FOUR MOST FREQUENT QUESTIONS ANSWERED
This update is being written almost six years after Mirador and I suffered our much too close encounter with Hurricane Marty in late September 2003.
I want to address four questions that I have been asked many, many times during the last couple years:
1) Why did you stay at Puerto Refugio when Hurricane Marty was forecast to hit the North Central Sea of Cortez?
2) Why didn’t you go to the hurricane hole at Puerto Don Juan with the rest of the boats?
3) Why didn’t you take down Mirador’s sails and dodger and prepare a better anchor?
4) What would you have done differently knowing what really happened?
The short answer to the first three questions is that we were very confident no severe winds or waves would hit Puerto Refugio.
Thirty-six (36) hours before the storm hit, (2 PM Sunday), the US National Hurricane (NHC) Advisory 12 forecast landfall to be 115 nautical miles (NM) SE of Puerto Refugio and the Closest Point of Approach (CPA) for 50 knot winds would be 75 NM to the ESE at which time the storm center would be in the desert foothills of the 3,500 foot Mexican Mainland mountains and Marty would be a tropical storm. Hurricane and Tropical Storm watches and warnings ended over 100 miles South of Mirador's anchorage just 7 hours before storm force winds hit Mirador. AND...NO hurricane had been as far north as Puerto Refugio since 1967 and only two hurricanes in the last 53 years had gotten within 160 miles of Mirador's anchorage.
To put those numbers in perspective – how concerned would a boater anchored near Annapolis be if a tropical storm was forecast to come ashore south of Norfolk, cross over the Blue Ridge, and proceed up the Shenandoah Valley? Those distances and terrains are similar to the area in which Mirador was anchored.
TECHNICAL DETAILS ABOUT THIS REPORT
- All times are Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) which is GMT -7 hours (Zulu-7)
- The 2003magnetic variation (for compass bearings) in the central Sea of Cortez was about 10° EAST. The NHC reports all tracks in TRUE degrees but I converted everything to magnetic by adding 10° to each NHC heading or track.
- all tracks and bearings used in this report are MAGNETIC
- When I write the 50 knot wind CPA I am describing the distance from Puerto Refugio to the OUTER edge of the 50 knot wind radius as estimated by the NHC.
Here is little more detail about the data I used during the three days prior to our encounter with Hurricane Marty:
SATURDAY and SUNDAY DATA AND DECISIONS
The following map provides details about the geography of the central and north Sea of Cortez and shows Puerto Refugio.
The Saturday 2 PM advisory had shown Marty moving out to sea 50 miles west of the West Coast of the Baja Pennisula and never getting closer than 250 NM to Mirador. At that point the 7,000 foot Sierra Gigante mountains (severe desert) would be between Mirador and Marty.
The Sunday 2 AM and 8 AM NHC advisories had said Marty would die over the mountains of SW Baja on Sunday or Monday evening – 225 NM SE of Puerto Refugio and to the west of the 7,000 foot Sierra Gigante mountains.
You will see a summary of all the NHC forecasts at NHC Forecasts toward the bottom of this report.
I knew that in any Mexican hurricane season there would be five to 10 tropical storms in the area occupied by Hurricane Marty on Friday and Saturday. I also knew than only about 1 storm every three years moved north of La Paz, Baja California Sur, which was about 420 miles SSE of Puerto Refugio. I also knew that only three hurricanes had ever gotten north of Santa Rosalia. Given that information I was not too concerned about Marty on Sunday morning.
The following map shows the details that I discuss in the section following the map.
The Sunday 2 PM advisory showed a dramatic shift in the track of Marty (see the red forecast track on the map above). The NHC was now saying Marty would head North to cross the Sea of Cortez and go ashore south of Bahia Kino and die in the mountains to the west of the Sonoran desert – never getting closer than 80 NM to Mirador’s anchorage.
