On the day before the hurricane was due to make landfall, the harbor was silent. In the city and along the shores of the port, the locals scurried along hammering wood over glass windows and cramming cardboard between glass and the outward facing metal bars, but the harbor was still.
On the approach to the marina, a few people were visible as they milled about making preparations, but the vast majority of the city’s residents were far more focused on their homes and wellbeing than that of the vessels down at the Royal Jamaica Yacht Club.
Kingston Harbor is popular, and so the number of vessels is far greater than the available slips. Consequently, a significant number of boats merited only temporary berths in the creek stretching up into the mangrove swamps on the outer confines of the yacht club proper.
It was there that our 21’ sailboat with her striking blue paint and neat rigging made her home. Each Saturday, my father and I would head down to the yacht club, and as he would set about unlocking the cabin of the Mistress and completing the more rigorous tasks, I would steal a precious few moments to entertain myself with the hermit crabs on the gray sandy beach, which ran more than a little on the foul side there on the edge of the murky creek.
I would typically be prompted to get on about my tasks of seeing to the jib and lending a hand to readying the mainsail, but I was never quite ready to leave the hermit crabs.
On this particular day, I was terribly on edge, and the calm of the harbor made it palpably worse. It seemed to me that although the hurricane was due the following day, they must be rather fickle things, unaccustomed to staying within confines and expectations or to complying with strict schedules and predictions.
We were there to see about securing the boat before the upcoming storm. As nearby sailors battened down the hatches and tightened the knots on extra lines, my father looked thoughtfully at the mangrove swamp up at the throat of the creek. And soon, off we went upstream.
My enterprising father – with the head of a career engineer and the craftiness of a boy from south Arkansas raised by parents who weathered the Great Depression – surmised that those mangroves had lived through dozens of onslaughts throughout their lifetimes with their roots plunged deep into the island’s sand.
We motored slowly up the creek, looking every bit like the crazy people entering a burning building as its inhabitants flee.
Approaching the imposing swamp, Dad cut the motor and prepared to plunge into the murky water. Years of Boy Scouting, Army basic training, scuba diving and countless volumes on the basics of knot-tying had all prepared him for this day. He secured his Mistress to the roots of the mangroves, and we soon took our leave of the RJYC to hunker down.
Hurricane Gilbert accosted the island right on time that September of 1988, a Category 5 storm with an eye 40 miles wide and winds of 175 mph, the second most intense Atlantic hurricane (after Wilma) on record, surpassing Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and significant storms in 1924 and 1935. It was catastrophic. When we eventually returned to the yacht club after the storm, the entire island was in shambles. Roofs were missing, detritus covered the roadways and 80% of the homes on the island sustained damage, from shack to mansion. Every citizen worked to piece their lives back together. Down at the docks, an equal number of boats were either entirely submerged or battered to bits.
There in the mangrove swamp, the Mistress floated merrily and securely on her lines, no worse for the wear and looking every bit ready to head out around the buoys beyond the safety of Kingston Harbor and into the wide open, deep blue Caribbean sea.
11 April 2014 ~ Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum & Educational Center
All photos are not the property of the author and were sourced from Wikimedia, Creative Commons and the public domain.