Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   September 2004
Hurricane Survival

Part Three: Preparing for the Worst

by Brad Glidden

September is the statistical height of the hurricane season, and we've already, as I wrote this in mid-August, have had two storms go through the Caribbean. If you missed the last two months' helpful hurricane preparation hints, a review would be that you have identified where you are going to take your boat for shelter, and have actually gone there in the boat and scoped the place out. You have a good idea how to get in, even if it's getting dark, blowing 30 and there are 40 other boats in the harbour and more a'comin'. You are ready to jump at least two days in advance of landfall of any storm.

Prepare for the Worst
Once you get to your hidey hole, here are some ideas as to what to do besides running in circles screaming "We're all going to die!":

o Take everything off the deck - most importantly, any roller furling headsail. It will unfurl. It will take your mast out. There is no way to keep any roller furling system closed up during a storm. It will become a mortal danger to you and everyone else in the harbor. You must take it down and stow it below, without exception. Are we clear on this point? I hate to belabor it, but the memory of ten jibs flogging on ten boats in my anchorage when Marilyn hit St. Thomas is not a pretty one.

o Have a camera and take pictures of everything or anything that might help you to file a successful claim against any boat nearby that might come adrift or has left its roller furling up. Take a lot of pictures of what everything looked like before the storm - where other boats were "secured" and how they were "secured". If there is a flagrantly negligent operation around, document it on film. There may be lawsuits after it is all over. An over-insured, poorly secured boat that wipes out one, two or more cruising families should be made to own up to its and its owners'/agents' failures to abide by customary standards and practices of good seamanship.

o Go around and talk to your neighbors. Get their addresses and contact persons. Give them yours. See what you have that they may need, and vice-versa. Get everyone to agree to a VHF channel to monitor.
It is important to remember that just because you got there first it doesn't mean that you have a right to take up the whole harbor. You can't set your anchors or spring lines to take up a 300-foot area. There just isn't room. Boats are going to be crowded in as close together as if they are in a marina. Set yourself up accordingly. Arriving early not only gives you a better spot but allows you to help everyone else to intelligently cram the next two dozen boats in. There will also be boats, usually over-insured, that will be dropped off and left unattended and under-prepared. If you have your act together, you can and should take some time to deal with these temporarily halted projectiles before they come down on you at 2AM.

If You Stay Aboard
If you are braver than I and actually elect to stay aboard, and have to go on deck in a blow:
o You must be wearing a Type I lifejacket (not an inflatable) and a harness with a tether. There are many reasons why an automatic inflatable lifejacket is dangerous in these situations. They inflate as quickly as an air bag in a car; in fact, "explode" is more accurate than "inflate". They tend to be triggered by moisture and rain on a good day; they will inflate on you when you least expect it in hurricane conditions and you will die of a heart attack from the surprise. You will be blown around on deck no matter how nimble or large you are. A Type I jacket may absorb some of the blows. An uninflated jacket is not going to help in this situation.

o It is essential to have a really good lifejacket light, or C-strobe on you. You could be quickly swept a long way away if you go overboard. The lifejacket not only will keep you afloat, but also will protect your torso when you smash into something.

o Wear a snorkel and mask. It is the only way you will see; possibly the only way you will breathe. Otherwise, if the wind doesn't blow your eyelids shut, the rain will feel like needles piercing your eyeballs. Rain driven at 60 or better miles an hour is a great way to drown while on deck.

o Carry a razor sharp knife with a fixed blade. If you need to use one, there will be no time to saw away with a dull blade or fumble around opening a closed blade. If your regular sailing knife doesn't fit this category, get a utility knife from the hardware store. These are not only sharp, but can be fished out of a pocket and opened one-handed. A jackknife may not be usable if you're holding on for dear life. Literally. For those occasions when you have a few seconds, a good quality multi-tool or vise-grips is really useful if it is in your pocket.

o A small flashlight you can hold in your teeth (a.k.a. bite-light) is "handy".
When, as we say up in New England, it's really coming on to blow:

o Don't be a hero! There comes a point where the wind is too strong and/or there is too much stuff flying about. There is little useful work you can do in 70 knots; if you get hit by something, it will be the same as being hit by a Nolan Ryan fastball. It will hurt. It may even kill. Stay below and let chaos reign.

o Under no conditions ever try to fend off another boat or piling or even a dinghy! A Boston Whaler surging alongside in three-foot seas and 40-knot winds can crush an arm in a heartbeat.

o Watch your barometer. If all your radios fail, you can still tell the passage of the storm by windshift and barometer fall. Remember the last speed of advance and radius of hurricane force wind forecast you heard. Keep that number of hours in mind. The storm will pass. Eventually.

