In years past, when weather forecasting was an art rather than a science and before the radio and the weather satellite provided an early warning system, hurricanes often caught coastal communities — and boaters — completely unawares.
Today, a hurricane is a media event that becomes a "breaking news" feature on every television and radio station, so boaters often have several days to prepare themselves and their boat for such a storm. The forecasting has become so efficient that it is now possible to have your boat trailered to another state long before the hurricane even nears your homeport.
But a hurricane can still take a sudden zig instead of the predicted zag, forcing you to take precautions to protect your boat. The "official" hurricane season extends from June 1 to November 30, but you should make the same preparations for a severe tropical storm.
One thing to keep foremost in your mind throughout is this — boats are expendable, people are not. Never take a chance to save your boat: that's why you have insurance. Do what you can to prepare your boat for the storm, but plan to stay in a safe place until the hurricane passes.
There are four dangers to your boat, regardless of whether it's on a trailer or in the water: wind, rain, high water, and flying debris.
A tropical storm becomes a hurricane when the sustained winds exceed 65 knots (75 mph), but that's only a start. The steady winds in a Category Five hurricane are more than 136 knots (156 mph!) and gusts can reach into the 200 mph range! But even a tropical storm with gusts of 70 mph is enough to flip your boat off its trailer.
Rain can also be severe, with hurricanes routinely dumping 10 to 20 inches an hour, which might overwhelm your cockpit drains.
High water or storm surge can raise the local water level to as much as 20 feet above the highest tides, and this can literally uproot the strongest marina or damage a boat that seemed to be on high ground.
High wind speeds turn loose objects into flying debris, and everything from entire roofs to smaller projectiles such as barbecues, garbage cans and sheets of corrugated steel are deadly to humans and boats alike.
Boats On Trailers
If your boat is trailerable, the best protection is simply to drive it far enough outside the storm's path that you won't have to worry. Your next best choice is to park the boat inside a sturdy garage and hope that the structure remains undamaged. If you can't put the boat in a garage, choose your outdoor location carefully. Stay away from trees and power lines, of course, because those are the first to fall in a hurricane. Don't park in the space between two buildings even though it might seem to be good protection, because it can turn into a funnel for wind and debris. Use a sledge to drive lengths of rebar steel reinforcing into the ground, and use those to tie your boat down in all directions.
Strip the boat of everything possible, starting with all the covers, tops and other canvas that will shred in the wind. Electronics, small outboards, and any other gear that can be removed should be put in safe storage. Use duct tape to seal all the hatches, ports, windows and vents to prevent leaks and for protection against flying debris. Duct tape "X"s across your windshield can reduce damage from broken glass, too.
In The Water
This is not where you want to be but, if it has to be, make the best of it. Many marinas have rules that tenants must leave in severe storms, so locate your hurricane hole long before the storm season approaches. If possible, find a marina in a sheltered waterway as far from the coast as possible, and negotiate beforehand to have space waiting. Storm slips can cost $500 to $1000 a day if you arrive at the last minute.
Whether you're in a slip or tied alongside a pier, you'll want to double or, preferably, triple your dock lines. Since you may have to weather a storm surge, use lines long enough to allow your boat to move vertically without banging the pier, and use several spring lines in all directions to keep the boat centered where you want it. If you have any doubt that you are using too many lines, think of a spider web because that's what your boat should look like when you're done.
The cleats on your boat — and those on the dock — are likely to be the weakest link in your moorings, and more than a few boats have been found after hurricanes with unbroken dock lines still attached to the cleats that had pulled out. Secure your boat to solid pilings on the piers, spread the loads to as many cleats on your boat as possible and, if you can, use towing eyes in the hull as additional attachment points. To further ease the loads on your mooring lines, you can set your anchors by dinghy.
Good chafe protection has saved many a boat during a storm, so make sure that any point where a mooring line rubs against anything is protected. You can make chafe protection out of a garden hose slit lengthwise, by wrapping leather around the lines or, in a pinch, by using towels and duct tape.
Put out every fender you can, and remember to provide protection not just against the pier but against other boats that may break loose and carom off you if you are in an exposed position.
If possible, face your boat in the direction from which the largest waves will be coming, but don't forget that the wind will shift 180 degrees as the hurricane passes.
As mentioned for boats on shore, remove all canvas and loose gear, duct tape every opening, including the engine room vents, and take your electronics and valuable boat gear to safe storage.
Before you leave your boat, be sure the batteries are fully charged so you'll have plenty of power for your bilge pumps, and make sure there is no debris in the bilge that might clog your pumps.
Insurance companies advise that you thoroughly inventory your boat before the storm, preferably using a video camera. You can walk through the boat with the camera, providing an audio commentary on the equipment. You should have the serial numbers for the engines as well as the electronics in a safe place ashore and, before you leave the boat, be sure that you take all the registration papers, insurance policy, and any licenses.
After the storm has subsided, it's time to see how your boat fared. Empty any water out of the bilges and check for leaks that may not be readily apparent. Take pictures or videotape the "after" condition, making sure to fully document all damage to your boat. Try to provide a view both before you remove any debris as well as a look after you've cleaned the boat up somewhat.
If you were unlucky and your boat sank, your first priority is to have your engines "pickled" by a professional mechanic to keep the damage to a minimum. If immediate action is taken before rust or corrosion sets in, the engines may be salvageable. And, of course, call your insurance company immediately and arrange to have an adjustor or a marine surveyor examine the damage as soon as possible.
Any storm, at sea or in port, is a challenge to your boating skills but, with preparation, planning and luck, your boat will escape with nothing more than a thorough washing from the rains.