Cruising in Hurricane Season

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2016 • all rights reserved

We do actively cruise during hurricane season . . . but we keep a close eye on the weather and are pretty conservative. Not saying it's right for you, but here's how we manage the risk.

With the exception of last summer, Dave and I have always cruised during hurricane season. Over the past week or so, I’ve had quite a few questions about how we do it, so here are our answers. NOTE: I’m not trying to convince anyone to cruise in hurricane season, or even to say that our way is the “right” way. It’s simply how we do it.

As a bit of background, we do have some idea of what a hurricane is like. On our previous boat, we had one direct hit by a Category 1 Hurricane and were within 50 miles of the eye another four times (although two of those were tropical storms by the time they hit us). We were safely in hurricane holes for all.

INSURANCE

Insurance has a lot to say about your plans for hurricane season. Our approach has been to decide what we want to do and then find insurance to fit.

  • We have owned both our boats outright, so we have not had a lender specifying minimum insurance levels.
  • It is possible to get hull coverage in hurricane zones (often referred to as “inside the box”) but usually it will cost more and/or have a higher deductible.
  • Hull coverage may also impose certain restrictions (for example, in our first year in Mexico, when we had hull coverage, our policy specified that we had to be in one of several specific marinas for a named storm . . . when a storm did hit, getting to one of the marinas proved totally impractical and thus we were effectively uninsured).

Our Choice: We are basically self-insured, with liability insurance only. Our boats have been older and less expensive and, while we take a deep breath every year as we again decide to go without hull coverage, we’re comfortable with it. It puts even greater responsibility on us to make good decisions and prepare well.

In Mexico (Sea of Cortez), we never had to file a hurricane plan with the insurance company. We also did not have to with BoatUS liability coverage for the US only. But as we were going to the Bahamas this year, we had to change companies and all companies that offered liability-only policies for the Bahamas required a written hurricane plan.

WEATHER INFO

Weather info actually has three parts:

  • Figuring out how you’ll get information
  • Testing and making sure that the systems you’ve chosen work
  • Daily monitoring

We do not rely on only one weather source or one way of acquiring weather info.

  • Our previous boat had SSB and ham radio, and we got weather info on the nets as well as via email from the National Weather Service.
    • We use the NWS Tropical Outlook to give a head’s up on what’s happening, and as things develop, the storm forecasts and discussions (the discussions are important to know how much confidence forecasters have in the track and intensity . . . when they say “low confidence” be very careful!)
  • Internet sources: Chris Parker forecasts via email, NWS/National Hurricane Center online and their email products (it is a time-consuming and convoluted process to sign up for the emails; set it up well in advance when you’re not under pressure); WeatherUnderground maps and several other sources.
  • DeLorme inReach: in a pinch, we could get Chris Parker forecasts on the inReach (extra cost for him to send to it) and we have plans in place with a couple of friends for them to be our backup in setting things up with Chris and/or sending us updates from other sources if need be. Read more about the inReach here – it uses Iridium satellite coverage so we are never out of range and we have an unlimited texting package (individual messages are limited to 160 characters; longer messages simply get broken down into parts).

Both Chris Parker and the Tropical Outlooks give us an early warning of anything possibly brewing. Some things they discuss will never come to fruition, but we treat each possibility with respect. Yes, there will be cries of “wolf” that turn out to be only shadows. But that doesn’t mean that the next warning won’t develop into serious weather.

IMPORTANT: Since internet connectivity is an important part of our weather strategy, we do not rely on always finding wifi coverage. We use cell phone data when we’re in range of a cell tower – this gives us far greater coverage throughout the Bahamas although there are still dead zones. We read up on how to do get data on our cell phone before crossing to the Bahamas and got our SIM card ahead of time from Mr. Sim Card – their instructions were spot on and we had internet within five minutes of dropping anchor in the Bahamas.

We use our Android phone as a hotspot for our other devices. The Verizon “Mobile HotSpot” app won’t work with a BaTelCo SIM card, but the FoxFi app works well (we have the $7.95 paid version so we don’t have to reconnect every few minutes). I’m sure there are similar apps for iPhones. And we don’t skimp on our cell data. Admittedly, part of our usage is for The Boat Galley but we budget for 15 to 20 GB a month.

HOW WE CRUISE

We play it pretty conservatively with the weather. Admittedly, some would say we’re not conservative by the very fact that we’re out here . . . but we think we are.

First off, while insurance companies look at aggregate patterns, for individual boats it’s more of an all-or-nothing: either you encounter serious weather or you don’t. And there is pretty much nowhere on the East Coast of the US that’s risk free.

Finally, it is rare to have less than 3 or 4 days’ warning that a storm is headed towards us. There’s often more time to prepare. But even at three days, it gives us one day to move to a hurricane hole and then two days to prep the boat if needed. We have always found that there are long stretches with no storms even possibly threatening.

So here are our guidelines for moving about:

  • We know where the nearest hurricane hole or protected marina (I lump these together as a “hurricane hole” in the rest of this discussion) is at all times and try to check it out ahead of any time we might need it.
  • Have the route into the hurricane hole from an “approach waypoint” saved on the chartplotter so that if we decide we need to head in, we’re prepared (it’s much easier to plot a route when there’s no urgency).
  • If the engine has problems or is going to be out of commission, we try to be close enough to a hurricane hole that we could enter using the dinghy motor if needed.
  • In general, we stay within an easy day’s travel of a hurricane hole — at the most, two days or a 24-hour run. We generally don’t linger anywhere that we couldn’t get to a hurricane hole easily, particularly if it’s an area where we have spottier access to detailed weather information. The exception to this is our jump strategy, next.

