Barefoot Gal survived Hurricane Irma -- a Category 4 storm -- in an area where most boats didn't. My thoughts on what spared her.

Why Did Barefoot Gal Survive Irma?

Ah, the $64,000 question. Why did Barefoot Gal survive Hurricane Irma when so many other boats in Boot Key Harbor did not?

Approximately 75% of the boats on mooring balls came loose and were swept into the mangroves, into canals or sunk; some will be salvaged but most are a total loss. That’s a sobering number: 75% lost. Fifty-four boats out of 220 on mooring balls were still there after the storm.

So how did BG happen to be one who did? And with virtually no damage?

After seeing what boats survived and talking to four people who were on their boats during the storm, I think there were two factors at play. First, we prepped BG as well as we could (more on this below) to give her a fighting chance.

And second, there was luck. I am normally not a big believer in luck, believing that you making your own luck. But in this case, I do think there was a random element as to what mooring ball she was on in relation to the winds the harbor got.

Irma’s eye went just west of BKH — in fact, the eastern bit of her eyewall raked the harbor. That means that the winds came first from the east, then the eyewall with the strongest winds from the south, then from the west as the storm moved off. The harbor never experienced north winds.

We happened to be in the southernmost row of mooring balls, with a row of condos on shore to the south. That probably gave BG a little shelter from the worst of the winds.

More importantly, as other boats broke free in the harbor, they were swept to the north, northwest or northeast. No boats litter the southern shore. We just didn’t have the volume of loose boats hitting BG that some other areas of the harbor did. Had the storm gone a bit more to the east and there been winds from the north, BG would have been a sitting duck.

According to the people who were here for the storm (not something I recommend), a few boats broke free of their moorings or anchor (not sure if dragged or parted the rode) and became pinballs going through the mooring field and anchorage. One large boat took out the very large dinghy dock even. As more and more boats and dock sections went through the remaining boats, more broke free or were substantially holed and sunk.

As I understand it, the debris field moved west through the harbor in the first half of the storm until largely stopped by the “Bridge to Nowhere” at the western end of the harbor; in the second half of the storm, some of the mess that wasn’t trapped in the bridge was swept back through the harbor to the east.

It’s notable that few moorings seem to have been pulled loose; the problem seems to be that boats came loose from the moorings. There are two possible causes: lines chafing through or cleats pulling out. Talking to people who have checked some of the balls, chafe seems to be the primary culprit. My guess is that as boats hit boats and piled up, any chafe that was already happening simply accelerated with the additional forces.

Barefoot Gal’s Prep

As far as our prep goes, I don’t think that there is one all-important item other than removing sails. I think various items may have each contributed 5% or so to the outcome — it’s the sum total that’s important.

We removed all the sails and totally stripped the deck to reduce Barefoot Gal’s windage. The grill, stern anchor, cockpit cushions, cockpit lights, winch handles, hatch and window covers and even the clotheslines were removed. Everything that could be removed was.

We did leave our solar panel in place. We had considered removing it but decided that since we were leaving the boat five days before the storm was due to hit we needed to leave it so that the batteries would stay charged up to run the bilge pumps if needed.

And that’s another thing. Geminis are built (or were when BG was built) without automatic bilge pumps. Just a few months ago, we had figured out how to run the wiring and discharge hoses and installed bilge pumps and float switches. BG did take on some water (two hatches seem to have leaked) but the bilge pumps kept up with it.

To help the battery power (and also as we didn’t know how long we might be gone), I emptied the refrigerator and turned it off.

Another possibly important thing we did after buying BG was to replace the weatherstripping and latches on all the exterior lockers so that they were less likely to fill with water. We had minimal water intrusion in the two lazarettes and sail lockers and no water in the propane locker, line locker and engine compartment.

The dinghy and outboard were stored ashore in the marina workshop area. Unfortunately, the outboard was on the floor and the building had 16″ of water inside from storm surge. Our outboard was submerged; this was our only real damage from the storm.

We used brand-new lines that were one size larger than our “everyday” lines to tie BG to the mooring ball. Sizing lines for storm tie-up can be tricky: they need to be big enough that they won’t snap, but they also have to be small enough that they will stretch and absorb the shock loading that occurs with gusts. We use high-quality 3-strand nylon line specifically for its stretch characteristics (braid does not stretch as well); our regular lines are 1/2″ diameter, storm lines are 5/8″.

New line is important: line that has seen squalls has probably been compromised to some extent, as has line with much UV exposure (it’s my understanding that UV damage makes it less stretchy and more prone to snapping). Yes, our brand new lines cost over $100 and will be retired immediately. We already have a new set of storm lines in case another storm hits.

