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Luck of the Draw

One of the most dreaded scenario for a boat owner in the aftermath of a storm is returning to the sight of a mast sticking out of the water.
First, here is the news brief. Olga and I were cruising the south coast of Grenada when Hurricane Ivan passed over the island. Actually, cruising is the wrong word.  We were sheltering in Grenada. Can you spell irony?

We had hurried south, skipping lots of potential cruising pleasures in the Windwards and Leewards because prudence dictated that we needed to be below the hurricane belt by the time hurricane season got into full swing. The Spice Island is located at 12 degrees north and had not seen a hurricane since 1955.  It has become a summer haven for cruisers, with a satisfying selection of protected anchorages, two large boatyards, and nearly all marine services available. Add to that reasonable prices, a stunningly beautiful island, and a cheerful native population that welcomes mariners, and you would be hard pressed to find a better place to hang out while hurricanes threaten islands and the continent to the north.  Until September 7, 2004.

Ivan was first mentioned in the National Weather Service Tropical Weather Outlook on September 1 as a tropical wave  “located a few hundred miles south of the Cape Verde Islands.” By the next day it had developed into a tropical storm located at 10 north and around 30 west.  The predicted track took the storm to around 15 north by the time it crossed the islands into the Caribbean. That would carry the center of the storm 180 miles north of us.

On September 4, the storm had actually dropped farther south, to 8.9 degrees north. This dip got our attention.  But the predicted track still took the storm more than 100 miles north of us.

As Tropical Storm Gabrielle moved across the Florida Keys in 2001, this sailboat found itself in trouble.
By the 5th, Ivan had strengthened to a hurricane and had climbed back up to 9.7 north.  By the 6th Ivan was at 10.8 north and the winds had increased to 110 knots, gusting to 130. The predicted track had shifted farther to the right but still took the storm 75 miles to our north. When the evening advisory came out, the predicted track was another 25 miles closer. We feared that we were discerning a pattern here and began to anticipate the worst.

At least 600 yachts were in Grenada at the first of September. Two thirds of these were on land in the two storage yards. The rest were distributed in five popular anchorages and several marinas. As it became clear that a hurricane was approaching, what did the crews of these boats do?

Let’s start with us. We were already in the process of decommissioning our boat for three months while we returned to the States to deal with family and other matters, so we had hauled our boat on September 3, and it was blocked up in the Grenada Marine boatyard among 200 other stored boats. This limited our options, which may have been a good thing. We stripped the boat of sails and canvas and all loose items on the deck. We checked to make sure we had sufficient stands and that they were properly chained together. We also checked the stands of the boats on either side of us. Then we evaluated our personal safety, decided that a boatyard was way too much like a trailer park, and took a room at a nearby resort.

Other cruisers were implementing their own plans. A very small fleet—I believe just eight boats—decided to sail south for Trinidad, 75 miles away. Some if not most of these boats had been planning to go to Trinidad anyway, so they just decided the time was right.

A substantial number of boats moved to more protected harbors, specifically the completely enclosed Egmont Harbor and the nearly as secure Calvigny Harbor. Egmont in particular is completely surrounded by high land. We had been there a few days earlier on our way to St. David’s where Grenada Marine is located and we had felt that you could not conceive a more protected anchorage.

"Other boats elected to stay in some of the marinas, trusting docklines more than anchors. "
Other boats elected to stay in some of the marinas, trusting docklines more than anchors. Many boats remained in the marinas because their owners were off the island.

Still others tried to find a relatively protected corner of the less-protected harbors because there were fewer boats there. Their fear was that damage was more likely to be inflicted by other boats than by the wind.

Some boats stayed right where they had been anchored for weeks or months, reasoning that long-buried anchors would deliver better holding than those freshly laid. And since it now appeared that the storm could pass to either side of us, it was impossible to determine what was likely to become a lee shore, so relocating might be exactly the wrong thing to do.

How did it turn out? Not good.

In Grenada Marine, about 30 boats blew or were knocked off their stands. A few more boats were dismasted. But overall, the level of damage was relatively light.  Even among the boats that fell over, few suffered structural damage.  All will sail again.

The story was different in the other yard, Spice Island. Only six boats remained upright.

