Out at the marina, it was all hands on deck.

By Julia Savacool
November 12, 2012

Story by Julia Savacool

The first warning came at 2 pm, when winds at Eaton's Neck, a peninsula marking the entrance to Huntington Harbor off Long Island Sound, were clocked at 95 mph. The second alarm sounded at 8:30 pm, when the tidal surge forced waters of Manhattan's East River well over the concrete barriers, sending it gushing across the FDR, over York Avenue, and all the way to First Ave.

"Never in my life..." gasped an elderly gentleman, buried beneath a yellow raincoat as he scurried towards his city apartment. Out with the dog for his night walk, I made it as far as the flooded street corner before a blast of 50 mph wind blew both of us back to the front door.       

Hunkered down in our apartment on the Upper East side, my boyfriend and I had two concerns. One was our city home, situated dangerously close to the river. The second, and more worrisome, was our sailboat, stripped down to her bare poles and secured to her slip at Willis Marine in Huntington Harbor, an hour's drive away. We'd prepared her the best we could over the weekend--removing her sails and canvas, stowing anything that could crash around below decks, adding extra dock lines and tying off the helm.

But really, our biggest fear was one we could not control. Sandy would hit the harbor exactly at high tide--1 am--with a massive storm surge on top of a full moon tide already expected to be the highest of the year. As a result, the docks, which are held in place by metal hooks that go around wooden poles buried into the harbor mud, would float higher and higher. With a big enough surge, they could float right off their pilings, causing an avalanche of boats to crash into the sea wall and each other.

9 pm, 9:30 pm, 10 pm. Watching the clock tick in our New York apartment, I couldn't stand it any longer. I picked up the phone and called the marina. I knew the Willis family, a multi-generation clan of skilled sailors, would be out there with the dozens of boats still in the water, keeping watch. Just a word about our boat would silence the scenes of carnage in my mind. The phone lines were down.

Out at the marina, it was all hands on deck. The yard hands had been working since the early morning, tying down anything that might get launched by wind or water, damaging the delicate hulls. Brothers Jeff and Dick Willis had founded their business 37 years ago, and Jeff's sons, David, Todd and Tim, had grown up around boats, and Dave and Todd now helped run the family business. They'd been through this drill before, double-checking lines, re-positioning boats still in the water to be at the best possible angle to the wind when the storm hit. On Tuesday night, they stood ready for the moment the surge would send the docks over their pilings, prepared to physically force the metal hoops back over their wooden posts and secure the yachts at all costs. Many of them lived close to the water's edge--whether their own homes would survive was a question they'd have to face later. Right now, it was all about saving the boats.

As anyone who has owned a boat can tell you, your boat is not just another thing. In the larger scheme of lives lost and home destroyed, it's true a boat must take the backseat. But to a sailor, your boat is alive. She is a living, breathing entity. She is your friend, your companion on breathtaking adventures. She is your shelter, quite literally, when you are caught out at sea in a storm. You have a bond with your boat, the way a jockey might with his horse. Losing your boat is like losing a loyal, devoted friend.

By 12:30 a.m. the Willis Marine parking lot was flooded. The docks, which used to rest about 10 feet below the parking lot level, were now floating above it. Power had long gone out. Water rushed into the main office; waves spilled over the metal supports for the boats that had been hauled onto the blacktop.

Out in the harbor, boats began to break loose from their moorings under the strain of tropical storm force winds. Any sane person was as far away from the harbor's edge as they could manage. But the Willis family kept on working, methodically, meticulously, securing broken lines and slowly guiding the docks back into their proper place. In the way that those who make their living by the sea do, they stood fast in the face of Mother Nature, taking her lashing and minimizing the damage to keep their business intact.

By the time the bridges were reopened the following day, and we picked our way through downed trees and power lines, to reach the marina and face whatever awaited us, we pretty much assumed the worst. It seemed unlikely that our girl could have survived those winds and that surge, without ending up on the rocks or out at sea. To our amazement, we pulled into the parking lot and saw her tall, black mast, sticking straight up in her usual spot, tidily secured to her cleats, looking barely the worse for the wear. In the boatyard, the Willis family was making the rounds, re-checking lines, removing debris washed ashore by the storm. No self-congratulations on not losing a single boat on their watch. No "you owe us big time" signs to customers whose lackadaisical preparations meant the marina had to scramble last minute to do it themselves. Just another day at the office, albeit one without power or heat.

Julia Savacool is the author of The World Has Curves. She has written for Self, Women's Health, Gourmet.com and USA Today, among others. She lives in NYC and sails out of Huntington harbor on the Long Island Sound.