On the Road: Broadsided by Iceland

Here's what the storm looked like as it approached Iceland in August 2014. You can see the outline of the country in white. What you can't see is us cowering in a tiny camper in a tiny coastal town on the west coast of the country.
Our camper and our daughter in Iceland, August 2014 — the night before we were pummeled by a wayward hurricane when it stormed in off the North Atlantic. A. Hinkle photo.

By Annette Hinkle

All this weekend, I’ve been checking in on the Weather Channel to gauge the path of Hurricane Irma. As I write this, it’s a picture perfect fall day in Sag Harbor, but the entire southeastern United States is gripped in fear and uncertainty as the massive storm — double the size of Hurricane Andrew — churns toward Florida, which has a massive bulls-eye on its back.

At this point Irma is a category 4 and I’m worried for friends who relocated from East Hampton to the west coast of the Sunshine State a few years ago. There is no sunshine there today, and they’ve decided to ride it out.

But the numbers and size related to this thing are staggering — 180 mph+ winds at its strongest as a category 5 storm, sustained winds expected to be over 130 in Florida, a storm surge of 10 feet or more. I remember when Sandy passed through here and we had wind gusts of 60 mph. The roof made such weird creaking noises during the night that we vacated the second floor and relocated downstairs, just in case. And those winds were nothing compared to this monster. Frankly, I can’t imagine it and, given my limited experience with storms like this, it brings back memories of another hurricane named Cristobal.

The path of Hurricane Cristobal in August 2014, first as a category 1 hurricane and, when it hit us on Iceland’s western shore, a post-tropical cyclone.

What’s that you say? You don’t remember Cristobal? Of course not.

Hurricane Cristobal, which formed in the Atlantic in late August 2014, worked its way through the Caribbean before turning right far off the coast of the Carolinas. It was never more than a category 1 and it didn’t even come close to making landfall in the U.S., which is why it promptly dropped off the radar in terms of interest on the part of both the TV networks and the general population in this country.

But in the last week of August 2014, I wasn’t in the U.S., I was in Iceland with my husband and daughter. We were exploring the land of fire and ice in a rented RV and it had been a great trip. We visited waterfalls and hiked glaciers, got soaked by geysers and saw the last puffins of the season. We kept an eye on the active volcano that had just started acting up right before our arrival, and even dared to sample hákarl, the putrefied shark meat so many visitors love to hate.

Satellite imagery of Cristobal missing our homeland of eastern Long Island but barrelling toward us on vacation in Iceland.

Along the way, we found remote beaches and isolated roadsides where we could pull over, cook dinner in the tiny kitchen and settle down for the night in comfortable beds looking out on majestic views from our little home on wheels.

But late in the afternoon on the last day of our trip, we received a text message from the camper company warning of high winds over the next 24 hours. Strong gusts can be disastrous in Iceland’s open expanses where RVs can topple over if hit broadside.

We were strongly advised to get off the road and hunker down for the night. Though it seemed like overkill, given the beauty of the day, we heeded the warning and as a result, ended our journey in the coastal town of Sandgerði, a non-descript, wholly unattractive fishing village chosen solely for its proximity to Reykjavik’s airport.

The village is flat as a board and sits on the far west coast of Iceland at the very edge of the North Atlantic. It is devoid of vegetation of any type (like most of Iceland, the trees were chopped down eons ago) and the only thing rising from the flat horizon are rows of basic housing stock set far too closely when one considers this is a country with more sheep than people.

Much of Sandgerði’s unfortunate lack of charm had to do with its unfortunate location — not quite close enough to the city of Reykjavik to feel relevant, yet too far from Iceland’s wild interior to feel lawless. The town may have lacked character, but it had a campground with the RV dumping and refilling stations we needed in order to return our trusty steed to the rental company the next morning. Then we’d catch our flight to New York and bid Iceland farewell.

In reality, the campground was nothing more than a small grassy lot surrounded by houses. But for some reason, the place was packed with tents and campers occupied, not by backpackers and tourists, but rowdy Icelanders dressed in Hawaiian shirts who were drinking liberally and laughing loudly.

“Great,” I thought. I wanted to get some sleep since we had a long flight the next morning and I hoped the partiers would pass out sooner rather than later. So after an early dinner, we went right to bed and looked forward to things quieting down.

A short time later I awoke to the sound of an explosion, quickly followed by another. I opened the shade of the camper’s window and was surprised to see a perfectly framed view of a lovely fireworks display. Turns out, we had happened upon Sandgerði on the night of its annual family festival. All of the campground partiers had gone into town to enjoy the fireworks, but my husband Adam and I had the luxury of watching them from the comfort of the queen size bed at the back of the camper. Meanwhile, daughter Sophie slept through it all in the bunk that pulled down from the ceiling just behind the driver’s seat.

Here’s what the storm looked like as it approached Iceland in August 2014. If you look closely you can see the outline of the country in white. What you can’t see is us cowering in a tiny camper in a tiny coastal town on the west coast of the country.

It was a perfect ending to a great trip and as the last firework ember faded in the sky, I pulled down the shade, closed my eyes and drifted off into dreamless sleep.

Four hours later, I was jarred awake again — this time by violent shaking. The entire camper was rocking from side to side. Had the rowdy band of campers returned to make mischief? I opened the shade to see what was going on and was shocked by the transformation. All the campers and tents had vanished, where to, I’ll never know. Now, it was just us and two other RVs along with one pathetic dome tent trembling in the insane wind.

In the hours that followed, we rode out a storm the likes of which I have never experienced in my life. The camper continued to rock and roll dramatically, and then the wind began to whistle and howl as it found its way in through the roof hatches. That’s when I heard a meek and plaintive cry from the front of the camper.

“Mom,” Sophie was calling from her roost, “I’m scared.”

I got out of bed and climbed the ladder to her bunk and joined here there. The shaking was much more severe up top. Making matters worse was the fact that every so often, the wind would subside and we’d drop off to sleep only to have the calm shattered when the next, more violent gust hit us broadside.

Then came the rain. First in trickles, then a downpour and finally massive sheets and it didn’t stop all night. I peered out the window again and tried to make out the fate of the flapping tent and its poor occupants. By now it resembled a giant flattened bird that was, nonetheless, trying desperately to get airborne. Though no more than 25 feet from us, it was barely visible through the deluge and its pathetic occupants, a young couple, were outside desperately grabbing whatever they could salvage before beating it to the relative safety of their car where they spent the rest of the night.

This wind was no joke and the possibility of the whole camper toppling over was a real one. Finally, my boat sense kicked in and I conferred with Adam, who agreed. We needed to turn this ship into the wind and we needed to do it now. In fact, the other two RVs had already gotten the memo and changed position, so we did the same.

The rest of the night was hardly pleasant, but at least it didn’t feel like we were going to capsize. Eventually, we managed to get enough sleep to face the long trip home the next day.

It was only much later that I came to understand what we had experienced. Turns out Hurricane Cristobal reached us on the western shore of Iceland as an “extra-tropical cyclone,” far from its warm water comfort zone, but frighteningly able to still pack a wallop. It was only the third post-tropical cyclone to hit the country since 1960, and proved to me in the most dramatic of terms that you’re never quite finished with Iceland until Iceland has decided it’s finished with you.

And believe me, I won’t soon forget the frightening power of wind and water as experienced in the land of fire and ice.