We used the recommended storm tie-up configuration from City Marina. This has two lines with spliced eyes and one backup regular line all tied to the mooring pennant. This method of tying considerably reduces the chafe on the pennant eye – never just loop a line through the eye as it will saw back and forth and quickly chafe through. Each line goes to its own cleat on the boat.

Barefoot Gal survived Hurricane Irma -- a Category 4 storm -- in an area where most boats didn't. My thoughts on what spared her.

Independent lines and separate cleats are important so that if one line chafes through or pulls a cleat out, the others can still hold the boat. The center line has a bit of slack in it so that it does not take load unless one of the other lines fails.

And then there was our chafe protection on the boat end. We used old fire hose (fire departments give it away free; many marinas get it in bulk as it is replaced and then will give it away). We punch a hole in the hose and then use 1/8″ line to tie the chafe gear to the boat, not to the line. This way, as the line stretches and slides, the chafe protection stays where it is needed.

Barefoot Gal survived Hurricane Irma -- a Category 4 storm -- in an area where most boats didn't. My thoughts on what spared her.

The final item that I can think of is that the bottom of the boat was clean. Probably not a huge factor, but in the wind waves and storm surge, reducing the underwater drag probably also helped to reduce the force on the mooring and lines. Every little bit helps.

I'd like to know about...

Explore more

Want weekly tidbits of cruising information? Sign up for The Boat Galley's free weekly newsletter. You'll get the newest articles and podcasts as well as a few relevant older articles that you may have missed.

Do you find The Boat Galley useful? You can support the site when you buy from Amazon by using the links on this site or clicking below. No extra cost for you!

64 Comments
  • Mark Sierakowski
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    There is always a good dose of luck. However, without the prep, you need a lot more luck. Well done.

  • Allan Cobb
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Sadly, I lost my sailboat in Hurricane Harvey when the cleat ripped out of the floating dock.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

      I am so sorry about that. Yes, some things you just can’t control.

    • Christine Dumaine Springfield
      Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

      I did see a lot of hurricane prep articles that talked about getting attached to the dock itself and not depending on those cleats. Not applicable in my case as we were on a mooring ball, but just something I saw. I am beyond sorry about your boat.

  • Beth Nencetti
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Thank you! Although I’m a firm believer that luck is not a barrier, sometimes it helps. Your tips and recommendations are fantastic. You have provided slight improvements on tried and true methods. So glad BG made it through! Good luck with the rest of this season! Hopefully I will see you at the Annapolis Boat Show.

  • Rick D Dillard
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Thanks for the update, I was thinking of ya’ll during the storms. Notice the use of ya’ll–that’s just the we talk.

  • John Liniger
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    What’s the saying…It’s Better to Be Lucky than to be good? You were BOTH! I’m off to find some used fire hose

  • Mike
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    On the forums I saw numerous comments that people posted saying they had their boat all ready but yet the foresail and main are still on, strapped down, but still on. Stripping the deck is what a person has to do for even a small hurricane not to mention a category 4 or 5 hurricane.

    We are in La Paz and just went through hurricane Lidia. We towed a boat in that was damaged by another boat being improperly anchored. That boat drug anchor and ended up fouling our friends anchor. his anchor held both boats but the bowsprit of the other boat went down the port side taking out all the railing, across the back chopping the dingy in half and sending the davits to the bottom dingy, solar panels and motor included. Then it went back up the starboard side taking out all the railings on that side. The chain wrapped around the prop shaft and bent it disabling our friends propulsion. All in all $35K in damage done by a neighbor that didn’t properly prepare.

    As you indicate in your article you can prepare all you want but when you are done start looking at your neighbors. Give them a hand if they need it.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

      Yes, I’ve written about “help your neighbor” and believe in it. Here, some boats came in at the last minute and/or refused to prep and refused to let anyone else board their boat to do so.

      Help Your Neighbor, Help Yourself

  • Lynn Richardson
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    So if I read this right, you totally depended on the mooring pennant? You did not have any lines connected to the mooring ball eye itself as a backup? Thank you for the discussion. It is always helpful to hear first-hand experience. So glad you got through Irma in good shape.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

      You are correct. City Marina strictly prohibits adding other lines or using chains or putting out an anchor in addition. They say that anything “extra” fouls the system and tends to cause it to fail. We followed their instructions precisely.

  • Kevin Kirkendoll
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Look, I do not want to take anything away from good seamanship, and good thorough and well thought out pre-storm preparation, but sometimes nothing you do will save your boat. It seems every storm has one geographical area that is totally devastated, mauled beyond recognition.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

      Yes. I think we did what we could, but yes, there is some luck.

