A hurricane doesn't have to spell doom and gloom for your boat, but it will if you don't have a plan in place when the storm watch turns to a warning.

Hurricanes begin as tropical disturbances or depressions over the warm waters of the Atlantic near the equator, often off the western coast of Africa. During hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, storms move across the Atlantic's tropical zone toward the southeast coast of the United States, gathering force by pulling moisture from the surface of the ocean. When the winds of these storms surpass 74 mph they become Category One hurricanes. Wind speeds between 70 and 130 mph are common to most hurricanes, although wind speeds greater than 200 mph winds have been recorded!

Along with blistering winds, hurricanes also bring torrential rains and storm surges, arguably the most dangerous part of a hurricane. Storm surge is the change in elevation of the ocean due to a storm. As the ocean level rises, a giant wave, often 50 miles wide, forms offshore. When the wave hits the coastline near the eye of the hurricane, it acts as a bulldozer, flooding coastal communities and destroying everything in its path.

The combined result of storm surge, wind and rain can be devastating. Last year, for example, Hurricane Floyd caused $140 million in damage to the recreational boat industry.

Tracking

In 1900, a Category Four hurricane (winds between 131 and 155 mph with a 13- to 18-foot storm surge) rocked Galveston, Texas, resulting in more than 8,000 deaths. As technology has advanced, so has our ability to track hurricane movement and avoid such unnecessary loss of life due to surprise onslaughts. The agency responsible for the weighty task of monitoring storms from tropical depressions to hurricanes is The National Hurricane Center in Miami. Thanks to the Internet you can get the latest satellite images of these storms as they progress by visiting http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/index.html. The NHC will issue a hurricane watch 36 hours before a landfall might occur. Hurricane warnings are issued 24 hours before a storm is expected to hit.

Planning for the Storm

The main dangers to your boat, whether on water or a trailer, stem from four sources: wind, rain, storm surge and flying debris. With preparation, however, you can reduce the risk of losing your vessel.

"Being well prepared is the most important thing a boat owner can do," says Dave Pascoe, a veteran marine surveyor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has been studying the effects of hurricanes on the marine community for more than 30 years. "Home, family and business have to come first, so unless you have a carefully crafted plan, chances are that you'll run short of time."

Pascoe recommends doing some research well before an official warning. By the time a storm arrives, he says, "everyone has their own problems to deal with, so help gets scarce."

Asking advice of locals and long-time residents from your area will give you a good idea of how to start. "Every area is different, so no standard rules apply," Pascoe says. "An old salt with a long memory can be a big help."

As you plan, keep in mind that despite technological advances, forecasts can be wrong and you could be the victim of poor preparation as the winds creep from 75 to 120 mph or more.

It is also a good idea to prepare a visual record of your boat before any damage occurs. Boat owners should inventory their boats, preferably using a video camera. You'll be glad to be able to hand the video, with your running commentary, to your insurance agency later on. In addition, don't forget that your safety comes first. Don't stay aboard your boat in an attempt to ride out the storm.

Once you have documented the condition of your boat and made plans for your own safety, you'll need to prepare your boat for the storm. Planning what to do in the crucial hours before a hurricane hits depends upon where your boat is stored.

If your boat is in the water:

"Anchors will not hold on soft bottoms," says Pascoe, who estimates that the survival rate of boats at anchor is 5 to 10 percent, so avoid anchoring if at all possible. If anchoring is your only option, the best bottom is usually sand, followed by clay, hard mud, shells and soft mud. Also, think about where your boat will end up if the anchor does come loose. "Allowing your boat to be driven ashore in a tidal marsh or estuary ... sure beats going against a concrete bulkhead or some buildings," says Pascoe.

If your boat is in a marina, the first thing you want to do is assess the marina's safety and potential for protecting your vessel. Marina owners can't legally force boat owners to leave in the event of a hurricane as they could in the past, so you do have the choice to stay put. Whether you do so depends upon the following:

  • Slip widths: Slip width should be at least 140 percent of the beam of your boat. Wider slips allow you to tie your boat well off the docks and reduce damage done by your boat ramming against nearby boats or falling on pilings after being lifted by a storm surge.
  • Pilings: Pilings should be at least 6 feet above the highest gunwale point. Short pilings will puncture the hull of your boat if it comes crashing down after being lifted by a storm surge. Also, make sure pilings have been driven in (not jetted in with water jets) and are made of concrete, not lumber bolted to concrete. "The good thing about large pilings is that they absorb the stress and shock by bending without breaking, whereas tying to a rigid dock just breaks the dock," says Pascoe.
  • Cleats: If the cleats by your slip are small, poorly installed or lack strong back plates made of aluminum, stainless steel or fiberglass, leave. (Marine plywood backing is fine as well, as long as it's not delaminated or rotten.) There are plenty of boats that have been lost due to weak cleats.
A properly backed cleat: note the washers and the backing plate. These are essential in a hurricane.
  • Your neighbors: According to Pascoe, nearly half of the boats that are destroyed by hurricanes are a result of other boats breaking loose and crashing into securely tied boats (like yours!) Check that your neighbors' boats are correctly tied. If they're not, your boat will likely pay the price.

