If you sail on the East Coast, Caribbean, or Gulf of Mexico, and plan to keep doing so this summer, you should be thinking about your hurricane hole.
Keep in mind that there is no guarantee your boat will survive a hurricane, even in the most protected hurricane hole. In a direct hit, your preparation may only mitigate the damage. It is up to the captain to choose a location that will best avoid a direct hit, and offer good protection should the storm swerve in your direction.
No matter how much protection you have, it is not worth the risk to stay on your boat during a hurricane. I’ve done that— as have many cruisers who’ve survived to tell the tale—but I would not do it again. Ultimately, if you’ve done your homework and preparation, there is not much more you can do when the eye-wall arrives.
The problem with staying aboard, even in an ideal location, is that you will find it hard to resist the urge to go on deck when things really get nasty, and the risk of flying projectiles is very real. Two men who stayed on a power boat during Hurricane Andrew in 1992 were swept overboard. During my own brush with Super Typhoon Paka in Guam, a cruising sailor was seriously injured when he tried to tend to his lines at the height of the storm. Going out in the storm for any reason puts you at much higher risk of getting hurt or killed.
First and foremost, check with your insurance policy to see if anchoring or shore-tying your boat in a hurricane hole will negate coverage. Some policies stipulate that you stay in a marina (a risky option), on a hurricane mooring, or most commonly – haul completely out of the water, a choice which comes with its own unique risks. My own policy is simply a liability policy to cover any damage my boat might cause, so, like many sailors in Florida, my own boat is self-insured. Her survival depends on my preparation. And my hurricane hole.
This article addresses three typical hurricane hole types – storm moorings, creeks and canals where shore-tying is possible, and well-protected waters where you must rely on your own ground tackle. If none of these options appeal to you, see our reports on hurricane storage ashore and preparing for a storm in a marina. This blog focus on selecting a hurricane hole. It does not address the gear, or procedures for securing your boat in the hurricane hole. For that, you can turn to one of our many reports on preparing your sailboat for a tropical storm.
Other Practical Sailor resources include our e-book on Hurricane Preparedness, which cover the topic from every angle, as well as our e-book on Anchors, which includes dozens of anchor tests in various bottoms and specialty ground tackle for storms.
Many islands throughout the world have fields of hurricane moorings in coves or harbors that are nearly surrounded by land or breakwaters to protect against breaking seas. These can provide effective protection, especially in smaller, steep-to islands which are not so susceptible to storm surge. In places like Guam, where Typhoons commonly bring 120 mile-per-hour winds at ground level, the hurricane refuge’s mooring system is a four-point system that allows closely spaced boats, and keeps catamarans from going para-gliding. Other refuges use single-point moorings which allow the boats to weathercock toward the wind.
Although not technically regarded as hurricane moorings, the single-anchor elastic mooring systems (lines, buoy, and anchors) found in Florida and other states are often tested to withstand the winds loads (not waves) of a tropical storm. In September 2017, this strength requirement was throughly tested by Hurricane Irma in Boot Key Harbor in The Florida Keys. Although most of the mooring anchors and downlines held, chafed mooring pendants resulted in the loss of many boats.
There are many downsides to a mooring field. The most worrisome risk is that another boat will break free and bear down on yours. This a big concern in any hurricane hole, but mooring fields that pack boats like sardines increase the chance of this. The images take after Hurricane Irma raked the charter fleet in the British Virgin Islands show how this can end.
To conserve space, some mooring fields limit the length of the mooring pennant, the line you supply between the boat and the mooring. As Practical Sailor’s study on hurricane moorings showed, an extra-long mooring pennant protected from chafe is often a key to survival. Using high-quality, new, or nearly new rope for mooring pennants also increases the odds of survival. If another boat collides with yours– all bets are off no matter how many precautions you took.
