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1997: Experiences with El Niño

Experiences with El Niño

Lattitude 38; October 1997by Ray Jardine

El Niño is first indicated by a slight warming of the sub-equatorial Eastern Pacific. It's an effect, not a cause. Arguably, the warming stems from underlying magma undergoing some sort of unusual moiling. Water is a good conductor of heat, and warmed water rises to the surface. Land is a good insulator, which is why the temperature increase is not noticed on shore.

Recorded history's most devastating El Niño occurred the Winter of 1982 & Spring of 1983. Of course, the El Niño effect had not been identified back then. And, yes, this is when my wife Jenny and I departed San Diego aboard our CT-41 Ketch "SUKA" (Seeking UnKnown Adventure), on a round-the-world voyage.

The north-eastern Pacific's hurricane season usually plays itself out by November 1st, and this is when cruising yachts began venturing south of San Diego, headed for tropical climes. That year most boats followed the coast into Mexico and beyond. We headed directly for the Marquesas.

Seven days out, on November 9, we encountered the most violent storm we have ever had the misfortune of tangling with. For three days and nights SUKA lay ahull, her mast pinned hard over by wind shrieking savagely in the rigging. When all was said and done, the tempest had driven our full-keeled, heavy displacement vessel 30 miles sideways.

The remaining three weeks to the Marquesas proceeded without incident. In fact, it was down right idyllic. When we arrived we learned the dreadful news of the December 9 Cabo disaster.

As we gunkholed the islands, one day rain began pouring from the sky in buckets. Anchored in Melville's Taipi bay, we stood at the bow with dingy paddles in hand, fending off an onslaught of sticks, tree branches, and logs washing out to sea. Then came whole trees and parts of houses. Radio reports indicated that cyclone Lisa was ravaging the nearby Tuamotus with 100 mph winds.

The cyclone left us eager to press on, except that it killed the tradewinds, dead. And they stayed that way for weeks.

Mid January we were anchored in Taiohaie Bay when torrential rain again began pelting down, this time so copiously that it half filled our dingy in the first six hours. We watched dozens of landslides, as the permeated soil with its profuse vegetation lost its grip and slashed long swaths down the steep mountainsides. Floods washed out the village roads and took the bridges with them. They destroyed the town's water supply reservoir and drowned much of the livestock. The people later told us they had never seen such rain.

Frank and Rose Courser said they "smelled a hurricane," something absolutely unheard of in the Marquesas. And indeed, on the morning of the storm's tenth day the radio warned of an approaching cyclone. The next morning terrific gusts began thrashing the bay into angry columns of spume that lashed the half-dozen sailboats and heeled them far over. The crew of one boat equipped with a masthead wind meter reported gusts of 80 knots. Fortunately for us all, the wind blew off-shore. Had it blown into the bay it would have brought ominous seas that could have spelled real trouble.

This cyclone they called Nano - a Tahitian word meaning "explosive force." True to its name it intensified after leaving the Marquesas and swept through the southern Tuamotus with 140 mph winds and 30-foot seas.

Week after week we waited for the tradewinds to start blowing again. Finally on February 2, a breeze encouraged us to set sail for Tahiti. It lasted only two hours. For the next five days we motored ahead in blistering heat, eight hours a day. Otherwise, to ration our scant fuel we drifted like the Kon Tiki, waiting for the "reliable" tradewinds that refused to blow, sails hanging limp like rags.

Finally the sails filled and sent us rushing through the Tuamotus. Regressing a moment, back in the Marquesas I had ruptured an ear drum while snorkeling. The doctor treated me with antibiotics and cautioned me against swimming for a month. So Jenny and I continued on to Tahiti, terribly disappointed to miss snorkeling the Tuamotus. In retrospect that ear infection might have saved our lives.

The austral Summer and Autumn is cyclone season across the Southern Pacific. However, the cyclone belt - the area of greatest cyclonic activity - normally lies safely to the west of the Societies. Severe storms rarely beleaguer French Polynesia. In fact, in the whole of recorded history prior to the 1983 El Niño, the Tuamotus had experienced only three cyclones. The Marquesas not a single one. Clearly we had chosen a difficult year to venture forth.

