Our Extraordinary Experience with Tropical Cyclone Debbie in The Whitsundays!

Ever heard the old mariners tale, that to survive a Tropical Cyclone you should seek shelter up a creek in the mangroves?     That’s what we did.   Here’s our story…

 Weather Map of TC Debbie sitting of the Whitsunday Coast.  27 April, 2017.

We have been sailing Australia’s Far North Queensland waters – a region prone to Tropical Cyclones during the months of November through April. There hadn’t been a blow in a season or two, so we knew we might be in for a hit.

Plan early:

Back when we initially decided that we would stay, we started to set our cyclone plan into place. Our preference was to head into the mangroves over leaving Sarean on a mooring, or heading into a marina.

We feel that she would be in more danger of being hit by other boats or debris in both of these scenarios. Marinas often suffer damage – jetties can flip or break apart dragging boats into a big pile.   Also some owners are not very responsible with their boats – leaving loose lines, sails and deck gear inadequately tied down, which then become missiles.

Leaving her on the mooring would have her sitting in the middle of the pack.  And you know, you can do as much prep as you like, but if others don’t, potentially they will be ramming you in the middle a storm – generally at 2am!   (We were almost taken out by a boat left unattended on anchor last year. It blew up to a nasty SW 45 knots, and not only did we have mere minutes to save ourselves and our beautiful Sarean, we then saved the chaps boat from smashing its way through the rest of the fleet).

So we choose to remove ourselves from everybody else’s firing line, this way we only have ourselves to contend with.

We also decided that when a potential system made Townsville or 100NM from us, that we would seek shelter regardless. You see, Sarean is our freedom – and we won’t give that up for the world.

Choosing our spot:

We looked at the Charts for the region and sussed out a few creeks in the area that could serve us if the need arose. We chose 3 differing spots which would allow is time to get settled, depending on our location at the time.

In our experience, you don’t have much time to get to safety as once these Cyclones get on the march to cross land generally they’re doing about 10knots, and they cross fast. Now this Debbie beast – she was moving very slowly at around 2 knots, even stalling. When this happens you know you’re looking at something big, as they suck in all the surrounding winds and gather ever-more power.

Preparation:

We had previously purchased 125m of 19mm Nylon rode (silver line) to top up our mooring lines for this situation.  We divided them up into 25m lengths, and at that thickness they tie off nicely around our cleats.  We use this line as it has a 2.5T breaking strain, also, it stretches as opposed to Sheet lines which may break when shock loaded.   (Having said this though, we seemed to have misplaced two of our mooring lines, so had to go with two sheet lines, which survived in conjunction with the 8 other lines that we had spider-webbed around the boat).

We were closely watching the weather maps.  We have found WindyTY to be pretty spot on with their forecasting.  It gives various overlays of wind strength and direction, sea state, swell, temp etc, over a google earth type map with up to 7 days ahead in their models.  If you haven’t used it yet, check it out!

So, with the possibility of a Tropical Storm moving closer, we chose to move off Trammel Bay.  Trammel is not an all tide entrance, it is rocky in places and hosts a wide expanse of mud flats making the entrance quite shallow. However on the chart, it looked pretty protected from any sea state outside, it has two creeks divided by a large expanse of mangroves and is surrounded by steep hills.

We went up there a few times over the season, to familiarise ourselves with the entrance and creek, as it is tight, tidal and shallow – and being in a keel boat we didn’t want to be sitting high and dry, and poorly positioned when a storm hit!

As an aside, when you’re talking about getting a keel boat up a tidal creek, you will likely need to go in on a high tide, so we chose to move early to avoid the inherent challenges of trying to manoeuvre a big yacht in a tight, shallow space in blustery conditions.

  Darren setting lines deep into the mangroves

Once we got in, Darren then hopped into the tender with our hand held depth sounder to seek out the deepest part of the creek.  With tidal ranges of 3.7m or so and a very shallow creek, we aimed not to have Sarean sit on her keel in Hurricane Force winds for long periods at a time.

