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Boat Hurricane Rescue


Hurricane season is now. The BoatUS CAT Team (that’s CAT, for catastrophe!) has lots of invaluable lessons to share with you about how best to prepare marinas and boats for the worst.

The founding of the BoatUS Hurricane Catastrophe (CAT) Team goes back to the fall of 1983, when Hurricane Alicia devastated much of the Texas Gulf coast, including the newly built outer harbor at the Houston Yacht Club. Dozens of boats that had been in the harbor came ashore and were strewn, one on top of the other, in a massive pile-up that proved to be a daunting challenge to would-be salvors. BoatUS, which insured many of the boats, had been in touch with the club’s officers and volunteered to dispatch several BoatUS employees to the Houston Yacht Club to, in the words of one employee, “do whatever we could to help clean up the mess.”

Marinas that haven’t been well-maintained are especially vulnerable in hurricanes. Despite being well-prepared by its owner, the boat shown sank because the marina’s badly corroded piling was pulled out of the concrete dock.

BoatUS CEO Bill Oakerson, who was then head of our BoatUS Marine Insurance Division, was part of that original group that sped to Texas. He describes what happened in Houston as the start of a company-wide learning process that has continued to expand with each new storm for almost three decades. Today, the BoatUS CAT Team’s experience in how to mobilize and get on scene immediately, evaluate would be salvors, efficiently set up staging areas to safely store damaged boats, and negotiate contracts — all on behalf of our insureds — is unparalleled in the marine industry.

With years of firsthand experience, the CAT Team now has more than 35 members, and has amassed an impressive body of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work when boats are prepared for hurricanes. We’ve talked to several of the senior members of the CAT Team to see what lessons they’ve learned that might help you prepare your boats for the next inevitable storm.

Jack Hornor: Naval Architect

Those of us who’ve spent weeks and sometimes months sorting out the maritime aftermath of hurricanes are seldom surprised by what we find when we visit a site for the first time. It’s not long before all marinas and boatyards start looking alike in terms of what happens and why. But there’s one that stands out for me, not for the damage and destruction — although there was plenty of that, too — but for the lack of damage to many vessels there due to the forethought and planning of conscientious boat owners and a forward-thinking marina owner.

When I first arrived at Florida’s Sebastian River Marina following Hurricane Frances in 2004, the entrance at the north end of the property was blocked by cranes, boat lifts, and equipment, so I turned around and parked along the eastern shoulder of U.S. 1 adjacent to the marina. I climbed down the brush- and tree-lined embankment to discover a row of powerboats standing as proud and erect as Terracotta Warriors. None had any damage and all had been secured, with straps and lines, to anchors embedded in the concrete pads.

Anyone who has dealt with the aftermath of a hurricane knows that greatest damage, by far, is done by storm surge, water, and waves, and not simply by the force of the wind. Boat owners preparing their boats for a storm need to get their boats out of the water and on high ground. Tying boats down has proven its worth as an added preventive measure and seems to be gaining in popularity among many marinas. When recently searching out a location to store my own boat in Fort Pierce, Florida, both Harbortown and Riverview Marinas offered the tie-down service for boats in storage. Needless to say, mine is now strapped down.

As a rule, boats on land are far less likely to be damaged if they’re strapped down to anchors in the ground.

Mike McCook: Marine Surveyor

I’ve been working with the BoatUS CAT Team for almost 30 years and have seen lots of destroyed boats. Typically, the cause can be traced to the vulnerability of the boats’ locations and/or the lack of preparation. One that stands out was in Galveston, Texas, after Hurricane Ike. There was a beautiful sportfisherman whose owner had done a thorough job of stripping the boat and adding many more lines, all of which were well-protected from chafe. Rather than relying on his usual docking arrangement, the owner had also used longer lines that were led to more distant pilings, which had given the boat a much better chance of rising with Ike’s 15-foot surge. Finally, the boat had been stripped of anything removable that would have created windage. But despite being a textbook example of how to secure a boat in its slip for a hurricane, the sportfisherman had sunk.

The owner’s mistake was that he’d placed far too much faith in the dock’s aging bollards, those metal or wood posts on docks that are used to fasten mooring lines; in this case, they were secured to the concrete docks with rusted bolts. The bollards were yanked out and the edge of the boat’s stern was pushed up onto the bulkhead during the surge. When the water receded, the edge of the stern was left high and dry while the remainder of the boat was left dangling at an awkward angle down to the water. The cockpit flooded and the boat rolled over and sank.

Much has been written on the importance of a marina’s location. Marinas that are only protected by a low-lying seawall or spit of land aren’t a good place to secure your boat in a hurricane. Also, it’s important to look at the condition of the marina — rusted fittings, worm-eaten pilings, and narrow slips put your boat at greater risk in a storm.

David Wiggin: Marine Surveyor

After Hurricane Gloria swept up the East Coast in 1985, the beaches were littered with boats that had only been anchored with homemade concrete moorings. People had poured concrete into things like tractor tires and bathtubs. That was it. There were also moorings made out of large wheels or gears from old locomotives. A few years later, Hurricane Bob came ashore in New England with the same result — boats on moorings didn’t fare well. The two monster hurricanes changed all of that. The various New England towns that had seen their harbors decimated began mandating stricter rules on what could and couldn’t be used to anchor a mooring. The homemade “anything goes” stuff has been largely replaced with helix anchors, much heavier deadweight anchors, and properly sized mushroom anchors.