    • Kevin Kirkendoll
      Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

      I couldn’t make it to my boat in time. It was in Tarpon Springs and I was out of the country on business. The yard put out a couple of extra lines for me. Watching the storms track I just knew I was going to lose the boat. Also it was between a steel hulled barge and a steel hulled commercial tug. Mast (wooden) broke and that was it. Dumb luck on my part.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

      Wow. Yes, there is a certain amount of just plain luck.

  • Christine Dumaine Springfield
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Great summary. As one of the other few surviving boats in the harbor, I agree totally. Thank you, LUCK, for saving our homes.

  • Maryanne Theyerl
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    75% loss. That is truly heartbreaking. I’m glad Barefoot Gal rode it out.

  • Stephanie Hamilton
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    We used fire hose on SummerWind, too. And we attached it through a hole and using zip ties. What we never did was attach it to the boat rather than to the line. That is BRILLIANT! And THIS is why your information is SO important to other boaters. Yeah, I definitely see another book being born here. Nice work, Carolyn. Well done.

  • John Fox
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Thank you for the writeup, some very good info there.

    We dock in St. Augustine and our marina is a bit protected, but our boat was still put in peril by other boats. As the wind started to shift from east to south, the large power boats upwind from us started to push against their docks and pilings. They pushed three pilings over, and ended up pushing our dock into our boat and then onto another boat. Fortunately, the only damage was some minor cosmetic damage.

    From what I can tell, the other boats were tied up appropriately and no lines came free.

    From your description and our experience, it seems the biggest danger to anyone’s boat is other boats. I don’t know of a good way to mitigate that, even if they are pulled out onto the hard, other boats can fall over and create a domino race.

    As Ron White said in one of his bits about a man tying himself to a tree during a hurricane, it’s not THE wind.

    It’s what’s IN the wind.

    We will purchase some old tires that we can use as fenders during a storm to minimize the impacts from objects IN the wind.

    • Gina Soucheray
      Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

      Yes, it’s just as inportant to prep the boat on the hard for a storm. In our marina in Green Cove Springs, several hundred boats survived, except one. The owner left the furling jib attached. Thr wind whipped it loose and “sailed” the boat off its jackstands. Fortinately (and amazingly) no other boats played the domino game! Thanks for the update and tips.

  • Peg Dixon
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    All that work – and SO very worth it!! Congrats!

  • Lori Steinbrunner
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Excellent summary, Carolyn. Thanks for taking the time to write it up. Glad Barefoot Gal fared well.

  • Peggy Stone
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Thank you. We used many of the same methods for Katrina. Always good to hear new ideas. We used duct tape instead of fire hose but I will be looking for fire hose.

  • Charlotte Caldwell
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    An excellent article, so glad BG survived. Unlike you, I am a firm believer in luck and coincidence! Preparation is so important too, but, sometimes, it’s just the way the metaphoric ( and/ or real) wind takes us.

  • Carla Barrett
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Thank you for sharing how Barefoot Gal was set up on the mooring ball and how you prepared. We also use fire hoses as chafe guard on our boat, but the idea of adding the hole punch and smaller line is brilliant to keep it in place. Thank you!

    • Lisa Ballard
      Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

      Be careful with fire hose. You want water to get to the line to keep it cool. So remove the liner.

    • Carla Barrett
      Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

      Lisa Ballard, tell me more- my fire hose is actually washable -and the cloth outer material is fused or embedded with this rubberish looking interior. Cannot separate the two. I got my donation from a CA Fire Dept.

  • Kevin Eicher
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    How many hurricanes have you, (and your boats) survived now? Congratulations, I am glad, whatever the reason.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

      We (or the boat) have been within 50 miles of the eye 6 times, with two of those (including this one) being direct hits. Several others had decreased to TS intensity by the time they reached our area.

    • Kevin Eicher
      Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

      Wow. I’ve read a lot of what you’ve written about this. Being ultra prepared… and lucky seems to be a good combination. Again, congratulations!

  • Kevin Kirkendoll
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Also, thanks for taking the time to write this. Very informative. I can only imagine what it might have felt like riding out the storm with a drebis field taking out boats around you. Did they indicate if they would do it again if necessary?

  • Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    I’m so happy that Barefoot Gal came through intact. Great summary of what happened at Boot Key and really helpful tips for hurricane prep for folks.

  • Jean Vukman Losco
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Phil Losco Gene Sappe James Ryan

  • Mickey Dawson
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Carolyn, did you secure your steering/rudder? or leave them be?

