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Trying To Out-Guess A Storm At Sea Is A Risky Gamble

As Hurricane Sandy pounded its way up the Atlantic Coast last week, a tragic and compelling sidebar to the hurricane’s devastation was the loss of two lives and a replica of a historic wooden tall ship in the treacherous waters off the coast of North Carolina. Questions have been raised about whether Robin Walbridge, the...

This NOAA photo shows Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. The powerful hurricane sank a vintage yacht that tried to outrun it in the Caribbean Sea.

As Hurricane Sandy pounded its way up the Atlantic Coast last week, a tragic and compelling sidebar to the hurricane’s devastation was the loss of two lives and a replica of a historic wooden tall ship in the treacherous waters off the coast of North Carolina.

Questions have been raised about whether Robin Walbridge, the captain of the replica HMS Bounty, should have left New London, Connecticut bound for Saint Petersburg, Florida knowing that Hurricane Sandy was moving up the Atlantic Coast. Walbridge thought he could avoid the storm, but like other ill-fated mariners before him, he could not outguess nature.

A U.S. Coast Guard rescue crew from Elizabeth City, North Carolina saved 14 people who had been aboard the ship, but Walbridge and another crewmember, Claudine Christian, died when the ship sank October 29 about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras.

The Coast Guard is investigating the sinking of the ship. The query will examine the latest example of a captain who challenged the ferocity of a storm at sea and lost. There are many such stories.

On Saturday, August 31, 1935, Captain Einar Sundstrom, master of the passenger liner SS Dixie, cast off from New Orleans to begin what should have been a six-day voyage to New York. The Dixie carried 231 passengers and 120 crewmembers.

Sundstrom knew a hurricane had formed east of the Bahamas, and that his course would take him through the Straits of Florida. The narrow passageway separating Florida from Cuba and the Bahamas would leave Sundstrom very little room for maneuvering if he needed to get out of the way of a hurricane, but the veteran mariner thought he could avoid the storm.

By Labor Day Monday, September 2, the Dixie had rounded Key West, Florida and entered the Straits. Based on advisories from the U.S. Weather Bureau — the predecessor to the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center — Sundstrom thought the storm was almost 200 miles behind him and moving away from him as it skirted Cuba’s northern coast.

But 1935 was long before radar and satellites were pinpointing the paths and locations of hurricanes, and the Weather Bureau’s calculations about the position of the storm were well off the mark. Unknown to the Weather Bureau or to Sundstrom, the storm had turned and was heading for an eventual landfall at Long Key, Florida. It also had freakishly intensified into one of the most powerful hurricanes on record, with winds that probably were gusting to more than 200 mph.

And the Dixie was sailing straight for it.

By 4 p.m., the Dixie was rolling and pitching through seas that were so high they were breaking over the ship’s bridge 55 feet above the usual surface of the ocean. Around 5 p.m., the Dixie entered the eye of the hurricane.

Sundstrom checked his barometer, a centuries-old instrument that is still one of the best indicators of the intensity of a hurricane. The instrument read 27.27 inches, one of the lowest readings ever taken at that time. By comparison, Hurricane Andrew had a barometric pressure reading of 27.23 inches when it made landfall just south of Miami in August 1992.

But the storm, which came to be known as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, was still rapidly intensifying and its winds would become even more powerful before it made landfall around 9:30 p.m. Sundstrom knew he was being pushed ever closer to the treacherous reefs off the Florida Keys, but he was powerless to do anything about it.

At 8:12 p.m., the hurricane threw the Dixie onto French Reef just off Key Largo. Somehow, the ship withstood the overnight pounding of what became the most powerful hurricane to make landfall in U.S. history. There were only a few minor injuries among passengers and crewmembers, although days would pass before the sea calmed enough to allow rescuers to remove them.

A board of inquiry in New York City later exonerated Sundstrom of any blame for the grounding.
Two other ships’ encounters with powerful storms did not have such happy outcomes, however.

Powerful storms are not unusual over Lake Superior in November. The huge lake — essentially an inland sea — can become treacherous and even deadly for freighters trying to make one last haul before shipping shuts down for the winter.

