Damages totaled upwards of $200 billion, making it the costliest hurricane season in U.S. history. Boat owners were among the hardest hit. The Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatUS) says over 63,000 recreational boats were damaged or destroyed by Irma and Harvey, with many more losses in the Caribbean due to Hurricane Maria.
Unfortunately, scientists have predicted this year's Atlantic hurricane season will bring more storms than average, with three major hurricanes expected between June 1 and November 30. Since the 70's, hurricanes have consistently increased both in number and power within a given season. The time to prepare for a tropical cyclone is long before the threat has been announced.
Whether you are a boat owner who wants to be safe rather than sorry or a boater who has already seen the worst come to pass, this guide will help you figure out which steps you need to take to secure your most prized possession.
The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. -President John F. Kennedy
Plan Early, Plan Twice
Before the start of hurricane season, you should prepare your hurricane plan, which will involve deciding whether you will store your vessel on land or on water. Make a list of all the materials you will need to prepare your boat for a hurricane and make sure you have them on hand at the start of the season to avoid having to run around gathering supplies at the last minute. You should also gather all the documentation for your ship, including the boat's title deed and registration, insurance information, and numerous photographs from many angles of your boat's pre-hurricane condition.
It's in your best interest to decide on boat insurance prior to hurricane season. With the declaration of a tropical cyclone, insurance companies often discontinue processing applications until the storm has run its course. Begin your education on insurance early and discover the ins and outs of the industry.
If you store your boat in a marina, check to see if the facility administration has a hurricane plan. Marinas are increasingly demanding that boat owners take part in a hurricane plan, some going so far as to perform hurricane drills at the start of the season. If your marina does have a hurricane plan, make sure you designate someone as your replacement if you are out of town or have a scheduling conflict and cant's participate in the storm preparations. The marina's hurricane plan, however, should not replace your own.
Before the Storm
A hurricane watch indicates that hurricane conditions (sustained winds of 74 mph or higher) are possible in the next 48 hours, while a hurricane warning means these conditions will definitely happen within 36 hours. A watch is usually announced first, and this will be your first sign that you should start implementing your hurricane plan.
Securing Your Boat On Land
If your boat is trailerable, your best bet is to take it out of the water and move it to a secure location on land. This location should be on ground high enough to avoid the storm surge. It should also offer some protection against wind. An ideal location is your garage if the boat fits. Smaller boats are often lighter than cars and could be blown over by strong gusts, even if they are secured to trailers.
If you're leaving your vessel out in the open, fill up the bilge compartment with water to weigh it down, tie the boat down to the ground, and block the trailer's wheels to keep it from moving. Lee County officials recommend that you cut off the electrical system and remove all batteries to eliminate the risk of fire if you're taking your boat out of the water. Additionally, remember to check the condition of your trailer throughout hurricane season to perform in the best and worst conditions.
Whenever possible, boats on lifts or davits should be stored ashore or moved to a safer location in the water (dock or anchorage). -BoatUS
Most experts recommend never leaving your boat on davits lifts, or racks. Storm surges and heavy currents create massive shifts in shoreline sand, making the base of these structures unreliable. They are often not soundly secured and can cause increased damage to your boat if they collapse or drift under tropical storm-force or hurricane-force winds.
Securing Your Boat in the Water
You may not be able to take your boat out of the water, which increases the chances of it suffering damages. However, there are things you can do to mitigate the risk.
If you're leaving your boat in the marina, secure it to the slip using double or triple lines. Use chafe protectors wherever the lines rub up against the dock or the boat to keep the ropes from breaking mid-storm. Use enough rope to allow the boat to move with the storm surge. The type of rope you use also matters. According to the University of Florida, boats longer than 34 feet should use 3/4-inch lines at a minimum, if not 1-inch lines. Finally, make sure the dock pilings are strong enough to hold during the storm and tall enough to stay above the surge. Wooden pilings are more flexible than concrete pilings and will, therefore, be sturdier.
If you're using a hurricane hole, don't wait until a hurricane advisory to look for a place. Scout a hole ahead of time and make sure you will be able to get to it easily and quickly before and after the storm. Tie the boat to the surrounding trees and use anchors to secure the vessel. BoatUS recommends looking for hurricane holes with good holding, surrounding hills to block wind, and little wind funneling between those hills. Helix anchors are particularly recommended, as they resist more pull force than dead-weight anchors or mushroom anchors.
When storing your boat in the water, remember to empty the bilge compartment and leave a charged battery running to pump the bilge during the storm. The University of Florida recommends positioning the boat so that the bow faces the strongest winds.
And finally, whether you secure your boat for a tropical cyclone on land or in the water, remove everything that could conceivably be ripped off by a strong gust. Masts, sails, antennas, deck chairs, dinghies, removable fuel tanks, it all has to go. Remember, you're not just protecting your boat from damage, you're protecting the property around you.
During the Storm
More than half the deaths attributed to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 were boaters, all drowning while attempting to save their boats. -National Hurricane Center
Once tropical storm or hurricane winds are being felt, you should be completely done with all your boat preparations and in a safe shelter. DO NOT RIDE OUT THE STORM INSIDE YOUR BOAT. This is never, ever a good idea. If your boat begins to sink, it will be that much more difficult to get out of it in the middle of the storm.
According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), about 25 percent of hurricane fatalities result from boaters trying to secure vessels in deteriorating storm conditions. Don't risk your life or the life of the rescuers that may need to help you get out.
After the Storm
Time is of the essence once the storm has passed. If officials have given you the all-clear to move from your secure location, get to your boat as soon as you can. BoatUS recommends bringing cleaning tools, anti-corrosion spray, duct tape, trash bags, bug spray, boots, gloves and pencil and paper to inventory damage.
If your boat is mostly undamaged, deep clean and dry it to avoid any corrosion. Be sure to also check the prop for debris prior to using the motor. If there are damages, you should have your insurance company's information on hand with your hurricane plan. Gather immense photo evidence of the damage and call them for guidance on how to proceed. If the boat has sunk, the insurance company will likely have a procedure for salvaging it.
Another unfortunate risk after a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, is theft. Even if your boat is all right, consider whether leaving it where it is safe as it may be looted.
Sailing During Hurricane Season
The Atlantic and Caribbean have some of the nicest summer weather in the world. However, the threat of hurricanes and other tropical cyclones should not be underestimated. If you're boating between the months of June and November, make sure you keep an eye on the weather forecast. NOAA Weather Radio is a great resource that provides advisories for all 50 states and island territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
We generally don't linger anywhere that we couldn't get to a hurricane hole easily, particularly if it's an area where we have spottier access to detailed weather information. -Carolyn Shearlock, The Boat Galley
Carolyn Shearlock of The Boat Galley also recommends knowing the location of the nearest hurricane hole or marina, as well as staying no more than a day's journey away from one. She also recommends being mindful that weather forecasts may not match up with reality and using common sense. Her website has a great section on hurricane preparation topics.
If you are caught in a hurricane while at sea, BoatSafe.com recommends putting on a life vest and staying below deck, which is safer than being above where the wind and rain could wash you overboard.