St. Barth's surge New Year's 2009

You may recall this image from a post that I uploaded on January 4 about the massive ocean swell that emptied Gustavia Harbour, St. Barth's, on New Year's Eve. I have just received another firsthand account of what happened during that holiday weekend, this time from Capt. Colin Boyle of the 198-foot CMN motoryacht Cloud 9.

I think his description of events is the most detailed I have heard so far, or seen published anywhere. It not only explains the challenges that a charter yacht captain faces during a difficult weather situation, but also shows how a yacht's cutting-edge features and a crew's quick thinking can help to keep charter guests safe, comfortable, and happy.

Here is Capt. Boyle's version of events, in his own words:

"Having made haste to arrive as soon after the Antigua show as possible in order to secure a berth, we found the weather for charter preparations was fantastic! Light airs, calm seas, late-afternoon swims once the work was done ... perfect!

"Captains have such a great selection of weather information these days, I think it’s becoming more difficult to process the quantity of information and make an informed decision on the most reliable sources. Local knowledge is paramount, however, and Ernest Brin, the harbormaster, was very informative about the conditions he expected, given his many years with the port service. The port issued a swell warning to all vessels some 48 hours ahead of the arrival of the swell–which matched our ocean swell data.

"I spoke with a couple of highly experienced captains on the Gustavia quay, and we had a general consensus that we could probably hang on until the 28th in the morning, then inevitably we would have to leave for the safety of the vessels. 

"Wear and tear on dock lines was already significant, with heavy-duty chaff gear wearing through daily and requiring adjustment every 20 minutes.

"By the 26th we began to record a slight but steady increase in swell, making boarding on the passerelle difficult, and persuading many larger yachts to run their zero-speed stabilizers where safe to do so. On Cloud 9, we recorded a significant improvement in the comfort factor onboard when we ran a trial of the four-fin system.

"With all the swell and weather information available, I was able to warn our charter party that departure from the port was highly likely. Statistics at the time suggested that the port would be untenable between the 28th December and 2nd January, but we all held onto hope that we could be back in by New Year's Eve due to a slight lull in the forecast height of wave and reduction in period.

"Cloud 9 chartered a 32-foot sportfishing boat to transport our guests to the shore in safety and comfort, with designer dresses and hairdos intact!

"At 6 a.m. on the 28th, it was clear to me that the port was becoming untenable, and I elected to depart to anchor in safe water. At 10 a.m., the port was closed to all vessels and orders were issued that all vessels must leave the harbor. The demand for assistance from divers was huge, and radio channels were busy with diver and yacht communications. The smaller boats on the outer quays became a priority due to reflected swell and a huge ocean surge. Cloud 9 departed at 1230 hours for the safety of a deep-water anchorage.

"The maneuver between securing our last anchor and safe water was one of the most unpredictable and nerve-wracking 20 minutes that I have made with any vessel. Swell, reflected swell, and surge made the transverse movement of the vessel quite random, and I was relieved to be powering up the channel to safe water.

"Remarkably, it was so calm once we exited the channel that we sat in relatively flat water for the remainder of the week."