The Atlantic Hurricane season — which officially runs from June 1-November 30 — is not over yet. Tropical Storm Eta is expected to restrengthen over the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. I know that I just posted the following blog one month ago, but because November storms are more rare, the complacency factor is multiplied. The fact that Southwest Florida, one of the state’s most popular sailing regions, could be impacted is another reason why I’m recycling this post so soon. Although November hurricanes are very rare, they can be just as dangerous.
The path of Tropical Storm ETA is still uncertain, but a few models show her tracking toward SW Florida and regaining some strength. I’m also concerned that some sailors might believe that there is a sharp line between tropical storm and hurricane—with the latter being the real concern. In fact, it was Tropical Storm Debby that drove dozens of boats ashore in this region 2012.
It will be interesting to see how things pan out in our home port of Sarasota, since that storm predated the installation of new helix screw moorings here that have already proved their mettle in Marathon, FL during Hurricane Irma. As our report describes, the boats that did survive Irma on a mooring used long, brand-new snubbers with plenty of chafe gear. They also had the good fortune of not getting bashed by neglected boats that had broken free.
More often than not when I talk with the experienced sailors who contribute to Practical Sailor, the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do,” comes up. The truth is, many of the practices followed by some of the most widely roaming sailors would be heresy to publish widely, and there is a good reason for this. Some of these practices are inherently risky, and these are good people who don’t want to risk someone misunderstanding their advice, or applying it to situations where it isn’t valid.
One of the classic examples of “do as I say, not as I do” situations regards how to secure your boat for a tropical storm. Along with many of the contributors who’ve roamed widely while living aboard, I’ve hunkered down for a couple of big storms, the biggest being Super Typhoon Paka, which struck Guam in 1997.
I recounted that episode briefly in an editorial a while back, but did not go into a whole lot of detail. One of the things that led to that decision was the fact that our boat, a 31-foot Atkin ketch, was moored in a narrow canal in the U.S. Navy’s old submarine base Apra Harbor. The former site of a small vessel repair center, it was a hurricane hole where boats had long sought refuge from powerful typhoons.
The canal was narrow and without concrete bulkheads, making for a “soft” landing should some of the 12 lines we used to secure Tosca fail. It was relatively well protected from wind by trees and buildings. We could secure the boat in the middle of the canal, at least one boat length from the shore. The depth of the canal was only about two feet beneath the keel.
We could have and should have gone to stay with friends in one of the concrete bunker-type homes that are typical on Guam, an island that is routinely threatened by typhoons. Instead, we reasoned, we might be able to prevent some harm to the boat by adjusting lines, fending off boats – whatever.
When the storm finally struck, it was clear how foolish we were. With sheet metal and coconuts flying in 195 mph winds, to go on deck would have bordered on suicide. And the only real risk to the boat was something we could not avoid – the entanglement of our rigging with the boat in the adjacent “slip,” which had a different roll period from our own boat. As each of us rolled as far as 45 degrees in the wind, the spreaders of the CT 41 next to us would cross with our shrouds, creating a frightening screech. I tried once to go on deck with mask and snorkel, bike helmet, and a May West PFD to adjust the lines, a move that ranks up there with the stupidest decisions in my life (and there have been many). I quickly retreated.
When the storm passed to reveal the wind-flattened landscape littered with construction debris, I realized how foolish I’d been.
With all that in mind, I point the readers in the path of Tropical Storm Eta to a piece by Ralph Naranjo, a contributing editor, describing his own hurricane hole. Like me, Ralph will never advocate that a person should stay aboard your boat during a hurricane or tropical storm. Yet he did this himself—during Tropical Storm Ivan, downgraded from Hurricane Ivan.
As we did with Tosca, Ralph selected a location that is as good as any hurricane hole in the region. And he had another thing going for him: Ralph is an expert marine weather forecaster. He has many tools at his disposal and years of experience in following storm development and identifying the areas of greatest risk. Had the storm been recategorized as a hurricane, I doubt Ralph would have stayed aboard.
Again staying aboard was not a decision he took lightly, and his choice of hurricane holes—far inland on a Chesapeake estuary— met the highest standard. The biggest threat in his case was the potential for 12-foot or greater storm surge, which would put tremendous load on lines and anchors.
So here we are at the tail end of hurricane season, but yet another storm poses a threat.
So what to do?
If you can’t haul out your boat and tie it down, a hurricane hole is your best second option. Should you stay onboard? My answer is still an unequivocal, “No.”
I still tell anyone I care about to not stay aboard your boat. It simply is not worth it. But knowing that the world is full of people who, like Ralph and I, have confidence (misplaced, some would rightfully argue) that, given the right combination of circumstances, we can perhaps do some good by staying on board, you can look at these suggestions on how to best secure your boat. In the end, you’re better off doing as I say, and not as I did—locating yourself somewhere safe and away from the water.
If you are looking for a detailed guide on the equipment and techniques to secure your boat for a tropical storm, or any event that brings extreme wind and sea conditions, check out our four-volume Hurricane Preparedness Guide. The series is designed to supplement the more generalized advice that you will find in hurricane preparation guides such as the “The Hurricane Manual for Marine Interests.” Based on multiple tests carried out over several years, our report delves into the specific equipment and skills required to secure your boat in three situations: anchored and/or shore-tied in a hurricane hole, moored in a hurricane refuge, and docked in a marina.
Even if you never venture into areas of tropical storms, this can be an excellent resource, explaining in great detail the steps you can take and the equipment you’ll need to prevent damage to your boat.