Then the Sunday 11 PM NHC Advisory 13 confirmed that projected track (see the green forecast track on the map above) and even moved it further east, away from Puerto Refugio. The projected landfall would still be 100 NM SE of Mirador and the CPA of the outer edge of 50 knot winds would be 80 NM SE mid-day Tuesday. And, again, the storm center would be fighting its way over the 3,500-foot desert mountains at that time.
The picture below is looking east across the West Anchorage at Puerto Refugio - Mirador is the closest boat at right center of the picture - circled in red.
Mirador was in an anchorage that had 4,000-foot mountains to it’s southeast and 1,000-foot mountains to the east. We were anchored on the NW tip of Isla Angel de la Guarda and to the SE of our island was the island of Isla Tiburon which also had mountain peaks of over 4,000-feet. That meant that a Marty landfall to our SE would place two sets of mountains between Mirador and Marty. Our only exposure to severe waves would be if Marty were to pass to our northeast in which case there could be up to a 70 mile fetch for those waves.
MONDAY DATA AND DECISIONS
Our last chance to head to a secure hurricane anchorage (Puerto Don Juan) was at daybreak on Monday, September 22. The problem was that heading south to Puerto Don Juan also meant we were heading directly TOWARD THE ONCOMING HURRICANE!
The Monday 1 AM NHC Advisory 14 again confirmed that Marty would make landfall 165 NM SE of Mirador and the CPA for the outer edge of 50 knot winds would be 110 NM to our SE when Marty would be headed into high desert mountains.
The 5 AM Monday NHC Public Advisory had a hurricane watch for the Baja East Coast (Mirador's summer cruising grounds) which extended only as far north as Bahia San Juan Bautista which is 100 NM SSE of Puerto Refugio. Hurricane warnings also were for south of Bautista. Those watches and warnings never moved any closer to Mirador through the rest of the day. The extend of those warnings is shown on the map above in YELLOW.
About 6 AM Monday I decided that I would stay in Puerto Refugio and suffer whatever brief winds Marty might send our way. Just to put the distances in perspective, again, how many boaters in the north Chesapeake Bay would take any special precautions if a tropical storm were forecast to cross Cape Hatteras, come ashore in Ablemarle Sound and then dissipate in the southern Virginia mountains? Those are the distances I had been consistently seeing between Mirador and the projected storm track since Friday afternoon.
The 8 AM Monday projected track (see the blue forecast track on the map above) was in line with the previous six projections – Marty’s landfall would be further SE of the prior projections. At landfall Marty would be 136 NM SE of Mirador and the CPA for 50 knot winds would be over 100 miles to our east, still in the foothills of the desert mountains that form the western edge of the Sonoran Desert.
An additional consideration for me was that I had the historical tracks for every Eastern Pacific hurricane (over 388) and tropical storm ( over 196) since 1949. Only three hurricanes and two tropical storms had made it north of Santa Rosalia (165 miles to our South) during that 53 year period. No hurricane and only one tropical storm had moved into the north Sea of Cortez in the previous 35 years and only two hurricanes in 53 years had approached Puerto Refugio. .
I also knew that no hurricane or tropical storm had ever curved further west from the heading it was on when it passed 27° N which was about 165 NM south of us. That meant Marty's projected track of 335° would almost certainly keep heading away from Mirador.
A further consideration for me was that I knew Puerto Don Juan, a really solid hurricane hole, very well since I had anchored there for about 20 days during several visits in 2002 and 2003. On Sunday afternoon I knew that at least 30 boats would be anchored in Don Juan and that would be a real crowd. I had been in there with 20 boats and felt crowded – I really didn’t want to take my chances with a deep anchorage and that many boats.
Puerto Don Juan was 44 NM to the south and would it require at least seven hours to get there. I wasn’t too thrilled about moving toward a storm and hoping there would be a secure anchor location left in the harbor. AND…moving SE toward Puerto Don Juan would bring Mirador 50% closer to the projected path of 50 knot winds.
