Surviving The Storm

By Beth A. Leonard

To maximize the chances that your boat will be protected, you'll need to make a plan long before the first hurricane warning.

Photo of Hurricane Frances boats damagedYour boat's chances of surviving a hurricane undamaged may well come down to where it's located.

After every hurricane since Alicia in 1983, BoatUS Marine Insurance has deployed our Catastrophe (CAT) Teams of surveyors, salvors, and claims adjusters to clean up the chaos of boats left in the wake of the storm and to quickly protect the interests of our insured boat owners. The lessons learned from the CAT Team's experiences prove that picking the best place to store your boat and preparing it well can greatly increase the odds of your boat surviving. That means having a well-thought-out plan long before a hurricane warning is posted. To be successful, your hurricane plan needs to address the where, when, who, and what of hurricane preparation.

Where Will You Store The Boat?

As with real estate, three things matter most: location, location, location. Your boat's chances of surviving a hurricane undamaged are highest if it's where the worst of the storm isn't. When it's practical and safe, moving your boat out of the way is the best strategy. If your boat is trailerable, take it inland and to high ground; if not, you or a captain can relocate it by water. When hurricanes threaten the Northeast, hundreds of coastal and offshore boats migrate north to Maine or up the Connecticut and Hudson rivers.

But if your boat is farther south, the lack of precision in forecasting makes relocating the boat by water a risky proposition. You may end up moving it into the storm's path or, worse, finding yourself offshore in the middle of a hurricane. If getting the boat out of the way of the storm isn't safe or practical, more than 30 years of BoatUS Marine Insurance claim files show that boats on the hard suffer relatively less damage than those in the water. When the boat is left at a mooring, at anchor, or tied to a dock and something goes wrong, it's more likely to end up sinking or aground than if it had been ashore. That can be extremely costly. In addition to losing your boat, there could be expenses for cleaning up any spilled fuel and removing the wreckage that results. Unless your marina docks have been engineered and built to withstand hurricane-force winds and the accompanying surge, BoatUS recommends hauling the boat and securing it on the hard.

Whether you haul the boat or leave it in the water, your most obvious option is to leave it wherever it is. But the place where you normally keep your boat may be a disastrous one in a hurricane. Here are the key factors to consider when assessing how well a particular location might protect your boat in a tropical storm.

Surge

Most people think wind poses the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane. In fact, storm surge poses at least as much danger. Superstorm Sandy's wind speeds were below hurricane force when it made landfall in New Jersey, but its surge damaged or destroyed an estimated 65,000 recreational boats. In Hurricane Katrina in 2005, some 1,500 people lost their lives, and many of those deaths occurred directly or indirectly as a result of storm surge. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has created an experimental website where you can zoom in on your locale to see what the maximum surge height above ground level would be in a direct hit by a Category 1 through Category 5 hurricane. You can use that data to assess whether the piling heights on floating docks are high enough to keep the finger piers from being lifted off the pilings and to gauge how high storm surge could be in the hard-stand area. While you're at it, if you live in a coastal area, you might want to see how your house would fare. Google "ArcGIS Storm Surge" to find the website.

Fetch

When wind blows across open water, it generates waves. Breaking waves have a tremendous amount of power; they regularly destroy massive concrete structures at the water's edge. The height of the waves depends upon wind strength, duration, water depth, and the exposed distance (called the fetch). Hurricane-force winds blowing across half a mile (the fetch) of open water 25 feet deep can generate waves of 2.5 feet and more in height. Increase that distance to 10 miles, and waves will grow to a minimum of 6 feet high. Wind direction is determined by which part of the hurricane passes over your location, so when putting together your hurricane plan, assume that you could get wind from any direction. If your marina is exposed to open water, or protected from open water only by a breakwall, it's vulnerable to wave damage, especially if there's also a surge risk. In Sandy, the combination of surge and waves lifted boats stored on the hard off their jackstands and carried them inland, sometimes for miles.

Flooding

Hurricanes can bring rains of 6 to 12 inches in 24 hours, which can overwhelm the cockpit drainage of boats in the water, causing them to sink; the rainfall can also find its way through any fitting or hatch that isn't completely watertight, flooding the boat. If your marina is located in a low-lying area or near a river, floodwaters can combine with surge to further increase the maximum water height above ground level. Take that into account when considering piling heights or the height of the hard stand above sea level.

