Surviving Cyclone Hilda

Posted on January 10, 2018

Jason Fowler – marine biologist, fisher, yachtsman & tireless protector of the wild Kimberley coast – fights to keep his yacht & home.

Christmas 2017 was a joyous affair, as I spent time with my family in Geraldton, in Western Australia. However, my instincts rumbled as I kept a close eye on a developing tropical low forming in the North Kimberley. My pride and joy, and home, a 42-foot sailing catamaran named “Shaguar” was moored in Roebuck Bay at Broome and she could be in trouble if the tropical low developed into a cyclone.

Late on Boxing Day the weather forecast was changing quickly, the tropical low was intensifying. I hit the Go button, dropped everything, drove overnight to Perth and caught the 7am flight back to Broome. Upon landing, I felt the atmosphere: heavy and ominous, with 50kph gales and sideways rain. I raced to the Broome port and dropped the yacht’s tender onto the beach. 100 metres of crashing surf and white water confronted me. Somehow, I managed to drag the dinghy out, jump in and get the motor going. After 10 minutes of airborne leaps off waves I escaped the surf zone and tentatively approached the wildly bucking Shaguar. Getting aboard proved very difficult and I had to attach a rope to my wrist, time the waves and leap from dinghy to yacht. After an arm-wrenching battle, I managed to winch the dinghy on board and secure it tightly to the davit arms.

An hour later I had hatches secured and shades stored away, and felt confident the yacht was ready for what may come, tethered strongly on its mooring in the bay. The overwhelming consensus of the many different wind forecasts was to stay put, as the cyclone was expected to pass to seaward with 80kph northerly gales. My instincts where screaming once again: get out of here! Begrudgingly, I relied on the advice from the Bureau of Meteorology and sat on the mooring. Big mistake…

By 2pm the wind was a screaming 70kph southeaster, by 3pm, 80kph. The wind forecast was nearly 180o wrong. I was on the wrong side of the peninsula that Broome sits on. Instead of being protected from the forecast northerly winds by the land, I was being hammered towards the shore. I was working intensively, securing and stowing anything that would move. Time sped past, the water and wind were smashing into the yacht. But the mooring was holding. I thought we were going to make it. Then it started to get really bad.

A passionate fisher, Jason has worked tirelessly to ensure that the zoning of the Great Kimberley Marine Park works both for local fishers and for conservation.

The cyclone ripped down the Dampier Peninsula then dramatically intensified over Roebuck Bay. That vast expanse of shallow, hot water supercharged the gales ripping across it. Just after high tide, around 5pm, the wind was well over 100kph and the waves had grown to the size of houses. The swells were compressed together and topped with two metres of flying white water. Shaguar was getting pounded, with waves exploding over the top of the yacht and shaking everything inside to the floor: glasses, plates, binoculars all crashing around in the cabin. I knew something had to give. I put on a life jacket. The strap broke, so I put on another one.

A series of huge rollers came through; the first one tossed me violently sideways. The second one sheared off the bow mooring cleats with an explosive crack. The third and biggest wave snapped the main mooring line with an even bigger crack. My heart sank; I was alone and adrift in a Category Two tropical cyclone in the worst possible position, with winds intensifying by the minute. I started to get vocal; swear words flowed. How the hell am I going to save this yacht?

They named her Cyclone Hilda. She was looking for a fight, so I gave her one. With motors at full throttle I took her on, trying desperately to reach Dampier Creek and the safety of the mangroves. After a 45-minute thrashing I realised I wasn’t going to make it as the rocky shoreline of Demco Beach grew closer, not further away. Going ashore at Demco meant death. Mind is racing, adrenaline pumping. I did a U-turn and headed towards the Broome wharf. A slight glimmer of hope: maybe I could clear the wharf and head downwind to the safety of Cable Beach — maybe…

At this stage Hilda was nearing her peak, with winds at 140kph and gusts going well above. The constant rain felt like someone was holding a water pressure sprayer in my face. I watched the paint being peeled off the deck. Could hardly see and dusk was upon me. That sinking feeling washed over me again. I started to get really angry, F#&k you Hilda! The fight raged for another half-hour. Occasionally a big wave would come through the cockpit and leave me horizontal. I never let go of that steering wheel; Hilda was not going to break me. After copping some massive waves on the port side, which almost rolled the yacht, I decided to work out an escape strategy. It involved a desperate leap out over the stern without colliding with the tender or rudders; pretty dodgy I admit, but it was a plan.

