I had not planned on sleeping in the tub, but then again I figured Hurricane Lili would head north (Take that, Florida!) instead of due east. Right at us.
My buddy and I went to San Salvador last week for a long weekend of diving. Connections from DC via Miami were pretty easy and the resort is not expensive and three dives per day meant that we'd get more bottom time for our money. By the time we were in the air over south Florida it was obvious that Lili was slanting at least to the northeast. I had visions of a soggy, overcast vacation. We should have been so lucky.
San Salvador is flat with slivers of pretty beaches (including one at Riding Rock Inn where we stayed.) There is not much in the way of cultural or scenic attractions, but we really liked the islanders. They were warm and helpful and a real contrast to those in Nassau (or in New York or Washington.) Cockburn Town is the main settlement on the sparsely populated island and it offers two rudimentary stores and a bar or two.
The main building at the resort houses a restaurant and a bar in which Jimmy Buffett would feel right at home. Cooking is down-home and good. Omelets to order, fresh fruit and grits at breakfast. Spaghetti, burgers, conch chowder at lunch. Dinners featured sauteed grouper, steak, pork chops, and similar fare. Portions were adequate.
San Salvador is known for its walls, which start in about 30-40 feet of water. There is very healthy coral growth at the crest and down to 120-140 feet. We saw lots of small tropicals and a pack of big, semi- tame groupers. There are some swim-throughs, but the topography is not as dramatic as Cozumel. Water was 83 degrees and viz was only about 80 feet due to the cloud cover.
Some noteworthy critters included a spotted moray, coral banded shrimp and a ray. Others saw a big hammerhead at about 180 feet. Dennis and I were sharkless, unfortunately. Ironically, three were spotted in the shallows just below the hotel's verandah. But not by me.
THE DIVE OPERATION
Kevin Collins runs the dive operation which uses two 40 foot boats. About 15-18 divers were aboard. (The local Club Med has giant boats which carry up to 50 reef manglers.) The Riding Rock staff does everything for you and there's no need to tote or even touch your gear until it's time to make your giant stride. Briefings were minimal and you are free to dive your own profile and wander around the reef on your own. Recreational limits were sufficient for me, but not for everybody: We had some gorilla divers on the boat as well as a jerk or two.
A max depth of 130 feet was merely a vague concept to a group from western Pennsylvania. Back home these guys dive in icy conditions, dive wrecks in the Great Lakes and even man the local Search & Rescue team. In the Bahamas they went ape. On one dive I was at 120 feet and one of the rescue divers was at least 40 feet below me and still heading down. Some of the others were below him, at 180 feet.
One of them was a young guy on his first week of open water diving. The second dive was to perhaps 80 or 100 feet. We then off-gassed for a couple of hours over lunch then headed out for the day's third dive. So what if they were flying at noon the next day...there was a wall to dive, by George! So it was back to 150 feet for them and that's where they saw a 12-15 foot hammerhead.
The shark spooked the rookie diver. I doubt that he was aware that his profiles were far more dangerous than the shark's jaws. That night I asked one of the group's leaders about diving like that the day before flying. He was frank. "We blew it. We should not have done it.," he said. I hope no one got bent. They were good company if poor role models.
Another group was not so congenial. A scruffy guy from Nashville got in my face when he saw me pulling on a pair of gloves before a dive. "You don't need them," he barked. I should have said the same thing about the cigarette in his mouth or the dive flag he had pained on his toenail. I was polite and merely said "We disagree."
At about eleven on Friday night an electrical storm moved into the area and put on an awesome light show. From CNN we knew that Lili was headed in our general direction but we hoped it would pass to the north. By 4:00 AM we knew that it wouldn't.
Winds were howling and everybody in the hotel woke up. CNN was gone as the satellite dishes were ripped out. Water was coming in from the ceiling, around the window frames and under the door. As the winds increased the big sliding glass doors started to vibrate, then throb. I had visions of shattering glass and severed arteries, so I grabbed a pillow and a blanket and moved to the tub.
After a couple of hours the winds were at 115 mph according to the radio, which was informing its listeners that Lili was 40 miles southwest of San Salvador and heading right for it at 23 mph. When the eye eased by at about 6:00 the hotel hustled us into its vans to be evacuated to a church.
As Dennis and I clambered into the back seat of the last van there was a jarring crash: A chunk of roof had been torn off and hurled into the rear of the van. Our arrival at the Church of God of Prophecy had its own dramatic punctuation. As we stumbled into the sanctuary a window blew out.
That was the last close call, though. We spent about three hours trying to sleep on the padded pews, then ate a breakfast of ham sandwiches and candy bars. When we got returned, the Riding Rock Inn was trashed but had not suffered any structural damage. Sections of roof were here and there, some rooms were full of water. Plants were shredded and pool furniture was strung helter-skelter.
No one was hurt. In fact, only one islander was injured and I don't think it was serious. Our prayers may have helped.
Saturday was spent gawking at the damaged resort. The hotel generator had failed as had island power. That meant that there was no water since the pumps wouldn't work. For the better part of two days we used trash cans full of swimming pool water to flush the toilets. All divers carry flashlights so we could see, and the hotel grilled us burgers and steaks.
Island entrepreneur and hotel owner Carter Williams was super through it all. When it became apparent that his generator wouldn't be repaired Saturday, he sent us all to the Club Med at his expense. Club Med is filled with Europeans who are all younger, sleeker, and better looking than us, but I shouldn't carp about a place with hot showers.
When we returned to Riding Rock on Sunday, Williams had a crew of about 40 people cleaning up, fixing things, putting on new roofs, and taking care of the guests. As I write this I am certain he is in full operation and that there will be few visible reminders of the storm. One, sadly, will be a shredded oak tree in Cockburn Town, right by a sign which urged residents to "Keep our island Beautiful."