Preparing for a Hurricane: Two Primary Rules
Rule Number 1: Assume the worst. Assume that the storm will turn and hit you directly. Assume that the storm will speed up as it travels toward you. Assume that it will stall while you’re in the worst of it. Don’t try to out-think the storm. Pick the very best hurricane hole you can and overprepare. While you’re being pummeled by the eyewall – or pushed onto the beach – you don’t want to be thinking “If only I’d done such-and-such.”
Rule Number 2: Prepare early! Remember that when a forecaster predicts when a storm will be in your area, he’s predicting the center of the storm. Winds, waves and rain will be at storm force long before then. Gale force winds usually extend out over 100 miles from the center of a hurricane. So if a storm is 300 miles away from you and moving at 20 knots, you could be in a gale in just 10 hours. And once winds are at gale force, you can’t do much more to prepare for the storm. Remember, hurricanes can speed up dramatically.
Before the Hurricane Season
If you are going to be cruising in a hurricane area, there are several things to do before hurricane season even starts:
- Weather information. Learn where to get the best possible weather information while on board your boat, whether it is via television, radio, internet, VHF, SSB or ham nets, weather fax or e-mail services. Once hurricane season begins, monitor the weather every single day.
- Investigate hurricane holes. What are the pros and cons of each? If possible, spend a night or two and see what the holding is like. What anchor works best? Is there anything to watch for as you enter the anchorage? If you’re hurrying for a hurricane hole, you’ll feel a lot better entering an anchorage where you’ve been before.
- Create a checklist. Take an afternoon and develop a checklist for preparing for a hurricane. Plan where sails and other deck items will be stored. Is there anything that you need to get out of lockers first? I remember my frustration in discovering that all our canned foods and chafe gear were in the locker under the sails and dinghy.
- Plan your storm anchoring. Spend some time reading any of the various excellent reference books on storm anchoring. Buy any extra equipment you need – a different anchor, longer or different rode, new snubbers, material for chafe gear, shackles – whatever.
- Prepare your chafe gear. We made our own chafe gear of double layers of reinforced hose. Forcing one piece inside the other took me the better part of a day to make as many pieces as we needed for all our lines, plus spares. If you have a bobstay on your bow, be sure to figure out a way to keep your snubbers from chafing on it.
- Buy supplies. You’ll almost certainly need some Liquid Wrench or PB Blaster to take something apart in your hurricane preparations, and it helps to put things back together with some Anti-Seize. You’ll need seizing wire, too. And we seem to average losing one shackle overboard each time we prepare for a storm. If chandleries aren’t nearby, stock up as it’s likely that you’ll have to prepare for more than one storm each year – although, hopefully, none will make a direct hit on you.
Preparing for the Storm
This is where having prepared a checklist in advance will pay off. You won’t have to try to think of what you need to do, just go down the list. Following are some general things we’ve learned.
- Use your time wisely. Start preparing the boat on the way to the hurricane hole. If you are motoring, maybe you can start taking your sails down. Canvas can be taken down. Run the watermaker and fill the tanks. Rig your jacklines. Secure items below. If any lockers leak in heavy seas, see if you can relocate items that could be damaged (we put many of our reference books in dry bags and stowed them on the floor under the salon table). Prepare your ditch bag (see below). Don’t spend your time on non-essential tasks.
- Start by laying out things you’ll need so that you don’t block access to them. Food, life jackets, jacklines, harnesses, snorkel masks, warm clothes, chafe gear, new snubbers, foul weather gear or wetsuits, extra lines, first aid supplies and anything else you’ll need. Make sure your tools are where you can get to them easily. Have several waterproof flashlights available, along with plenty of spare batteries. Keep several sharp knives available in case you have to cut lines in an emergency.
- The first priority is to anchor well. If you are using a mooring, dive on it to make sure it is large enough and does not need repair. Follow your ground tackle plan and make sure your anchor is well set – power back on it as hard as you can. The storm will generate far more force than your engine. If you drag now, you won’t stay put through the storm. As you drop your anchor, record a GPS waypoint. During the storm, you can use this waypoint to determine if you are dragging; if you should lose your anchor in the storm, this will help you find it afterward. Be sure to have room to swing 360º at the full extent of your rode.
- Take all sails down. This is crucial. Many cruisers whose boats were damaged by hurricanes have found that their insurance would not pay off because they had left sails on. Tying them down simply is not sufficient. It is better to spend half a day putting them back on after the storm passed you by with nothing more than gale force winds than to spend a week figuring out how you’re going to get your boat off the beach. In particular, roller furling genoas have to be taken off and not just tied.
- Get everything below decks that you can. We have a hard dodger/bimini now, but on our previous boat we took all our canvas down. We also put empty jerry cans below, but left full ones on board, not wanting fuel below. Reducing windage will significantly reduce the strain on your ground tackle. Also, there’s less chance you’ll lose items, and less chance they will hit and damage someone else’s boat. Tie down anything that you have to leave on deck VERY securely.