As I approached the wharf my hopes crashed; I wasn’t going to make this tack either. Violent swearing followed — trapped in Roebuck Bay with no way out! To avoid colliding with the wharf I turned downwind and headed towards a dark, foaming shoreline. I had run out of options; Hilda belted me even harder. A massive wave picked up Shaguar and away we went, surfing down it for a few hundred metres. I caught a glimpse of the speedo: 14 knots! In the darkness I could make out a tiny 50-metre stretch of sandy beach flanked by jagged rocks. That became my sole target as I desperately heaved on the wheel, trying to coax the yacht towards the beach. Luckily the tide was fairly high; however I knew the area was scattered with sharp rocks. I felt a crunch — bugger, just hit a rock and cracked the port hull amidships. A huge Mangrove tree loomed and another almighty crash followed as I hit it at 10 knots, with motors in reverse. The Mangrove trunk went through the starboard bow, tearing off sheets of fibreglass. I’ll never forget the sound.

The next big wave picked the yacht up and dumped her savagely on the beach. Abandon ship! Those words terrified me. I raced down into the cabin. Holy crap, the surf had blown a huge hole in the port hull. Waves were pounding in and I was unable to reach my cabin. What to take? I grabbed my phone and a few other things, madly stuffing them in a waterproof bag. I had to crawl to the bow; the wind gusts would knock over an elephant. I peered down into a dark heaving mass of white water. Taking a deep breath I leapt off the bow. Came to the surface, swam, stood, knocked over, swam again. Crawled up onto the beach with my chest heaving. Thankful that I spent most of my life surfing big waves; Margaret River and Gnaraloo had prepared me well. I turned around to look at the yacht and my heart sank again. The 65-foot, 50 tonne fishing charter boat “Reel Teaser” had snapped her mooring and was drifting straight towards my yacht! “Don’t you dare!” I yelled. Just before imminent collision a huge wave picked up Reel Teaser and threw her sideways onto the rocks of the slipway. Boom! A truly spectacular sight.

Crawling, running, stumbling, I made it up onto the dry dock and took shelter behind a big yacht. With my back pressed hard against the hull I watched trees, plastic bins and rubbish flying around 20 metres above me — surreal. A jib sail from a nearby yacht begun to unravel and quickly flogged itself to tatters. Body check: yes, all arms and legs in place, no blood.

Jason’s yacht on an expedition investigating the reefs near Adele Island off the Kimberley coast. Jason has made the Shaguar available free for conservation and science expeditions.

My car was on the opposite side of the dry dock. A few hundred metres of dark, screeching chaos. I had to make a run for it. Go! Stumbling, running, sliding. Gate is locked — more swearing. Had to leap down the rocky walls of the slipway in darkness. I eventually reached my car and jumped into the safety of the heavy Landcruiser. I was shaking violently, partly from being really cold, mostly because of fear. Car wouldn’t start — flat battery — shit! Wet phone — hang on, it works! Begged a mate with a troop carrier to come and get me. As I sat there in the darkness waiting, a lonely feeling descended and I realised I was the only human at the port, the only human crazy enough to be at sea during a cyclone. I loved the rush: bloody adrenaline junky.

The next morning I returned and poor Shaguar didn’t look so well. Depression set in: how the hell am I going to pay for this? Bankruptcy weighed heavily on my mind. Cyclones are part of life in the Kimberley. The risk is always here in the summer. As Shaguar is my home in Broome I couldn’t do what some other yachties do and send her south to Perth for the summer — even if I could have afforded that — which I couldn’t. And I wasn’t able to get insurance for a cyclone. When I bought Shaguar and moved it to Broome I rang all the Australian insurance companies covering boats. The reactions ranged from a flat No! to laughter. Cyclone cover was out of reach for my yacht sitting on a swing mooring in the open harbour of Roebuck Bay. I had a cyclone plan of course — run into the safety of Dampier Creek, right up into the Mangroves, exactly like the Pearl Luggers used to do a century ago. I had even mapped out the best place to hide, but I needed to be there to do it.

