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Preparing For A Hurricane


Tropical storms may be unpredictable, but one thing you can predict is that if one hits your marina, your boat is far more likely to survive if you have a preparation plan and follow it.

Long-range forecasters have learned that trying to predict the number and intensity of the next season’s tropical storms is like herding cats. Weather patterns such as El Niño/La Niña, wind shear, and even Saharan desert dust affect the development of tropical storms, and these intertwined variables can confound the best prognosticators, even as the season is starting. As an example, the 2013 season was predicted to have more than average activity, yet it was (thankfully) a yawn. The 2012 season, on the other hand, had twice as many hurricanes as predicted (including Superstorm Sandy). Tropical storms, it seems, don’t care about forecasts, and all it takes is one big storm that comes ashore to make seasonal predictions irrelevant. The lesson: Don’t wait for the season’s forecast before you develop your tropical-storm preparation plan, which is nothing more than knowing what, where, how, and when.

What To Expect

Tropical storms, including hurricanes, produce wind, rain, waves, and surge in proportions rarely experienced by boaters, and storm damage is usually due to a combination of these factors. A good preparation plan has to take all of these elements into consideration and the time to develop one is now, not when a storm is approaching.

How To Prepare For Wind

By definition, tropical storms have winds of at least 39 mph (which is when storms get a name) while hurricanes start at 74 mph and have been recorded at more than 150 mph. What’s not always understood is that as the speed of the wind doubles, its force quadruples. In other words, the damage wind does increases much faster than its speed. This illustrates the importance of reducing your boat’s windage — the area your boat presents to the wind — by removing as much rigging, canvas, and deck gear as possible. Whether your boat is stored ashore or stays in its slip, the less stuff the wind is able to push around, the safer your boat will be. Biminis are sure to get shredded in a strong storm, so take off the fabric and the frames. Strip off outriggers, antennas, running rigging, booms, life rings, and dinghies. Remove cowling ventilators and seal the openings. Furled headsails have a surprising amount of windage and are one of the first things damaged by wind, so they must be taken down. Not only can they shake your rig apart when they unfurl (and no matter how well you secure them, in a big storm they probably will), they can cause damage to your neighbor’s boat as well. Mainsails are bulky and should be removed also.

Removing the mast in smaller sailboats greatly reduces windage.

How To Prepare For Rain

Rainfall of six to 12 inches in 24 hours is common during a hurricane, and as much as two feet can fall in a day. Cockpit scuppers can be overwhelmed by such torrents, and even boats stored ashore can suffer damage if rainwater overflows into the cabin. Boats stored in the water can be sunk when rainwater backs up in the cockpit and the weight forces deck drains underwater, causing them to backflow.

Make certain cockpit drains are free-running. If your boat is staying in the water, remove heavy items from the stern area, such as anchors, extra fuel tanks, and kicker motors, so that the cockpit scuppers are higher above the water. Close all but cockpit drain seacocks and plug the engine’s exhaust port. Use masking or duct tape to seal around hatches, ports, and lockers to keep water from getting below. Seal exposed electronics. Make sure the bilge pump and switch work, and that the battery is topped up; shore power is not likely to remain on throughout the storm. Keep in mind that the ability of the pump and battery to remove water is usually greatly overestimated. Small boats should be covered if possible.

How To Prepare For Waves

Tropical storms build up surprisingly large waves quickly, even in relatively small harbors, bays, and lakes. The longer the distance over which the wind can build up waves, the bigger the waves. Waves make boats bounce in their slips, displacing fenders and increasing strain on docklines.

Exposure to waves can pound a boat against the dock. Small boats should be trailered inland.

Double up on docklines and make sure all are well-protected from chafe. While fenders and fender boards won’t compensate for poor docking arrangements, if the boat is well-secured, they may offer some additional protection, especially if they are heavy duty. Smaller boats can be overwhelmed, especially if they are stern-to to the waves. The bow is strongest and least likely to be overcome by water and should face into the waves.

How To Deal With Surge

Surge is rising water caused by a tropical storm, and it could very well be the highest an area has ever experienced. The strong wind from a storm causes water to pile up on top of any local tides. On a fixed dock, a boat will rise as much as 10 feet or more and it must be tied loosely enough to allow it to rise, but not so loose that it bangs against the dock. Long lines taken to an adjoining dock or piling and long spring lines will allow the boat to move up and down while still holding it in position.

Chandleries sell out of line, chafe guards, and fenders quickly, so buy what you need now.

Floating docks rise with the surge, but if it’s high enough, the surge can float the docks right off the pilings. If the predicted surge is anywhere near as high as the pilings, the boat must be moved, preferably ashore. BoatUS claims data show that boats are nearly always safer when hauled out. But, as Superstorm Sandy showed, in an exceptionally high surge even hauled boats can be floated off their stands. On average, those boats fared better, though, than those in their slips, many of which were carried away with their docks. For more on predicting surge, see below.