After It's All Over
Now is really the time to be calm and collected. There will be days, if not weeks, of work to do. You aren't going to get it all done at once.

o First of all, rumors. There will be more rumors than mosquitoes after the storm. "There's 25 dead in the morgue." "There are dozens missing." "There is another storm coming." "Massive looting has broken out." "The Navy is bringing in heavy-lift helicopters to snatch everyone's boat off the beach." "A highly contagious disease has broken out." "The government is bulldozing all the beached boats." With the possible exception of looting, the above are seldom if ever true. Don't believe any outlandish story unless you see it for yourself. When hearing wild rumors, consider the source. The wildest stories usually come from those who were least prepared beforehand.

o Don't overact to the euphoria of being alive. If it is blowing 40 that is only a quarter of the force of the 80 knots that just went by and it will feel like nothing. Remember, on a regular day a 40-knot squall would send everyone running for cover.
o Look around you. Someone is worse off than you and can use some help. Look for distress signals: an upside-down national flag, a strobe light, an orange flag with a black square and ball. Couples and single-handers may be below dealing with emergencies; don't count on seeing someone topside waving or sounding the foghorn. Go and knock on hulls as soon as it is safe to do so.

o If you are in distress, think seriously before firing off a meteor or parachute flare. They will go a long distance with the wind. They burn phosphorus which is unaffected by water. They will, however, start a fire on even the most waterlogged land or boat they fall on. Much safer is a floating orange smoke or hand-held smoke flare. Hint: SOLAS-grade flares are about three times more efficient than USCG approved "boater" flares. Even better is a strobe light, either from a lifejacket or your man overboard light.
o Be especially careful of the sea water. The septic tanks ashore have all overflowed; there is a primordial soup of bacteria floating around just waiting to infect you. There is God-knows-what debris in the brown water that you can't see through. What is there, is sharp or pointed or both. Wear your heaviest shoes or boots. They will probably be ruined, but that's better than impaling or gashing yourself.

The 'S' Word
And now, the "S" word, as in salvage: Every boat belongs to somebody. A boat adrift and abandoned at sea belongs to someone, even if it is the insurance company. Same thing with a boat on the bottom, no matter how long it's been there (the lawyers had lots of fun after Titanic was found). Likewise with a boat on a beach. You cannot claim or strip a boat, no matter how trashed, no matter what it did to you.  There are a thousand years of admiralty case law to decide claims. You ignore precedent at your peril. Get a lawyer to "arrest" a boat that has harmed you. You did take pictures before the storm, right? Take more.
Few people understand the above concepts; many think that a boat ashore is fair game. You should be prepared to clearly and emphatically explain these concepts to impromptu salvors.
If your boat has gone ashore and you are insured; It is your responsibility to secure what is left from further damage, start preventative maintenance (flush the engine, for example) and clean up what you can. Wait for the adjuster to get the guys with the crane and the towboat. They will show up remarkably fast.
If your boat has gone ashore and you aren't insured, you'll have to do this yourself. Maybe the guys with the crane are making enough money to snatch you off pro bono or for cheap. Most professional salvors are good people and will do whatever they can, consistent with their work for the folks paying their bills. A good move is to have all costs agreed to, beforehand, in writing; otherwise, the bill can be frightening.

If you do get a salvage crew to come by, have everything ready to go. Otherwise, it'll cost you to keep these folks waiting around. Patch holes. Pump the boat. Lighten it as much as possible, empty tanks, take anchor chains off. Have an incredibly stout towing harness made up and bent on (one line to one cleat won't do). Maybe even a bridle going around your hull several times. The more together you are, the better chance you have of attracting help.

You can move large, inert things like boats with anchors, blocks, tackles, winches and rollers (hint: broken phone poles work just fine). Progress, even inches at a time, is still progress and if you are making inches over ground you will eventually be afloat again.

Two important rules never to forget: One, use only first-class gear in impeccable shape. You are dealing with a tremendous amount of stored energy in a line under load; treat it the way you would a stick of dynamite and stand clear! Two, appoint one person salvage master and listen only to her or him. There was a case on St. Thomas where one group of people on one side of a beached boat were doing one thing, while another group on the other side did another. When the boat fell over it was blind luck someone wasn't killed.
After the storm is the time for heightened awareness and caution. There will be debris everywhere, much of it hidden under water, mud, or other flotsam. Be careful!  This is the time that people step on things and fall or gash themselves or pinch fingers, tear muscles, or break limbs. There will be lots of work to do, it will take a while to get it all done. Rushing things will probably be counter-productive; it could be disastrous. We did all our running around and screaming before and during the storm; afterwards is time to settle down for a slow but steady recovery.


Copyright© 2004 Compass Publishing