A last thought for me was that we had spent many nights anchored in 35 – 45 knot winds with 5’+ seas. The winter Northeasters in the Sea of Cortez blow 35 knots for days at a time and we had already spent almost two winters in those winds. We had spent at least four nights in 50-knot winds and felt our ground tackle was easily capable of handling those conditions. Chubasco and Elephante winds were common summer occurrences and brought 40+ knot winds on a regular basis. It was not uncommon to see 30 gusting to 40 blow thru an anchorage for 36 hours straight. A fact with which we were somewhat comfortable.
SO – the bottom line was that I had 36 hours of pretty consistent projected tracks that took Hurricane Marty ashore and into 3,000 foot mountains at least 110 NM to the SE of our current location. I knew historical data showed hurricanes almost never came as far north as we were and they never veered further westward once they passed Santa Rosalia. And, I had serious concerns about the over crowed hurricane hole.
The following map shows what actually happened with Marty between 2 PM Monday and 5 AM Tuesday. The reported position for Marty is shown by a red flag labeled with the time of reporting. At the time each report was posted the NHC said each position was accurate within 30 miles.
All the events I describe in the text following the map happened AFTER it was too late for me to safely take Mirador to the hurricane hole at Puerto Don Juan.
As late as 2 PM Monday I was still pretty confident that I had made the correct decision. NHC Advisory 16 forecast Marty to go ashore 120 NM SE of Mirador and immediately cross over the coastal mountain range. The forecast for 11 AM Tuesday was that Marty would be a Tropical Storm in the mountains with 50 knot winds only extending out 20 NM from the center.
The forecast position of Marty for 11 PM Monday, issued at 2 PM Monday, was 15 miles inland and approaching the 3,000’ hot, dry, desert Mountains, a very bad location for a hurricane’s health.
Then the NHC, for whatever reason, between 2PM Monday and 5 PM Monday moved the reported center of Hurricane Marty 79 NM due west of it’s projected position without changing it's projected path. You can see that dramatic shift in location labeled "79 Mile change in reported position in 3 hours" on the map above.
At 5 PM Monday NHC reported that Marty was actually over very warm water on the WEST side of the Sea of Cortez. The newly reported 5 PM position placed Marty over the 92 degree waters of Bahia Concepcion - a guarantee that the hurricane would strengthen rather than weaken as forecast three hours earlier!
I have yet to find any explanation of why the storm center made this miraculous western jump of 79 NM in just 3 hours. Every prior report of the actual position of Marty said it was accurate within 30 NM - yet suddenly the NHC realized the center of Marty was 79 miles west of where they had previously been reporting it! In three hours the reported position of Hurricane Marty had been moved 79 miles at right angles to the reported track at 2 PM!
How in the world did the center of the storm get mis-located so far east and then suddenly appear, 3 hours later, 79 miles further west? The main reason I had stayed at Puerto Refugio was that for 36 hours the NHC had forecast that the storm would go ashore way SE of us and then die in the mountains. But – after it was too late for me to move – the hurricane experts suddenly said – “Whoops the storm center is much further west than we thought!”
This sudden relocation of Marty's position is a puzzle because Marty had passed over the airport at Loreto which did correctly report the position of Marty around noon Monday. The NHC could see that between 8 AM and noon Monday Marty had moved on a course of 309° yet they still kept reporting a track of 355°.
At that point the fate of Mirador was still not settled – Marty was NOT going ashore amongst high desert mountains as quickly as forecast. Marty was not going to die by early Tuesday morning as predicted- instead it would remain a hurricane over very warm water but he was still REPORTED to be moving away from Mirador and toward the mainland mountains as shown by the blue line in the map above labeled "REPORTED track from 5 PM reported position...".
The Monday 8 PM reported position for Marty placed him 132 NM SSE of Mirador and moving on a course of 355° at 18 knots as shown by the purple track labeled "REPORTED track from 8 PM position..." on the map above. That meant Marty would go ashore on mainland Mexico at Bahia Kino by 11 PM at which point he would be over 80 miles SE of Mirador. The radius of 50 knot winds forecast for landfall was just 20 miles in the storms NW quadrant. Even 34 knot winds only extended out 24 miles to the NW (toward Mirador) at landfall. The Bahia Kino landfall would be excellent because that would place the 4,000 foot mountains on Isla Tiburon between Marty and Mirador.