Storm Surge

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy reminded all of us that surge can cause at least as much damage as wind. Sandy’s surge, which exceeded 10 feet in the hardest hit areas, overwhelmed the infrastructure at hundreds of marinas, floating docks off pilings, destroying fixed docks, and carrying away boats on the hard. It would be easy to conclude that nothing could have prevented the devastation. But boats stood a much higher chance of surviving where boat owners prepared for the surge, and hauled-out boats that were damaged due to the high water suffered significantly less damage than those that remained in the water and floated off with their docks. To know what you’re up against, you need to have a good idea of how high the surge will be. In the past, this was mostly guesswork, but now there is a new tool from the National Weather Service (NWS) that can help predict the surge based on your location. The NWS will issue storm-surge prediction maps at around the same time as an initial hurricane watch or, in some cases, a tropical storm watch. These maps will be based on the latest forecast track and intensity for the tropical cyclone and take into account likely forecast errors. They can be thought of as representing a reasonable worst-case scenario for any given location, which can give you advance notice to help you take the appropriate steps to protect your boat.

Where To Keep Your Boat

Where your boat is kept is one of the most critical factors in preparation. Smaller boats should be put on their trailer and taken inland, but try not to park them under trees that might be blown over or lose large limbs. If you take your boat home, you may want to leave it, and not your car, in the garage.

These 18-foot pilings make it unlikely the docks will be carried off in a high surge.

A boat is lighter and more vulnerable to high winds than a car. Boats on lifts are particularly vulnerable and should be taken ashore. Move your trailerable boat early; roads may be traffic-choked in anticipation of the storm. If your boat will be well away from potential flooding, leave the drain plug out and use a cover if you have one (see below).

Drain Plugs In? Or Out?

In the fall of 2012, many boats had already been winterized when Superstorm Sandy came calling. Most of those boats ended up as total losses — because the drain plugs were out. The surge filled the boats with saltwater and sank them on land, destroying the engines in the process. Dante Grover at Al Grover’s High and Dry marina in Freeport, New York, had already winterized some of the boats when he saw Sandy coming. But for those that hadn’t been winterized, he decided to leave drain plugs in, make sure bilge pumps were working, add extra bilge pumps, and top off batteries. All of the boats floated off their jackstands or dry stacks, but the boats with drain plugs out were almost all destroyed, while those with drain plugs in were not inundated by the surge and most survived.

Normally, we’d recommend leaving the drain plug out during a storm so that heavy rainwater can drain, but if the possibility of an exceptionally high surge exists and your boat is covered, you may want to leave it in, so water doesn’t flow back in. One alternative is a one-way drain plug (such as the CR Marine Automatic Drain Plug). That way, water can drain out of the boat but the plug won’t allow water in. One downside to these plugs is that they clog easily, so make sure there’s no debris in the boat that could jam in the plug.

Boats normally kept in their slip should be hauled out if possible; BoatUS Marine Insurance will pay 50 percent of the cost of a haul-out during a tropical storm warning or watch, up to $1,000. Over the years, the BoatUS Hurricane Catastrophe Team has found that boats stored ashore usually fare much better during a storm than those kept in the water. Even if your boat survives the storm in its slip, it could easily be damaged or destroyed by a neighbor’s boat that breaks loose due to poor preparation. If your boat is going to stay in the water, you’ll need to have a plan to tie it securely, using extra lines that can be led to the next dock so the lines won’t be too tight when the water rises.

Boats that are hauled ashore are much less likely to suffer serious damage. Canvas should be removed. (Photo: Douglas Hillman)

Some marinas have begun to haul out boats and use straps embedded in concrete to tie them down, with good results, though the boats must still be stripped of anything removable that increases windage. Pay particular attention to the area’s potential for exposure to the storm. A marina with no protection from the storm’s winds and waves is going to suffer much greater damage than one that’s tucked away. If you’re not comfortable with the location, move your boat.

When To Batten Down

As Superstorm Sandy demonstrated, forecasts don’t always get it right far enough in advance to allow for much in the way of preparation. By the time the forecast has moved from probable to near-certain, securing the house, gathering emergency provisions, and even evacuating the area will all have priority. Even a hurricane watch, issued when there is a possibility of hurricane-force winds, comes out only 48 hours in advance of tropical storm-force winds. That’s not enough time to move your boat to a new location unless you have everything organized well in advance. The best advice is to follow your tropical-storm plan when a storm is a substantial possibility, even before a watch is issued. If you wait too long, bridges may be locked down, preventing you from moving your boat, and your marina may already be too busy to haul your boat. It’s far better to prep your boat for a storm that misses the area than to watch helplessly as the one that should have turned makes a beeline for your unprepared boat.

Charles Fort

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine