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When the Hurricane Hits

Hurricane Wilma - Key West Florida - 2005

This week Hurricane Ian wrecked the Florida coastline. Badly affected was Fort Myers former winter home town of Thomas Edison and his neighbour, Henry Ford.

Hurricane Ian brought back memories of being in Key West Florida in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma hit The Island. We decided to sit it out.

At the time I wrote the following blog.

Living through Wilma

2nd November 2005

Our decision to stay was not made lightly, we listened to everyone and of course, there were so many different takes on the situation we really did not know which way to turn. Of course, we took the advice and stocked up with drinking water and food, had the car fueled up and were ready to go should we decide on that option. Eventually, talk that it was downgrading to a two or possibly a one made the decision for us. Had a three been more predictable then maybe we would have gone, but where do you go and if we went how long would it be before we were allowed back?

Having decided to stay we of course boarded up and thought that we were ready for what was to come. Mid-evening there was, of course, a thunderstorm with a massive clap of thunder, this is it we thought, but of course, it was only a little taster of things to come.

Somewhere around 3.00 am we were woken by the building shaking and door banging with such voracity we thought it was going to fly off. You should have seen us practising our Boy Scout skills with a length of rope trying to secure the offending door. Strangely the other side of the building you could look out onto Wilma but not feel the effects of the wind. The rest of the night was spent like many others tossing, turning and listening.

The next four hours seemed an eternity, it got hotter and hotter with no air and of course, it remained dark due to the shutters. Very little damage "Thank God" we consider ourselves so lucky to have come through unscathed. No electricity, No Water but we are thankfully able to get through on the telephone to England and assure our family that we are safe and well, l am sure they had a pretty sleepless night as the news coverage in the UK was not pretty and led them to believe that Key West was no more.

Eaton Street - Key West - Hurricane Wilma 2005

In the morning we venture out to investigate the island. The immediate vicinity does not seem too bad, but as we approach Eaton and Caroline the full horror of Wilma starts to hit us. We now suspect that some of our friends are flooded out

Salty Seadog in Key West 2005


Hurricanes at Sea can be brutal

Dave Light shares his story

Esso Westminster,

Photographed by the late Richard Parsons at Avonmouth, Bristol, UK, in the 1960's

( Photo Copyright John D.Hill )

In 1966, Hurricane Faith had the longest track of any Atlantic tropical cyclone. Faith developed near Cape Verde on August 21, and tracking westward, the depression gradually intensified and became Tropical Storm Faith. Moving across the Atlantic, she strengthened slowly and soon reached hurricane status. Trinidad and Tobago suffered minor coastal damage. Then she curved north-north-westward near the Bahamas and peaked at 125 mph and then re-curved to the northeast.

Hurricane Faith on September 1

as it moved towards Cape Hatteras

Formed August 1966

Dissipated September 15, 1966

One ship’s crew member on a loaded Italian tanker travelling north drowned in the western Atlantic. Bermuda suffered heavy rainfall and strong winds but no damage occurred. Faith continued north-eastward into the far North Atlantic, finally weakening north of Great Britain. Three people drowned in the North Sea near Denmark, a fifth death occurred after a man succumbed to injuries sustained during a boating incident related to the storm.

I was a lowly junior engineer on an old oil tanker, the SS Esso Westminster, Vickers built in 1953, 24000 tons. Officers lived midships while the petty officers and crew lived aft. We ate in the officers’ saloon in the aft accommodation and to get there had to walk down the flying bridge, a walkway set above the main deck between midships and aft; it had two shelters. I was on ‘daywork’ together with Willie Ross, third engineer officer, doing whatever maintenance was needed, and not watchkeeping. We took fuel oil from Aruba or Amuay Bay (Venezuela) to ports on the eastern seaboard of the States: voyages of about four or five days. On southern voyages, we’d ‘tank clean’ so we were ready for whatever sort of oil was the next load, and in ballast, we had a decent freeboard. Most voyages were event free, and as engineers, we were ignorant of the approaching hurricane. We had enough to think about keeping the old girl going and bad weather came with the territory. We were travelling south and had reached the Bermuda triangle, and Faith was tracking north.

One morning the engineer officers’ steward, Jock, opened my cabin door, and the violent roll of the ship caused it to bang against the bulkhead, which woke me.

‘It’s bad weather fiver,’ he gasped as he struggled with his tray, ‘it’s a hurricane; they’re battening down hatches!’

‘Can I remind you, Jock, that we’re on a tanker and we don’t have any hatches,’ I said. He ignored me.

Now I loved rough weather, and the constant movement of the ship, as I slept well in such conditions, and indeed until Jock’s arrival I was so doing, but I had to get up and face the day. Already the seas were massive, but I had to get aft for breakfast. Outside the wind was blowing the wave tops into a thick, wet, warm fog and visibility was limited. We stood outside the accommodation looking aft and contemplated progress down the flying bridge. There was sideways movement, but the prevalent motion was pitching; at one point it was so extreme we could see the sea above the funnel. Our speed was down to dead slow ahead just keeping steerage way. The electrical officer was first to try to reach the aft accommodation and chose to run, but just as he reached the end of the flying bridge, the ship lurched and he grabbed the handrail which swung him towards the starboard side and straight into the boat deck stairs, face first. Having seen that, I proceeded more cautiously, deciding that damp clothes were preferable to a bloody nose.

Tablecloths were wet and table fiddles were up to stop crockery sliding off but even that wasn’t sufficient for most items. At the breakfast table sat a deck cadet and the electrical officer, and I was glad to join them to tuck into a full English with two eggs. No one else had turned up, but soon the second mate arrived.

Now the second mate on a tanker is usually the navigator, so I figured he’d know the whereabouts of the hurricane.

‘So where’s this hurricane then, second?’ I asked.

‘I haven’t got a f***ing clue,’ he said unpleasantly.

I was surprised as he always seemed such a pleasant and efficient officer, but I decided to say no more.

Eye of the Storm

Breakfast over, it was back up the flying bridge to my cabin to change into my boilersuit and then back down again to the engine room. I was working with the daywork third engineer officer, Willie Ross, from Belfast. Usual ‘daywork’ maintenance was impossible, so we hung around on the plates (literally), just chatting to the fourth engineer officer whose eight-to-twelve watch it was. At ten o’clock it was ‘smokoe’, and we dayworkers climbed up to the engineers’ office on the main deck for our cuppas, but I took my mug out onto the poop deck aft to look at the sea. Visibility now was about 100 yards at most, and the seas were spectacular. And then suddenly the wind dropped, and visibility improved. There was no wind. Suddenly the magnificence of nature was there to see. One moment I was looking down into a disturbed green maelstrom, and the next second, I was standing on the poop looking up at immense green cliffs, wondering why they didn’t just come crashing down on us; after all, it was only water, but it took several moments for my limited brain to absorb the evidence. We were quite simply floating. And then equally suddenly, after half an hour, the wind started again as quick as it had dropped, and once again the wind whipped the surface of the sea into the impenetrable grey fog. It was time to get back to work down the engine room: hanging onto a handrail on the plates and chatting to the fourth engineer and colleagues.

Engine rooms are hot places and fresh air is introduced down four ventilation shafts by large axial flow fans situated in each shaft. Gradually we became aware that the engine room was becoming hotter and sweatier, as the sea water mist drawn into the shafts was causing the motors to fail. The senior second engineer, Terry Roberts, shouted to me.

‘Davy, grab a 36-inch Stillson (large adjustable spanner), take a mechanic, and turn the cowls (air intakes) to face the wind.’

At last, I was doing something useful. So, the mechanic and I climbed to the top deck with the Stillson. We crawled on our bellies across the top deck until we reached the first cowl and applied the Stillson to the tiny cog on the turning gear around the vertical shaft (it hadn’t been turned in years). But soon we had the intake roughly facing the wind coming from starboard. Soon all four cowls vaguely faced the wind and the atmosphere down below noticeably improved. The second was pleased. My oppo and I decided to climb up to the clinometer high in the engine room on the forward bulkhead and were disappointed to find that the roll of the ship was no more than about ten degrees.


Back on the plates it was difficult to stand as the ship was being thrown sideways quite often. Then the engine room phone klaxon roared and the fourth answered. He turned away from the phone booth and we gathered round to hear his news. He looked troubled.

‘Some poor bastard’s going down,’ he said, and then, ‘about a hundred miles away, we’re making our way towards her. She’s Italian and the chief’s dead.’

The news put a damper on our jocularity: we were thinking ‘that could be us.’

So we continued just hanging on to the handrails until lunch. At noon, the watch changed, and we were joined by the watch-keeping third engineer. We decided to stay in our boilersuits and eat in the ‘dirty’ mess to avoid walking up and down the flying bridge in the prevailing conditions. But we managed no work for the rest of the afternoon as the weather worsened and eventually it was time for an understandably limited menu dinner, after which we had to face the storm again by returning to our cabins midships, up the flying bridge. The blown spray soaked us again, but it was boilersuits off and into the shower: no easy task when being violently thrown about from side to side.

Flying Bridge. Officers lived midships while the petty officers and crew lived aft. We ate in the officers’ saloon in the aft accommodation and to get there had to walk down the flying bridge,

I joined Willie in his cabin, and we started on several cans of Tennents’ lager together as it got dark. I was by now quite scared, wondering how much more of this battering the old ship could take. Several times the lateral movement caused the drawers under Willie’s bed to be flung out onto the deck, and we’d replace them until we realised that it was pointless as they’d only get ejected again. Willie’s porthole faced forward but even before dark, we couldn’t discern the forward samson posts or fo'c'sle. Darkness compounded my worries as nothing could be seen forward but blackness, although Willie did his best to reassure me that we’d come through it OK. A couple of times the boiler safety valves lifted, and the noise overcame that of the hurricane, and I was the first out onto the flying bridge in case it heralded problems, but thankfully the fourth coped without my intervention, but I turned and looked up to the boat deck, and there was the chief also observing. Maybe he was as worried as I was?

The following morning the mate stated that if we’d had to abandon ship, we should have had to use the windward side and that for some of the hurricane we were travelling backwards. Didn’t bear thinking about, but the memory will never leave me.

With thanks to fellow Seadog Dave Light for help with this blog.


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