Another important change since Gloria and Bob has been that there are now tighter rules about how often a mooring needs to be inspected. It used to be that mooring components such as chain and shackles in some harbors were likely to have become badly corroded before they were required to be replaced. I’ve been on the Bourne Shore and Harbor Committee in Massachusetts for many years. Anything that has caused problems in the past has been addressed. Aside from replacing under-sized anchors, for example, we no longer allow the use of some foreign-made chains or shackles because they don’t hold up in seawater. The old adage about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link certainly applies to moorings.

Newer boat storage buildings — typically those built following Hurricane Andrew — are much less likely to be destroyed in a storm.

Dan Rutherford: Marine Surveyor

I remember a high-rise marine storage facility — a “boatel” — near Miami that was destroyed in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and another outside of Charleston, South Carolina, that was collapsed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Like most storage buildings, they appeared to be sturdy, but upon closer inspection, they lacked diagonal struts. There were gussets on the frames, those normally triangular metal brackets used to strengthen the joists, but in this case the gussets didn’t provide the support needed to withstand a strong hurricane and the entire structures were blown over. There were several hundred boats stored inside and all but a few were a total loss. Collapses of rack-storage buildings bring with them several other concerns, including the potential for fuel leaks, fires, and explosions. That’s why first responders must secure the area around a collapsed building.

After Andrew, the standards for marine storage buildings were strengthened so that a newer building is far more likely to survive a hurricane than an older, pre-Andrew facility. There have been at least a dozen of these older buildings destroyed in recent hurricanes and plenty of them still being used that are packed with boats. It’s almost guaranteed one or more will be blown over whenever a major storm comes ashore.

If you’re planning to dry-store a boat in a building, begin by asking the manager when it was built and how much wind it was designed to withstand. If it’s a relatively new building in a hurricane-prone area, he or she will be able to answer those questions. Of course, there are no guarantees; if the eye wall of a Category 5 hurricane were to hit the rack — any rack — then all bets are off. If it’s a well-constructed building, though, with ample robust cross braces, and built to modern standards, your boat is more likely to weather a storm than if it were at a dock. If you keep your boat in an older building that’s likely to be vulnerable, your hurricane plan should be to put the boat on a trailer and take it inland. If you’re going to evacuate the area, you can use it to haul valuables you don’t want to leave in your home.

Jonathan Klopman: Marine Surveyor

In theory, canals should be an ideal place for a boat in the water during a hurricane; most are well-protected with almost no wave action. The surge can be dealt with by tying boats off in the center of the canal with more and longer lines; the longer the better able a boat will be to accommodate the surge. In my experience, however, canals may not offer any more protection. All it takes is for one absentee owner to leave their boat poorly secured, and it can break loose during the storm and become a wrecking ball. The result may be that the boat gets tossed up in someone’s yard where there’s little or no access to pick it out with a crane.

Boat owners living on a canal should work together to devise a “community plan” for all the boats. The “plan” should also involve working out permission on how the boats can be anchored to trees or anchor points in lawns. This includes keeping spools of line on hand for making longer lines to shore, compiling a list of which boats will be leaving before boats are tied off, and deciding who will prep boats if people are unavailable.

The end result of a collective effort should be more boats surviving the storm and far fewer boats on lawns, in living rooms, or sunk in the canal.

Other things to keep in mind when boats are stored in canals: Boats that were tied with the usual four lines have proven to be vulnerable. The spring lines must be tied with as much scope as possible and drawn up tight.

Any slack left in the line will allow for shock loading and the lines could snap like a guitar string once the boat starts heaving in the surge. Boats raised up on lifts are not protected; they’ll either get tossed out of the slings or slammed against the pilings and holed. They should be taken down and either stored ashore on their trailers or tied off in the center of the canals.

Carroll Robertson: Former Senior Vice President of Claims, BoatUS Marine Insurance

There’s a common theme in the stories of those who’ve weathered a hurricane with minimal or no damage: Be prepared! We’ve found that the most successful hurricane damage prevention requires a partnership with your marina, boat club, or local professional. Waiting until the last moment and making only a token effort will most likely put you on a waiting list when the storm is only hours away.

If you’re likely to be away from your boat during hurricane season, make clear arrangements ahead of time for someone else to prepare your boat – preferably hauling it out of the water, lashing it to the ground, and removing loose equipment such as canvas, sails, enclosures, and so on. Remember, if a NOAA hurricane watch or warning is issued for your area, BoatUS Marine Insurance policies will pay 50 percent of the cost, up to $1,000, for professional haul-out, evacuation to a hurricane hole, or other storm-preparation efforts.

If you haven’t already talked with your marina manager and made a hurricane plan, the time is now. Hurricane season spans June 1 through November 30. Check your policy, and make your plan today.

Bob Adriance

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine