Sifting Through Sandy

Marinas and boat owners cannot be accused of not preparing for Sandy, but unfortunately most didn't prepare for the right thing.

Published: April 2013

Photo of Superstorm Sandy damage at Staten Island marina
A "boat stew" of boats, docks, and equipment on Staten Island after Sandy.

Since the first BoatUS Catastrophe (CAT) Team ventured into the field after Hurricane Alicia in 1983, Seaworthy has been sharing lessons learned on preparing boats for hurricanes. So when the Seaworthy editors visited Staten Island and northern New Jersey 10 days after Sandy, they were heartbroken to see the number of carefully prepared boats that had been damaged or destroyed. It would be easy to get discouraged and conclude preparations had no bearing on the outcome. But that would be taking the wrong lesson from this storm.

The bottom line is that most marinas near the epicenter of the storm were not built to withstand a 10-plus-foot storm surge with 4-plus-foot waves on top. That single fact trumped just about everything else. But in at least some cases, where boats were prepared to handle the high water, they beat the odds and survived. We'll take a look at how different options for securing boats fared against the worst of Sandy's surge, and share three stories from Seaworthy readers whose surge preparations saved their boats when almost all others around them were lost. The real lesson to take from Sandy is not that preparations don't matter, but that the right preparations, designed to address the real risks, can and do work.

No Silver Bullets

Hurricane preparations developed over the last three decades have been designed to reduce damage from high winds and, at most, moderate storm surges. Even though the surge predictions 48 hours and more before the storm were reasonably accurate, very few preparations were made to deal with the expected water levels. That's because most marinas didn't have any options. Piling heights and the elevation of hardstand areas above sea level cannot be changed in three days.

At the epicenter of this storm, none of the solutions used to secure large numbers of boats (short of putting them on trailers and heading several miles inland) greatly increased the chances of survival. There were no silver bullets. But in at least three cases, as the stories from Seaworthy readers in the next section demonstrate, boats that were set up to handle the surge survived unscathed in some of the hardest hit areas.

Photo of hauled boats piled up Photo: Betsy Haggerty

Hauled boats ended up in piles.

BoatUS has long advocated hauling boats to prevent damage in hurricanes because all available evidence showed that boats were better off on the hard than in the water. From the moment damage reports began coming in, the Sandy experience seemed to contradict that. Over the past two months, we have been interviewing marina managers and owners and debriefing the CAT Team surveyors and salvors who were in the field. What we have been finding is more complicated and nuanced than a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether hauling boats kept them safer.

Photo of floating dock lifted off pilings

Photo of fixed dock destroyed by the storm surge
Photo: Larry Wilson

Floating docks were lifted off pilings that were too short, and many
fixed docks were destroyed by the surge.

While at first glance, hauling boats looked to be an unmitigated disaster in Sandy, that conclusion turned out to be far too simplistic. The percentage of hauled boats declared constructive total losses (the estimated cost of repair exceeded the insured value) was extraordinarily high near the epicenter of the storm, in places like Staten Island and Atlantic Highlands, where the surge washed docks, boats, and marina equipment back and forth within a confined area. But even there, unless boats went over the bulkhead, they were rarely sunk, so salvage was possible with a crane and repair was more likely than if the boat had been sitting on the bottom. In hardstand areas that were not confined, many boats were pushed inland by the first large surge and came to rest with surprisingly little damage. Others suffered broken rudders, bent props, and hull damage, but if the water stayed out, many could be repaired. A question still to be resolved is whether tying down boats on the hard, as has become the practice in a number of marinas in Florida, would have prevented damage. Gary Lucas' story below, though anecdotal, suggests it might have for sailboats.

Conclusion: As BoatUS CAT Team master salvor Mike McCook put it, "Hauling boats wasn't wrong, but it didn't work as well in Sandy as in other storms."

Whether boats survived on floating docks or not depended, first and foremost, on whether the pilings were high enough. If not, boats went adrift with the dock when it lifted off the piling, and how and where they fetched up determined the extent of damage. Boats that came to rest in marshes and on beaches fared quite well compared to those that were carried up into hardstand areas, but they created pollution and environmental hazards in sensitive areas.

In some cases, pilings happened to be high enough by luck rather than by design. We know of more than half a dozen marinas and yacht clubs where docks were within six inches of floating off pilings. At that point, the full force of boats, docks, and the associated windage was being held at the end of a very long lever arm in a way that had probably not been envisioned by the engineers. In stronger winds, older or rotted pilings would quite likely have broken, as happened in some marinas in Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In addition, some well-engineered marinas with sufficiently high pilings still suffered damage when debris from other marinas washed down on them.

Conclusion: Floating docks with sufficiently high pilings were the only place where large numbers of boats survived Sandy unscathed, but in most cases luck played a significant role.

