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August 22, 2011

Preparing Your Boat for Hurricanes

Prepare your vessel and stack the odds in your favor when hurricanes approach

Winds exceeding 74 mph constitute a Category 1 hurricane. In just the past decade, we've seen the results of eight Category 5 Atlantic storms (sustained winds greater than 155 mph). Hurricanes devastate us in four ways: wind, flooding, storm surge and accompanying tornados. To thwart these "four sailors of the apocalypse," you need an advance plan of action for your vessel.

The Plan
Sometime long before hurricane season, prepare a record (preferably using a video camera) of your boat in its best condition. Be sure to note either verbally or in writing the items that you will remove from the boat prior to a storm. If your boat suffers storm damage, you'll make your life easier if you can simply forward a video, with your running commentary, to your insurance agency. Written or video, file your plan with your insurance agent.

Just as you (should) have a ditch bag aboard in case of emergency, storm planning calls for a similar package containing your vessel's insurance policies, a recent photo of your boat or a copy of your video, equipment inventory, boat registration or documentation papers, and your storage or dock rental agreement. Also include emergency numbers for marine police, U.S. Coast Guard, the harbormaster and your insurance agent.

Remember that much of the damage suffered in marinas stems from too-short pilings. The storm surge lifts the docks high enough to be freed from the pilings, leaving them to float about and take your vessel with them. If you can't trailer your boat, decide whether you want to leave it in the water at the marina, take it to a hurricane hole - a safe mooring or marina farther inshore - or haul it out.

How do you decide which plan works best for you? According to Bill Oakerson, CEO of BoatU.S., one of America's premier marine insurance companies, "Unless a boat remains protected on all four sides, it should either be hauled out of the water and strapped down or moved to a more secure location inland, either another marina or hurricane hole."

If you plan to leave your boat in the water, determine how you will secure it in the slip. If you intend to take it somewhere, plan your route, timing and security once there. Keep in mind that your remote hurricane hole may be empty today but might fill with like-minded sailors prior to the storm's arrival.

You may need additional or different gear aboard to cope with the upcoming dramatic conditions. Know what you'll need and have a checklist so you don't miss anything. Make sure your batteries all have a full charge. If you think you might need extras to run pumps for the storm's duration, bring them. Shut down all non-essential electrics.

If for some reason you are not able to perform the pre-storm arrangements, have someone capable you trust do it for you.

Once you hear a hurricane forecast, make sure you're aware of what the weather service predicts by tracking the latest satellite images of storms at www.nhc.noaa.gov/index.html.

Oakerson advises, "Most marinas require you to carry minimum liability coverage. If you fail to employ good seamanship when securing your boat and your vessel damages marina property, you will be sued for negligence and or breach of the marina's contract."

Many marinas require you to move your boat before a hurricane watch (possible hurricane conditions within 36 hours) is posted. Some state laws require you to move your boat a certain number of hours prior to a particular hurricane-warning stage. After that time, any drawbridges standing between you and safe harbor lock down. Florida law prohibits a marina from requiring you to move your boat once a hurricane watch goes into effect. However, they can move it for you and charge "reasonable" fees.

And finally, be aware that many insurers include storm deductibles that increase your initial out-of-pocket expense in the event a named storm hits your area. Some insurance policies reimburse at least part of the cost of hauling out, and associated hurricane prep and will reduce the storm deductible if the boat is hauled when a named storm warning (hurricane-force winds predicted in 24 hours or less) is issued.  
 
The Execution

Trailer Boats
In 1985, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did a study determining that boats stored ashore fared better than boats on the water. You can really (ITAL) stack the odds in favor of your boat if you trailer it to Minnesota. Short of that, store your boat in a garage; if that's not possible, park it with the bow into the wind and away from overhanging tree branches and power lines.

Remove batteries and fill the bilges with water as high as you can without damaging any wiring or systems. After letting some (not all) of the air out of the tires, block the trailer wheels, tie the boat to the trailer and the trailer to the ground with spikes and cable, heavy rope or webbing. Remove everything you can (outriggers, biminis, cushions, covers, etc.) and take it all home.

Hauled on Shore
Once the yard places your boat in its cradle, follow all the steps you just read for trailer boats. Depending on the cradle, you may want to omit filling the bilges with water.

If you store your boat in a dry-stack building, make certain its building certificate specifies that it can withstand at least a Category 3 hurricane. If it can't, get your boat out of there and onto a trailer so you can take it inland and tie it to the ground.

In Water at Marina
Anywhere you would normally use a single dock line, use two. Cross your spring lines fore and aft. If possible, avoid tying your lines to dock cleats. Attach them high on the strongest and tallest pilings to allow for abnormally high tides and storm surges. Wherever a line crosses a gunwale, wrap it in rubber hose or heavy rags and tape it tightly to avoid chafing. Plan on using dock lines at least as long as your boat, and make sure they're new and heavy-duty.

Don't be stingy with fenders. Use the biggest, baddest ones you can and use fender boards, as well, if necessary. And bring lots of extra lines too: You may protect your boat perfectly only to find that the owner of the boat next to you hasn't. Tie up your neighbor's boat correctly, and it may save you a big headache.

Again, face your bow into the wind, if possible. Plug your exhaust(s) with a wooden bung, Styrofoam or cork to keep water from infiltrating your engine. Use tape to seal all portholes, vents and hatches.

In Water Away from Marina
Ideally, you want to secure your boat in the middle of whatever sheltered body of water you're in, with doubled lines in every direction to solid points on shore. Remember that other boats may want to tie up there as well, so don't block their access.

If anchoring, set at least two larger Danforth or plow-style anchors in sand, clay or some other firm bottom at 120 degrees from each other rather than in soft muck. Don't forget that the wind will likely blow your boat in a 360-degree circle, so be sure you have enough swing room. Studies have shown helix-style anchors that physically "screw" into the bottom work better than any other design. Anchor your boat with the bow into the projected wind direction. Anchor line length should be 10 times the depth of the water to compensate for storm surge and swing, and be sure to add chafing gear anywhere the anchor line crosses another line or a gunwale. Do not stay aboard to ride out the storm.

The Aftermath

If your boat hasn't sustained damage, congratulations. Start cleaning. If you suffered damage, immediately contact your insurance agent so an adjuster can come and make an evaluation. Adjusters are very busy after major storms, so be patient. But don't start repairing anything until after the insurance company has seen your vessel.

A hurricane is not a nautical death sentence. If you prepare properly, you stand a better-than-average chance of coming through the maelstrom with little or no damage.