Again, or maybe STILL, it seemed, at 8 PM Monday, that my decision to stay at Puerto Refugio, although foolish in the minds of many fellow cruisers, would not be painful since Marty was now quickly moving toward the inhospitable desert mountains of the Mexican Mainland.
Just four hours later the five boats in Puerto Refugio began to realize, as 35 knot winds and six foot onshore seas pounded the anchorage, that Marty had not moved as reported just hours earlier. In fact, as shown in the green track on the map above, between 8 PM Monday and 2 AM Tuesday Marty had moved directly toward Puerto Refugio, not on NHC reported track of 355° but rather on an actual track of 314°!
You can also see in the map below that the reported, (i.e. NHC OBSERVATIONS which reported how Marty was actually moving), tracks (red, blue, purple arrows) for Marty never matched the actual track for the storm. Between 5 AM Monday and 2 AM Tuesday Marty was reported moving at 340° to 355° but you can also see from the actual track that Marty was really moving at about 309° which placed him on a collision course with Puerto Refugio.
HERE ARE THE TWO REALLY BIG QUESTION I HAVE!
1) Why did NHC suddenly move the center of Marty 79 NM west between 2 PM and 5 PM Monday?
2) Why did NHC keep reporting and forecasting a projected track of greater than 350° when the actual track of Marty never exceeded 314°?
Reading the Marty technical discussion at the NHC archives I see that between 2 AM Sunday and 8 PM Sunday they were still showing an actual track of 345° to 355° and the landfall would be south of Guymas or 135 miles from Mirador.
At 8 PM on Sunday the technical discussion said :
IT APPEARS MARTY IS NOW BEGINNING TO MAKE A TURN TO THE NORTH...MARTY IS EXPECTED TO CONTINUE MOVING NORTHWARD TOWARD MAINLAND MEXICO.
That was good news for Puerto Refugio because the heading from Marty on Sunday evening to Refugio was NW - not north.
At 2 AM on Monday the technical discussion said :
TRACK GUIDANCE MODELS REMAIN RATHER TIGHTLY CLUSTERED...AND THE CONSENSUS OF THE GUIDANCE IS FOR A NORTH TO NORTH-NORTHWESTWARD MOTION WITH A SLIGHT INCREASE IN FORWARD SPEED OVER THE NEXT COUPLE OF DAYS. SINCE THE LATEST CENTER FIXES ARE A LITTLE EAST OF THE PREVIOUS TRACK...THE OFFICIAL FORECAST IS JUST SLIGHTLY TO THE EAST OF THE PREVIOUS ONE..
That was good news for Puerto Refugio because a track further east moves Marty ever closer to those deadly desert mountains!
At 8 AM on Monday the technical discussion said :
SATELLITE IMAGERY CONTINUES TO INDICATE
WEAKENING AS THE CIRCULATION INTERACTS WITH HIGH TERRAIN. THE WIND SPEED
HAS BEEN REDUCED TO 65 KNOTS FOR THIS ADVISORY. EXCEPT FOR
RAINFALL...MARTY IS NOT EXPECTED TO LAST VERY LONG AFTER IT MOVES OVER MAINLAND
At 2 PM Monday the reported (initial position) was 34 NM east of Punta Pulpito with a heading of 355 degrees. That starting position is in the middle of the Sea of Cortez and the track takes it directly toward the mainland mountains southeast of Guymas in about five hours - see the "REPORTED Track from 2 PM reported position" and the red reported track on the map above (Monday Afternoon Reported Tracks). That reported track showed Marty ashore over 200 miles SE of Mirador - well before sunset on Monday.