Survival on fixed docks turned out to be a crapshoot. A boat that ends up on the bottom has a much higher chance of being declared a wreck and costing a great deal to recover (especially when factoring in fuel spill containment and liability) than one that is still on land. Whether a boat on a fixed dock ended up sinking depended on a number of factors including the boat's ability to rise to the surge, whether the boat came down on a piling or a dock as the water receded, and whether anything came down on top of it, especially if it was located near the bulkhead where the surge pulled boats and debris from the hardstand area over the edge. The relative lack of wind in Sandy meant that other problems with fixed docks in hurricanes were not as big an issue this time, including line chafe and hull damage from the dock.

Conclusion: A surprising number of boats did survive on fixed docks, but where they did not, they were likely to be wrecked completely.

Intuitively, moorings seem like a great way to secure a boat during a high-surge event. So long as there is sufficient scope, the boat will stay facing into the wind and rise and fall with the changes in water level. In practice, the outcome on moorings in this storm, as in others Seaworthy has written about, was contingent on the quality of each of the components in the mooring system, from the anchor, to the chain, to the pennant, to the way the pennant was secured to the boat. And the safety of a moored boat does not depend just upon its own equipment, but also on those upwind of it.

What You Can Do
  • Evaluate your weather risks and determine where to get the earliest warnings for natural disasters and the most accurate forecasts for wind and surge.
  • Get a copy of your marina's emergency plan and review it carefully — understand your obligations and theirs.
  • Evaluate the risks at your marina for your boat in different types of disasters — high surge, high wind, high waves.
  • Put together your own emergency plan.
  • Check your insurance policy for salvage, wreck removal, liability, and fuel spill coverages.

Because Sandy was so late in the season, many moorings had already been taken out of the water, and where that wasn't the case, in most places very few boats were left on moorings for the storm. One exception was the Nyack Boat Club in Nyack, New York. The harbormaster, Warren Frerichs, told Seaworthy that of 97 boats on moorings during Sandy, 19 were lost. Eighteen chafed through their mooring pennants and one dragged its mooring, while 25 stayed put but were damaged by other boats. The remaining 53 boats escaped without damage. Had mooring gear not failed, the outcome would have been significantly better than being on the hard. But when you factor in the difficulty of recovering boats that end up wrecked in the water versus on land, it's much harder to say which was the "right" approach.

The Nyack Boat Club has an open mooring field where boats are well spaced and equipped with plenty of scope. In crowded mooring fields with limited scope, the boats would have had to be thinned and extra scope added to allow them to ride out Sandy's high surge levels. Anchoring is equally dependent on the boat's equipment, the equipment of other boats in the area, and proper scope and spacing.

Conclusion: Moorings offer a viable alternative for keeping boats safe in Sandy-like storms, but only if ALL moorings in the basin are properly constructed, maintained, and prepared for the actual conditions.

Every method used for securing large numbers of boats for this storm had significant risks simply because so much of the marina infrastructure was not designed for surge of this magnitude. This will quite likely change as marinas rebuild, and going forward, understanding the surge risk in your area, picking a marina with that in mind, and preparing your boat for both surge and wind should ensure that fewer boats are damaged or destroyed.

Some Sandy Survival Stories

Seaworthy readers have been writing in to let us know how they kept their boats safe during Sandy. These three examples illustrate the range of solutions we saw to handling the unprecedented surge and may give you some ideas when putting together your own storm plan.

Photo of Chris Magory's Grady White

Chris Magory's Grady White set up for Sandy on the Barrier Islands.

Chris Magory keeps his 257 Advance center console Grady White in the canal behind his house in Lavallette, New Jersey on the barrier islands just north of Seaside Heights. When Sandy was approaching, he made the decision to leave the boat in the water and not haul it out at one of the nearby marinas. But he prepared very carefully.

To keep his boat from hitting the dock, "I took two anchors and dropped them [in the middle of the canal] about 30 feet from my boat," he wrote in an email. He secured these to the canal-side of the boat. "I also took two 100-foot lines from my boat across the canal, one to a dock and one to a Whaler." His 14-foot whips also helped him to secure the boat in a position away from the dock. "Then I took a length of two-inch PVC pipe and hung it across two large fenders tied to the boat so that when the boat got close to the dock, the PVC would hit the pilings, and the fenders would protect the boat." He doubled up as many lines as he could. "When I decided to keep the boat in [the water], I had knots in my stomach worrying if I had made the correct decision," he wrote. "It worked fine."

Donald Launer's two-masted schooner, Delphinus, has lived on a dock next to his home on a waterway just off Barnegat Bay on the New Jersey shore for 32 years. "During that time she has survived two hurricanes and several nor'easters with no damage," he wrote in an email. "Although we're close to the bay, we're well-protected. We have minimal tide, and the wave action is negligible — not so the storm surge." Don's dock had been constructed with 11-foot-high pilings for this very reason.

Photo of Donald Launer's schooner on his fixed dock Donald Launer's schooner on his fixed dock the day after Sandy.

Donald Launer's Storm Chart

Donald Launer's Storm Chart.

