Small Stuff

Published: January 2014

Anchor symbol With the 2013 hurricane season officially behind us, we here at BoatUS have stopped holding our collective breath. In May, when we were still sorting out claims from Superstorm Sandy, NOAA forecast an "active or extremely active" season with a "70 percent likelihood of 13 to 20 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which 7 to 11 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of 111 mph or higher)." That compares to an average year with a total of 12 named storms, of which 6.7 are hurricanes including 2.7 major hurricanes. When Tropical Storm Andrea formed in the Gulf of Mexico a few days after the official start of the 2013 hurricane season and made landfall in Florida on June 6, it looked as if the season was, indeed, going to be a doozy.

Photo of Hurricane Sandy marina damage

In fact, the 2013 hurricane season proved to be among the quietest on record, with 12 named storms including two hurricanes, neither of which had wind speeds over 85 mph. Only one other named storm made landfall on the continental U.S. this season, and Karen came ashore as a tropical storm, not a hurricane as forecast. So how did forecasters get it so wrong?

The original forecast released in May was based on conditions that looked perfect for hurricane formation. "These conditions include weaker wind shear, warmer Atlantic waters and conducive wind patterns coming from Africa," Gerry Bell, Ph.D., the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, said at the time.

But actual conditions were almost the opposite of what had been expected. The area where Atlantic tropical waves most frequently form had some of the driest air since reliable records began in 1970, effectively discouraging hurricane formation.

The fact is that early seasonal hurricane forecasts are not very accurate. In 2012, Dr. Jeff Masters looked at "statistical skill" in forecasting Atlantic hurricanes. His results, published on Weather Underground, found that NOAA's and Colorado State University's December hurricane forecasts from 2002 to 2011 would have done better had they simply forecast the historical average. The August forecast, on the other hand, when seasonal conditions have pretty much been established, is more accurate than the historical average 60 to 70 percent of the time. Forecasters were particularly unskillful at predicting how many major hurricanes would occur in a given year. The bottom line is that hurricane forecasting remains at least as much black art as science.

The quiet 2013 season extended for another year a record-long streak without a major hurricane making landfall in the U.S. It has now been more than eight years since Hurricane Wilma slammed into Florida on October 24, 2005. Researchers call it a "hurricane drought" and worry that "hurricane amnesia" may keep people from responding to hurricane warnings or evacuating coastal areas. We at BoatUS and, we suspect, those who live in the northeast, are not suffering from hurricane amnesia. As Sandy demonstrated, it only takes one, and that one doesn't need to pack Category 3 winds to wreak devastation over a wide area. After Sandy, we were really hoping the major hurricane drought would not come to an end in 2013. Now we're all breathing again — until next year.

Photo of Hurricane Sandy damaged Howkola II
Photo of completed repairs on the Howkola II
Photos: John Milnes Baker

Anchor symbol Speaking of Sandy, a year ago we received a letter from a policyholder in Connecticut. John Milnes Baker wrote, "My Cape Dory 25, Howkola II, was picked up off its jackstands by the storm surge at Rowayton, Connecticut and deposited about 50 yards away across the road on a neighbor's front stoop. Fortunately my boat was solidly built and withstood the battering with only superficial damage." Baker immediately called BoatUS and was told that someone would get back to him shortly. "I was dubious, to say the least. I shouldn't have been. CAT Team member George Mansfield called me and you'd think I was BoatUS's most valued customer … With all he had to deal with, he still made me feel that I was number one on his list … The claims office was so efficient, I received a check within a couple of weeks."

That was one of hundreds of letters we received in the months following Sandy, letters that encouraged our teams to maintain our high standards of professionalism and responsiveness in the face of a seemingly endless number of claims. We appreciated every one.

That's almost always the last we hear about the boats that will live to float another day. We're all too familiar with the end of the sad stories, the ones where the boat gets totaled and we turn it over to liquidators — the fate of way too many of Sandy's victims. So it was especially meaningful when Baker wrote in again in September and sent us some more photos. "I thought you might like to know that my boat is back at its mooring and in fact looks better than ever," he wrote. He may have missed some of the 2013 sailing season, but we're glad to know he, and many others like him, will be back on the water in 2014 — despite Sandy.

Anchor symbol So there you are, cruising along in your $80 million motoryacht in the Med, working on your perfect tan on the aft deck. You've given orders that you will dine in the Royal Malta Yacht Club in Grand Harbour at 2100 and left the crew in charge. Two hours later, your captain comes to find you, clearly nervous. "Malta should be visible over the bow by now," he says. "But it isn't. And there's a suspicious-looking boat approaching that's trying to hail us." Just then, you hear the rotary beat of a helicopter and see its insect-like profile approaching fast.

You could be the victim of GPS spoofing, and you could be in trouble.

Your GPS works by receiving signals from multiple satellites giving each satellite's location and the time the signal was sent. Using that information, a sphere can be calculated around each satellite somewhere upon which the GPS must be located. The GPS uses trilateration to determine the intersection of the spheres from at least four satellites and find its position. But the high-frequency signals coming from the satellites are not very strong. The GPS can be tricked, or spoofed, by stronger signals from a transmitter designed to mimic the satellite signal. Weak counterfeit signals can be synchronized with the genuine signals and then gradually strengthened and diverted from the actual signals, so that the GPS is deceived into thinking it is someplace that it is not. This is called a "carry-off attack," and it can be used to take a vessel far off its course. Unlike GPS signal blocking or jamming, spoofing triggers no alarms on the ship's navigation equipment.

In June 2013, a team of University of Texas at Austin graduate students led by Assistant Professor Todd Humphreys successfully spoofed the GPS aboard the $80 million, 213-foot superyacht, White Rose, by broadcasting a faint ensemble of civil GPS signals from their spoofing device — a blue box about the size of a briefcase — toward the ship's two GPS antennas. The team's counterfeit signals slowly overpowered the authentic GPS signals. "The ship actually turned and we could all feel it, but the chart display and the crew saw only a straight line," Humphreys said. Spoofing the yacht cost less than $3,000.

At least so far, it looks as if spoofing is very target-specific — other GPSs in the vicinity would experience a sudden, suspicious position shift that would give the game away. So, while spoofing would work on any civilian GPS, you probably don't need to worry about anyone trying to trick yours — unless you happen to have an $80 million superyacht.

Anchor symbol Anyone who grew up navigating with paper charts, taking compass bearings or sights, and using dividers or parallel rules to find their position can't help but feel saddened by the announcement last October that, as of this April, the government will be getting out of the business of printing traditional charts. But before getting too maudlin, reflect on your own chart usage and how it has changed. "The demand for traditional paper charts has fallen more than 90 percent in the last 30 years," said Susan Shingledecker, vice president of the BoatUS Foundation and a member of the NOAA Hydrographic Services Review Panel.

Photo of paper navigational chart and compass

But the end of lithographic charts doesn't mean you can't still navigate the old-fashioned way. NOAA is beefing up its Print-on-Demand charts, available through private vendors; the NOAA Booklet Charts, which cover 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline including the Great Lakes, are available for free download directly off its website ( In addition, private vendors are bound to jump in with innovative products that combine the best of paper and electronic charting.End of story marker

Seaworthy, the damage-avoidance newsletter, is brought to you by the BoatUS Marine Insurance Program. For an insurance quote, please call 1-800-283-2883 or apply online at

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