Riding Out Hurricane Rita

John Cattuna Jr.


Keeping a boat safe during a hurricane takes a weather eye and a fair bit of luck

Years spent growing up and living near the coast taught me to always keep a vigilant eye on tropical weather systems. Improvements in hurricane forecasting can lull people into complacency.

In September 2005, the forecast models for Hurricane Rita converged on an area 100 miles west of Port Arthur, Texas, leaving few people concerned that the storm would significantly impact the area.

Since you can expect significant tidal surges on the eastern side of a Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane, even 100 miles away, I decided to move Lioness, my 38-foot sloop, out of my marina in Sabine Pass, where the flat, marshy terrain offered little protection from high winds and was prone to storm surge—both of which are hard on boats in marinas.

Ahead of the storm

At lunchtime on Wednesday before the storm, I went on a reconnaissance mission to Orange, Texas, to look at the Sabine River from land. Some friends at work had suggested that it might be as good of a hurricane hole as one could find around here, stating that the farther north you can get up the Sabine River, the better. Pleased with what I saw, I thought that the land and structures offered some protection from high winds and that the site was far enough inland to be somewhat tidal-surge resistant.

The BASF Port Arthur site hurricane response team got the 4:30 p.m. update on Wednesday, Sept. 21, and the information indicated that we would have no more than 39-knot winds. However, the local authorities had already announced a mandatory evacuation of Sabine Pass starting at 6 a.m. Thursday. More cities would announce evacuations on a staggered basis.

Once a mandatory evacuation has begun, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to enter an area being evacuated. I decided to get to the marina before 6 a.m. to either move Lioness or ride out the storm. Since I didn’t want to leave my truck where a tidal surge was expected, I arranged for a cab to pick me up at 4 a.m. and drop me off at the marina before the mandatory evacuation went into effect.

Before leaving home that morning, I heard on the Weather Channel that Rita was forecast to hit east of Galveston, which was way too close to Sabine Pass. My decision to move Lioness was made.

Moving Lioness

Lioness sporting its code flags in its slip for the 2022 District 26 coastal rendezvous

At daybreak, I departed “D” dock at Sabine Pass in a small flotilla with two other boaters. Since they didn’t know where to go, they followed me. Talk about the blind leading the blind. Larry’s boat, an old, converted shrimper, was faster, so he went ahead. Bob, whose boat was about the same speed as Lioness, was content to let me lead the way.

About midmorning, my boss, Ron Barksdale, called to give me a forecast update. However, his news was less than comforting. The latest forecast track had the storm coming into the Port Arthur area. They now planned to shut down the plant and evacuate, when only 12 hours earlier, the plan had been to run through the storm. With that information, I wondered whether Orange was far enough away and considered heading to Lake Charles, Louisiana.

As I left the Neches shipping channel in the Intracoastal Waterway heading toward the Sabine River in Orange, my luck worsened. I got an engine oil pressure alarm. I shut down the engine and deployed an anchor to investigate. Still following, Bob came alongside to ask what the matter was. I told him I was experiencing engine trouble and urged him to continue. I said I’d try to catch up with him later. He told me to get some lines ready. He was taking me in tow.

So off we went with Lioness lashed to Bob’s trawler heading for what we only could hope would be a haven from Rita. An hour or so later, we turned northward into the Sabine River headed toward Orange. We went into the western side of the loop the Sabine River makes in Orange. When I found a spot that I thought would provide good protection from the northeast around to the southwest, I released the lines from Bob’s trawler and dropped anchor. Bob went on ahead and found a spot he liked and anchored his boat as well. Unbeknownst to us, Larry had gone up the eastern side of the loop, and later that day, we got a radio call from him stating that he had found a place he was comfortable with.

I went to work on the engine, trying to find out what had happened to the oil pressure. I soon realized I didn’t have the parts to fix it, so I resigned myself to making this anchorage as secure as possible against the oncoming storm. Launching my inflatable dinghy, I used it to set a second anchor.

