Sooner or later, anyone who keeps a boat for long in a hurricane zone will have to deal with the threat of a major storm, and possibly the reality of the storm itself, whether as a direct hit or a glancing blow. Well before a hurricane threatens, you should have a firm set of plans about how to prepare.
Strategic thinking for hurricane preparation
- How protected is your boat in its normal berth from wind, waves, and storm surge? This question applies just as much to a boat that lives on a trailer in a low-lying area, or under a big tree, as it does to a slip-dweller or a boat that lives on a mooring in a big harbor with an open fetch to the sea.
- How crowded is the place where you keep your boat, and even more importantly, how do your neighbors keep their boats – are they squared-away and seamanlike, or are they slobs, or ignorant, or absent? (Very often, people who have done a good job preparing their own boats for storms are undone by the boats of others breaking loose and sweeping down on them, taking out mooring lines, dislodging anchors, ripping out cleats, and causing hull damage and even greater losses.)
- If you can have your boat hauled out, what will the conditions be like on shore? How high above high water could a storm surge reach? (There have been cases when boats hauled out in advance of a storm have then floated off their stands and been damaged in the boatyard.)
- Does your boatyard, marina, or town harbormaster have plans in place that will help to safeguard everyone, or is it every boat for itself?
- Are there changes or requirements in your insurance coverage in the event of a named storm?
While there are always exceptions to the rule, the smart money says to haul your boat if you have time, if only because it tends to reduce the number of wild cards and possible damage sources.
If a haul-out isn’t possible or advisable in your case, the next decision will be whether to leave your boat where it is or try to get it to a better harbor or hurricane hole. Of course, a lot of other people will have the same idea. Hurricane holes tend to get mighty crowded in a hurry, but often there’s a spirit of cooperation involved, and at least you know you’re in the company of other people who care about their boats.
Whether you stay put or head for a safer harbor, there are some seriously important moves you need to make in order to help prevent damage and loss, both to yourself and to others.
Essential storm tactics
- Strip off all canvas to reduce windage. This means biminis, dodgers, awnings, mainsails, roller-furled jibs – anything made of fabric. It’s amazing how many people think they’ve done their prep work simply by folding down their bimini or taking a few wraps of line around a furled sail. When the wind gets up above 60 knots or so, it seeks out even the smallest weakness in canvas, exploits it, and almost methodically goes on to destroy the whole cloth structure and usually any metal framework holding it together, always putting enormous stress on the whole boat.
- While you’re at it, also remove flags, ensigns, pennants, fishing rods, grills, life-rings, cushions – anything not screwed down that could present a surface to the wind.
- If your boat will be riding out the storm on a mooring or at anchor, double or triple your attachment points, spreading the loads between two or more cleats, using a bridle if necessary, making attachments to through-bolted fittings, around masts at their partners, through bow-eyes, etc. Whenever possible, tie to heavy fixed objects on the land-side – bollards, pilings, trees – and remember to allow slack for the maximum expected storm surge.
- Use chafing gear any place a mooring line or anchor rode runs through a chock or fairlead, or over a roller. There is some debate on the topic, but traditional leather or heavy cloth chafing gear, as opposed to hard rubber or reinforced water hose, is probably better in storm conditions when it is heat, developed from intense friction, that tends to weaken and destroy a line more quickly than mechanical chafing. In a pinch, any type of natural cloth, like material from a cotton T-shirt, taped or sewn onto a mooring line, can work.
- Dacron/polyester line resists chafe better than nylon and has a higher breaking strength. Nylon is stretchier. Use polyester for bow and stern lines, nylon for spring lines and anchor rode.
- In slips, allow for storm surge in bow, stern, and spring lines. Use spring lines to pull your boat away from the dock, and work with the yard management and your neighbors to set up grids of lines that will help keep boats away from surging finger piers and neighbors.
- Secure your hatches, ports, cockpit lockers, bow and stern lockers, and anchor locker. Tape over any openings that could take in solid water if the boat is laid over -- engine vents, companionway doors or slats, engine space hatches, etc.
- Hang fenders everywhere you can.
Beyond the must-do’s there are some should-do’s.
More storm tactics
- Remove electronics – at least the displays if not the antennae.
- Remove other valuables and loose gear that might get ruined, and that insurance might not pay for – binoculars, galley equipment, bedding, clothes, fishing gear, etc.
- On sailboats, halyards should be replaced with thin messengers.
- Make sure your batteries are topped up so that they can keep up with your bilge pumps.
- Take photos of your own preparations, in case an insurance company needs them. Also it will help you remember for next time.
- If you're an outboard engine owner, be ready for damage-control by knowing how to "pickle" your two-stroke or four-stroke motor if it gets swamped in the storm.
One of the most difficult considerations is whether to try to be aboard your boat for the storm (assuming that there would be no prohibition by boatyard, harbormaster, or local authorities). It’s possible to imagine being able to reset fenders or adjust lines, or even run the engine to relieve tension on ground tackle. Whether any of this might be possible depends on the intensity of the storm and the surrounding conditions. A 60-knot wind and a three-foot storm surge is very different from 80-knot winds plus waves and six feet of surge. In the latter case almost nothing useful could be done, and the danger from the violent conditions and flying debris would outweigh any benefit of being aboard. Luckily, with today’s forecasting accuracy, and with your storm prep done, there should be plenty of time to decide. And let’s hope none of us will have to make such a decision this season. Fair winds.
- National Hurricane Center
- National Hurricane Center YouTube videos
- BoatUS Damage Avoidance – Hurricane Preparation
Editor's Note: This story originally published October 2016 and was updated in September 2017.