By Dean “The Sportsman” Greenaway
While 99.98 percent of British Virgin Islanders are hunkered down in their homes during Hurricanes and Tropical Storms, Captain Algernon “Allie” Chalwell has no idea what happens on land during a Hurricane.
For the last 28 years, Chalwell has been riding out Hurricanes at sea, starting with Hugo. Chalwell, who first sailed to Puerto Rico on his own at 14 with a note from his father for immigration because he couldn’t make it, said because a Hurricane is a dangerous storm, as boat owners with big boats, they have to go away from the storm. Staying in the BVI he said, they’d lose their boat and their business.
“It’s very tricky because you have to know where to go and when to go because these storms, they divert, they either go north or south,” he explained. “You also have to be careful you don’t run into the storm. You have to decide within 24-36 hours, whether to go north or south. If it’s coming on the south side of the BVI, you can do a 48 hour window and go more south, which is the better side of the storm. If you’re not sure and have to hold on, then you go north, which is the rough side of the storm.”
Chalwell who manages the family business Star Shipping, was on Sky Seal while his brother Cleave was captain on Pacific Seal. For Maria which was coming on the south, he said they went 75 miles north of Anegada.
“I took a beating. Big seas, a lot of wind, a tremendous task,” he said. ‘Irma though stronger, was a kiss compared to Maria. Irma went north and we got the calm side of the storm as we were 190 miles south of St. Croix. We experienced high swells but not too much wind because that was the calm side of the storm.”
Challwell who now plies between San Juan and the BVI added: “But Maria, it was trouble. It was hell out there. We experience 15-20 foot waves, 60-70 miles per hour wind and we just had to maintain ourselves. After we got in the weather, I threw a line on my brother’s boat and I was the lead ship. We put the two vessels in forward, headed into the seas at 2-3 knots auto pilot so that we could maintain our course and hanged out there until it was clear.”
During Maria Cleave said his mast on the Pacific Seal, a 165 foot long vessel broke and his ramp came off.
“We experience a ramp coming down when the weather is naturally bad, not hurricane time, but it tore it completely off the boat this time,” he said. “Usually when the weather is bad, it comes down and stays behind the boat, but with Maria, he have no ramp.”
Chalwell, from a line of East End sailors including Grandfather Milford Chalwell, sailed with his father Kenneth who was in charge during Hugo. He said no one expected Hugo to be as massive as it was at the time. They decided to anchor in the East End harbor until the storm passed. He said they had three anchors and as it started getting bad during the course of the night, the boat started dragging the anchors.
“My brother Mickey and I were on board at the time and after we started dragging anchors, we knew we’d be going ashore so we decided to start the engine and fight the battle and it was a hell of a battle,” he recalled. “We fought all night. We got beat up. We had to have pillows sitting in the chair around us. I was on the helm, Mickey was on the spotlight because we were in the harbor, so we had to monitor Red Rocks, which were ahead of us and monitor Fat Hogs Bay behind us. Certain times we used the light on land until it went out and that was a hell of a battle.”
When battling a storm, Chalwell said if you lose power, you’ll lose control of the ship. He said just as in a vehicle, if you’re coming down a hill and it stops you can’t control it.
“Same thing with a boat. If you lose power, you’ll lose the ship,” he stated. “That’s what happened with the container shop El Faro coming from Miami two years ago. They were trying to outrun the storm, they lost power and there was nothing they could do and lost the ship. Once you lose power, you’ll start to roll, you’ll take on water; you can’t keep the boat up in the seas to maintain the stability. The boat will turn sideways or stern to because of the structure of the house. The house is like a sail, so wherever the wind blows, the house will follow, therefore, you’ll lose full control of the ship.”
Cleave, a captain for 15 years, added that you have to know what you’re doing or you will lose your life.
“You have to be prepared also, you can’t go halfway out there,” he pointed out, nothing that he had a crew of 7-8 persons assisting him. “Anytime that vessel stops, those seas are going to beat you about and collapse the boat.”
Cleave said his crew had never experienced a hurricane and they kept coming on the bridge and asking if everything was going to be okay. At one time he went to the engine room and everyone was strapped with a life jacket.
“I just watched them and smiled, but, you can’t blame them because they had never been through anything like Maria,” he said. “I knew everything was safe but they were frightened.”