  • gin arnold
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Hi, glad you made it through. I have posted in the last few days asking about a ham that lived on a canal not far from the anchorage. This was in 1990 and I have no recall on his name nor ham call, but he was very kind when I sailed through. His home, I believe he was a retired naval capt , was a short ding ride from the anchorage but would love to know how he is. My old ham call was N4VGP. I live in Ecuador now so have little contact with the sailing world.
    Thanks,

  • James Bragonier
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    A great report in nearly all respects. We, as land lubber friends, actually tiny house owners, have followed you for the last year and were concerned. We revel in your successes and having bare=boat cruised the V.I., understand the neighborhood a bit. We’re glad for your safety and successes! Keep on keeping on!

  • Scott Whitfield
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Thanks so much for your great post we can learn from. Glad everything turned out as well as it did for you. And yes, agreed, to a great extent, one creates one’s own luck!

  • LisaMarie Gauci Takacs
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    Thank you, another great information piece!

  • Heather B.
    Posted at 21 September 2017 Reply

    Glad to know you 2 and Barefoot Gal are safe. Thanks for the detailed prep info. Keep safe!

  • Julie Denmark
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    So glad BG was unscathed. I would be interested in what you used for weatherstripping to seal your lazarettes. We tried doing this, but the black sticky foam we used is already peeling off. Thanks for sharing your experiences and wisdom.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

      We got some at Home Depot. And sometimes it does start coming off — we use Gorilla Glue to reattach it.

  • Shawna Smith
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    Really good info. Thank you.

  • Michael O'Brien
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    Alan Stephenson

  • Dolores M. Ik'Nal
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    Can you post more about the Storm Tie-up configuration you mention in this article? Sounds like something we really want to know how to do… Thanks!

  • Arkouda Phelan
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    So smart! Thanks for sharing!

  • Ron
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    Hello, glad all is well with you & BG. Drone pictures I’ve seen are horrendous. Could you post an article of interviews from those who stayed behind? Your prospective would probably provide invaluable information.
    Thank you, temporary landlubber Ron.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 23 September 2017 Reply

      I will see. Everyone is so busy with the recovery, it’s hard to talk for more than a few minutes at a time. And not too many stayed . . .

  • Kathy
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    So glad that you and Barefoot Gal made it through Irma safely. We too have retired our storm lines and have purchased new. Worth every penny. Thanks for the idea on the chafe protection.

  • Lisa Ballard
    Posted at 22 September 2017 Reply

    So happy for you. We followed similar procedures. Two of our lines to the mooring were dyneema. Our pennant failed and we ended up in the mangroves with 3 others. In some ways it really was luck-of-the-draw.

    • Ernie Lorimer
      Posted at 26 September 2017 Reply

      Dyneema has high strength, high UV resistance but low elasticity, so I would think maybe an ok choice day to day but a bad choice in a storm. The lack of elasticity means the snap load is much higher. Mountain climbers have thought a lot about this: http://dmmclimbing.com/knowledge/how-to-break-nylon-dyneema-slings/

  • Claire Ford
    Posted at 23 September 2017 Reply

    Y’all should be an inspiration to all other boaters. It just seems selfish and self-centered not to accept help from other boaters who have been through the worst of the worse on both coasts. Y’all were one of the last friends I heard from, and now I know everyone is safe and sound.

  • Cherie Burch
    Posted at 26 September 2017 Reply

    Glad all is well for BG and you. We are in St Pete with floating docks and used many of your tips for prep. We came through just fine with luck and God’s blessings. Our only issue was our marina “finger” neighbor. Our neighbor could not get to the boat because of evacuation traffic and gas shortages. The marina personnel only removed Bimini and dodger plus THEY TIED HIS BOAT TO THE CLEATS ON OUR SIDE OD THE FINGER. This could have put roughly 40,000 lbs of boat weight on our the cleats depending on wind direction. YIKES! Note to self – next storm instruct the marina personnel on tie up procedures.

  • Charlie Jones
    Posted at 26 September 2017 Reply

    Very happy to read this on BG. Sad for BKH- I’ve been in there three times now, first in 1982

    In my home marina in Port Lavaca Texas, we lost 13 boats to Hurricane Harvey. My own boat suffered minor damage and my house needs a new roof., but I have 5 friends whose boats were sunk. And we missed the main part of the storm. South of here,, in Aransas Pass, nearly every boat in that marina was sunk or blown ashore

    Location seems to be a big factor. I tie on the west side of a long dock. NONE of the boats on that side sank, ALL of the boats across the dock (on the east side) are sunk

  • Ernie Lorimer
    Posted at 26 September 2017 Reply

    Here in Connecticut we’ve never in recent memory been through more than a Cat 1. In our harbor over the last 40 years we’ve lost around 40 boats, a few to Gloria and more through noreasters. A Cat 3 striking CT is estimated to result in the downing of 77% of the trees in the state and a power outage lasting several months. So all of the following is mostly inapplicable to something like what you went through, but everything you say is applicable in less severe circumstances.