We also didn’t like the idea of sitting into the side of the creek as there was the potential that she may fall over on a low tide, which we wanted to avoid. So we searched out a hole and manoeuvred her over to it.  We were also looking along the mangroves to find the strongest and healthiest looking mangroves to tie onto.

By now, the tide had turned, so I held Sarean in place while Darren started the process of setting the lines. We decided not to drop anchor, as we didn’t want to snag any logs or debris during the storm.

Can you imagine trying to loose a log from your Bow in heaving weather and 100+ knot winds in the middle of the night?

So we tied 5 lines down each side of Sarean.  Our thinking here is that they help to pin her down along her entire length.   If a line goes you have another back-up just next door, and the risk that Sarean would cut loose would be minimalised.  This tactic worked well. Of the three other boats downstream, each had only tied Fore and Aft.   Even though they had doubled up on those lines, they ran into trouble when sheer force broke off the mangrove they were tied to, and they didn’t have back-up lines tied elsewhere.

So, double up, triple up if you like. In these situations overkill doesn’t hurt. Because when those winds start, it’s simply too late. The opportunity for applying new lines is gone.

We also tied the lines high up in the mangroves on the High Tide. Our thinking here is that they will still be sitting up nice and high at low tide, therefore negating another potential snag of flotsam and jotsam that could damage Sarean’s hull.

  Sarean sitting happily in the mangroves.

Deck Prep:

We then removed all items from the deck that we could stow down below.  This included life rings, Dan Buoys, boarding ladders, fishing equipment, fenders, boards, poles, winch handles etc.   In this scenario we chose to heavily lash the Main and the Headsail over removing them.   We then tied off the Furler, along with all Lines and Halyards to the Stays.  We heavily lashed the liferaft, spinnaker pole, solar panels and Windgen (we kept Windgen going for power as long as we could).

We kept the Cockpit clears and Mozzie screens on for as long as possible, because (By Crikey!) pretty as the mangroves are, they harbour a plethora of Midgies and other carnivorous insects all waiting to bite… You!

This also gave us a greater level of living space, as we ended up being there for an astounding 5 days!    When conditions worsened we took the lot down, along with stowing the cockpit seating below.

Cabin Prep:

Not too different from when we are under way generally speaking, we stashed loose items and prepped our wet weather gear.  I also have a habit of prepping my wetsuit, mask and a head torch – as if you have to go out multiple times, at least you will stay warm whilst wet and you will be able to see with the aid of the mask to protect your eyes.

I then cooked up a big pot of curry to see us through our stay.

Darren disconnected all non-essential electronics directly from the battery, including Auto-Pilot, Chart Plotter, HF Radio, Radar.  We kept the solar, fridge and lights running for our own personal comfort.  We ended up running the engine a couple of times to top up our batteries, as the weather wasn’t conducive to power generation from alternate sources for about 2 days.

I double checked the contents of our Grab Bag, topped up water bottles, and threw in our wallets and boat documents along with a handheld GPS and our EPIRB – in the unexpected case that we would need to abandon ship.

I then went around and shook up all of our Fire Extinguishers, so that they would be useful in case of need.

 Prep done – off to meet the neighbours

Radio Net:

So with our Prep done, we then tootled off downstream to meet the neighbours.

If you’re visiting the Whitsundays and you happen to see a Motor-Cat called MV Knee Deep out in the bays – go and make yourself known! Buddy is a delightful old salt, he welcomes visitors and makes a truly entertaining host.

And what a lovely bunch of coconuts they were. We decided as a group to start a Radio Net of sorts. We all maintained a listening watch on VHF Channel 16 and used another working Channel for our own communications. This was a superb idea, allowing cross comms on weather, general experiences and a few laughs over the odd things that were happening on board. It also proved more a great moral booster and stress reliever, as at times the whole shebang did seem never ending – and things did get hairy.

The Ride:

When we first took shelter we were expecting to have a days prep, a days storm then get outta there.  What was interesting about this cyclone is that it all happened very slowly.   In a way you could liken it to being cattle in a slaughter yard, just hanging about waiting for what eventuates.

