by Tom Dove
When hurricanes are deciding where to go and the Chesapeake Bay is one possibility, many of us here in the Land of Pleasant Living begin to prepare our boats for the ultimate storm. A surprising number of others ignore the danger entirely.
After seeing what happened to the East Coast with Irene, the Chesapeake with Isabel, the Carolinas with Hugo and New England with Bob (not to mention the assorted storm hits on Florida and the Gulf coast), we should think about our actions carefully. Your preparations will influence not only what happens to your boat, but to others around it.
Several people in our marina took the fatalistic approach, saying, “If it hits, it hits. Nothing I can do will save the boat from a storm like that. That’s why I carry insurance.”
That’s fine for them to say, but what about me? If my neighbor’s boat breaks loose, it will drift down on mine and destroy it. Is that fair?
There is a nice little powerboat a few slips away from mine that is secured by four pieces of clothesline, improperly cleated to the pier. With a five-foot tide and winds over 60 knots, it would surely break free and wipe out three or four other vessels before it sank.
Many local small-craft owners leave their boats on lifts in severe weather; several on the Eastern Shore, where I live, were destroyed or damaged by Isabel. Lifts are designed to raise boats clear of the water, but they don’t usually go high enough to clear a storm surge, nor do owners often add tie downs to prevent their vessels from blowing away. Before a storm, I feel obliged to add lines to such casually maintained boats.
Much of the damage from Hurricane Bob in the Cape Cod area in 1991 was caused by a few boats breaking free and smashing into others. The storm hit at high tide, and the water level was some ten feet above normal. That combination pulled moorings out of the bottom and drove boats up onto piers. Those who survived had a combination of preparation and luck.
The preparation was based on visualizing the effect of very high tides and making allowance for it in the mooring lines. The luck was being in a place where other boat owners did the same things.
Here are the nuts and bolts:
- Before a storm threatens, decide first where to put the boat. If possible, haul it out and block it carefully in a place where trees and other boats cannot fall onto it.
- If you are close to a snug harbor with secure holding ground and you have several heavy anchors, you might want to move the boat there. Otherwise, study the layout of your marina.
- Look at the exposed end of the harbor. An intense low-pressure system, like a hurricane or a coastal “Nor’easter” storm that develops off the Carolinas, generally goes to the east of the Chesapeake. The winds are typically easterly to northeasterly, although they may begin from the southeast.
- Turn your boat in the slip to face the storm winds and waves as much as possible. Set up spring lines to resist forces from the storm directions. Tie directly to the tallest, sturdiest pilings you can find. Cleats can pull out of their mountings.
- Double the dock lines, so that one will remain if the other breaks or chafes through. Allow for an extremely high tide. Old-timers who rode out hurricanes locally can advise you how much the water level may rise in your area. They’ll also know if a particular spot is unsafe during specific wind directions. Many harbors that are secure from most winds are deadly in a strong blow from one quadrant. For example, Marblehead, Massachusetts can be startling, Narragansett Bay has several treacherous havens, some rivers on the western side of the Chesapeake are tricky, and the Neuse in North Carolina can develop a significant storm surge.
- Tie the boat so that you can adjust the mooring lines from the dock. If the water level rises and the boat is bouncing about, you will not be able to get aboard to slack the lines so it can rise with the storm tide. Prepare for a tide so high that you cannot go out on the submerged pier at the peak of the storm.
- Put chafing gear on all the dock lines. A garden hose, slipped over the end of the rope or leather or canvas wrapped around it where it goes through the deck chock will prevent the line from wearing through during the storm. If you use garden hose, be sure that it is supple, not old and brittle. HIGH TIDES AND CHAFING OF DOCK LINES ARE THE GREATEST DANGERS to your boat. I have watched a one-half inch nylon rope wear away half of its diameter during an eight-hour storm. Do not underestimate this threat.
- Remove all canvas covers and loose items on deck and put them ashore or below decks. Take off bimini tops, sails, flags, boat hooks, deck chairs and similar items and stow them. The object is twofold: reducing windage and preventing damage from flying objects.
- Pump the bilges dry and close all through-hull fittings except those that drain the cockpit.
- Shut off the fuel supply line.
- Remove any loose items, such as lamps and vases, from surfaces in the cabin.
After you have done everything possible for your own boat, check the ones around you, especially those to the east. Call the owners to let them know of the danger, if you can. If necessary, add dock lines to neglected vessels to protect your own.
Finally, go home. Do not stay aboard. No boat is worth your own life.
We who live along the Eastern seaboard have been extraordinarily lucky for several years, and most of us have become complacent. Let’s take a lesson from history and minimize our losses.