Educate Yourself Before the Storm!

Let me first say, I am a second generation native from southeast Florida. I have been actively involved in the boating industry both professionally, and as a private boat owner for over 55 years. I have successfully moored 4 boats – from 29 ft. to 104 feet, 12 times, through seven major hurricanes, including three CAT 2 storms, one CAT 3  storm, and five tropical storms with winds up to 70 MPH. In 2004 & 2005, my personal 29 ft. Luhrs Tournament rode through the Eye Walls of three major hurricanes, in Palm Beach County, Florida (Frances -Cat2, Jean-Cat2- & Wilma-Cat3).

It grieves me, when I see the massive marine devastation, each time a major hurricane makes landfall in the United States. In most instances, there is no reason for such massive destruction of yachts, power boats, and sail boats, that may need to remain in the water during such storms. If captains and owners would only educate themselves to the perils of such storms, and the proper storm preparations that should be taken far in advance of the winds, the waves and the storm surges, most marine loss could be eliminated. Such damage and destruction can usually be avoided.

Here are some life lessons taught to me from experienced Captains of days gone by.

#1.) HAVE A SEVERE STORM PLAN READY LONG BEFORE THE STORM: There is no substitute for being prepared, long before a storm approaches. You must have adequate gear, dock lines, etc. and should have a checklist to follow as you put your plan into action.

#2.) HAVE A SECURED MOORING SITE PLANNED AHEAD:  Have a storm mooring location identified and available long before the need may arise. The secure mooring site must be in a protected tributary, a small canal or sheltered cove, that does not provide access for storm waves from a larger body of water to enter. A canal mooring that has immediate direct access to a larger body of water may allow large surges and waves to pound the boat, the docks, and pilings over a long period of time, and something may give way. Any marina or dockage that is open to a wide expanse of water (more than a 1/4 of a mile wide or long) is not suitable for storm moorings.

#3.) MOVE THE BOAT FROM MARINAS: Most boats that get damaged or sink in major storms are left in marinas. Never leave your boat in a marina where the storm surge is going to breach the dock height. The dock, and the pilings are your enemy in a large storm. Other boats that are not well prepared become your enemies as well. All it takes is one loose boat to destroy many others. An isolated mooring is usually best. Never leave your boat in a marina that is located on a sizeable body of water. Winds in excess of 40 or 50 miles per hour, can whip up waves in excess of 4 to 5 feet, particularly in shallow water over a 1/2 mile wide or more. Remember those waves can pound your boat for up to 12 to 24 hours or more.

#4. KNOW THE STORM DYNAMICS: Whether you are dealing with a “hurricane”, a “tropical storm”, a “Nor’easter”, or some other major storm system, you must know the storm characteristics and what you might expect. Listen to early warnings and plan your mooring accordingly. The directions of the winds, the potential directions of the waves, the tides, the storm surges, and the durations, of each, are all important factors that must be taken into account to properly protect your boat.

In the case of hurricanes in southeast Florida, you must keep in mind that the winds rotate counter-clockwise around the eye of the hurricane. If the Eye is coming in from the southeast (most prominent) and goes north of your boat, the prevailing winds will start northeast, then blow north and northwest (off the land). As the eye moves inland, the winds will then go west and then southwest. If the Eye goes south of your boat, the winds will start from the north, then go northeast (off the ocean), and will turn east and then southeast and south, as the storm moves inland.  Usually the northeast quadrant of tropical cyclones in the northern hemisphere is the most severe part of the storm. This is not always the case however, as Wilma’s backside (south west quandrant) was the worst. Storms can be unpredictable.

If your boat is fortunate, as was mine, to ride out three eyes, of major hurricanes, in two years, depending on the direction of the storm, the winds may blow from every direction. The most powerful winds, are in the eye wall,  and are blowing in opposite directions as the eye passes. When the eye passes over, there is no wind for a period of time. In Wilma (2005) the Calm of the Eye was over 30 miles wide and lasted for almost three hours.  Then the reverse winds come swiftly and furiously out of the opposite direction as previous.  You must know your storm’s characteristics as much as possible and prepare accordingly. In hurricanes, don’t be deceived by the calm in the middle of the storm.

#5.) POSITION YOUR BOAT FOR THE STORM: You must decide whether wind, waves or storm surge will provide the most peril for your boat. You then must moor your boat accordingly. The bow should usually face the most predominant peril as it approaches. For the sake of all three, your boat needs room to move. The ideal spot for mooring a boat is in the middle of a small canal or body of water, where there are adequate structures or large trees to secure your mooring lines. If the boat is secured and away from structures, it has a great chance of survival in a severe storm.