Often boats that elect to stay in marinas, trusting docklines more than anchors, don't beat the odds against enduring severe damage.
As a general rule, boats in the marinas did not fare well. At one marina, the floating dock broke free of its anchoring system and went ashore, taking boats with it. At a marina with fixed docks, many of the slipped boats beat or rubbed against the concrete until they wore holes in their hulls, some sinking in the slips.  In the lagoon at St. George’s, cleats and bollards broke or pulled free from the docks, and slipped boats ended up on the downwind shore in the same jumble with anchored boats that dragged.

Things weren’t much better in the hurricane holes. These had filled up with boats, and many apparently had inadequate ground tackle or ineffective anchoring technique. Or the bottom was just too soft.  In any case, half or more of the boats sheltering there went ashore. Those fortunate enough to go ashore alone and into the mangroves suffered only minor damage, the mangroves acting as a kind of net.  But those that found rocks or were followed ashore with other boats were in some cases severely damaged. A few boats sank.

 The fleet that sailed to Trinidad escaped without a scratch.

So what does all of this mean? To me it simply reaffirms that when winds get above 100 miles per hour, the survival of your boat is likely to be a matter of chance.  That is not to say that you cannot improve the odds with well-considered preparation. Indeed you can, and if everyone did all that they could, it would improve the odds for the whole fleet. But that is not what happens.

"Your security depends as much on the actions of the boats around you as it does on your own actions."
Your security depends as much on the actions of the boats around you as it does on your own actions. As an example, the boats on either side of ours had sails on the booms and dodgers and Biminis up. One had a Quonset-style awning of impressive proportions rigged. Faced with the same circumstances, I would go aboard, even without permission, and strip the canvas from neighboring boats. It would have saved their canvas, which was shredded by the storm, would have saved my wind generator, which collided with flying canvas while spinning, and might well have saved all of our boats from being toppled like dominoes. I would also stop my wind generator next time. Even though it is rated to handle 100 knot winds, that overlooks flying debris.

Foresails left attached during hurricane-force winds don't fare well.
Going into a marina has little to recommend it.  If you don’t trust your ground tackle, the appropriate response is to take aboard heavier and/or better anchors, not to tie to a dock.  In a hurricane, your boat is almost certain to crash into fixed docks, doing serious or fatal damage. Tying to floating docks is to cast your lot with the anchoring system for the dock, which is almost never designed to withstand a hurricane.

Seeking shelter is a prudent response, but hurricane holes tend to become packed with boats with the same plan. A lot of boats in close proximity is a recipe for catastrophe. When someone upwind drags, their anchor becomes a grapnel, picking up downwind anchors in the rush toward shore.  Ideally, you should insure that every boat in the harbor has sufficient ground tackle properly set. Practically, that is not possible. And locating yourself away from other boats offers only fleeting security since clocking winds will soon enough put boats upwind of you. The only absolute is the bigger the anchors you have down, the better chance you have of staying away from the shore.

The best response is the one that the fewest selected—get out of the way. But even this is fraught with risk. As Ivan was in its infancy, boats near the predicted track to the north of Grenada fled south to the relative safety of Grenada. There they got trampled. And those that sailed for Trinidad did so knowing that there is virtually no storm protection available there. If Ivan’s sinking trend had ultimately carried the storm track another 50 miles south, sailing to Trinidad would have become a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Is there anything you can do to guarantee that your boat survives a hurricane? As more and more boats go cruising, the answer to this is probably no. The only foolproof course is to get below the storm track early, but if you wait long enough to be sure you need to flee, it may be too late.

Hauling out is the second best response. Even if your boat blows over, the damage will be less than blowing ashore. It is worth mentioning that we selected Grenada Marine for our haul-out simply because we had heard that Spice Island Marine was downwind of a cement plant, and the boats ended up coated with dust. Next time I haul to store, I’ll be paying a lot less attention to dirt and lot more to blocking techniques.

The most important thing to do, says the author, is to get off the boat before the storm regardless of the strategy you adopt to attempt protecting your pride and joy.
If you take shelter in a typical hurricane hole, the odds of getting away unscathed are no better than 50-50 should you get the full force of the storm. This is because you are only as secure as the boats around you. Single file creeks are better than enclosed harbors. And picking a spot in the mangroves and putting your boat there to start with may be better than leaving your landing spot to chance.

Finally, get off the boat before the storm. There is absolutely nothing meaningful you can do when the storm is in full fury. You can take this statement as firsthand gospel. All you do by staying aboard is put yourself at risk. Tragically, and needlessly, at least one sailor washed up on the beach in Grenada. Boats can be repaired or replaced. When you are dead you are gone forever.
Don Casey is offline  

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