- Dinghies. The best place for your dinghy is down below or in a secure building ashore, with the motor stowed as for passage. If you have an inflatable dinghy and don’t have room for it below, deflate it and tie it down as securely as possible. Some boats with hard dinghies tied them on deck as they would for a passage. Others sunk them and tied the painter to their boats – if you do this, be sure to put some sort of a buoy on the dinghy in case the painter chafes through.
- Keep the interior safe for people and pets. The boat will roll gunwale to gunwale during the storm. As you stow sails and other heavy gear below, keep this in mind and don’t place things where they would be likely to slide or fall and hit someone (or a pet). In our first storm, we piled everything on a settee (6 feet high!) and it all came crashing down with the first big gust and roll. Luckily we were on deck and no one was injured.
- Leave a place to sit and sleep. It will be several days before your boat is back to normal, particularly if
you are assisting damaged boats after the storm.
- Tie off all lines and sheets – away from mast. In a storm, loose ends of lines can be lethal – don’t forget things like the boom vang and mainsheet that are led to the cockpit. We pulled out the furling line for our genoa (the sail was already down) and tied it off so that it could not unwind on its own. We led both ends of all halyards away from the mast to belaying pins attached to the shrouds. Once we removed the main sail, we put up the lazyjacks so they wouldn’t beat against the mast.
- Prepare a ditch bag. If you do go aground and have to leave the boat, you’ll need your boat documents, passports, money, handheld VHF, warm clothes, spare shoes, canned or dry food (and a can opener!) and water.
- Prepare for roll call. If there are more than just a few boats in the harbor, have someone make a list of boats and the number of people on board each.
During the Hurricane
Only you can make the decision as to whether you should stay on the boat or go ashore. It will depend on the forecast strength of the storm and the availability of hurricane-proof shelter ashore If you do stay on board, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Once the storm starts, you’re on your own. No one can help you, and you can’t help anyone else. You are responsible for your own safety.
- Jacklines, harnesses and life jackets. Wear your life jacket and harness whenever you are not down below – and when you are below, keep it where you can grab it instantly. The situation can change in a heartbeat. We used our harnesses even in the cockpit.
- Clothing. It’s wet, windy and cold during a hurricane. Our foul weather gear just didn’t keep us dry. We finally got smart and put on our wetsuits! Other people wore long pants to protect their knees as they crawled around on deck. Nearly everyone in the fleet used snorkel masks to be able to see in the driving rain and spray.
- Keep watch; use your radar and GPS. Holing up down below and trying to ignore the storm is foolhardy. As the storm first hits and you stretch out your rode, use the GPS waypoint you recorded when you dropped your anchor to determine whether you are dragging or just stretching out the rode. If you start to drag, you can take action. If another boat appears to be dragging toward you, you can try to maintain clearance by motoring.
- Check chafe gear. Until the storm becomes so violent that you can’t go forward, keep checking your chafe gear and reposition or replace it as necessary.
- Bilge pump. As the waves built to 4 to 6 feet, we took on water through our chain pipe even though it was stoppered. We had to run the bilge pump every hour or so.
- Motoring. Motoring is really a desperation move, something to do if you are already dragging or to maintain clearance with another boat. Otherwise, we felt that it actually increased the strain on the ground tackle as slack would develop in the rode and then the bow would fall off hard and stop with a jerk. As winds rose over 50 knots, however, many boats ran their engines in neutral so that if they needed to use them, they could do so immediately.
- If you’re going aground, try to pick your spot. If it becomes inevitable that your boat is going aground, you probably still have a little steerage as you slide backwards. Try to aim for a spot without rocks, and try to avoid other boats. Boats that went into mangroves generally had the least damage.
- Too good, too fast. As the storm hits, it’s unlikely that you’ll really know where you are in relation to its center. If the storm seems to die out too quickly for the amount of wind that you had, assume that you are in the eye and get ready for very strong winds from the opposite direction. Use the calm at the eye to quickly fix any major problems that threaten your safety in the second half of the storm, but be prepared to abandon those repairs as the first puffs hit you.
After the Hurricane
- Call roll. As the storm dies down, the most important thing is to make sure that all boats and people are accounted for and safe. Does anyone need immediate assistance?
- Check all your gear and fix things ASAP – another storm could be coming. Even if your ground tackle held well and you had no problems, examine your ground tackle carefully in the days after the storm. Repair or replace anything that isn’t perfect. Chances are, you’ll have discovered a few changes that you want to make in your hurricane preparations – talk these over with others on your boat and change your checklist accordingly.
- Allow sufficient time to raise anchor. If your anchor held through the storm, chances are that it’s buried deep. It took most boats 2-1/2 to 4 hours to raise their anchors after Hurricane Marty (Sea of Cortez, 2003).
- Watch out for floating debris. All sorts of stuff can be in the water! Be sure to check your salt water strainer frequently on your engine and water maker. Water maker prefilters can plug up quickly, too, if there is a lot of mud in the water.