we were blinded by the lights. It appeared as if the tanker was almost blocking the whole river. I saw trees on either side and no clear way of going forward.
We then saw lines stretching far off it’s stern and bow. It took several minutes to figure out that the tanker was tied down to mooring buoys. As we got closer I told Simon to pass the boat on the right so he switched directions and we eventually found our way around the massive monster.
By this time it was Sienna’s bedtime – it was around 8pm. She wanted to be with us so I made a bed for her in the cockpit. Sienna stirred for a while but eventually went to bed with her head on my lap. Meanwhile I kept and eye on the GPS plotter and Simon tried his best to look across the water for any objects. From time to time we’d see boats anchored with no lights on.
The trip was horrifying.
As we approached our final leg Simon relaxed a bit. I started putting the fenders down below. I kept them on deck just in case we had an issue. Knowing we were almost to the anchor site it was time for me to clear up the deck.
Then I heard Simon yell, ‘Oh my god,’ while he quickly veered the boat the starboard side.
I looked forward and almost a stones throw away was a massive barge. It was anchored right smack in the middle of the river with no lights on. Thoughts ran through my head – what if we hit the barge? What if sunk? How will we survive this night?
As we rounded the bend, Simon called our friends. There were several boats already anchored in the area. Our friends flashed their anchor light and we headed in their direction.
Simon told me to head up to the deck to prepare to anchor. While travelling up the river, and in the daylight, Simon attached another anchor to our normal anchor. The plan was to lower the extra anchor first, then lower or normal anchor so that the extra anchor made sure that the normal anchor stayed stuck in the mud!
When I went to drop the extra anchor in the water I couldn’t lift it.
For some amazing reason the tide seemed slow and the wind stopped. Simon came to the foredeck with me and he lowered the first anchor while I helped the chain to drop. Once the chain of the first anchor was in, I then lowered the normal anchor and Simon controlled the boat so that we went backwards. I let out 30m (100’) of chain and we pulled the anchor in tight. It didn’t budge. I then let out 20m (50’) and pulled in tight. Again, we didn’t budge. I then let out all the chain we had, put on our snubber (a device that transfers the force of the anchor to the boat rather than the winch) and closed our anchor locker.
We scurried around the boat doing our final checks, turning things off and making sure everything was in order.
I gave Britican a rub and told her how much I loved her and that we’ve done the best we can for her.
Our friend, Ron, from a neighboring boat was up on deck helping Simon do some final things. We woke Sienna up, put her in the tender and I locked the boat up. Just as I took my final step off Britican there was a bit of lose sicoflex (black stuff that separates the teak) on the deck. I grabbed it and put it in my pocket. I felt the need to have a bit of Britican with me.
Ron took us over to a boatyard on land where our friend Brad was there with a flashlight. We hopped off the boat, into Brad’s car and drove back to the marina.
I felt relived to be back on land but sick to leave Britican. At least we had eye’s on our boat. Ron and his beautiful wife, Mercedes, planned on staying on their boat throughout the storm.
By 11:30pm we made it back to our car. Thankfully the traffic died down and it only took ½ hour to get our car. Once at our marina, we hopped in our car, gave Brad a big hug, and headed to Raleigh, North Carolina.
Sienna quickly fell asleep in the car. Around 2am Simon and I stopped at a McDonalds off of I-95 and grabbed a burger. I had a lovely chat with a police officer while waiting for our order. He told me that we were very smart to get out of Charleston during the evening.
He explained it would be bumper-to-bumper traffic in the morning.
By 3am, however, Simon and I were starting to hallucinate. We pulled over in the first rest station once we crossed into North Carolina. We slept for two hours in the parking lot. I didn’t think I’d be able to fall asleep but we were both out within minutes of pulling over.
By 6:30am we made it to my brothers house in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Britican is in the best possible place we could put her. She has friends keeping an eye on her. And most importantly, Simon, Sienna and I are out of the storms path.
Throughout this whole ordeal the support, kind words and offers for places to stay have been amazing. Thankfully I had an Internet connection while travelling up the river. Even thought I was scared out of my wits it was so nice to feel connected with people that care. We received messages on Face Book, through my email and many people text and called to offer help.
Interestingly, at one point on our motor up the Cooper River, I put my head around the spray hood, smelled the fresh air and felt peaceful.
For a split second, I felt in love with the boat, the river, the lifestyle of living on a boat.
There’s a story that has stuck with me for years. I think it’s a Buddhist story/meditation. At one point in the tale a person is handing on a branch over a cliff. There’s no way up and below the person are tigers ready to eat the person. Facing imminent death, instead of freaking out, this person notices some beautiful juicy red strawberries. Seeing the berries, he takes them and eats them remarking about how amazing they are.
I couldn’t grasp the message in this story when I was younger. For some reason, it hit home as we traveled up the river and I caught a glimpse of being in the now and appreciating that now.
No…there weren’t tigers ready to eat us but I sure felt that our lives were in danger. Even though I had massive fear, I managed to find a moment when I could simply appreciate life. I didn’t expect that to happen.