“Safety in numbers” is a concept that’s
served humans ever since cave men and women first banded together to
fend off saber-toothed tigers or warring tribes. So how does it help
when a Category 4 hurricane is bearing down on your waterfront home,
dock and boat?
The 11 homeowners with boats that live on Brech Kauffman’s canal
in Lighthouse Point, FL, have a plan: they work together as a neighborhood
when storm warnings go up and, through good teamwork, they secure their
boats in their canal, using seawalls and private docks to run lines.
The system works so well Kauffman, a BoatU.S. member, said they’ve
weathered no fewer than four hurricanes, including the surprisingly
intense Hurricane Wilma in 2005, with nary a scratch on any of their
“Wilma gave us quite a test,” Kauffman said, while aboard
his 50-foot Hatteras heading north for the summer. “I feel pretty
good with our plan; none of our lines have broken [in hurricanes going
back to 1998] so we’ve been pretty fortunate.”
As recently highlighted at a BoatU.S.-sponsored conference on hurricane
preparation, it’s generally agreed that getting a boat out of the
water and secured on land is the first choice in preparing for a big
blow. But not every boat owner can manage this — before a hurricane,
marina lifts are working overtime and there are waiting lists for haul-outs;
land storage in many places is just not available.
For homeowners lucky enough to live on or near a canal or narrow waterway,
it could turn out that staying put is the safest choice for boat storage.
As BoatU.S. Marine Insurance has documented by handling claims from
dozens of hurricanes over the years, boats on land usually fare better
and suffer less damage, but if a boat has to stay in the water, a well-planned “spider
web” of lines across canals has spared many boats from damage
or total loss. But success takes coordination among neighbors, dock
owners and boat owners.
“Using canals has been very effective in some areas,” said
Dave Wiggins, a Catumet, MA-based marine surveyor who is a veteran of
many BoatU.S. Marine Insurance Catastrophe Teams. The team members are
usually the first on scene to find and inspect boats after a hurricane
or arrange for salvage. “Using canals can also be unsuccessful
if the weather-most boat’s lines fail or chafe and it sets up the
domino effect. A lot depends on that first boat and how well the lines
are secured across seawalls,” Wiggins added.
Up a Creek
The chief benefit of using a canal, head of a creek, mangrove or bayou
as a hurricane hole is the avoidance of large breaking waves that
have done so much to destroy marinas during the past few years of
heightened hurricane activity. Smaller waterways will still get storm
surge but are less likely to feel the full force that ocean- or bay-front
docks will suffer.
“In the bayous of Mississippi, it worked very well,” said
Wiggins of Gulf Coast boat owners caught up in 2004’s Hurricane
Katrina. He saw one site in which about 200 boats were secured in a remote
bayou and only about 2% of them had damage from being sunk or driven
into the woods.
Another benefit of a coordinated canal tie-up is that running longer
lines to the shore allows boats in a canal to rise and fall with the
storm surge, which is harder to do at a dock. Boats that are anchored
or moored can also rise and fall with the surge but face the considerable
risk that the anchors will drag or the pennants will fail. Given the
large number of boats in some waterways, scope can also be a problem.
However, for boats tied up on wider canals, two or three anchors can
also be used at the bow and stern.
While many canal residents have lifts on their docks, insurance claims
have also shown that boat lifts are not a good choice during a hurricane.
Rainwater often fills the boat to where the weight collapses the lift;
in addition, lifts are vulnerable to high winds and storm surge as
In many communities, canal residents have pioneered the “neighborhood
watch” concept with a coordinated tie up. Part of the success
of this depends on all homeowners allowing the use of their seawalls,
dock pilings and other fixtures on land. (Memo to self: don’t
use palm trees for tying lines — they have such shallow root
systems hurricanes can knock them right over.)
Using the group concept, neighbors can purchase spools of larger line
and keep them stored and ready. A neighborhood plan is also instrumental
in the event that someone is away when hurricane warnings are posted,
and arrangements can be made for neighbors to prepare the absentee’s
Kauffman said the homeowners on his canal do not have a written plan
but are in constant communication before a hurricane and everyone knows
what’s going to happen and when. Neighbors with small boats are
told how long they have to leave the canal before the lines start going
across. ( See box.)
With over 300 miles of waterways in Ft. Lauderdale, the city’s
Venice-like canals resemble a giant spider web before a storm, said
Frank Herhold, executive director of the Marine Industry Association
of South Florida. “The canals provide a safe refuge for vessels
of all sizes and types. It also works well with our Broward County
flotilla plan which moves large groups of vessels, under police escort,
upriver before bridges are locked down.”
In fact, it is Herhold who makes the call to activate the flotilla
plan; normally, boaters have a window of about 3-1/2 hours after an
evacuation order has been posted or winds reach 40 mph, whichever comes
first, before drawbridges will be shut down for vehicle evacuation.
“The key is the ability to tie a line to other people’s property.
You can’t do that without advance permission,” said Herhold. “You
also have to be a good neighbor and let them do the same with your property.”
The only caveats — and there are always a bunch when you are
dealing with anything as unpredictable as hurricanes — are the
skippers who arrive late to a canal or anchorage, drop a hook and leave
in a dinghy, endangering everyone else’s hard work.
Joanne Becker, of Becker’s Marine Services in Ft. Lauderdale
and former president of the Waterfront Homeowners Association, who
lives at the head of the New River, has seen it time and again.
“We will go up and down the river to help other people tie up,” she
said. “But some boats come in, drop an anchor and leave, blocking everyone.
Many people do not know how to tie up their boats.” Becker recommends that
any boater showing up in a canal talk to the homeowners there first and ask for
assistance. “Most people are very neighborly and most will assist you,
if you ask,” she said.
— By Elaine Dickinson
© BoatU.S. Magazine July 2007