We were sitting pretty comfortably and pottering about doing a few boat jobs.  My friend Nat, a morning Radio Presenter for Nova937FM in Perth had organised a few early morning calls to give her listeners a glance at ‘Mangrove Megs Cyclone Experience’ – and I have to say that was a pretty funny sidetrack for us.  Three days to impact and I was describing to her how beautiful the mangroves were and how sheltered we were from the 40 knots blowing outside.  The next day I was blown off the Liferaft trying to keep the signal alive whilst explaining the inherent beauty of the cyclonic clouds swirling above us. The following day (about 2 hours before the real brunt of Debbie hit), we lost our connection when a big gust hit – I am sure leaving them all wondering if we were completely mad.

  Darren reading messages from curious friends.

Did we feel safe?  We absolutely did.  Sarean is a comfy, well built ship and we were happy with our prep.  We’ve both been through cyclones before, so I guess that even though no two storms are the same, the ‘fear of the unknown’ element was considerably reduced.  Plus we were at the head of the creek with everyone else down wind, so we were fairly confident that we weren’t going anywhere.

And it was pretty exhilarating at times I have to say. Watching the mangroves swishing backwards and forwards, and being laid flat by powerful gusts of wind.  Making cups of tea with the ‘tide well out’ became somewhat of a challenge that’s for sure.

Down below it felt like being in a turbulent aeroplane at times, with Sarean jiggling and tossing backwards, forwards and slamming sideways as she tugged at her lines. At one stage I commented to Darren that it seemed as if we were in fact sailing on the open ocean we were on such a lean – only we were tied down!

“This is the stuff that makes you feel alive!” yelled Darren to that angry Debbie beast.

At 10:30hrs on Tuesday 28th March the Barometer had dropped to 968 hPa and was still falling, so we knew we must be getting pretty close to the eye, which had reportedly tightened to 50 miles wide.  We were 1 hour to high tide, at time when we would be most exposed, and things were getting furious outside.  There was a lot of radio chatter going on with our other mangrove dwelling buddies reporting damage and speculating when this might all be over.

Things starting to get interesting

And here’s where I say, ‘Pay Attention To What Comes Next’.  I mean this in the context of reading your weather maps.   Some say ‘it’ll all calm down after they eye passes’, but that big old girl, she just sat there and got bigger, and bigger – and as round things go, fatter and fatter.  Sure, she pelted us with the expected South Easterlies, but she had a whole other half of Northern fury coming after the Eye – and it was bigger and fatter and nastier than the first half – frankly, that was a walk in the park!

We must’ve been on the very edge of the eye, as everything just stopped.  All you could hear was the ever constant whirring of something akin to 10,000 jet planes that had been roaring around us for a day or so now.  We rushed on deck to check it out and there wasn’t even a drop of the sideways rain that had been bashing at us not 2 seconds prior. It was completely calm.  Just amazing.

So we checked our lines and ensured all was OK on deck – and generally took in the ethereal beauty of it all.  I have to say though, it wasn’t long before the winds picked up again and I have to admit that even though I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I was the first one to jump back down to shelter considering the power we had previously experienced.

With the Northerlies kicking in it left us at the back of the pack, and admittedly we were feeling a little uneasy about the prep our fellow boaties had done.  Would their lines come loose?  If they did would they collect another boat as they headed our way?  Our concept was that if we looked like breaking loose we would start the engine and drive Sarean directly into the mangroves.  But would the others be able to do the same?

 Our neighbours fighting the good fight

As it happened the other 3 boats had trouble mid storm. One asked if we had spare lines we could take down and the other required help getting a broken awning down.  Darren was pretty gung-ho at first and donned his wet weather gear ready to leap out into the quagmire with his ‘super-dude-to-the-rescue’ suit on.  However as we both crouched down in our cockpit in the middle of what turned out to be over 150 knots of wind, we could hardly breathe, the air was being whipped away from us with such force, then smashing in our faces with sideways rain.  In the short distance of maybe 50 metres between us and the next boat, literal sheets of rock hard water were being whipped up and tossed our way. Our tender was actually flying in it’s davits and we quickly understood that we would not be able to render assistance.