The morning after the storm - the smashed starboard hull of the beached catamaran, the Shaguar. Jason’s seamanship and courage got the yacht ashore on a beach during the cyclone, but he couldn’t avoid the hidden rocks or mangrove trees.

I was so proud of Shaguar, she handled that heaving ocean so well, only taking on water when I crashed ashore. She is a fantastic cruising catamaran, roomy, comfortable with a shallow draught, perfect for expedition cruising in the often uncharted waters of the Kimberley. I had volunteered to take many people into the Kimberley wilderness as I wanted to show the world how incredible it is and its need for protection. We surveyed the Humpback Whale migration in September with Curtin University researchers and searched the Buccaneer Archipelago for rare Snubfin Dolphins. I took Birdlife Australia out to count the tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds in southern Roebuck Bay. Many conservation campaigners have come aboard to explore the Roebuck Bay Marine Park, always with the goal of delivering accurate information and developing first-hand knowledge. Filmmakers, photographers and drone pilots joined me on many trips into the Kimberley wilderness to document and explore, always building the case to create the Great Kimberley Marine Park in the best way possible. Over the last several years that wonderful work has been my focus and passion, so I don’t have any personal funds to rebuild this beautiful yacht — my home.

The next day the word went out and by 9am I had 20 volunteers with shovels. We dug the Shaguar out of the sand and packed her port hull with plastic drums. By 5pm she was floating and could be towed to within reach of the big crane. Now she has been picked up onto the dry dock, safe but wounded. I know I can fix her, but that’s the next chapter.

Jason Fowler, January 3, 2018

Jason Fowler has generously donated his yacht for many expeditions to the wild Kimberley Coast. Please help get Jason back on the water doing what he does best – promoting and protecting the world’s last pristine tropical coastline.  Click here to go to the crowdfunding page & donate to help make his yacht seaworthy again.

Update from Jason - February 5, 2018

A huge thank-you to all the wonderful people who have generously donated to repair Shaguar. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and support coming from so many people. 
I've been working on Shaguar non-stop since new years and repairs are progressing well. On January 2 my amazing parents, Pauline and Dexter, arrived from Geraldton with a huge load of power tools and equipment, ready for the enormous task ahead. After much searching I found some rare Oregon timber, the best yacht building timber in the world, and we begun rebuilding the framework inside the damaged hulls. 
Many friends have turned up to give a hand including Toby who is an electrical expert. After Toby and I pulled wiring out of its protective conduit we realised it was packed full of beach sand! This meant the yacht would have to be rewired from scratch. Luckily Toby has taken on this task with gusto.
The main motor was flooded with seawater, an expensive disaster! I reached out to every marine mechanic in Broome for advice. Luckily I have found a Mercury expert who is now attempting to rebuild the engine. The motor is very fuel efficient, using 2L/hr which is critical for extended Kimberley cruising with no fuel supplies for hundreds of kilometres.
Next steps include the enormous task of fibreglassing the hulls. This will require a 100 meter roll of heavy duty glass matting and 60L of resin. Thanks to Statewide Fibreglass for their generous advice and support. Unfortunately the main sail and Genoa (foresail) where both destroyed in the cyclone despite my efforts to lash everything down super tight. This will be a considerable cost considering the main sail is huge at 13 meters high and 8 meters wide! I am still looking at options on how to replace these sails.
Broome has had two more cyclones since Hilda and over 1 meter of rain, wild weather indeed. This has meant Port drive has been flooded and at times I haven't even been able to get to Shaguar. However we will soldier on.
Once again thank-you enormously for your generous donations. This has given me much hope and a serious chance of getting her back up into the Kimberley coast by Easter for the next research expedition. This will be a big year for the Kimberley with planning for the new Buccaneer Marine Park beginning soon.
Cheers and thank-you
Jason

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