Photo of a hurricane damage boatTests show old nylon line may have lost half to two-thirds of its breaking strength. If your lines are stiff, dirty, or squeak, replace them before the first hurricane warning.

Wind

Hills or manmade structures that are able to withstand hurricane-force winds will break the power of the wind and reduce the risk of wind damage. Conversely, if the place where you keep your boat is surrounded by buildings not built to hurricane standards — boatyard sheds, for example — there likely will be a lot of shrapnel in the air as those buildings are shredded by the wind.

If you determine that your boat's normal location is unlikely to provide adequate protection in a hurricane, pursue other options. You may be able to contract with a nearby marina to haul your boat when a hurricane warning is issued, or you could take it to a nearby canal or hurricane hole and secure it. If your boat is normally on a lift and is trailerable, you should plan on getting the boat to a ramp, putting it on the trailer, and securing it inland. If the boat's not trailerable, your best option may be to take it off the lift and secure it several feet from the dock with a combination of lines to the dock, lines to shore, and anchors.

If you're a snowbird who leaves a boat unattended in a hurricane area during the summer months, BoatUS recommends that you store your boat in a hurricane-rated storage facility. Often located a bit inland, they range from indoor storage in buildings designed to withstand Category 3 winds and higher to outdoor storage where boats are tied down to ground anchors. Many of these facilities will prepare your boat professionally before a storm as well as doing refits, repair work, and maintenance while the boat is laid up. The most service-oriented facilities and those catering to large yachts can be pricey, but reasonable options exist for most boats if you can be flexible in terms of location.

Begin Your Preparations Early

Don't wait for a hurricane warning, which is issued when tropical storm-force winds (39 mph) or higher are expected within 36 hours (with hurricane-force winds expected to follow some time after). By the time you get word, finish work, and get to your boat, you'll be lucky to have 24 hours before the winds start blowing. If the warning comes on a week night, you may have less than 12 hours. If your plan calls for moving the boat, that won't be nearly enough time. Even if that's not your plan, marina personnel will be preoccupied with hauling and preparing boats, hardware stores and chandleries will be overrun, and roads will be clogged with people leaving the area.

At the latest, you should start your preparations when a hurricane watch is issued, which happens 48 hours in advance of the predicted start of tropical storm-force winds, even though tropical storm-force winds in your area are only probable. Depending on what your plan is, take steps that will reduce preparation time if and when a warning is issued. That might mean making sure the trailer is ready to roll and getting the boat on it if it's stored on a lift or at a marina, doubling all the lines if you're leaving the boat in the water, or stripping all the canvas off the boat.

If you need to move the boat, or if your preparations could take several days, you may have to start even earlier. Keeping track of any storm that's active in the Atlantic Basin can give you several more days of warning and will mean that a watch issued in your area will never come as a surprise. Sign up at www.BoatUS.com/Hurricanes to get hurricane alerts sent directly to your inbox.

Who Will Prepare Your Boat?

Are you going to do all the work yourself? Or is the marina responsible for hauling the boat, after which you'll strip the canvas and make sure everything's watertight? Or do you have a professional who does all of the preparation for you? Whatever you decide, make sure that your written hurricane plan spells out who's responsible for what and that nothing is left undone.

If you plan to leave your boat in a marina, ask for a copy of the marina's hurricane plan. Will the marina call you when a hurricane is approaching and when there's a watch, or will it wait until a warning is issued? What are the marina's responsibilities, and what does the staff consider to be your responsibilities? If your plan calls for the boat to be stored on the hard, is there any guarantee that your boat will be hauled? What happens if it isn't? When will you be notified? Understanding the marina's hurricane plan is critical to putting together your own.

What Will Smart Preparations Include?

No matter where you're going to store your boat during a hurricane, you'll need to strip all the canvas from it and make sure that it's watertight. Beyond that, your exact preparations will depend upon whether the boat is being stored on its trailer, on the hard, in a slip, at anchor, or on a mooring, or somewhere else.

For more information, and to download the BoatUS 16-page hurricane brochure, "Preparing Boats and Marinas for Hurricanes." go to www.BoatUS.com/Hurricanes. With a hurricane, there can be no guarantees, but experience shows that with prior proper planning, your boat's much more likely to make it through the storm. 

Beth A. Leonard spent 10 years cruising the world on her 47-foot sailboat with her husband and dodged several hurricanes along the way.

— Published: August/September 2015


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