On Friday morning, I rose at daybreak (not that I had slept much anyway) and set my third and final anchor, trying to put Lioness in the center of the river with the anchors set about 60 degrees to each other. This combination gave me about 300 pounds of ground tackle, which I hoped would be enough to withstand whatever fury Rita unleashed. All anchor lines had been protected from chafe by wrapping them with pieces of old fire hose and duct tape. Next, I went to help Bob set his anchors.

By midmorning, we had finished setting anchors, the wind was already getting gusty, and the water was getting choppy. I told Bob I’d decided not to ride out the storm onboard. When he asked why not, I told him that if I decided during the peak of the storm that I didn’t like being on board, it would be too late to get off. The dinghy wouldn’t cope with hurricane-strength winds. I told him I was taking some tools, including a hammer and crowbar, some food, water and a life preserver, and was going ashore to find a safe refuge, even if I had to break into a building. He decided to join me.

Weathering the storm

We went ashore at the Orange shipbuilding yard. Several barges were under construction inside the warehouse, a metal building that didn’t look hurricane-resistant. Then we discovered a tugboat undergoing renovation tied to a dock. Most of its doors and windows had been boarded up with plywood, but we found one on hinges secured with a hasp. In we went, and to our delight, we had found our refuge. We lashed the dinghy to the tug’s stern rail, never expecting it to stay there through the hurricane.

Lioness‘ navigation station

By the middle of the afternoon, the weather had deteriorated enough that you did not want to go outside, and besides, we wanted to stay undiscovered in the tug, so we laid low. We found some cardboard boxes that looked like they would be more comfortable to sleep on than the steel decking and tried to sleep. We must have been nervous because one of us was always up checking on the boats through the few windows installed in the tug. We stayed on the tug’s fourth level to get a good view of our boats.

By early evening, river spray, created by the northeast winds, obscured the boats, only a couple hundred yards away, rendering them only intermittently visible. The white-capped river looked rough, but the tug handled the wind and rain with no strain, so we knew we’d made the right decision.

As Rita bore down on the area, darkness came early, and we continued our charade of trying to sleep. The northeast winds strengthened through the evening. When I could see Lioness through the spray, I could tell it was dragging anchor, struggling to keep its nose to the wind. By 8 p.m., the wind was strong enough to damage the power lines. Soon, the whole area was dark, making it impossible to see our boats. I tried to sleep through the sound of gusting winds, which must have been at least hurricane strength, and resigned myself to the fact that Lioness would not be there tomorrow.

Suddenly, we heard voices outside and approached the windows stealthily. To our dismay, three or four guys were outside. We thought they were there to run us out of the tugboat, but they were there to check on the mooring lines. We stayed out of sight. Once they had adjusted the dock lines to their satisfaction, they went over to the metal building to check on things there. When they finally left, we returned to our makeshift beds to rest.

The winds and rain strengthened until we thought they couldn’t get any stronger, and then they did. The winds constantly rumbled and gave the occasional howl. Around midnight, the strong gusts created a low-level vibration and hum in the tug that lasted until the gust diminished.

Moving the boats had been the right decision, especially considering the devasta­tion caused by the wind and tidal surge at Sabine Pass.

Although outside conditions were extreme, we were high and dry inside. Except for the noise and vibration during the strongest gusts, we felt safe and sound until one of the plywood doors blew in right where I was sleeping. I beelined it to the boat’s opposite side, trying to avoid being struck by the plywood, but it blew in a different direction. The gaping hole rendered that area uninhabitable, so we went down one level. To our surprise, most of the plywood had gone missing from the third-level doors and windows. No problem, we’d just go down to the second level. Again, the doors and windows were blown in. We made our way down to the first level, where yet again, the plywood was blown in.

Fortunately, one room along the port side had no outside doors or windows, so we settled down on our cardboard beds and tried to sleep.

After the storm

I must have drifted off sometime in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I hadn’t been sleeping long when I heard a voice. My first thought was the men from the shipyard were back, but about that time, I made out the silhouette of a guy inside the boat. It turned out to be Bob, who told me to come outside. He said that it was calm and that I wouldn’t believe what I saw.