The Monday 8 PM technical discussion highlights the problem with locating the center of the storm when it says:
THE ADVISORY POSITION IS A BLEND BETWEEN THE SURFACE POSITION ALONG THE EAST COAST OF THE BAJA PENINSULA AND THE MID-LEVEL SATELLITE FIX POSITIONS. THE INITIAL INTENSITY IS A BLEND OF SATELLITE CURRENT INTENSITY ESTIMATES OF 77/65/45 KT FROM TAFB/ SAB/AFWA...RESPECTIVELY.
Between Saturday at 8 AM and Tuesday at 5 AM Hurricane Marty moved on a course of 316° , never deviating more than 31 miles from that heading for 45 hours. Yet NHC kept reporting a track of over 350° for most of that time - those reported tracks are shown in red on the map above.
The 8 PM "blended" position was just a few miles off the east coast of the Baja Peninsula and the same track of 355°keeps the hurricane over warm water for another five hours, AFTER, Marty was supposed to be ashore at Guymas. Landfall in the new 8 PM scenario was still over 130 miles SE of Puerto Refugio with a track moving away from Refugio.
The NHC Tropical Cyclone Report Marty published November 25, 2003 states the following about track errors "These errors are larger than the average official track errors for the 10-yr period 1993-2002. " The reported error for 12 hours was 42 miles and for 24 hours they were 84 miles..
Following is the NHC graph of their official forecasts, and actual track for Hurricane Marty. The forecasts to the left of the Actual Track line were issued Friday thru Sunday 8 AM. The forecasts to the right of the Actual Track line were issued Sunday afternoon and Monday.
Why didn’t you take down Mirador’s sails and dodger and prepare a better anchor?
So now I bet you can guess the answer to question 3 – “Why didn’t you take down Mirador’s sails and dodger and prepare a better anchor?”
We expected no more than 25 to 35 knots of wind and very small seas. The winds were forecast to be out of the east to northeast which would have been offshore. Please remember that Mirador was anchored where there were two sets of 4,000 foot mountains between the anchorage and Marty’s projected path over water.
Thirty-five knot winds were a common occurrence in our anchoring life at that point and we saw no need to take down any canvas. We had set thru several 35 knot blows with our sun awanning up so had little concern for furled sails. I did take the precaution of placing extra ties around the furled genoa and tied off the roller furler drum so it could not move.
Taking the genoa and main off is a two-hour project when I am alone and the rolled sails completely fill the main cabin when placed below. Removing the dodger is also a two-hour project. If we removed all the canvas every time 35 knots was forecast we would be spending 10 hours a week removing and reinstalling stuff.
With 150’ of 5/16” chain (190# of weight), 100' of 5/8" anchor rode, and a 66# anchor I was not too worried about the ground tackle coming loose. I suppose I could have setout the Bruce 44 or Fortress FX 55 (our storm anchor) but, since we had so much experience with 35 – 45 knot over winds, I saw no need for a second anchor.
I did spend a lot of time preparing chafing gear for the anchor line and it did work very well – until the anchor roller tore off the bow and the jagged edge of the failed weld cut through everything.
I had already put out enough chain and rode for an 8:1 scope which was our normal scope for 35 knots. The 66# Spade anchor had been digging it’s way into the sand for a week. The anchor and shank were completely buried in the sand when I checked them the afternoon before the storm.
IF - IF... The Monday 5PM actual track had been accurately reported (see the map above Marty Reported Track Map1) I would have done many things differently.
- Take off the genoa
- Put the Portebote on a very long line with a heavy kellet
- Put down the Fortress FX55 anchor in a 60° vee
However - the fact is that at 5 PM Monday Marty was REPORTED to be moving AWAY from Mirador with 50 knot winds extending only 20 miles from it's center. The REPORTED extent of 34 knot winds was only 25 miles in the NW quadrant so we very confident we would spend a quiet night in Puerto Refugio. The forecast was for Marty to go ashore WITHIN THREE HOURS - over 140 miles from Mirador's anchorage. Gale force winds were only forecast to 20 NM from the storm center at landfall. At sunset the five boats in Puerto Refugio were fat - dumb - and happy because the REPORTED track of Marty would pass well SE of us and we would probably not even see gale force winds. The picture below was taken at sunset when Marty was just 100 miles SE of Puerto Refugio and, unknown to we happy campers, moving directly toward us.