In preparation for Sandy, Don fastened two, 6-inch x 8-inch x 8-foot treated lumber fenderboards fitted on the hull side with substantial rubber bumpers. "I also added additional long dock lines, with these lines tied to the deck cleats first and then to the base of the keel-stepped mast, in case of cleat failure." To absorb shock and add stretch, these lines were nylon. The other end of each line was tied far down the dock near the top of the 12-inch-diameter pilings, so that as the boat rose, there would be no downward pull. The lines were secured so that they couldn't slip off the top of the piling. Delphinus survived the storm without a scratch despite Sandy's seven-foot storm surge. Don's solution is tailored to his boat and his situation, and he does not advocate his approach for everyone. "Superstorm Sandy was the supreme test of my decision that a boat like mine, with two masts, and high windage aloft, is far better in the water during a storm when properly prepared than in a crowded marina, up on jackstands."

Photo of Gary Lucas's Etap strapped down before the storm

Gary Lucas's Etap strapped down before the storm at North Shore Point Marina in Pine Beach, New Jersey.

Gary Lucas keeps his 26-foot Etap sailboat at Shore Point Marina in Pine Beach, New Jersey. When Irene was forecast to come through New Jersey in 2011, the keel was off for repairs, and the boat was sitting up on jackstands. Gary was worried the boat would float away, so he took a day off from work, purchased large screw anchors and heavy ratchet straps, and tied his boat down as has been discussed in the pages of Seaworthy. "The day of the hurricane was bright, sunny, and calm," he wrote in an email. "I felt like a fool."

Gary and his grandson prepared the boat. "It took us about five hours to do everything. We raised the stands higher and added some concrete block supports under the center of the hull in the area where the keel attached. We sank four large screw anchors, each rated for 6,000 pounds, almost four feet into the ground. We ran two heavy nylon straps over the [top of the] boat and connected each one to the anchors on either side." The boat displaces 5,000 pounds at the waterline, so he thought the straps and anchors would hold until the water rose to at least 18 inches above the waterline, or about three feet above the ground. "EVERY boat pulled from the water in advance of the storm, except a couple of deep fin keel sailboats floated away!" Gary wrote. "That pile leaning up against my straps has five boats in it." The straps kept any of the other boats from reaching his, so that the Etap did not have a scratch on it. The water mark on the hull showed that the water had risen two-and-a-half feet above the waterline, about four feet above the ground. "My straps and anchors were obtained from McMaster Carr at a cost of less than $100," Gary told us.

Photo of after the storm After the storm, last boat standing.

There is an element of luck involved whenever a natural disaster strikes. We have no way of knowing how many others who prepared just as carefully as these three readers did ended up with lost or damaged boats, anyway. But we can be quite certain, given what happened in these areas, that these three boats made it through the storm without damage in large part because their owners took such care in thinking through and then making their preparations to deal with the forecast surge.

The Bottom Line

Preparations do matter, but you have to prepare for the right thing. In this case, preparations that would have protected boats in hurricane-force winds failed to protect boats in the large surge. You can, and should, factor surge — not just wind — into your decision about where you keep your boat and how you prepare it when a storm is approaching. Making sure your boat survives starts with picking a marina designed to withstand the real risks you could face, and ends with preparations to secure the boat for that particular storm's dangers.End of story marker



To comment on this article, please contact Seaworthy@BoatUS.com




Online Extra!

Weigh In On One More Survival Story

Tom Kesolits' 38-foot Sea Ray, Huff n Puff IV, was at the epicenter of the storm. "She is located at the Atlantic Highlands municipal harbor on the Jersey Shore just across the bay from Staten Island, New York," Tom wrote in an email. He and his wife knew the marina had been devastated days before they were permitted on the premises, so they assumed the worst. "The 14-foot wave that came through the marina carried many boats, sail and power, off their stands or dropped them on their rudders and props."

Photo of the Huff n Puff after the storm

When they did get into the marina, they were astonished. Huff n Puff was sitting exactly where they had last seen her with a matt of seaweed on her props, no visible waterline mark on the hull, and only a small scratch and some dirt on the swim platform. "The first thing I asked myself was why did Puff survive?" Tom continued. "All I can say is that since this vessel has a hollow keel, Ozie and his very able yard crew made sure that, per Sea Ray's blocking instruction, all of the boat's stern weight is carried on the chines and not on the keel. Since I am a bit claustrophobic, I have them block it with at least 14 inches under the keel and periodically check that the weight is if off the keel blocks." Tom theorizes that with all of Huff n Puff's weight on the chines, even a 14-foot wave could not lift her from the jackstands. Of course, a boat would need to be engineered to take its weight on the chines instead of the keel, so this approach would not be possible with most designs. But in this case, blocking the boat this way seems to have saved it.

Photo of the Huff n Puff with seaweed on her props

Tom confessed to a degree of survivor's guilt and ended by saying, "Some people told me that they saw a guy with a long robe and a staff walking away after the water receded, but that's a matter of conjecture."

So, how do you think Huff n Puff survived? Weigh in and give us your thoughts at Seaworthy@BoatUS.com.