I've been through more hurricanes than I care to count; even one at sea. Through all, and with input from other well-weathered sources, I’ve come to realize three things: First, all storms need to be given the same weight. The “little” ones can carry an unexpected wallop. Second, hurricane preparation must be organized in advance, so it’s simple and quick. There are more important considerations, like family, when a storm threatens. And third, local topography, marina construction, and just plain luck all affect storm survivability, and can work to your advantage.
During Florida’s infamous 2004 season, the weakest storm, Hurricane Frances, did as much damage as the stronger Jeanne. “Frances lasted for 12 or 14 hours. It stalled right offshore,” says Mark Lavery, in charge of marina operations at Old Port Cove Marina and neighboring North Palm Beach Marina. “A [category] three that [blows hard for] an hour probably wouldn’t be as bad.” The following year, Hurricane Wilma equaled the two previous storms combined, even though winds were forecast below hurricane strength on Florida’s east coast.
“People were thinking 40 or 50 mph winds at the [wall of the] eye, and 30 mph outside the eye. We’d just been through Frances and Jeanne, so that was no big deal,” says Jim Hunt, operator of a charter fleet that lay in the path of all three storms. Cold, dry air from the north eventually did weaken Wilma, but it first fired up powerful thunderstorms that spun around its giant eye like teeth on a saw. Boats that were ready fared fine, but those caught off-guard suffered significant damage.
Hunt says chafing gear was a big factor. For Lavery, tight spring lines were key at the fixed piers at Old Port Cove. “[When lines are loose] boats slingshot around in the slip and things start to break,” he says. “A piling breaks or you pull a cleat out, then it becomes a domino effect.” Fortunately, storm surge wasn’t a factor, with deep water and a straight coastline in this part of Florida.
Other locations are different. Hurricane Isabel weakened considerably as it came ashore in 2003, but tropical storm winds pushed water northward and piled it high along the shores of the narrowing Chesapeake Bay. “It wasn’t a wind event. The only thing we battled was the surge,” says Rob Simkins, general manager of Chesapeake Harbour Marina in Annapolis. Water rose to waist-deep above fixed docks— eight feet above normal. “If it was blowing 50 or 60 it would have been a real mess.” But Chesapeake Harbour is in an enclosed basin, surrounded by wind-buffering three-story townhomes and encircled with wave-attenuating riprap. Other marinas didn’t fare as well.
Boats at the protected Baltimore Inner Harbor Marine Center fared well during Isabel, but the surge came dangerously close to piling tops. “Another foot and the docks would have floated away,” says Guy Lambert, the assistant manager at the time. “Once the tide started down, we actually had to pry the docks back into place over the pilings.”
Pilings were adequate in Washington, D.C., where I weathered Isabel’s nine-foot storm tide, but the floating docks weren’t. I shackled lines to short lengths of chain around the pilings, so they were free to move up and down with the tide.
In Baltimore, a new marina with taller pilings has been engineered with storms in mind. And the trend is growing, making floating docks preferred hurricane moorings. “We moved boats into North Palm Beach Marina,” Lavery says. “We had zero damage to the marina and only minimal damage to boats.” Lavery credits this to the marina’s protected basin and surrounding buildings, and also the ability to tie boats tightly to stout floating docks so they couldn’t move in the wind. Old Port Cove Marina was recently rebuilt with floating docks engineered for its more exposed location— wide, heavy outer docks, anchored by long steel pilings, are guaranteed to withstand hurricane winds and seas while supporting a full complement of boats.