Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   July 2010

Shelter from the Storm

by Jim Hutchinson

Let me offer the simplest solutions first:
The best way to avoid weather threats to a yacht (in all latitudes) is to sell the boat and go home.

The next simplest is to put the boat in a boatyard. Anybody unable or unwilling to secure their boat in the water for wind forces several times greater than most of us have ever experienced should haul out for hurricane season. Boatyards are probably the safest place your yacht can be. You can hang with your friends in the bar until the electricity, water and phones go out. Then go to your yacht, your private storm shelter, with its independent electrical, water and communications systems, which also contains your tools, medical kit and all the things you are supposed to take to a hurricane shelter ashore — plus things you would have forgotten. But let’s assume the worst: you wind up in a pile of toppled boats, dismasted and holed. Would you rather be awash in a pile of boats blown ashore? Haul out early.

Protecting a boat in the water is more complex. It is in an environment that the vast majority of people simply do not want to seriously deal with. That still leaves quite a few of us who do, or are willing. We are an endangered species. Unprepared boats seeking shelter where we have set up for a storm are a greater danger to us than the storm itself.

And there are those who decide (for either good reasons or bad reasons) that the storm won’t hit, or won’t be that bad, or whatever. Such boaters should remain in an open anchorage. If they are right, no problem. They can abandon ship if they see they are wrong. Do not make a late move into a hurricane hole where people who took it seriously have been working to protect their property and their lives. Anybody that arrives in my hole with less than six hours of daylight before the wind starts is my enemy. And it is far better to have 12 hours of daylight to set up. Move early or stay put.
Despite 25 years aboard in the tropical and sub-tropical North Atlantic, we’ve only been hit by full storm force winds four times — call me lucky. Two were Category 3 hurricanes from which I expected direct hits, but only got storm force winds. The other two were direct hits from a tropical storm and a Category 1 hurricane. For the first Category 3, I broke every rule in the book (departing a [marginally] landlocked anchorage, sailing unfamiliar waters at night to a place I’d never been, and moving towards the storm’s track) to earn the shelter that we needed, which was directly on the forecast track. The forecast was wrong, the eye crossed where we had been. The other Category 3, we ran the wrong direction, away from the forecast track, but towards the actual track… which wound up being the actual track. Due to a late start, we stopped 30 miles short to allow a full day to set up. I expected a direct hit, but the eye went I had intended to be, instead.

One doesn’t know what the hurricane will do, so the main thing is to find shelter with plenty of time to set up.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve set up and didn’t get hit. Some were precautionary, some I thought we might get hit, a couple of times I expected to be clobbered.

The first two of our four hits, we rode at anchor. The recent two, the strongest two, we were snugged into mangroves. No damage or injuries so far, some problems, lots of work. Let me stress that we have never experienced Category 2 or stronger winds, much less (and I mean much less) the waves such winds can send into unprotected bays. So, I’m no expert.

Our ground tackle is fairly serious. I rate it at 90 knots, though it has only been tested to 60 knots. Ninety knots is twice the force of 60 knots. A hundred and twenty knots is a lot more. Most of the boats anchored where Hurricane Ivan’s eye passed dragged. But some of the boats were seriously anchored and doing fine until another boat came down on them. Most yachts simply do not have sufficient ground tackle for such conditions. Moreover, both the deck hardware and the holding ground need to be sufficient. And the anchors must be well laid out and deeply set.
I consider the mangroves to be the best possible protection from hurricanes for a boat in the water. Some places it is illegal (strictly enforced) to tie into (or even to) the mangroves — to protect the mangroves. Almost everywhere it is illegal (or should be) to cut the mangroves. The mangroves need protection for important ecology reasons, but also, to protect us and those ashore from storms and tsunamis. And, also, so our grandchildren will have shelter from the storm and fish to eat.

Arguably, the mangroves are safest if boats anchor entirely clear of them. My argument is that a boat securely tied into the mangroves does far less damage than a boat crashing into them, wrecking itself and possibly others, and spilling its diesel and chemicals in the water. On the other hand, if the storm doesn’t hit (and most times that one should prepare, the storm won’t hit, not seriously) tying into the mangroves does more damage than never touching them. How much? When I do it, as little as possible — not much.

I pick a small indentation in the mangroves, tie the bow into it (cradled by the roots) and run lines into the mangroves from every cleat. I sight a fair lead from the cleat to a serious branch or trunk, then to a branch or trunk beyond. If the branches don’t seem serious enough (healthy and as thick as my leg), I run the line on to a third and a fourth branch, as nearly in line as possible, threading the rope through the small branches to get a fair lead. Each branch gets a loose clove hitch. Then I tension the line, passing as much slack as possible back towards the boat, setting the clove hitches as I go. The lines are run above deck level to allow for a small storm surge. I climb into the mangroves from the bow, above the slippery roots and dangerous oysters — do not start the storm with slashed feet. I move slowly and carefully through the mangroves, breaking as little as possible, cutting nothing. It takes hours.
I reckon the mangroves to be the best possible protection for the boat, and the boat, once sheltered and secured, the best possible protection for me. And being aboard, in turn, makes the boat safer. When the storm hits, I’ll be aboard.

A friend with more hurricane experience than I read this piece. We disagree on staying aboard. To my ending, “I’ll be aboard.” he added, “Wish me luck!” He has a point, though we basically agree on the survival potential of the individual boat. If his boat isn’t where he left it after the storm, it will probably be because someone else wiped him out. So, yes, wish me luck.


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