He was right. I couldn’t believe my eyes. His boat was nestled right beside the tugboat. I ran down to the end of the tug to see if Lioness was still there, but it was too dark. I told Bob we had to lash his boat to the tug and get back inside because the wind would soon increase speed from the opposite direction. Within 15 to 20 minutes, it did.

In this location, the storm’s backside was much dryer and not nearly as windy as the front. However, it was still too windy to be outside for a long time. Around dawn, I couldn’t stand it. I had to go outside to see what remained of Lioness. To my surprise, it wasn’t too far from where it had started, though it was pointing in the opposite direction and struggling to keep its nose to the now southwesterly wind.

Lioness in its slip back on “D” dock in Sabine Pass after the marina was rebuilt from Rita damage

Our next concern was a tidal surge from the more onshore winds and flooding from the rain. However, neither materialized. We got only 2 to 3 feet of minor flooding at the dock.

It remained windy, gusty and drizzly until late, so we just hung out on the tug, occasionally looking outside at the damage and destruction to the metal shipyard building, thankful for our tugboat. Late in the afternoon, we tried calling Larry on the handheld VHF radio, and to our surprise, we raised him. He said he’d had a rough go of it and was partly in the marsh. We launched the dinghy and made our way slowly around to the eastern side of the loop where he was. This was the windward side of the loop as the storm came through. He had tied his boat to a barge, but the barge broke loose during the storm. He cut his boat free and tried to set an anchor in the strong winds. After he fouled his anchor rode in his prop, his boat drifted into the marsh where we found him. Although exhausted, he was fine otherwise.

Since it was getting dark, we dinghied back to the tug and would return for Larry in the morning. I spent the night on the tug; Bob spent it in his boat, still lashed alongside.

On Sunday morning, I launched the dink to check on Lioness, which had come through unscathed. I reset one anchor so the boat could swing more in the middle of the river. Meanwhile, Bob went to retrieve Larry and came back with Larry’s boat in tow.

The surrounding area

Not far from us, all the boats in a small marina had sunk.

A battleship tied to a dock just north of the shipyard broke most of its moorings and swung about 180 degrees from where it originated.

Near the shipyard, we could see other buildings with varying degrees of damage up to total losses.
Numerous transmission line towers at the Sabine Power Station were down with lines crossing the Intracoastal Waterway, rendering it closed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

On Sunday afternoon, I contacted some friends to pick me up. I knew Bob had enough to do, trying to tow Larry back to Sabine Pass. Towing my boat would be too much. I told them I would make it to Sabine Pass by land to investigate the marina’s condition. When I got there, I found mass destruction.

The “D” dock was completely gone. The area suffered a significant tidal surge. I saw large sailboats on land, some crushed, and many other boats either sunken or unaccounted for. Several boats, including a barge, were near the center of town. Shrimp boats were piled in heaps like scrap metal. The marina had no power, no electricity and no water, but there were a few undamaged slips still standing at “C” dock.

After the power lines had been cleared from the waterway, Bob and Larry returned to Sabine Pass on Wednesday and found a slip on “C” dock. That Saturday, Bob took me to retrieve Lioness, which was still anchored in the Sabine River in Orange with engine trouble. I got a slip in “C” dock as well and got the engine repaired—just in time to keep a watchful eye on Hurricane Wilma.


Moving the boats had been the right decision, especially considering the devastation caused by the wind and tidal surge at Sabine Pass. Unfortunately, moving a boat out of a hurricane’s path on short notice can be challenging. Once you commit to being on the water, evacuation becomes tricky. Also, those who evacuated couldn’t get back to the marina for a week.

It’s a good thing we didn’t make it to Lake Charles. We’d have been in worse shape due to the significant tidal surge there.

Chafe protection is essential. Bob didn’t use chafe protection, which resulted in his boat going adrift after losing his anchors.

Questions I’m often asked:

Were you scared? I was concerned but never scared. I just didn’t have much time to dwell on things.

Would you do it again? I hope I never have to, but if I do, I hope there’s a tugboat nearby.

John Cattuna Jr.

John Cattuna Jr. lives in Port Arthur, Texas, holds a United States Power Squadrons full certificate, and is a U.S. Coast Guard Master Upon Near Coastal Waters.

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