Ivan the Terrible

She had planned a relaxing Caribbean holiday, but within days of boarding the yacht 'Camille', Susan Cunningham-Hill was fighting for her life in the eye of the world's worst recorded hurricane. Here she relives her terrifying adventure
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It is late summer, and we have arranged to meet for a Caribbean holiday on the yacht Camille. There are three of us, hoping for sunshine and good sailing: the owner, Peter Breach, a 62-year-old accountant from Bristol; Vivian Fuller, 60, an artist from Birmingham, and myself, a solicitor from Staffordshire.

It is late summer, and we have arranged to meet for a Caribbean holiday on the yacht Camille. There are three of us, hoping for sunshine and good sailing: the owner, Peter Breach, a 62-year-old accountant from Bristol; Vivian Fuller, 60, an artist from Birmingham, and myself, a solicitor from Staffordshire.

Peter spends much of his time on the boat; nine months earlier, I had helped him sail Camille in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. I rejoin him on the island of Grenada in late August. Vivian flies in a week later, on 5 September. We plan to remain on the island for a while in the yacht's usual berth at Secret Harbour marina, in Mount Hartman Bay.

At this point, we hear that Hurricane Ivan is near but we are not too worried. After all, Grenada is considered a safe haven. It hasn't seen a hurricane for 50 years, and besides which, the weather forecasts predict that Ivan will pass north-east of the island. It will be a safe place to ride out the tropical storm that will inevitably follow in the hurricane's wake.

Even so, we prepare for high winds. Mount Hartman Bay is a beautiful, secluded bay with wooded slopes rising from a long inlet. Across the entrance to the bay is a coral reef with navigable entry only through a narrow channel. The reef affords protection against big waves in any wind but we judge that rather than remaining in the bay's marina, we will be safer anchored on its eastern side, where there will be less chance that Camille will be damaged by other boats crashing about. We sail out into the bay, put down two anchors, stow everything securely in the cabin, and set up the storm sail, which keeps the yacht lined up towards the wind.

We decide to stay on board as, in these circumstances, you're probably as safe on a boat as you are on the land. Indeed, we are confident that we are in as safe a place as anywhere.

Nevertheless, the forecast on the morning of 7 September makes for chilling listening. It becomes apparent that the hurricane - classified as a category 4 and later upgraded to a 5, the most extreme category of all - has changed course and is headed due west, straight towards the island. We are forced to face the fact that Ivan is just hours away. My brother in Philadelphia, who is watching the reports, sends me an urgent text message, saying, "I think you've got about 10 minutes to get out of there."

We then spend the rest of that morning in a state of anticipation, charting the arrival of the hurricane to within minutes with our satellite-navigation system. We have all experienced heavy seas and high winds before, but nothing has prepared us for the force of Ivan. By 3pm the winds are gusting to 50 knots. By 4pm we have lost the mast-head sensor for the anemometer in 87 knots of wind. Weather stations on the island thereafter record steady winds of 130 knots, gusting to 150 knots.

The noise is incredible. People say a hurricane wails like a banshee. But this is no mere wail - it is a roar. It is impossible to see more than a couple of feet ahead: the wind is filled with salt water and feels almost solid. Indeed, my extended exposure to it later leaves me virtually blinded and in great pain for 12 hours. *

As the hurricane takes hold, the yacht begins veering violently from side to side; at times it leans over so far that the decks are below water. And no amount of battening down prevents utter chaos in the cabin. Vivian is dodging projectiles flying at speed in all directions. Door catches break, retaining bars do not hold.

But what causes us deepest concern is that despite the two anchors, we are being sucked inexorably out towards the coral reef - and our almost certain deaths. If by the smallest chance we are swept through the narrow channel in the reef, we will then be at the mercy of the ferocious wind, waves and rocks on the Grenadian coastline. We see that several unmanned yachts have already been dragged out to sea - and wrecked. To keep us in harbour, Peter decides to try to motor against Ivan. Despite Camille's powerful 100hp diesel Volvo motor, however, it is a losing battle against the wind and rain.

Just as we are beginning to despair, respite comes. The eye of the hurricane passes over us. It's described as an "eerie quiet" in books. I'd characterise it more as a central stillness; like a disciplined football match surrounded by a wild and vociferous crowd. Once more we can see. We notice that we are about 30ft from the mangroves on the shores of the bay. We also see that we are only 10 to 15 yards away from the harbour entrance, heralded by a rocky outcrop. Beyond is open sea.

Obviously, there is no time to lose. Soon, we will be the other side of the hurricane's eye and we will be whisked to our deaths. We need to get a line ashore to secure the yacht or, failing that, as a means for us to climb to shore. I am the strongest swimmer and I volunteer to swim.

I tie a rope around my waist, put on a life-jacket and Peter lowers me into the water. It is the most uninviting water I have ever seen: black, bubbling, and filthy with debris.