    1. I think being on a mooring is much safer than being at a dock. The boat can weather vane into the wind and is less susceptible to surge. Many boats have been lost as docks float off the top of the pilings.

    2. The lines from the mooring ball to the boat should be fairly long, and the leads to the cleats should be as fair as possible. C&Cs in particular used to have relatively sharp fairleads through the rail, and no amount of chafe gear was okay. A double bridle is essential and works well for a multi, but even better for a monohull is a line snapped to an eyebolt at the waterline. Since our club moved to a double bridle after Gloria, we’ve lost a small number of monos to chafe, usually on a bowstay. More were lost by bridles snapping about two feet down from the bow. On examination, it was determined that the nylon had fused because of heat developed by hobbyhorsing, and then snapped cleanly. So, longer lines, and not necessarily thicker lines.

    3. Preparing for a storm, I usually leave my normal bridle in place, and then attach docklines to the mooring pennant as well, with lots of slack in case the bridle fails. Then I have a much heavier line with even more slack as a last resort. All attached to the pennant through a looped eyesplice as you suggest, and snugged down to not wear.

    4. Catamarans with relatively low windage–not wedding cakes–are inherently safer, I think. I’ve watched the cats and the tris in winds in the high 60s over a long fetch, and they tend to ride very quietly, as the waves pass under. The monos are bucking broncos, and the runabouts unfortunately scoop up water and sink. The downside, as we saw in the VI, is that they are light and if they catch air flip. So filling water tanks, even the amas, may help. Ian Farrier thought filling his tris was a good strategy. Bilge pump failure and water ingress are less significant for cats since they will still float, but as we saw from the heavy rain in Nantucket during Jose, which sank 6 IOD boats, that is important for monos even in less extreme circumstances. If I recall, William F. Buckley lost Panic at Point Judith when water siphoned through the engine exhaust.

    5. Reducing windage is huge, and being upwind of the rest of the fleet helps, particularly if they still have canvas up. A number of the boats we’ve lost over the years were because one boat broke free, fetched up on another boat with its bridle caught between keel and rudder, and then the both of them gone on to do more. Our procedures call for the rudder to be lashed hard over, and strange as it sounds boats this way tend to round up and move very slowly, almost as if they are hove to.

    Kudos to you for using the proceeds on the book this way.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 26 September 2017 Reply

      Really good analysis. We were specifically told NOT to lengthen the mooring lines so that boats would stay the proper distance apart. It’s a good idea, but check whether your mooring field allows it.

      • Ernie Lorimer
        Posted at 26 September 2017 Reply

        Yes, I didn’t mean lengthening them, just that longer lines are better than shorter lines. If you look at the picture of BG heading this article, it looks unlikely that the boat would jerk one bridle or the other sharply. But put the mooring ball a foot in front of a monohull, set it in a 6 foot storm surge to stretch the pennant out, and then hobbyhorse the bow up and down 7 or 8 feet, chafing gear won’t be your problem.

  • Amy
    Posted at 02 October 2017 Reply

    Hi. We just bought our first sailboat & pretty much know nothing yet. This might be a dumb question but we were wondering why people didn’t just sail away from the on coming storm? Especially given the advanced notice of the storm.

    • Cherie Burch
      Posted at 02 October 2017 Reply

      The problem is, sailboats don’t go very fast and the storm was about 400 mikes across. Where could you go at 6-7 knots to get away. Plus the track kept shifting so there really wasn’t any way to know for sure where it would go. In St Petersburg, we faced the uncertainty of the track and by he grace of God, got lucky! Good luck with your boat- it is a wonderful sport. We have been sailing all of our lives (now in oir 60’s).

    • Ernie Lorimer
      Posted at 03 October 2017 Reply

      With a well found, ably crewed ocean capable vessel, sure, and many did by going south to Grenada, etc. For a coastal cruiser the better strategy is to secure the boat, be sure the insurance is paid up, and leave it for a safe place. Richard Branson tried to do both–he sent his yacht south and then hunkered down on Necker. I think after he might have felt he would have been better off going with the boat.

  • vicky
    Posted at 03 October 2017 Reply

    forgive my ignorance, I know nothing of sailing or boats but reading about your friend who was diving and that he was in water with a lot of gasoline in it, should boats use up (or remove) all the fuel before the storm or does the fuel add needed weight to help the boat survive?

Post A Comment