As we now know - Marty was not moving 355° at 17 knots as reported - Marty was moving 315° at 14 knots and would eventually stall just 10 miles east of Mirador's anchorage at about 5AM Tuesday.
In the early AM when Marty stalled just east of Puerto Refugio we knew we were well within the 20 mile radius of storm force winds. We experienced 50+ knots gusting to over 64 knots for at least five hours.
How in the world was the reported track so wrong in such a short period of time?
WHAT COULD I HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?
One thing I am much more aware of now is that the exact location of the center of a hurricane in the Sea of Cortez is not known. Marty had winds of over 50 knots extending out 20 miles on Monday afternoon. The center of that circulation was only known within a 30 mile radius so the actual diameter of potential 50 knot winds was over 100 miles. And... the landfall, based on reported position and reported track, was unknown within 80 miles. The map below shows the uncertainty at 5PM on Monday when I was so sure things were A-OK in Puerto Refugio.
You can see the forecast tracks, which I discuss below, in the chart above NHC Forecasts.
Saturday morning Marty was 660 NM SE of Puerto Refugio, moving at 300° and forecast to pass well west of Puerto Refugio on an eventual track of about 310°. If I had not been such an optomist - I would have noticed that, at that distance, a northward charge in course of only 15° would bring Marty right over Refugio. However, I would have also seen that Marty would have to cross hundreds of miles of rugged desert mountains to reach Refugio - an unlikely feat for a hurricane!
It should be noted that ten very experienced Mexican cruisers left Puerto Refugio on Saturday morning and headed for Puerto Don Juan. They were quite vocal in their suggestions that betting on no shift in the track and the mountains killing Marty was not a good bet in their opinion.
Sunday morning Marty was still 640 NM SE of Puerto Refugio but was now moving on a course of 340° at a speed of only 3 knots. That course and speed meant Marty would never get close to Puerto Refugio. Five cruisers in Refugio looked at the data and said "Marty has to only shift 15° west in it's course and it will hit Puerto Refugio" and they headed off to Bahia Willard or Puerto Don Juan. At that point I looked at the historical data for the last 53 years and said "over 200 hurricanes have been in the same general area as Marty is now and not one of them came anywhere near Puerto Refugio" and decided I would stay in the beautiful West Anchorage.
At about 7 AM Monday we knew Marty was pounding La Paz with 90 knot winds and he was moving due North at 13 knots. At that speed and heading Marty would not come within 200 miles of Puerto Refugio. I knew that over 30 hurricanes had hit La Paz in the last half century but only ONE (Diana in 1960) had made it as far north as Refugio. In 1958 Hurricane 11 had passed over la Paz and then gone ashore near Guymas - exactly as the NHC was forecasting for Marty. So - I committed Mirador and myself to staying in Refugio.
The last four cruisers to leave Refugio looked at the Monday 7 AM data and said "This is too big a risk - if Marty shifts it's track just 40° to the west it will hit Refugio in less than 24 hours." Those four boats headed off to Bahia Willard where they experienced only 35 knot winds for a couple hours.
The ONLY thing I could have done differently was to have assumed that reported tracks, projected tracks, and over 500 historical tracks were of no value in predicting the behavior of Marty. On either Saturday or Sunday I could have said the same thing the 20 cruisers who left Refugio said - "There is way too much risk and almost no reward for staying in Refugio - I am going to be cautious and head for a secure hurricane anchorage."
To this day I am still not sure I would do things differently. A typical Mexican Hurricane season finds 10 tropical storms or hurricanes milling about in the same area as was Marty on Friday - Saturday September 20 -21, 2003. If the decision is to run for cover every time one of those storms moves north - what is the point of going all the way north to Puerto Refugio?