I don’t remember the moment things started to calm down. Time seemed to have locked us in some sort of vacuum.  However, the winds had died off and we were treated to the most incredible electrical storm which must’ve lasted over 18 hours.  It was an amazing space to be in.  It was pitch black, those 10,000 jet planes were still roaring around us and next thing there would be a long rumbling, as if you were surrounded by a gaggle of giant hungry Panthers on the prowl, which was followed by a sort of sonic boom, then BANG, lightening would flash from above, then at once straight down, so close you think you must’ve been hit, then sprays of the brightly lit devils flashing and crashing, across and down, all around filling the sky.  It was just incredible!  Darren and I sat in the cockpit for some time just giggling it was so outrageous. Then we would be silent, contemplating how humble we felt to be witness to such awesome power.

So after 36 hours of what I can only say was a deeply moving experience, we came out of our ‘bat cave’ to a bright and sunny day. Debbie had passed, although those 10,000 jet planes were still parked above us.  Surely they had somewhere else to be!

 Happy to get out on deck.

The Aftermath:

It was pretty surreal as we spent the rest of the day cleaning the leaf matter off of the boat and putting things back in their rightful place.  Strange how bits of leaves could have ended up all the way up in the Forepeak when all hatches were closed.

We found one mangrove broken just before the line we had tied, so it still held, and one line broken.  Other than that, no damage suffered.  I will need to sew up some new hatch covers at some stage.  Otherwise Sarean held up well, which we are thankful for.

We soon launched the tender and went to share our joy with the other boaties, who made it through with minor damage. Heading upstream was a pretty sobering affair. The mangroves were twisted, broken and flattened.  The tree’s in the surrounding hills were naked, broken, twisted or gone.  Not 200metres from Sarean an entire strip of mangroves was gone.  Gone.

We could only imagine the destruction we would find when we headed back to Shute Harbour.

So the next morning on the last of the high tides we slipped our lines, and using the dinghy to get Sarean’s Bow around in the tight creek, we departed our safe haven.

The breeze was still in the high 30’s however we had to take the tide, unless we wanted to stay in the mangroves for another month of midgie joy.  We had heard over the VHF that Shute was a disaster zone and the Navy had closed the Port.   As we approached we could see in the distance masts sticking out of the water with no hull in sight, beautiful boats up on the rocks well above high tide – and strikingly all the lands were bare, so we could see masses of houses that we never knew were there.

The Navy let us slide on past, offering a knowing nod in acknowledgment of what we must have witnessed.  As we very gingerly made our way into harbour, the devastation was mind blowing.  Neither of us could speak for what we saw.  Where there used to be over 100 vessels sitting on moorings, there we now maybe 10.  Jetties were missing or in another place completely, buildings were destroyed, tree’s up-rooted, 30 or so vessels were up on the hard, had launched themselves way into the mangroves down the end of the bay, or were laying mast, or bottom up.  The rest were simply gone.  There’s that word again.  Gone.

What an impact this Debbie beast had.

  A haunting picture showing all the empty moorings surrounding this yacht.

In Hindsight:

A couple of fellow yachties said they wouldn’t tuck in so close to the weather side of the creek next time, as they took damage to stanchions and rails from the mangroves themselves.

Some of these guys only tied off fore and aft, however found that with this beast of a Cyclone taking so long to pass and the strong Northerlies that came after, they lost lines – and with no-one able to render assistance they had to resort to jumping into the creek, mid storm to save their boats.  Think danger, crocodiles, flying objects…

And Us?   We have ordered more silver line as we were unhappy about not being able to find some of our storm line when we needed it most.  Other than that, we would likely play that game again.  We felt safe enough.  When it hits low tide you are actually sitting at ground level and well below the mangroves, so we would take that option again as it was quite protected.

If you’re like me and react badly to insect bites, take Anti-histamines. Sprays, creams, lotions and potions – they won’t save you from those midgie blighters!

I will finish with Darren’s words:

“That’s one heck of a way to feel alive, but we still have our girl.”

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 I love this shot…  How often would you see a 47 ft yacht parked sideways up a creek!

Thank you for reading our story.  If you have any questions – we’d love to hear from you, so please write in the comments box below…

Wishing You A Wonderful Day

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