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Hurricane Preparedness

John Purifoy checks his boat after Katrina (Photo: AP-LynneSladky)

1.  Know what your insurance covers

First, check your insurance coverage and stipulations.  Some insurance companies provide coverage for haul out and actually require that you name a haul out facility within a certain distance of your home harbor in order to qualify for coverage. If you named a facility, make arrangements with them in advance or you may find that they won’t have time or space to accommodate you. It pays to know specifically what your insurance covers before you need it.  Remember that insurance is "just in case", and preparing properly can help avoid the need for it. Most people are not even aware that they have legal obligations for storm preparations.

2. Have a plan

This plan works for us but may not be appropriate for you or your vessel.  Make sure your plan is right for you and your vessel AND satisfies your insurance requirements. 

We have a two stage plan.  The first stage is for a tropical storm alert.  We typically secure our boat at our mooring as follows (similar procedures can be followed at a marina):

  • Double our mooring lines and allow slack for storm surge in the second set. This also reduces strain on the second set of lines.
  • Remove sails, especially from the roller furler, which can unwrap and shred in high winds but which also creates windage that puts undue stress on the mooring lines
  • Remove dodger, bimini, wheel cover and any other items that increase windage, including dinghy, barbecue, dinghy engine, jerry cans, anchors, etc. Remember that an outboard engine is likely to get salt water intrusion due to the driving wind even if it is not submerged.
  • Remove all loose items that can break away (antennas, burgees, winch covers, dinghy, etc) or tape those that are needed like instrument covers
  • Remove cowls and tape vents to keep water out.
  • Check all seacocks and close unessential ones (like the head intake and sink drains)
  • Check operation of your bilge pump (heavy driving rain may find its way inside through hatches and ports)
  • Make sure fuel, water, and batteries are topped up in case you need to make a quick getaway
  • Take the ship’s papers and any valuables home for safekeeping

Stage two is what we do if there’s a hurricane warning.  We do everything noted above well in advance.  Then we evacuate our vessel to a safe harbor if at all possible.  We have identified two haul out facilities, a primary that is very secure and an emergency backup very close by.  We make arrangements with them in the beginning of the season because when the time comes, chances are they will be booked solid. Be sure to keep listening to NOAA weather radio for updated alerts in case the storm changes track or speed if you are moving your vessel. Once the boat is secure, get off the boat. Staying aboard your boat in a hurricane is too dangerous and there’s nothing you can do anyway. Life is more important than property.

Annapolis after hurricane Isabel.

Storm surge the real threat

The real threat is storm surge, not wind.  Wind driven storm surges of ten feet or more are possible. In areas like the upper Chesapeake , which may or may not experience hurricane force winds, there could still be significant surge.   We experienced that one year while cruising.  We ducked into Rock Hall and secured in a slip when a tropical storm approached.  The storm blew for a long time, and all day we readjusted dock lines.  The next morning we were listing in the slip.  Going topsides, we found there was no water left in the harbor at all.  When the surge receded, it had taken everything with it.  We had to wait another 8 hours or so for it to return.   

Try to haul out

A study by MIT after Hurricane Gloria found that boats are safest on land. Even if a boat is blown off its jack stands, the damage tends to be less severe that if it were skewered by a piling or bashed against a dock for several hours. Small open boats should be trailered inland. The pictures from Grenada showing every boat in Spice Island Marine were disconcerting but reports show that they've all beein righted and the damage was less it might have been. The only loss of lives among cruisers were among those who stayed on their boats in the water. New studies of what practices are best are underway and a search for new information periodically can be helpful.

Staying in the water

Most marinas aren’t equipped to pull all of their boats. Floating docks allow boats to rise with the surge if pilings are sufficiently tall, at least a foot or two above the predicted surge. Many boats in the mid-Atlantic states are at fixed docks and most will likely still be in the water when a hurricane comes ashore. If you find yourself in this situation, use better docklines – lines that are longer, larger, arranged better, and better protected against chafing. If you need chafe protection quickly, use a section of garden hose or use duct tape to secure several layers of heavy canvas to the lines. Plug the engine’s exhaust ports. If the boat begins to sink below its waterline due to water intrusion, water could back up into the engine cylinders.

Pilings need to be higher than the expected surge.
Marinas that are only protected by a small seawall or sandy spit will likely be exposed to open water if there is a significant surge. If a boat at this type of marina can’t be hauled, it should be taken to a hurricane hole and anchored. Use at least two anchors set 45 degrees apart with as much scope as possible. The more chain on each rode the better.

You should also prepare your family for hurricane precautions, particularly if you live in a coastal community. Highways are likely to be jammed so alternative evacuation routes should be reviewed long before they are needed. Where to meet if you get separated and a good emergency kit are key elements. The local Red Cross chapters also provide materials and sell emergency supplies.

3. Be prepared to execute the plan and have backups

Many times, the question of when to act stalls a potential plan.  We go by the rule, “When you first think it may be time to act, it usually is.”  So we shorten sail as soon as we think about it, and we act on our hurricane plan as soon as we think about it.

One year, we were away on vacation when a hurricane was heading for a landfall potentially in our neck of the waters.  There was no way for us to get back in time.  We called our friends and asked them to secure the vessel for us which they did. 

Another year, we were underway on our summer cruise when a tropical storm warning came through, followed within hours by an upgrade to a hurricane warning.  We called a marina that was well protected but they had no space available.  Every marina we called was booked.  We developed plan B: to go up a river and nestle the boat in a creek that we knew was deep enough yet narrow enough to tie up to trees on both banks. 

As a last ditch effort, we called the marina of choice as we were passing by and, lo and behold, they’d had numerous cancellations from boats that decided to stay where they were.  We got a very secure berth, tied many dock lines, protected against chafe and surge, removed canvas, planned for evacuation, and prepared for the worst.  We decided to stay onboard but hardly slept waiting for the storm to hit.  It never did.  Many people there were complaining about how the storm fizzled.  We were counting our lucky stars that it did!


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