For jumps from one hurricane hole area to another (our jumps tend to be from two to three days’ travel):

  • Know where the next hurricane hole is, check charts to it and so on. Have a route into it on the chart plotter.
  • We don’t jump when weather is possibly developing in the area – forecasts and tracks can change tremendously. The less certain the forecast, the more we stay put. By staying put, I don’t mean that we’re not moving at all, just not moving out of range of whatever hurricane hole is in the area. (We do miss windows this way, but it’s a lot less stress for us.) We still explore and have fun!
  • We like to have consistency from one forecast to another – both as compared to the forecast 6 hours ago and from one source to another. They’re never going to be identical but we’ve learned not to trust any of them when they’re varying wildly. This is both for any possible storm forecasts and for wind and wave conditions along our intended route — hurricane season is also squall season and we’d prefer to avoid them too.
  • We don’t leave when our observations of conditions near us are at odds with what was forecast (say, we’re seeing south winds at 15 and lots of convection when the forecast was east winds at 5 to 8 with clear skies). At such times, there’s obviously something going on that wasn’t forecast and which could impact how long it will take us to make the jump.
  • A solid weather window that’s at least 24 hours longer than we think we need to be in the vicinity of the next hurricane hole  (if we were doing longer hops we’d want more of a buffer).

A few other considerations for us on the jumps:

  • We’re more conservative as we are in a new cruising area where we don’t know the anchorages/marinas, weather patterns, forecasters, etc. When we were in the Sea of Cortez for six years, we weren’t quite as conservative the last year as in the first few!
  • We’re older (Dave is 78; I’m 56). We don’t have deadlines or constraints. We can have fun wherever we are. And we don’t like getting beaten up en route due to our taking a “maybe” window. We’ve made plenty of rough trips in the past, we know we can handle snotty weather if we have to. We’d just prefer not to. This is supposed to be fun.
  • We know that we won’t die if we get caught away from a protected anchorage in the outer bands of a system, but it’s not going to be fun. We’ve already checked that off our bucket list; no need to do it again.
  • Barefoot Gal is still a relatively new boat to us. While we both have years of sailing, racing and general boating experience (63 for Dave; 44 for me), she’s still a new-to-us boat. She reacts differently than our one-design racing boats or our previous heavy monohull cruising boat. We don’t just instinctively make adjustments. Don’t get me wrong – she’s a great boat. But we’re a little more conservative as we learn her.
  • While we prepped our previous boat numerous times for hurricanes and by the time we sold it knew exactly what we had to do and how to do it, we’ve only done it twice on Barefoot Gal – and both times were to put her in summer storage, with no time pressure or stress of a storm bearing down. We could prep our previous boat in one long day of work; we want two days now.
  • We have a watermaker, composting head and carry a large supply of food. We top up with diesel fuel and gasoline whenever a jerry can is empty. In other words, we’re ready to move into a hurricane hole any time we need to, without a trip to “town” first.

We know that most people don’t actively cruise during hurricane season.  We choose to but with an abundance of caution. And I know I’ll get comments both saying we’re crazy to be out here now . . . and that we don’t need to be as conservative as we are.

Bottom line: everyone has to decide what’s right for them. I’m not saying others should follow what we do, just trying to give an idea of what we do as a starting point for others to make their own decisions.

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Comments

  1. Great post, thanks Carolyn!

  2. Terry Logan says:

    Hey guys,
    Thanks so much for the time and thought you invest in this blog. As an aspiring Bahamas cruiser with plans to get there sometime next Spring, your posts are something I feel are invaluable.
    One question: My boat is a power cruiser drawing 5-1/2′ and has a lot of windage. Considering the typically shallow waters and low land profile of the Bahamas, I assume appropriate hurricane holes for her will be far fewer than for other vessels. Do you know of a resource for locating, and possible reserving, space during the season?
    Thanks again for your expertise and letting us live vicariously through your chronicles!
    Terry
    M/Y Sea Change

    • We found Steve Pavlidis guidebooks to have by far the best info on hurricane holes, and supplement it with Explorer chart books — they also have a lot of ads with web sites listed for marinas to get a feel for what’s there.

  3. Tamera Buckley says:

    Fantastic !! I always appreciate all the great information in your posts…this is the best by far. Insurance is always a topic of conversation among cruisers, not a fun topic, but a necessary topic to consider. Thanks

  4. Always love the great detail in your posts. Hopefully, we will have a quiet season and you can have all fun and little worries.

  5. Cookie Johnson says:

    Is there a website you can reference that lists hurricane holes?

    • I couldn’t find one for the Bahamas. Steve Pavlidis’ cruising guides do have quite a good list and that was our starting point. Explorer Charts sometimes mention in the general info about an area that a certain place is good to ride out a blow “or even a hurricane.”

  6. I can see nothing worth being critical in what youguys are doing. In fact you are likely to be less of a risk than many that simply tie their boat up and leave.

  7. Great post! And timely, we’re stuck sitting in the Abacos because we were a bit slow leaving the Caribbean. Now we’re waiting for some tropical “stuff” to pass before heading north.

    For iPhone users, I have no trouble using my unlocked iPhone 5 with a Batelco SIM card as a hotspot. Just go to settings and turn on “Personal Hotspot”. As long as the phone’s unlocked it should work, though you might have to clear out some old settings (the lady at the Mayaguana BTC office did it for me last year). It also worked fine with Digicel in the BVIs and AT&T GoPhone in Puerto Rico & the USVI.

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