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Updated: Dec 25, 2020

December 03, 2020

Somehow we managed to pull off a late November trip to the Bahamas amidst a slew of wacky and terrifying late-season hurricanes. I remember back in March when forecasters were giving their predictions for the Atlantic hurricane season and some went as high as 18-22 for named storms. While there was some variance to these prediction numbers, the bottom line was, everyone agreed 2020 would be a very active and possibly record-breaking season.

I’m a definite storm junkie. I can’t help but get excited when I see these storms taking shape, notating their intensification, jotting down barometric pressure drops, determining eye-wall distances and watching the GOES-EAST satellite to track their movement and symmetry while also observing the surrounding air quality maps for dryness and or humidity in the area.

I missed a lot of the action being held up in North Carolina during the March-May quarantine, but as we were discussing plans for a late November trip, the Atlantic basin was already well into the greek alphabet for storm naming, and I would go on to watch (and ride out) two of the most puzzling and time-defying storms I’d ever come to witness.

The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season was a year centered around volume and incipient intensification of each of storm. Beginning with two named storms prior to the official start date, Arthur and Bertha got things rolling in mid-may. The first two hurricanes of the season were Hannah striking south Texas and Isaias, which came through the Caribbean and hit much of the eastern US. I had ridden out Isaias during its tropical storm stages, before it went spiraling up the coast. Its video can be seen here:

Hurricane Laura, not being one to intensify rapidly, did become the first major hurricane of the year (Cat 4, 150 mph winds) and went on to deliver over $14 billion dollars of damage to the Louisiana and Gulf Coast states.

For a year centered on numbers, the season’s peak month, September, would deliver exactly as predicted, with no fewer than two storms occurring simultaneously and a grand total of 11 named storms for that month.

Pictured below is a snapshot that was taken on the day of September 14th, where five named storms and three tropical waves that would later become named storms are seen churning through the Atlantic.

With the conclusion of September, we had exhausted the entire alphabet and were now well into the greek alphabet for the naming system, seen only once before in the record-setting year of 2005.

2005 is a year that not only comes up for its comparison purposes of the most active year on record, but it also still haunts us with the names of Katrina, Wilma and Rita.

2005’s Katrina, for anyone living under a rock or under the age of 10, was up until the time of 2017’s Harvey, the most destructive storm ever encountered causing $110 billion dollars of damage and an untold number of deaths (estimates put it at 1800).

2005’s Wilma, still the most intense tropical cyclone to form in the Atlantic, saw explosive intensification going from a tropical storm to a category 5 hurricane in less than 24 hours. A record-setting central pressure of 882 millibar leaves its mark at the top of the history books as well. 

Not far behind Wilma, though, were the #4 and #7 strongest storms on record, Rita and Katrina respectively. The major difference between the 2020 and 2005 seasons, despite both having record-setting numbers, were the levels of intensities of these storms. Not much can compare to the strength and power of the 2005 season.

But 2020 was far from over. From October to November, eleven more storms would get named and four of these would become major hurricanes (CAT 3 or higher). It’s within these four major hurricanes that the story of rapid intensification really gets highlighted.

I had just completed an STCW able seaman’s course and returned to the research vessel in WPB to look after things while the captain was away. On October 31st, the day after my class had completed, tropical storm Eta had formed in the Caribbean sea, just below Cuba. Eta was slowly tracking west towards Central America and far enough from Florida to not pose any threat. That’s when things took a turn, quite literally.

On Nov 2nd, Eta had exploded from tropical storm status into hurricane force winds. In just twelve short hours, Eta’s sustained winds had increased by 65 mph and its central pressure had dropped 64 mb. Eta went from CAT 1 to CAT 4 overnight. On Nov 3rd, Eta was churning towards the Nicaragua/Costa Rican border with wind speeds of 150 mph.

Things got totally wacky after it had made landfall, bouncing out from the middle of the country and back towards Cuba where it had come from. Our stomachs in Florida began to tighten. This is the unpredictable nature of storms and why nothing can prepare you for what’s to come. Eta would make a series of S-turns turning over the top of Cuba, sweep along the Keys, return back eastward towards the gulf side of Florida, power back up to a hurricane and make landfall a second time.

Despite being a hundred miles away and a mere tropical storm, Eta blasted our marina with steady 50 mph winds and caused four-foot seas to roll through the Intracoastal. Boats had become dislodged from their mooring balls and were drifting at us like floating time bombs. Our neighbor’s canopy had been ripped from its hold and flipped in front of my face to land on another boat. Four of the nine boats near us suffered damage to their vessels from not being properly secured and beat against the pilings. The marina’s dock had cleats pulled up from their planks and multiple portions of the dock had been broken apart. No one expected this from a mid-level tropical storm.

