I shudder when I hear boaters talk gallantly of staying aboard to ride out a storm. Especially since I experienced firsthand the devastation of a hurricane. When ghastly Gloria ripped through the Northeast not so many years ago, no one expected Noank, CT, to be directly in its path. With the storm bearing down on us, my husband put in a hasty order to have our sailboat hauled, but in the pre-hurricane melee of boats running before the storm, we were too late.
Instead, we ended up weathering the storm in our living room, plopped in front of the TV set chewing our fingernails down to the nubs. It didn't seem fair that the inefficient, but serviceable Mitzi-Ann, the 27-foot Buccaneer we had sailed for eight years, now sat for sale on high ground while our brand-new Ericson 30, Joy of Summer, strained angrily against her mooring lines, fighting for her life.
I still get chills when I remember that awful day after the storm winds subsided. We made our way to the marina only to find our new baby, laying in a tangled heap on top of another less fortunate boat, like discarded trash. She had evidently careened onto Spicer's Ledge when her mooring pulled free. Water flooded her starboard side where she had fallen, askew, like a wounded animal. A bag of charcoal had burst, and black syrup coated everything—our pans, cushions, all our gear. It felt as if I were attending a loved one's funeral. And I was outraged at a helicopter buzzing overhead filming our distress. Little did we know that the crack in her hull would take a full year and $20,000 to repair—all of which would come out of our pockets as our (former) insurance company had terminated our policy for non-payment of a bill that was in dispute.
Our situation was just one of the many disasters in the nearby marinas that season. Hurricane Gloria had smashed docks together, squishing the boats between them like the fillings of sandwiches. Evidence of destruction permeated the area for years afterward. I remember wowing over a 38-foot Nonsuch with a hole through its center large enough to allow two people to pass through it. Many marinas were sued; and insurance companies took a bath.
Each year, during the months of June through November, bad boys and girls with names ranging from Atrocious Albert to Vera the Vamp storm their way up the alphabet, and up the coastline, threatening our vacation plans, our belongings, and sometimes even our lives.
Because boating season is so short in the Northeast, it's common to risk a fall sail despite an approaching storm. We won't have any problem; the weather report is usually wrong; what do they know?—the sky is blue! Even though the science of weather forecasting is more efficient than ever, we still don't want to believe what we hear or read, especially if it means canceling some sailing fun.
The sad truth is that whenever hurricanes are headed our way, large swells and sea surges radiate up the entire Northeast coastline, making even late-August boating unpredictable. When Dennis the Menace was prowling the waters on Labor Day weekend, those that ventured out were forced to race the storm home. Most sailors have horror stories to tell of interrupted voyages. Felix the Cat sneaked up on us while we were cruising in Cape Cod one year. The storm's advancing seas boiled with opposing swells that whacked us on alternating sides and nearly washed us atop an entry buoy off Newport Harbor.
If you're away on a trip when NOAA starts crying hurricane, you're apt to get caught in rough seas while attempting to reach a safe harbor. However, there's no excuse for leaving port when alerts are issued. Those who dare to take such a risk not only jeopardize the their lives and those of their crew, but those of the rescuers sent to save them. Remember, we're not made of fiberglass and can't be as easily repaired if we get damaged or drowned.
It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of man-against-sea stories and envision ourselves as the heroes, beating the odds, and meeting challenges head-on. Nevertheless, I'm often amazed at how dumb smart folks can be. After our boat barely survived Gloria, you can imagine my chagrin when, years later, with a hurricane watch in effect, my husband and dock buddies struck a covenant to remain aboard at the marina to "protect our boats." Gathered on the wharf over cocktails, despite blackening skies, we mingled jokes about our stupidity with intense concern. The TV news crew noticed us grilling steaks for dinner, and we were filmed for a spot that showed my husband wielding a spatula with a big grin saying, "When it gets tough in Noank, we barbecue!" The hurricane lost its oomph on the way to Noank that day, thank goodness; but sustained 35-mile-per-hour winds and pounding rain were enough to keep us "brave" folks up all night in a panic, glued to the weather report. Many slept in their cars.
Why, I ask myself, would any sane person choose to stay aboard a boat with a hurricane on the way, when they could lash everything down and go home? Serious sailors ensnared in storms hundreds of miles from land often have no choice but to endure their horrors. It's survival. But that's not the only option when you're in port where obstacles threaten us everywhere.
Two men who chose to ride out hurricane Hugo in a Charleston, SC hurricane hole in 1989 barely escaped drowning when 100-mile-per-hour winds and 15-foot seas overturned their boat. A Florida fellow jumped overboard during Gloria and swam through breaking waves and drifting boats to safety, after an errant mast burst through his pilothouse window. Two Miami men caught on board by Hurricane Andrew didn't make it. In St. Augustine, Andrew pushed the finger pier under the dock at low tide. As the tide rose, it shifted the pier holding the trawler tied to it underneath the wharf, and crushing it to smithereens.
During hurricanes, heavy rains can flood and sink a boat; gale-force winds can rip lines from cleats or moorings and turn loosened objects into missiles, and powerful storm surge can raise water levels 20 feet above the highest tide. It's not uncommon for boats to become detached and land almost anywhere, with uprooted pilings and piers littering what was once a functional marina. Throughout it all, whirling winds will create tornadoes from which there is little safe haven on land or sea.
Would you want to be trapped fighting for your life in any of these situations? My guess is no. You're probably much too smart for that.
Making Your Move
A proper hurricane response means more than just keeping a weather eye by listenting to radio reports or monitoring an impending storm on the Internet. You need to prepare your vessel. Here are a few tips to keep in mind before the onset of a hurricane.
Insurance Coverage Settle disputed bills to avoid lapsed coverage. Some insurance companies will pay portions of the cost of hauling a boat if a hurricane watch is issued. But make sure you've got a detailed inventory of boat's contents, including serial numbers. If damage occurs, call the insuror to arrange for an assessment, and take photographs before the salvage work begins.
Relocate Decide early on if you need to move your boat to a safer location. If you decide to have your boat hauled, give the marina as much notice as possible. If your boat remains on a trailer, drive it to a safe location like inside a substantial garage or a tunnel. Avoid parking under power lines. And if you have a dinghy, remove its engine and deflate it if possible.
Flood Watch To guard against flooding, empty your bilge before the storm arrives and clear your scuppers of debris. Also, charge the batteries to ensure that your bilge pump will work. Close all the boat's seacocks and use duct tape to seal the hatches, ports, windows, lazarettes, anchor lockers, and vents. Of course glass windows need special protection.
Double Dock Lines Double and triple your dock and mooring lines, using heavier line if possible. Set spring and breast lines in a web-like pattern to keep the boat centered and allow enough slack for the boat to respond to rising water. Install chafing gear on all lines, which you can make from common garden hoses or discarded fire hoses, or even towels secured with duct tape.
Lash it Down Tie down or lash anything that can't be stowed below. If you leave your sails attached to the spars, make sure that they're securely lashed and covered. Remove all extraneous canvas like biminis or dodgers and cover any open electronics. And remove your radar unit and GPS antennae.
Remove Valuables Make sure you take all portable electronic gear and boat documents (licenses, insurance papers, registration) off the boat, along with yourself.