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Caught in a Tropical Storm while Crossing the Gulf of Mexico

A Tropical Storm in the Gulf of Mexico with a Catalina 387.

The first three days were calm, relaxing, almost comically easy – but that’s not what crossing the Gulf of Mexico is known for. The Gulf is known for confusion, steep waves, and various wind directions.

And that’s what we got when Tropical Storm Claudette caught up to us as we crossed the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida!

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The storm hit about halfway across the Gulf. We were just south of the Mississippi River about 100 miles from shore. The predictions were for the storm to move northward onto the Texas coast, and we’d receive a bit of wind from the outer edge.

It was predicted to be about 20-25 knots, 6-8 foot seas max.

What actually happened was the storm headed for New Orleans, and we received consistent 30+ knots of wind. With gusts in the 40s.

That’s a gale. Storm force 7-8.

Nothing to be taken lightly.

How We Adjusted To The Storm

Immediately, we altered the course from a destination of Clearwater, FL to Pensacola, FL. This shortened our time on the water from 2-3 more days to just another 24 hours.

Mobile was hit hard, so we’re glad we went to Pensacola instead.

You can see in the map above (this cool map comes from our Iridium Go) that we were on an ESE route straight to Clearwater, FL. The distance from the end of that ESE leg to Pensacola was about 150nm.

We knew this would dramatically change our plans of heading to the east coast and out of the hurricane zone by July, but risking it on the Gulf in a tropical storm could end our journey altogether.

Ultimately, we chose the cautious path.

Sunset the night before the storm hit.

How Did our Catalina Hold Up in the Tropical Storm?

Good. Great. We kept the motor on 2400 RPMs (just to ease our nerves, rookies here), and kept the mainsail reef to its third point the entire time.

The genoa came out when we had less than 30-35 knots of wind, but it was only partially out. This combination kept us going at a reasonable 5.5-6.5 knots.

A Tropical Storm in the Gulf of Mexico with a Catalina 387.
With 15 degrees heel and a wave on the starboard aft quarter, the boat tilts to 30-40 degrees.

Cadence handled the 10-15 foot waves with ease. Though it took most of the night and day before we really felt at ease with the wave height and power of the wind.

The sailboat would tilt from 20 degrees to starboard back to 35 degrees to port.

On the backside of a large wave, the boat is facing upward to the sky.

Safety Gear We Were Thankful to Have

There’s a lot of safety gear aboard, heck, we did a whole video on it (watch here). For this storm scenario, here’s our top 3 items:

  • Iridium Go. This device gave us communication with friends/family on land, and it allowed us to updated our wind and weather reports specific to our GPS location.
  • Life Vests with Tethers. Sure a life vest can keep you afloat if the boat sinks, but a tether keeps you aboard. This is critical, because overboard in the dark is almost 100% death. We use the West Marine brand with stainless steel tether points and quick release tethers.
  • Heavy Weather Rain Coat. It may be June or July, but when the clouds fill the sky in the ocean with heavy winds and rain, it’s cold. Dangerous cold. Good rain gear can save lives. We use Helly Hansen’s non-fleeced lined heavy

A safe tether will come with a quick-release snap shackle. In an emergency, being unable to release from the boat could also equal death.

Lessons Learned from Sailing Through a Tropical Storm

There are so many lessons to learn from this experience. Here are a few highlights that we took away from this Gulf of Mexico storm.

  1. Wait for a tropical storm to die before crossing the Gulf of Mexico.
  2. Three people are minimum for this type of event, 4 would be better.
  3. There’s nothing to prove – sail the ICW if you’d like, coastal hop if you want to rest at night, and do a week-long crossing if you’re up for, but be aware that you might face serious conditions.

Your Turn

Thanks for reading this blog post about our tropical storm encounter while crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Please leave a comment or question down below, I’m happy to share more if I missed anything!

Cheers,
Matt


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11 responses to “Caught in a Tropical Storm while Crossing the Gulf of Mexico”

  1. Marie Rocheleau

    Thanks for sharing such an exciting adventure and all the added educational info ???

  2. […] month was a big month for maintenance. After a recent crossing of the Gulf of Mexico we put some serious hours on the engine, and now that we’ve been on anchor for over a month, […]

  3. Scott Kees

    Love following y’all! Proud of your decision to divert to Pensacola … as a professional pilot safety is No. 1 – as we say in flying, “always better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air versus in the air wishing you were on the ground.” Diversions are no big deal! Safety first always!!!!! More Sailors need to learn this concept! Many parallels between flying and sailing!

    1. I’ve spoken to a few pilots recently, and they carry the same sense of prudence and decision-making as I feel in your comment. I really appreciate it, and I think I know what you mean about more sailors needing to take this approach. Cheers, mate – and thanks for dropping a comment here!

  4. […] Caught in a Tropical Storm while Crossing the Gulf of Mexico […]

  5. Scary… One thing I learned is to ignore the wind maps and look at the gust maps only. More often than not – at least in the Mediterranean so far – guts maps on Predict Wind tell you what the sustained wind you have to deal with will be.
    By the way – where are you headed? Your cool maps look like your approaching a crossing of the Atlantic?!

    1. That’s a great idea! I have a friend who says, look at the map and add 5 knots.

  6. Mark Tuccillo

    I have the same boat, 2005 wing keel hull #74. It’s good to know the boat can handle such rough conditions. So much for Catalina’s not being a blue water boat. Worst I’ve been in are 35knots and 5-6 footers, nothing as scary as what you went through. I put on a Leisure Furl furling boom a few years ago, sailing is much easier now. We are in CT and have only gone as far as Maine. Keep the journey going!

    1. Too cool! It is a great boat. Ours is hull #8. It’s pretty cool that they made so many boats in so short time!

  7. […] Caught in a Tropical Storm while Crossing the Gulf of Mexico […]

  8. Marty

    Am thinkin about a similiar boat and makin the same trip.am starting from florida and will follow near shore or bouys where possible.they say the bouy is 7miles out from clearwatr and then you turn.better to go by the maps.

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