The Ego-trap of Riding the Storm Out

Few combinations can be as deadly as hubris and hurricanes. Don't make the same mistakes I did.

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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.

When lives are at stake, clarity is essential. As nations around the world try to muster a cohesive strategy to battle COVID-19, we’re witnessing the harm that mixed messages, or a lack of clarity can cause. As the World Health Organization puts it, “communication that is timely, accurate, honest, credible, consistent, appropriate, regular, and relevant” has long regarded as the essential weapon in battling any pandemic. (Consistent with that effort, our publisher and Harvard Medical School have teamed up to create the Harvard Coronavirus Resource Center, which answers common questions and shares the latest developments in fighting the disease.)

So here I go, muddying the waters for preserving your boat in a storm.

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 Hurricane Delta 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.

We’re near the tail end of hurricane season, but yet another storm is bearing down on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of this writing Louisiana and Mississippi were projected landfalls for Hurricane Delta.

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.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Hafa Adai Darrell!
    This should be mandatory reading for anyone heading into the tropics!
    As a long time resident of Guam, (and a fellow survivor of Typhoon Paka, though on land) it is surprising that so many people are dangerously under-informed about what a tropical storm can actually do. This article is a great primer for understanding the unexpected dangers!
    Thank you for making folks aware!

  2. I quite agree. There was a novel written back maybe 20 years ago, Spartina, it was named, about a guy who built a commercial lobster boat, wrecked his marriage and as proof of the resurrection, reconstituted his marriage and weathered a storm at sea. Well, he stuck his head in both of those nooses voluntarily, I might add. After the storm segment, I concluded to myself, ‘this writer has never been to sea in dusty conditions.’ Who can forget the pic of Bounty on her beam ends, swirling to her grave? There is no bravery in foolish acts.

  3. Does any man know where the love of god goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours. This line from a Gordon Lightfoot song. Well we that have lived through typhoons and great storms at sea know the meaning of words like this.

  4. I’ve ridden out Hurricane Ike in Offets Bayou in 2008 and Sandy in Marsh Harbour in 2012…on anchor both times with the eye going right over me. I made the decision the first time because they were talking about a 25′ storm surge and our marina could only take 15 before it floats away. The first time was a learning experience, exciting and all that stuff. The second time was just plain annoying and I told myself I would never stay on the boat again during a hurricane.

    Well, many years later I sit here now with a wife and toddler son back in Kemah watching the storm coming. It’s not supposed to hit us but I got only a few hours to decide if I am to go or not. It could possible come close enough to cause havoc here but I don’t feel like leaving if I don’t have too. I guess though if it goes up to a cat 5 before dark I’m outta here no matter where they say it’s going.

  5. My friend, Al Grzech lived aboard his Morgan 43 in St Croix when hurricane Hugo hit in 1985, I think. As the storm approached, a number of friends invited he and his wife and five year old child to hang out with them in their cisterns. Every single person who invited him lost his house completely.

    I visited shortly after the storm, and the devastation was hard to comprehend. Naked slab after naked slab all over the island. 90% of all buildings damaged or destroyed.

    My resourceful friend, Al decided to “macramé” his boat into two mangrove swamps on either side. He stayed on board and made it through the night.

  6. Having lived on Galveston and Trinity Bay for over 35 years I feel I can contribute to this discussion. I stayed for 6 hurricanes. My 79 S-2 30 was docked at a little marina called Legend Point. The day after Ike hit I made the drive from Wallisville to Clear Lake to check on my Shadowfax. I remember seeing the whole section of Baytown’s marina lifted up with its boats pushed ashore a 1/4 mile inland. I saw beautiful yachts pushed up against and over the bridge on NASA rd 1. When I pulled into the parking lot I could see that all the docks were under 4 feet of water. The boats were still tied tight with some their headsails shredded and unfurled. Shadowfax was still afloat and no water on board, except in the bilge. I never stayed on board but even staying at the house was scary enough that I won’t ever stay for another. I have since moved to upstate New York and have an Erickson 34 docked on Lake Champlain. Although you are required to dry dock your boat from October 15 until May, I don’t have to worry about hurricanes anymore. I still worry for my former Texans whenever a hurricane is in the Gulf. I’m used to Hurricane season apprehension on June 1st. It is still there. Stay safe everyone. Tie your boat as best you can or move her to a canal. YOUR life is worth saving.

  7. I was somewhat disappointed when the editorial turned to the subject matter of boats (as it should) rather than that of pandemics as it seemed to promise. Clearly, the analogy and the appeal to “Communication that is timely, accurate, honest, credible, consistent, appropriate, regular, and relevant has long regarded as the essential weapon in battling any pandemic.” should be heard by our nation’s current political administration. Just saying…And perhaps inappropriate for this forum.
    And the storm advice is well founded and stated, though I (thankfully) do not have any actual experience necessary to validate it. I hope those effected take heed.

    • Thanks Steve. Consider it our version of a public service announcement. If it bothers anyone, they can skip right over that paragraph. Having tragically lost one irreplaceable contributor to the COVID-19, we are compelled to take these small opportunities to make sure our community is aware of the importance of seeking out and sharing reliable information regarding the disease. While it may seem tangential to the topic at hand, our hope is that it prompts readers to reflect for a moment on the challenges we face. This information is for our readers and the sailing community and is not intended as a political statement. Here is our tribute to Patrick Childress whose life was cut short in South Africa when he contracted COVID-19. https://www.practical-sailor.com/brief/patrick-childress-sailor-extraordinaire
      I encourage all readers looking for up-to-date, practical information on fighting the pandemic to please visit one of our publisher’s most ambitious contributions toward this shared effort, the Harvard Coronavirus Resource Center carried out in conjunction with the support of the experts at Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/coronavirus-resource-center
      This is fact-based, unbiased reporting, focusing on the latest developments in medicine and preventative measures that we can take to protect ourselves and the people we care about. For me, that includes the readers of Practical Sailor. God speed.

  8. It doesn’t have to be a hurricane or even ‘just’ a tropical storm to have consequences. Hurrican Delta which came ashore in Louisiana pretty much abated by the time it reached Nashville, but strong winds came up and blew into Ontario a couple of days ago, which fostered marine warnings for high winds and waves in excess of 5 feet. i can hear experienced sailors saying now “Oh so what’s the big deal??!!” An old salt with over 30 years sailing experiences took his full keel Alberg out 2 days ago from the harbour at Oakville Ontario, and headed toward Stoney Creek, a point on the lee shore of Lake Ontario for the expected winds. He never made it, and family concerned about his failure of an expected return to Oakville the following day called the Coast Guard. They found his boat down near Rochester, but no evidence of the sailor … still looking for his body, but it’s a big lake. So, you think you’re good, and it will never happen to you??? Apparently so did he …. https://www.inthehammer.com/lake-search-for-missing-oakville-man-continues-as-boat-is-found

  9. I appreciate this timely article, having survived a major hurricane in the early 70’s both offshore and onshore. A follow-up article from another perspective might be a decision tree analysis for consideration of whether to head off shore or to leave a boat in an exposed marina or over-crowded anchorage. One example would be a hurricane warning some thirty years ago in Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of Baja California. As the story goes, all those who were prepared for riding out that reported hurricane offshore and did so, came back with minimum damage to themselves and their boats. But, the sight of the remains of the marina and boats that had stayed behind were barely recognizable upon their return.

  10. I spent 18 years in the Florida Keys starting at a very young age of 28 Aboard a small 25 ft.hard chime boat built for the fastenet races on the North Sea in 1955.And anchored of shore for Hurricane David, Floyd and a few others.And though I had upgraded to a 38 foot boat that I totally rebuilt just before Hurricane Andrew I heedcwarning that staying aboard is very very risky. You can always replace your boat but not your life.As I monitored the approaching storm my wife and I in a small marine in Largo Sound decided after winds were 145 M.P.H. and the eye still over the Bahamas it wasn’t worth the risk of our health .We lashed our dingy over the cockpit and tied off the boat the best we could and headed for a friend cabin in the Ocala National Forest to ride the storm out.It was a wise decision on our part upon returning some week later the keys were closed as no power or water.The stories I of 4×4 inpaling a guy aboard a Hateres 54ft up of Ocean Reef club in Both Key Largo was convincing evidence we made the right decision.upon rerun the boat was not hurt or damaged and took on little water with hours of winds in excess of 110 M.P.H. winds
    None the less I would suggest anyone to ride such a storm out aboard your vessel unless it’s absolutely unavoidable
    Good luck to you brave and bold ones.

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