Not long after we reached Tahiti, Cyclone Reva - "the thrasher" - sprang to life and passed within 75 miles of us, tearing through the anchorages with 80 knot winds laced with 100 knot gusts that churned Papeete's harbor into a seething ground-blizzard of white spume. Scores of boats crowded the anchorage, and with each powerful gust another anchor lost its grip. Five massive tugs scurried about saving the hapless, towing them to windward and securing them to shoreside bollards.

SUKA's anchor held fast, leaving us free to watch the tempest reducing trees to stubble and stripping buildings of their siding and roofs. Bursts of sheet metal, glass, and debris hurled far out into the harbor.

After seven hours of unparalleled excitement the tempest lessened and soon died, leaving the battered flotilla bobbing like toys in a bathtub. Meanwhile, Reva headed back for another strafing run at the Tuamotus. And it was there that this Monstrosity overtook two of our cruising buddy-boats. One couple perished, not a trace of them was ever found. The other couple survived, but only just. I chronicled the stories in The Atoll Toll," Latitude 38 August 1983.

Cyclone Veena, next in the infamous genre, caught SUKA in Cook's Bay anchored in the company of nineteen other yachts. Fearful winds intensified during the night of April 29, dragging the anchor of an unattended sloop named Solano. Solano slewed past us and jerked to a halt. Then the wind shifted, placing us directly upwind of this other boat, and by then the tempest blew too fiercely for us to relocate. In stygian darkness a powerful gust suddenly knocked SUKA onto her beam ends, dislodging her salon cushions and emptying her starboard lockers. The boat righted, and was quickly knocked down the other way, disgorging her port lockers. I crawled outside to bring in the dinghy, and found it flapping at the stern like a flag. Unfortunately, I also found that we had drug back nearly onto the bucking and reeling Solano. Thirty feet was all that separated us from disaster.

The Kellogs had fastened to someone's private mooring, which is why Swan had not drug. All the others had drug, including the professionally-crewed mega-yacht Jagare, which bounced onto a reef but was later drug off unharmed. The yachts anchored off nearby Tahiti were not so lucky. Twenty-six were driven high onto beaches or reefs. Most of these had lacked all-chain rode, their anchor ropes had chafed through at the bow rollers. Thirty nine other yachts and pleasure boats and 6 bonito skiffs flat-out sank. According to the local newspaper, Veena destroyed four thousand homes and most of the island's agrarian interests. The torrential rains severed all roads and carried away most bridges.

A week later the radio warned of yet another cyclone. At times like this the VHF would come alive with worried chatter. Someone was heard to say, "We're not going to do this one." This reflected our sentiments exactly, and to everyone's relief the cyclone dissipated. Best of all, the weather returned to normal and the cruising fleet, what remained of it, went on its way.

The 1982-1983 El Niño will long be remembered by all who were in Cabo and French Polynesia at the time. But of course the catastrophes were not confined to the eastern South Pacific. The devastation was global, and in fact National Geographic characterized that El Niño as "one of the most destructive climactic events in modern history."

Many times Jenny and I have asked ourselves: had we known about the terrible storms to come, would we have set sail that season? Better to have waited a year, no doubt about it. Still, SUKA survived and went on to enjoy an immensely interesting and rewarding voyage. Many boats did likewise, but many others were not so fortunate.

Climatoloigists are describing the coming El Niño as the most intense ever, by far. But who knows? Maybe it will dissipate and nothing will come of it. Or maybe it will wreak even greater damage than the one of 1983. The question in the prospective cruiser's mind, then, might be this: Whether to head off into the sunset, and probably experience various aspects of the coming El Niño firsthand, or whether to wait a year and simply read about the outcome, for better or worse, in Latitude.

- Ray Jardine

Postscript: From the NY Times, 9/26/97: "The El Niño in 1982-83, the most severe of the last 50 years, was blamed for up to 2,000 deaths worldwide and more than $13 billion in property damage."

The story has 26 pages. This is page 17.
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