The upside of a tested and monitored mooring field is that the equipment has been tested to a published working load limit (WLL). Having a screw-type embedment anchor that has been pull-tested offers confidence in areas of poor holding (rock, grass, soft mud, mud over limestone – etc.) where your own anchors might not hold well. Regardless of how new or reputable the mooring field is, you should carry out a thorough inspection of your own mooring well before the start of hurricane season.
A well-protected creek or canal where you can shore-tie is my preferred type of hurricane hole. Securing the boat with a multiple lines to trees ashore is a usual approach in these areas. You can often add and anchor or two for good measure – but the holding is often extremely poor in the creeks or canals.
The advantage of such a location is that you have multiple points to tie into, and if you do get pushed onto shore, the mangroves provide a relatively soft landing for your hull. Canals with seawalls do not share this advantage, but a well-fendered boat will have better survival odds.
The disadvantages to this approach are many. Your boat is physically closer to shore and the hard stuff that can hole your boat. Most mangrove areas are routinely inundated by storm surge, reducing much of your protection against the wind and swell. Chafe is an ever-present risk. Some big trees lining canals have weak root systems and are likely to topple.
The canal or creek that is used as a hurricane hole can also increase the risk of a storm surge pile-up. Boats are usually spaced at regular interval along the creek, so if lines part on one of the boats, it can be pushed up or down the creek onto other boats—potentially starting a chain reaction similar to what happens in a mooring field.
Being the first to arrive at a spot well upstream will reduce your vulnerability to this, but it also puts you first inline for downstream debris which can increase the load on your shore-ties.
Another problem in some creeks is that your spider-web of ropes will block traffic up and down the creek, so out of courtesy, you may have to tend your lines, or wait to set them until the approaching storm has put navigation to a stop. On a related note, if there are drawbridges between you and your hurricane hole, operators may stop or limit openings due to high winds and to allow for evacuation by car, so plan accordingly.
If your canal or creek is adjacent to private property, you may be sued for any damage your boat causes. The laws dealing with this are complicated and vary by state, so you’ll want to do your homework. Check with the regulatory agency charged with navigation enforcement in the area, and double-check your insurance policy.
In addition, many of these areas are in protected environmental areas, so, you might also be fined and held liable for environmental harm if you’re found to have neglected your responsibility. Again, if you have any doubts, check with the agency in charge of enforcement in the area. In general, when storms threaten, the law allows individuals take all necessary measures to protect their property, so long as this is not unduly endangering others or their property.
The hurricane strategy of anchoring in a well-protected lagoon, cove creek, or estuary is a common in many areas of the country and in the Caribbean. These hurricane holes have been a savior for cruisers stuck in the hurricane belt during high season. They also yield some of the most dramatic images of post-storm damage. The hurricane holes used for anchoring are very similar to the mooring field option, with the added risk of anchor failure. There might be a slightly lower risk of collision from a stray boat – it will depend on the number of boats.
Your success in this type of hurricane hole will rely greatly on how well you and your neighbors set and manage your ground tackle. Some boaters like to make their own “hurricane mooring” using multiple anchors. If it is a river or creek, the influence of floodwaters and strong tides is an added danger. Storm debris can quickly wrap around a rode and dislodge your anchor.
Which type of hurricane hole, if any is best for you? Clearly this will vary by location. You may have very few options within easy reach. Or you might have several. Whatever you choose, the time to start preparing is now, well before hurricane season.
Dedicate some time early this summer to take a dry-run to your chosen spot. Strip the boat and deploy the gear as you would use it. This will give you a clear picture of how much time you need.
Despite the advanced warnings for named storms, there never seems to be enough time to make all the necessary preparations. And once the weather starts to deteriorate, setting storm gear becomes difficult and exhausting – if you can reach the hurricane hole at all.
Your chances of survival will depend greatly on the path of the storm. There is a big difference in a direct impact and a glancing blow. Ideally, you should have two or more spots chosen. This allows you flexibility to stay out of the hurricane’s direct path. Most cruising guides in tropical areas identify popular hurricane refuges, but local sailors often know some off-the-beaten track places where the risk of collision with another boat is lower.