Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Surf's up!

I noticed a suspicious swirl on the weather chart late last week and hoped that it wasn't the sign of a typhoon so early in the season. The following day, the marina manager confirmed that a typhoon was heading towards Hong Kong and was packing very strong winds, the strongest since a typhoon back in 1984. He suggested we prepare for the worst.

As we watched the weather charts on various Internet sites, we saw the system build in strength and the projected path confirmed by over 7 weather models to be heading directly for Hong Kong. By Monday the term Super Typhoon (category 5) was used in forecasts and we were hearing reports of "phenomenal wave heights" and sunk/missing vessels, as well as deaths, flooding and the destruction of thousands of homes in the Philippines. We were nervous but had little choice but to prepare as best we could to withstand the winds. We were on a new mooring in a bay that is well protected from all wind directions. We heard about a tiny cove that was even more tucked away, and briefly considered moving to a mooring there, but found the fee to be outrageously expensive during the typhoon for a required minimum stay of 3 days.

We bought enough groceries to last us for a while and filled the water tanks in case water supplies and facilities were compromised in the typhoon. Then we began stripping the boat to prepare for winds projected to reach 90-110 knots, which took us the better part of 2 days.

We removed our sails and stowed them below decks. For the main, this involved removing the sail cover, dismantling the reefing, outhaul, downhaul and preventer systems, rolling it up and disengaging it and then sliding it off the mast and boom tracks, as well as stowing all the lines and blocks that were now no longer attached. Below, the main, with the full battens took up a noticeable area inside our normal living space. For the jib, since we had removed the battens already, this involved taking the sail cover off and folding the jib as small as we could to stow in the v-berth, along with the many other items that needed to share that small area. We removed the awning and the life sling and stuffed them into the V-berth too. We moved all the halyards aft to reduce windage and put the removeable inner forestay into position to provide additional support to the rig. It took us hours alone to remove the wind generator, which we concluded was a major risk in high winds if it began to spin and/or came down. Since its bolts were frozen, we had to drill them out to dismantle it. As we had been already debating whether or not to keep it, since it is unsightly, loud, heavy and required some work to get running again after disuse, we decided that its heyday was over, the solar panels were generating adequate power, and it was time to retire the beast. We found a Scotsman to give us cash for it on the spot as we were on our way to the dumpster. The poor Chinese trash lady was out of luck on this one.

We tried to remove our dodger, but found the zippers to be frozen, and concluded we might wreck it just trying to remove it so we tied it down to pad eyes on the deck and planned to remove the windows if it continued to look like a direct hit and became absolutely necessary. Ultimately the dodger provided shelter from the weather when we wanted to survey the situation outside. We did get out our diving masks, just in case we'd need them to see in the driving wind and rain if we needed to go outside during the blow. We removed all blocks from the deck that might create extra wind resistence and stowed all related lines. We tied the tiller tightly to immobilize it completely.

Then we shored up our mooring lines. Our mooring was brand new and in excellent condition so we were willing to place our faith in it. First, we added line to extend the length of the original mooring lines so we could dampen the motion, add stretch capability and reduce the stress on our bow cleats. Then we removed our anchor from the anchor roller and attached our anchor chain directly to the mooring chain, keeping it loose with a very long snubber line and rubber snubbers, just in case the original mooring lines chafed through. And we added a second mooring line as an interim back up. Then we covered the bow by tying down a canvas mat to protect the paint, varnish and baby hatch. And we added fire hose to the mooring lines for additional protection against chafe.

After a dinghy tour of the bay to assess the preparation of other boats and a walk to get some exercise before being stuck aboard for what might be days, we returned to the boat. We took all our cushions below then tied the dinghy down extremely well to the foredeck after stowing the oars and seat, also in the V-berth. Then we braced ourselves for a stong blow, loose boats and flying debris. We'd had offers from near strangers for a couch, but as long as there was something we might be able to do, we couldn't help but stay aboard. We could check for chafe or other potential problems and fend off at least. We were in a pretty protected location for this wind direction behind a well secured marina pontoon that we figured would block the waves and we were close enough to swim ashore if necessary. We had only a couple of boats in front of us and most boats were pretty well stowed and the moorings seemed pretty secure. We have been lucky to have Wireless Internet access from the boat, and appreciated being able to dissipate the nervous energy while the wind came up. As we tracked the Typhoon's progress, we were relieved to see the track for Chanchu shift eastwards towards Taiwan and see that it was losing its strength.

What we couldn't believe is how long it took the radio to announce to the general public that this super typhoon that was headed straight for HK. I guess they were worried about mass panic. We'd been tracking it nearly 6 days before they said anything more than "showers and squally weather expected mid week". But since the typhoon ultimately shifted eastwards and lost some of its strength, maybe it was better to wait and see first. Not that other boat owners weren't worried and preparing as carefully as we were.

Typhoon Chanchu, which means "pearl" in Chinese, came within 120 miles of Hong Kong for several hours as it tracked north to northeast. The number 3 strong wind warning signal was in force for about 24 hours. Winds were reported up to gale force at times, but didn't pack the punch we so feared. During some gusts, we healed over, heard howling in the rigging, saw whitecaps and horizontal rain, but saw nowhere near the dramatic conditions we were expecting. The dock nearby groaned like wookies being tortured while halyards and sailcovers flapped and boats sailed around their moorings. In our bay, we saw several roller furling headsails shredded as they came unfurled, but could detect little other damage from afar. Typhoon Chanchu did disrupt air, land and sea traffic in Hong Kong, though. We heard reports of tree collapes and falling items that injured people and one boat overturned in the next bay, but much of the damage we might have suffered was averted. A surfer was reported to have been stranded on rocks after ignoring the warning.

First we need to get off the boat for a little while, then reassemble the boat so we can go explore some outer anchorages once the waves die down.