On November 8, 1975, a storm formed over the Oklahoma Panhandle and began moving northeastward across Kansas. Meteorologists predicted it eventually would cross Lake Superior as it moved into Canada.

Around 2:15 p.m. on November 9, the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin bound for Detroit with 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets. The ship had a crew of 29.

The Fitzgerald‘s master, Ernest McSorley, knew a storm was brewing. But McSorley, who had sailed the Great Lakes for 44 years and was planning to retire the following month, decided to navigate away from the usual shipping lane across Lake Superior. McSorley and the captain of another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson, chose a more northerly route that they thought would avoid the worst of the storm’s winds.

But 24 hours after leaving Superior, the Fitzgerald and the Anderson were in the teeth of the fierce winter storm, fighting their way through waves that could have been as high as 30 feet and winds that at times may have exceeded 90 mph — nearly as strong as a Category 2 hurricane . During a radio transmission to another vessel around 5:30 p.m., McSorley said his ship had taken some damage from the storm and that he had never seen such turbulent seas on Lake Superior.

The Anderson was about 10 miles behind the Fitzgerald around 7:10 p.m. when that ship’s master, Jesse Cooper, talked by radio to McSorley. The Fitzgerald‘s captain told Cooper that his ship was “holding its own.”

That was the last anyone heard from the ill-fated freighter. Around 7:20 p.m., Cooper noticed that the Fitzgerald was no longer visible on his radar screen. He tried to reach the Fitzgerald by radio but didn’t get a response. At 7:32 p.m., Cooper radioed the Coast Guard and said he thought the Fitzgerald had sunk.

Searchers eventually found the Fitzgerald, broken into two pieces, at the bottom of Lake Superior. A Coast Guard investigation completed in May 1978 concluded that the force of the gigantic waves pounding the Fitzgerald‘s deck broke open cargo hatches that caused the ship to flood and sink.

Another powerful October hurricane seemed determined to find and sink a venerable sailing ship in the Caribbean Sea in 1998. The storm was Hurricane Mitch, a monster Category 5 hurricane whose most powerful winds reached 188 mph before it made landfall in Ecuador. The ship was the Fantome, a yacht that was built in 1927 for the Duke of Westminster and later owned by the Guiness Brewing Company and Aristotle Onassis.

In 1998, the Fantome was owned by Windjammer Barefoot Cruises of Miami and was used for six-day pleasure cruises between Honduras and Belize. On October 25, 1998, the Fantome was scheduled to start one of its regular runs from Omoa, Honduras to Belize with 97 passengers.

Because of the hurricane, company officials first decided to cancel the cruise to Belize and instead cruise eastward to the Honduras Bay Islands. Then they decided to sail straight to Belize City — a 12-hour trip — unload the passengers and cancel the cruise altogether.

By the time the passengers were unloaded,¬†Hurricane Mitch had become one of the most powerful hurricanes on record. The storm’s center was to the northeast of Belize City.

Fantome was cornered by the storm,” the New York Times later wrote. “If she stayed … she could have been sunk or run aground.”

The ship’s captain conferred with his bosses in Miami. They decided to put out to sea rather than risk having the Fantome wrecked in port.

After checking the forecast track for Mitch, the ship’s master, Guyan March, sailed southeast, thinking this would protect his ship. But on the afternoon of October 27, the storm turned southwest instead of following the track forecast.

March and Windjammer officials then decided the Fantome should sail eastward. By now, Mitch’s eye — and its 180 mph winds — were about 45 miles away from the Fantome. But the ship was still struggling in 100 mph winds and 15-foot waves.

By 4:30 p.m., the Fantome could no longer be reached by satellite telephone. Windjammer officials later learned that the storm had taken another unexpected turn and closed in on the Fantome. The ship and its crew were never seen nor heard from again. Coast Guard searchers later found wreckage and empty life rafts from the ship, but no survivors.

“It is almost as if the hurricane hunted her down,” the New York Times said.

Willie Drye has been writing about hurricanes and other topics for National Geographic News since 2003. Follow his blog, Drye Goods.

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Meet the Author

Willie Drye
Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.