The lagoon, at Salt River St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands is
accessible only to shallow draft boats and completely surrounded by
land and mangrove trees on all sides. It is one of the most protected
hurricane holes the islands can offer. And there are other channels
deep inside Salt River's mangrove protected shores where boats
which had sought shelter during "Frederick" and "David" were
again tied down and waiting. But as we were all to learn, no
completely safe place exists in the face of a head-on collision with
As the sun was going down, wind and rain began increasing
from the northwest, gaining speed as it veered slowly toward the
east. After the wind speed climbed past 100 mph, the terrifying
sound was as if being inside a jet engine at full throttle. I didn't
dare venture out on deck again. Thoughts of the other boats anchored
nearby were replaced with paranoia and a feeling that my boat and
I were being singled out for some unpunished transgression.
The 210 mph winds of Hugo's eye wall crashed into the southeast
shore of St. Croix just after midnight a couple of miles from where I
had tied down my boat in the Salt River mangrove lagoon.
Around midnight, I felt the boat lifting gently. There was no
sense that the half inch nylon lines holding the boat down to the
mangrove trees were snapping like threads. There was no fear of
flying in the air. But suddenly, from where I was sitting below,
I fell onto the ceiling. The boat had capsized! The ship's
batteries were hanging upside down by their cables but the
interior lights were still on, focusing my mind on the main hatch
where I saw water gushing in.
In survival mode, I took a deep breath and dove through the open
hatch into the warm water. There was a strange calm there, but when I
came up, the surface of the lagoon was churning. I clung to the
drifting boat until I could catch my breath and assess the situation.
In the turmoil, it seemed as if the boat was moving, but it was
actually being held next to shore by the toppled mast and the stern
lines which hadn't parted. The base of the mast was in the water
underneath the boat while the masthead was jammed in the mangroves on
Raising myself up out of the water, I climbed along the mast
and through the bare branches of the mangrove trees to a dirt
road now flowing with mud which led to an abandoned concrete
building without windows or doors. I could only make out the
ghostly blur of the building through the pelting rain and the dim
moonlight that shone through a thick cloud cover overhead.
Thinking it was only happening to me, I crawled along the
ground toward the building, grasping anything I could to keep
from being swept away by the wind, while my bare legs were
being cut by sharp thorns. I managed to crawl up a rise to the
building where I spent the rest of the night in relative safety
among some rubble.
When dawn came, the wind and rain were still blasting, but shifting
direction to the south as the eye passed. Then as the sun got higher,
it began to subside enough to see out onto the lagoon from the raised
vantage point of the building. I couldn't believe my eyes. The lagoon,
filled with boats the day before was empty. Except for one Boston
Whaler still sitting on its mooring as if nothing had happened, the
other small power boats were upside down and sunk. The big power boats
were aground against the shore. All the others were missing. The
paranoia that it was all my own personal disaster suddenly became
magnified when I saw several of the cruising sail boats that had been
at anchor were scattered in pieces on the south shore of the lagoon.
One of their masts stood 20 feet up out of the mud like a flag
The scene burned in my memory forever and the shock grew
worse as the hill sides became visible in the gray morning light.
Covered in a carpet of green the day before and dotted with
expensive homes, the hills looked as if they had been set afire.
Only bare burned branches remained. Roof parts and other
debris were scattered everywhere. Around the lagoon, coconut
palms that once stood straight remained permanently bent by the