Waiting For A Hurricane On A Boat

By Tom Neale, 12/4/2013


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I've collected a lot of hurricane stories. I'm sure you have some of your own. It's fun to share them — when the storm is long gone. Here's one of the experiences I remember, and a lesson that these storms can be flavored with good and bad from the people involved.

I remember Hurricane Edouard; at least, I think that's the one. There have been so many the names sometimes run together. It came during one of the summers during which we lived on the hook in Newport Harbor. This was a beautiful place, exciting, and always with the smell of the sea. But it was no place to be in a hurricane. We were accustomed to riding out storms where the banks were soft mud, or at least sand, should we drag. In and around Newport, the banks were unforgiving hard rock. It was not a place to be blown aground. But there was a place that we could go if needed. It was called the Kickamuit River. As "inland" goes, for Rhode Island, it was well inland. It was our choice, and that of others, as a "safe haven" when the big ones roared up the coast. To reach this river, we had to sail up Narragansett Bay, head to starboard into Mount Hope Bay, and then turn to port to negotiate a narrow channel twisting through a long stretch of shoals. But once in the river, you are surrounded by high ground, with reasonable holding on the bottom. We, and about a half dozen other live aboard boats, made our anxiety-filled pilgrimage to this anchorage, well in advance of the storm. We knew we had a lot of preparation to do in order to be safe. All of us spent an entire day setting multiple anchors, carefully spacing the boats so that whichever way the wind blew, we would all swing clear of each other and there would be good ground gear up wind. We all helped each other in this process. We scuttled about in our dinghies carrying out anchors, and helping our neighbors secure sails and vulnerable gear on decks. It took hours of very hard work, but toward the end, we began to feel that we were ready. Like so many hurricanes, the course and therefore local wind direction was up for grabs. We didn't know what we were going to get or how bad it was going to be; we only knew that we had to be prepared for the worst.

Chez Nous in the Kickamuit River waiting for a hurricane
Chez Nous in the Kickamuit River waiting for a hurricane.

Toward the end of our preparations, a gentleman rowed out from the shore in a small boat. He went from cruising boat to cruising boat, giving us all the same message. He told us where he lived on shore and pointed out his house and small dock. He said that if we felt we would be safer in his house ashore we were all welcome to come and stay there. He told us that if we needed last-minute supplies he'd be glad to run us in his car into the local village. He told us if we needed anything after the storm he would do the same. Basically, this gentleman made it clear that he was there to help in any way he could. Waiting for a hurricane on a boat can be an immensely scary and lonely experience. This very kind man made it so much better. None of us took him up on his offer, but it was so very good to know that he was there.

Tom's Tips
Tom's Tips About Storm Anchorages and Other Boats

1. Factoring the other boats into your considerations as you prepare for the storm anchorage can mean a huge difference, not just for them, but for you.

2. When a boat's anchor breaks loose, that boat usually sails madly downwind, beam to wind, yawing fore and aft on the anchor line that's still trailing with the anchor skipping along the bottom behind. Thus its path of destruction can be quite large.

3. When setting your anchor, try to provide for more than the scope of your swing and that of nearby boats. Boats seldom swing in unison in bad storms and usually drag some, if only a little. Also, tightly stretching anchor lines in high wind must be considered.

4. If more than one anchor is used, as in a V setting, this will affect how the boat swings and there may be problems if another boat uses a different anchoring system. Discuss this with each other. You can work it out. Like it or not, you're all in it together.

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After we had all finished our preparations, we saw a tugboat and a huge barge steaming into the narrow mouth of the river. Local commercial people of course also knew about this anchorage. We sat silently, hoping for the best. In a storm, when a steel tugboat or barge breaks loose, there is nothing that stops them except the bottom. They can roll right over fiberglass boats that may be in their way. The crew set anchors which we knew would be way too small for the size of the tug and barge and the windage they presented. But we all breathed a sigh of relief when we next saw the crew clamor about the barge and lower down huge steel spuds into the bottom. They lashed the tug tightly to the barge. This rig wasn't going anywhere. But our pre-storm stress wasn't over.

As the clouds thickened overhead and the light began to dim, some local sailboats made their way into the channel, coming in at the last moment from nearby towns. This wasn't a surprise; in some situations, careful owners often consider it better to leave open mooring fields or docks to ride out storms in more sheltered areas. But a few of these people were far from careful. We watched in horrified amazement as they came into the harbor, threw over puny anchors at the end of shoestring stretchy lines, with no regard to the position of other boats and potential swing as winds shifted. They didn't even work to set their anchors. They used no chafing gear. Several of us approached them in our dinghies and told them of our concern about changing wind direction, dragging anchors and boats sailing free with parted anchor lines. We volunteered to help in any way that we could. They basically flipped us off and then jumped into dinghies and went ashore to be picked up by friends or family, leaving their boats abandoned and leaving us and our boats at the mercy of their carelessness and indifference.

These boats, moored as they were, could have seriously damaged, even sunk any of our boats, and hurt or killed those aboard. We brought on deck yet another hurricane tool in preparation — we bought up our machetes. Sometimes you can use these to cut lines so that you can fend off to avoid collisions in situations like this when untended boats break free and careen down on you, their dragging anchors making them yaw wildly in the wind. This tactic would have been dangerous, but one has to survive.

The storm did us a favor. It changed course. That is one of the most common characteristics of hurricanes that I recall over the years. And it happened this time. This storm did us an even greater favor. When it reached our area, it was no longer a hurricane. This was another common characteristic, one that's saved us many times, and one that's so common that I don't worry as much about whether I should call it a "tropical storm" or "hurricane." We had a lot of wind and we had a lot of rain, but not bad enough to cause any problems. The next morning the gentleman from the shore came out to see that we were all OK. We told him that we were and again, thanked him profusely. It took hours for us all to retrieve our gear but we eventually had it aboard and filed back out the channel, some heading to other harbors and some to the sea.

Again, it's easy to personalize a hurricane here. But the storm wasn't good or bad to us; the storm just did what storms do, steered by forces of nature. However, why try to personalize the storm? We had real "persons" to consider. The gentleman who rowed out from shore offering help; I remember his kindness even today. The guys who didn't care about their boats or ours are also people I remember today.



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