  • Location: If your marina is on a vulnerable barrier island or fronting an open bay, you need to move it or lose it.

If you do decide to stay, you've got some work to do to protect your boat:

  • Make sure the bow of your boat is facing into the storm winds, if at all possible. "Having your stern to the wind can be disastrous," says Pascoe. "You're almost certain to get water in the engines." Plugging the exhaust port with cork or Styrofoam, or whatever else you can find, can also prevent water from getting up the pipe and entering the engine.
  • Remove all "tophamper" gear such as canvas, tops and sails that create windage. If you own a sailboat, remove the boom(s).
  • When it comes to dock lines, the more the merrier. After Hurricane Fran (1996), BoatU.S. determined that as many as half of the damaged boats at marinas could have been saved using better and longer lines. The agency recommends using lines at least as long as the vessel itself.
  • Use new lines. Even if your current lines look fine, this isn't the time to prove their mettle.
On a face dock, position the boat farther than usual from the dock and add offshore lines to hold the boat away from the dock. Offshore lines can lead to distant pilings or trees, such as across a canal, or to anchors if the bottom provides adequate holding.
  • Use lines long enough to allow your boat to move vertically with the storm surge.
  • If your cleats fail, all your admirable tying effort will have been in vain, so make sure the cleats on your boat are secure. Tie your lines to as many different cleats as possible. Two lines per cleat should be your maximum. If you can avoid it, don't tie your boat to cleats on wooden docks, which are extremely likely to be damaged or destroyed during the storm.
  • Chafing is always a cause of concern during hurricanes. Protect your lines with garden hose, or other chafing gear, by sliding the lines through the hose. Slitting the hose down the middle and wrapping it around the line is not secure. Don't use rags! They won't do the trick.
A sample storm arrangement: note the springlines, which were the longest lines, are now the shortest. Stern lines are extended one or two slips away. Additional bow lines lead across to the next dock or to storm anchors placed out from the slip.
  • Protect your boat from colliding with the pier and other boats by putting out every fender available.
  • Remove all electronics, small outboards and any other removable gear from the boat and store it ashore.
  • Use duct tape to seal all hatches, ports, windows and vents to prevent leaks and protect against flying debris.

If you decide to move, have a plan and make arrangements early (before hurricane season starts). Know where your refuge, or hurricane hole, is, whether it's an inland canal, a protected marina, or ashore. Planning in advance can save you the $500- to $1,000-a-day cost of a last-minute storm slip. Remember that bridges will be locked down as the storm approaches to allow homeowners to evacuate. Move your boat early, especially if it requires tall bridge clearance.

If your boat is on a trailer:

A study conducted by MIT after Hurricane Gloria (1985) found that boats stored ashore were far more likely to survive than boats on the water. The simplest and most obvious solution if your boat is on a trailer is to drive it far enough out of the path of the hurricane. Your second best bet is to park your boat inside a garage that is strong enough to weather the storm. If your trailer has to remain outside, consider the following:

  • Choose your location carefully, avoiding trees, power lines and anything else with the potential to fall on your watercraft. Avoid parking between two buildings that are relatively close together, since the narrow passageway can become a wind tunnel. Store your boat high enough to avoid storm surge.
  • Take your boat off the trailer, if possible, or the wind will do it for you (and not as carefully as you'd like). Drive lengths of rebar into the ground and tie your boat down in all directions, using as many lines as possible. Although some sources, such as BoatU.S. recommend filling your hull with water for added weight, Pascoe disagrees. "Whatever you do," he says, "don't fill a boat sitting on a trailer with water. That is sure to damage the hull."
  • Reduce windage as much as possible by removing all canvas, Bimini tops, etc.
  • Turn your boat so the bow is facing the wind and tie it to the trailer.
  • To steady your trailer, let some air out of the tires, block the wheels and secure the trailer to nearby trees or with anchors.
  • As with boats in marinas, take all electronic devices off the boat and store them some place safe and dry.

If your boat is in a canal or inland waterway:

Canals, rivers and inland waterways can be safe hurricane holes with the right preparation.

How you moor will depend on your specific surroundings. In narrow canals, secure boats in the center of the waterway with several lines tied to trees and pilings on both shores. Using lines to tie your boat across the entire canal is called cross-tying. But beware, cross-tying has its disadvantages. Certain canals are susceptible to the domino effect where boats at the head of the canal break loose and are driven down the canal into other cross-tied boats. In addition, cross-tying too early, say 36 hours before the storm, can draw the ire of other boaters who want to get past your boat. Cross-tying no more than 12 hours in advance is generally acceptable.

In wider canals, use a combination of anchors and lines tied to trees ashore. When in doubt, the more lines and anchors you use the better. As always, make sure you have chafe protection on all lines.

A hurricane is the last thing you want your boat to go through. But with some advance planning and a little elbow grease, it just may come out safe and only slightly worse for the weather.


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