#6.) PREPARE YOUR BOAT FOR THE STORM: Boat preparation is a must. Remove all non structural components from your boat including tops, Bimini tops, canvas coverings, plastic enclosures, cockpit covers etc. Lower outriggers, antennas, and other protrusions that stand above the hull, the cabin, or fly bridge areas. Remove them if possible. Make sure all of your bilge pumps are working properly, and that all batteries are well charged and maintained. Have a spare battery available if possible. Have adequate fuel on the boat in case you must motor against the storm in case of an emergency. Have all proper coast guard safety equipment on board and well secured in case of an emergency. Be sure to have battery powered, alternative light sources available on board. Keep in mind, you most likely will not have shore power at your hurricane mooring for several days. Even if you do, electric power usually goes out during these major storms. You may need to visit the boat just prior to the storm and as soon as possible after the storm, to crank the engines and recharge the batteries.

Once properly moored, turn off all electric circuit breakers except those needed to run you bilge pumps. You want to make sure there is no unnecessary drain on your batteries, excpet the pumps necessary to pump out water.

#7.) HAVE ADEQUATE MOORINGS (anchorages)  FOR THE SIZE OF YOUR BOAT: You need to make sure prior to mooring your boat., that adequate anchor positions are available at all four quadrants of your boat. Anchor positions can be sturdy docks, pilings, cleats on structures or on sea walls, the base of large trees, fence posts, or any secured structure to which you can tie your dock lines.

#8.) HAVE ADEQUATE DOCKS LINES & SECURE THE BOAT PROPERLY. You need dock lines that are large enough for the load of your vessel. You need enough of them to reach the anchor positions with double lines on all four quadrants. You will most likely need spring lines to control movement in waves and storm surges as well. Secure the boat effciently. It is best to have too many lines than not enough, or inadequate mooring lines.

#9.) SCOPE YOUR DOCK LINES PROPERLY: Again, the boat must be able to move in its mooring. All lines must have enough scope to allow the boat to rise as the storm surge,  high tides, or both rise. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, which just hit the northeast, a Full Harvest Moon flood tide, coupled with the storm surge, created a rise of water of 9 to 12 feet above normal. For a boat to survive in such conditions, the scope needs to be at least 12 to 15 feet at normal high tide levels. The boat must be able to move as much as the scope, when the tides or surge subsides, and low tide ebbs, without hitting docks, pilings, other boats, or other structures that can damage the boat.

#10.) USE DOUBLE LINES PROPERLY: Always double line all four quadrants of your boat securely. Tie the shore ends to separate anchor positions if possible. Be sure that the scope of the double pairs are scoped the same, so both lines come tight at the same time. If you have separate cleats on the boat. double line from as many cleats, tower legs, or permanent structures on the boat as possible. You want to spread the load as the boat moves in wind gusts or surges of water in its mooring.

#11.) CHECK OTHER BOATS OR STRUCTURES THAT MAY CAUSE DAMAGE: Even when you secure your boat properly, someone else’s negligence, or ignorance can cost you your boat. Be sure to check other boats, docks, boat houses ect. that may endanger your vessel if they come loose in the storm. You may need to encourage, or educate that captain or owner to save your own boat. In extreme cases, I would even recommend you secure that boat or boats as well, if possible, in the case where owners are absentee, or biligerant.

#12.) MOVE AND SECURE YOUR BOAT EARLY: Obvisouly, if you have the time and the ablity to move your boat out of harms way prior to the storm that is best case senario. If not, you still should move your boat to your mooring spot early enough to secure your position and your anchorage as needed. Remember other concerned boat owners and captains will be positioning their vessels as well and it is possible that you may be blocked out of your desired mooring if your not their early. Also keep in mind, all draw bridges and are usually closed and locked down as soon as a storm warning are posted. This allows for the uninterupted evacuation of those people living on barrier islands, or posible flood prone areas. If you have need to navigate any draw bridges to reach your mooring, you must be there before storm warnings are posted.

#13. HAULKING YOUR BOAT OUT AT A BOAT YARD?: Many owners and Captains choose to haul their boats out at local boat yards prior to the storm. This can work OK, as long as the boat yard is far enough away from the potential flood that can occur from the storm surge and high tides. Many of the boats hauled out in “Sandy’s” wrath on the Northeast recently, were hauled out in boat yards that were not far above the rising storm surge. The boats ended up in piles on top of each other. Once the flood surge reaches the floating height of any of the boats, they become floating catastrophies for any other boats they come in contact with. Your boat may be large enough and heavy enought not to float, but the one three boats over takes yours out. If you choose to haul out, choose the yard wisely.

Hopefully these lessons that have saved my boats for well over 45 years might help someone when the next “Frankenstorm” comes your way.

Captain Mickey Oliphant


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