Juan Helluva Season

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If you happen to be a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the National Hurricane Center, from a job-performance perspective, the good news is: You were right. Early last August, forecasters at both organizations agreed that the outlook for the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season indicated "a high likelihood (60 percent)" of an above-normal season. A NOAA
press release issued at the time predicted "a seasonal total of 12 to 15 tropical storms, with seven to nine becoming hurricanes and three to four becoming major hurricanes." At this writing in late October, there have thus far been 14 named tropical storms, almost half of which became full-fledged hurricanes. I'm not exactly sure what constitutes a "major" hurricane, but at least four have packed sustained winds of over 100 miles per hour, which puts them on my own short list of blows to be avoided at all costs.

Of course, if you happened to be a sailor unfortunate enough to have been in the path of any of these meteorological disturbances, the bad news is: They were right.

Clearly, the 2003 hurricane season was eventful and destructive, particularly for residents of Bermuda, who were thrashed by Hurricane Fabian last September, and of the Mid-Atlantic states and the Chesapeake Bay region, who bore the wrathful brunt of Isabel later that month. Regular contributor Angus Phillips had a front-row seat for Isabel’s surprising and unwelcome visit to his sailing-crazed hometown of Annapolis, Maryland, and has filed a first-person report on the storm that begins on page 21.

In the eastern Pacific, the sorry song of devastation had a similar refrain. Coursing up the length of the Sea of Cortez, also in September, Hurricane Marty cut a wide, terrifying swath not only through the coastal villages of Baja California but also through the numerous anchorages and marinas populated by the scores of cruising sailors drawn to the autumn delights of Mexican waters. One such sailor with a remarkable tale to tell is Pacific Northwest cruiser Jerry King, who made an awful decision as the storm approached and, for punishment, almost lost his boat on the beach, only to have her spared by a rising tide and a most fortuitous wind shift. His account of his misadventures with Marty--and the lessons he learned the hard way--starts on page 60.

Still, to underscore how random and far-reaching the 2003 hurricane season was, the most bizarre storm may have been the one that few people outside of the Canadian Maritimes ever even heard about. After all, who can recall the last real hurricane in Halifax?

It’ll be quite some time before the local Haligonians forget a south-of-the-border intruder named Juan, a Category 1 hurricane that was actually downgraded to tropical-storm status almost immediately after making landfall south of the city shortly before midnight on September 28. But someone forgot to tell Juan it was packing less punch; emboldened by an accompanying high tide, the storm trashed the waterfront and beached, toppled, or sank dozens of boats, including an 86-foot replica of an 18th-century schooner called Larinda that was visiting the harbor from Massachusetts. And Juan certainly had a sense of ironic mischief, chasing the staff of the Canadian Hurricane Centre from their 19th-floor offices when the building began to sway beneath them.

Each December, we dedicate our technical section to Safety at Sea, and in light of recent events, this year’s series of weather-related stories--on accessing high-seas forecasts while under way (page 54), acquiring and deciphering real-time weather data via the Internet (page 66), employing the services of a professional router (page 72), and understanding the day-to-day workings of NOAA meteorologists (page 76)--seem especially appropriate.

It’s always nice when the weathermen peer into their crystal balls and make the right calls, but even now, in the digital age, such predictions are the last thing cruising sailors should depend on. For even with the advanced warning, the 2003 hurricane season once again proved that Mother Nature can be one tough gal.