How to Prepare your Boat if It's in the Path of a Hurricane

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In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there was substantial damage to boatyards up and down the East Coast

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there was substantial damage to boatyards up and down the East Coast. Photo courtesy of Larry Wilson

You’re watching the weather, you see the announcement and your heart sinks—your boat is in the path of an oncoming hurricane. What do you do? Head to the boat, throw off the lines and find a hurricane hole where you can weather the storm? Maybe you don’t have time, and the only option is to haul the boat. Or maybe you think you’re fine on the dock, and your choice is to double up the dock lines and hope for the best. Preparing for a hurricane is something many sailors have to deal with, particularly on the East and Gulf Coasts, but what is the best technique? We caught up with Beth Leonard, Assistant Vice President and Director of Technical Services at BoatUS, to talk about mistakes she has seen and the best ways to prepare your boat for an oncoming storm.

“The reality is, if you get a hurricane warning you typically only have about 72 hours,” Leonard says, adding that it is therefore critical to have a plan in place before a hurricane hits. “The perfect hurricane hole away from the storm is obviously one of the best solutions, but it takes planning and it takes the ability to jump on your boat and move it,” Leonard says. “And any time you decide you’re going to be in the water, you are dependent on every boat upwind of you to hold. You’re taking the luck of the draw. You have to be very careful of where you decide to be, and if the wind direction is not as forecast you may find a bunch of boats upwind of you that you didn’t think would be upwind of you. The reality is that you’re dependent on other people.”

So while getting your boat to a hurricane hole to ride out the storm is a viable option for some, there are two big factors that might take it off the table—you need to have the time to move your boat and get your anchors set before the storms strikes, and you have to trust the other boaters that are holed up with you. If these factors are problematic, you may have to look to different options.

A lone sailboat in a field on Staten Island after Sandy

A lone sailboat in a field on Staten Island after Sandy. Photo courtesy of BoatUS Marine Insurance

One obvious choice is to haul the boat. “Having the boat on the hard is the best,” Leonard says. “Having the boat out of the water increases your chance of survival by a significant amount. If the boat is on the hard and something goes wrong, the damage is most likely fixable. If a boat is damaged in the water usually it will sink.” Again, this takes time and planning, but hauling your boat is typically easier than heading to a hurricane hole, and most boatyards will be able to accommodate you if you get in line early.

However, just because you’re hauled out doesn’t mean you’re safe. You still have to prepare the boat itself for the oncoming storm. “Take off all canvas, sails and bimini tops and everything else, strip the deck of absolutely everything, and make sure the boat is watertight,” says Leonard, placing extra emphasis on the latter, as her experience has shown sailors will sometimes overlook this. “We see boats that we call ‘sinking on land,’ because of the amount of rain,” she says. “In many of these storms you’re going to get four to five inches of rain an hour for several hours. You should assume that the cockpit is going to be completely flooded. If there is a leak in a hatch or a seal, a leak in the deck—if something isn’t watertight, the water is going to find its way down below.”

But just preparing your boat to stand up to the wind and rain isn’t all you need to worry about. One of the things that was most damaging when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Eastern Seaboard was the storm surge. “In Sandy, where there was a large storm surge and low wind, there wasn’t much to do,” Leonard says, describing what she calls the most disastrous hurricane for the boating community that she can remember. “The vast majority of the boats at the docks during Sandy didn’t survive because the pilings weren’t high enough, and a lot of the boats that were on the hard didn’t survive because the water level got so high they floated away. It caused us to do some rethinking.”

Boats strewn about a yard in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey

Boats strewn about a yard in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Larry Wilson

This is an area where it isn’t just the sailor who has to adapt to a hurricane, but physical infrastructure that has to be improved. And, according to Leonard, this is a problem we will likely see more of in the future.

“We’re fairly convinced that surge is going to become a more important part of the storms, based on rising sea levels and storm concentration,” she says. “The theory is that if global warming continues as it has and the sea levels and storm intensity continue to rise, this will become more of an issue.”

Marinas with tall pilings are the best place to be if you’re going to stay on a dock, and many marinas are working on increasing piling heights in reaction to the damage caused by Sandy. “Marinas are thinking a lot about this,” Leonard says. “In general what we saw in Sandy was where boats could be contained in the marina, as opposed to those on the hard that were lifted up and carried away by the surge, the boats were better off.”

So finding yourself a hurricane hole is one option, but you have to have the time to do so and constantly be aware of other boats around you and their ability to hold ground. You can keep your boat at the marina lashed down tight to the dock, but if the storm surge gets too high there is a chance your boat will float down Main Street (still lashed to said dock). You can haul the boat, but you must make sure she is buttoned up tight so that the onslaught of rain doesn’t flood the boat, and again, you have to deal with the possibility of a storm surge taking your boat for a ride. Where does this leave us?

“It is important to remember that there are no silver bullets for any of this ... All you can do is prepare your best and hope you don’t end up in the eye of a Category 5”

“It is important to remember that there are no silver bullets for any of this,” Leonard says. “All you can do is prepare your best and hope you don’t end up in the eye of a Category 5.” However, a new technique that many marinas and boatyards are adopting is a tweak on the old method of hauling out—hauling out and tying down the boat using construction-style tow straps attached to hard points on the ground, keeping the boats in their jackstands no matter how high the storm surge gets.

“In Florida they’ve gotten into actually strapping the boats down,” Leonard says. “Many of the marinas are now constructed with hard points that straps can be attached to so the boats can get strapped down when they’re on the hard. And the standard has become boats are either stored in storage buildings that can withstand the storms, or they are tied down. That would have helped in Sandy in a lot of cases. It would have prevented the boats from getting lifted off the jackstands, and the water wasn’t high enough to flood the boats.”

This combination of hauling the boat, sealing it tight and tying it down looks like it may be the best option for sailors that are hauling out their boats. Again, sailors must be conscious of everything Leonard mentions—making sure that everything is watertight, clearing everything off the deck and stripping all canvas—but once that is done, leaving the boat on the hard with it tied down to several hard points, physically anchoring the boat to the pavement, will keep the boat secure and give you the best chance for getting through the storm.

A boat prepped and ready for a hurricane—no canvas, sealed hatches and cockpit, and stripped-down deck

A boat prepped and ready for a hurricane—no canvas, sealed hatches and cockpit, and stripped-down deck. Photo courtesy of Peter Nielsen

Hurricane Prep 101

A few things you should do when hauling your boat and preparing for a hurricane

Take down all of your canvas—sails, sail covers, biminis, seat cushions, take it all down.

Make sure that your boat is watertight, shut all hatches, seal anything that might be leaking. There will be a lot of rain, be ready for it.

If you can, tie the boat down to hardpoints on the ground with some tow-straps (you can most likely pick them up at your local hardware store).

Turn off all your boats electronics and disconnect the batteries, if your boat does end up getting full of water you want to do what you can to prevent all of the electronics from shorting out.

If you have a propane stove shut off the gas and disconnect and remove the tank; also remove any extra oil cans, gas cans and other combustible products from the boat.

July 2015

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