My inflated life-jacket hampers my efforts but after about five minutes, I scramble ashore and with a rope, secure Camille to the biggest mangrove trunk that I have ever seen, a good 12 inches across.

It is in the nick of time. Within 10 to 15 minutes, the hurricane is starting to roar again. The full force of the wind returns and a tidal surge of water engulfs the shoreline. I climb up the bank, along with dozens of huge crabs, to avoid the pounding waves. When I am out of the water's reach, I tether myself to a tree, scrape out a pit in the ground and lay down. Debris flies above me and I am very glad of the inflated life-jacket as it offers some protection. As I lay down, I became aware of an extreme pain in my eyes. I wish I could die, the pain is so bad.

For the next two hours, I lie among the mangroves, while Peter and Vivian struggle aboard the boat. We each imagine that the other has perished. As I am now blinded by the salty spray, I can't even see Camille. Nor can I shout over the incredible roar of the hurricane.

By the time night falls, the worst has passed. Vivian and Peter shine a torch over to the mangroves to see if they can find me. Walking blind, I scramble towards the light and blow hard on my life-jacket's whistle. Peter is shouting at me so that I can get my bearings and I call back that I don't think I can swim again.

I don't have to. The yacht is attached to the rope I tied to the mangrove trunk, although now Camille is on her side on a mud bank in only a foot of water. I find my way to the handrail and Peter pulls me aboard. "You've got to do something about my eyes," I tell him.

We know that we have survived the worst of the hurricane and joke about the luxury hotel that we are going to book ourselves into, then try to get comfortable as the night draws in. Although the hurricane has calmed, it still blows at about 50 to 80 knots - enough to give the grounded boat a battering. We wedge ourselves in among the chaos of the cabin and try to sleep, fearing a sudden change in wind direction.

As dawn breaks, we surface and realise how lucky we have been. There is not a single yacht at anchor in the normally crowded bay. Later we hear that some put down four anchors and were still dragged out. Battered yachts litter the reefs and banks and there's a sinister pile of wrecks on the coral bar at the bay's entrance.

But if we thought that rescue would come soon, we are wrong. The hurricane has wreaked such devastation on Grenada - about 90 per cent of the houses are destroyed - that locals have to attend to their own problems. We release the inflatable dinghy from its ropes and set off across the bay to see the destruction on land.

The marina is a tangle of broken yachts. Most have been wrecked or severely damaged. On land many people are left with nothing. Travel is not possible on the island. Roads are covered with debris and power lines. We find shelter with a French construction worker and, for the next three days, pool our resources, sharing his single room.

There are quite a few shell-shocked people around. Several people booked into hotels rather than staying on their boats - but now the hotels are wrecks.

By day, we collect coconuts, mangoes and drinking water. There is no running water or electricity - nor is there any information. Fear and rumours spread. We hear gunshots at night near the bay. Looting becomes a problem and there is no military presence on Grenada to provide protection. Nor is the bad weather over. A violent electrical storm passes through the day after Ivan, and as a dozen of us shelter under a tarpaulin by the marina, a bolt of lightning hits the water less than 50 metres away. It would be bad luck to survive Ivan and then be taken out by lightning the next day.

The security situation worsens. The fear and desperation of the islanders is extreme - they have no food, water or fuel - and they start coming down to the harbour, where they imagine the boats will have provisions. We pass three islanders walking through the mangrove swamp with machetes and fear that they are going to attack us. They leave us alone but it turns out that they are checking which boats to loot.

I can understand their predicament. Without any means of communication, no one has any idea when, or if, help will arrive. And when it does, some think that the island is being invaded. In addition, the island's prison has been damaged in the hurricane and the prisoners have escaped.

A meeting is held at the marina to discuss security and a 24-hour patrol is established to protect the remaining boats and their crews. We want to leave Grenada but the airport is closed to commercial traffic. Escape must be by boat.

We are lucky. After a few days we are offered a berth on a 60ft yacht, Antares, whose owner has patched it up and considers it sufficiently seaworthy to make the 81-mile passage to Trinidad. They can take 10 passengers, including two children and a dog. As we sail away, we are aware of the chaos we are leaving behind.

About 13 miles out, beyond Grenada's waters, we hear three mayday calls over the radio from the next bay along to Mount Hartman. The first asks for coastguard assistance. The next says, "Lives are being threatened" and the coastguard replies, "Unable to assist." Yachts are being boarded and there are reports of armed piracy. But we are too far away to offer assistance.

To this day, the looted Camille remains aground on its side in the mangroves on the east side of Mount Hartman Bay. We were lucky to escape with our lives. When we got to Trinidad we were treated as refugees, welcomed without any need for passports. It had been an incredible experience: indeed, Ivan is now the worst hurricane ever recorded. Has it put me off yachting? Not for a minute.