While I was riding out this storm, we were in discussion for a late-season trip to the Bahamas. I laughed at the ridiculousness of this actually coming to fruition, but more on that later.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Eta, a second disturbance was being monitored by the NHC for any potential development. The tropical wave sat and sat, not moving, but doused the outer islands with heavy rainfall until finally, on November 13, it became tropical depression #31 meeting the record of 2005. Six hours later it was tropical storm Iota and we had ourselves a monster of a storm.

Between the hours of 06:00 UTC on the 15th to 06:00 UTC on the 16th, Iota had powered up from a tropical storm to a category three hurricane. Forty minutes later it was a CAT 4, and by the end of the day it was a CAT 5, poised to strike the Nica/CR coast approximately 15 miles from where Hurricane Eta had struck two weeks prior. This time Iota rapidly weakened over the mountains of this area becoming a tropical depression and dissipated over Honduras.

Now, back to the topic of us trying to get over to the Bahamas in November during not only the most active hurricane season on record, but also while the oceans would be at their worst. For Florida, we don’t have seasons, we only get hot months and less hot months. Where most states would enjoy a spring or fall, we simply get a period in between those months of hot and less hot signaled by an increase in winds. These months, typically March and October host tenacious winds and likely zero chance for you to be out on the ocean, let alone crossing it.

But somehow, as if the months of hoping had conjured a genie out from his bottle to grant us this wish, we found a weather window in late November extending across Thanksgiving and into the first week of December. Pretty unheard of, but we weren’t going to miss this chance since we had lost 75% of the summer field season due to COVID.

Well, we got all our ducks in a row with undergoing the covid testing protocol and submitting to the Bahamas travel ministry within 5 days of our test dates. We fueled, provisioned and prepared the boat to get one last attempt at gaining some research data for the year. We had to push out our departure for one day as the customary 30 kt winds had not yet subsided and by Thanksgiving day we were cruising towards West End.

As most of our study site has shifted to the Grand Bahama Bank, we would need to double-cross, first to West End to check-in and then again to Bimini where we would spend our remaining days. We had with us a film crew that was set to take up spots on four of our trips, and were now reduced to four days to hopefully gain some footage for creating a narrative of mother and calf interactions. We would also be needing to update our catalogues with ID shots.

While the weather proved helpful, the dolphins themselves did not. We attempted many jumps, but they were always on the move and never allowed us more than a few seconds of their presence. I did get in on one of the more playful encounters getting to dive a few times as they circled and zipped by before the moment was shortly over.

Since the seas were so utterly calm, we also attempted a night drift to see if we could bring in any of the dolphins during their fantastic display of technique and fishing mastery using primarily echo-location. This too, however, proved unsuccessful and no more than a few schools of tiny squid and one flying fish showed up in the four hours we spent drifting over the deep water’s edge.

The weather window was closing rapidly as an advancing cool front was bringing heavy winds back down along the coast of Florida. On the day of our decided early departure, the seas had kicked up a solid three feet and we were cruising back, quick as could be to hopefully beat the front on the way in. In the hour we left, the front line was in the middle of Georgia, and by the time we had returned to cell service off the coast of Florida, it was near Ocala. In the time it took us to clear customs, we were facing down the front line which was lashing out sheets of whipping rains and gusting winds. We quickly spun the boat into the dock and snatched the lines on quick as we could. Before long, the rains were done and the sun was back out.

I hauled my effects up to the truck and was back headed to North Carolina to resume operations with a suspension install before heading out west to New Mexico. So far, the suspension is going in relatively easy and I’m of course learning a lot along the way. The goal is, to hopefully reinforce this critical component to handle the extra load I’m carrying and enable future weighted installs as well. Not to mention, I sure do like wheeling this truck up and over some pretty rugged off-road terrain.

The upgraded rear suspension came with three additional leafs, plus an obviously more robust rear strut. For the front, an upgraded and beefier coil over shocks plus new forged upper control arms. I replaced the potentially problematic driver side needle bearing with an East Coast Gear Supply oil-impregnated bushing to tolerate the 2-3 inches of lift I had added. I also swapped out the old u-bolts for what‘s called a "flip kit" to gain more ground clearance.

While the driver side cv axle was removed, I changed both front and rear differential fluid and completed my first successful oil change. In addition to the work done on the suspension, I dove belly first into a chassis paint job using a rust preventative product called Por-15. I added in some new door speakers and deleted a lot of the unsightly chrome interior accents. Organized the mid-truck food storage area, spruced up the rear camping section and updated the tool and hardware inventory that I travel with.





It‘s sure been a steady three weeks of progress but I’m finally ready to hit the road for the holidays for the second year in a row. Be on the lookout for a Build 2.0 video!



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