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Preparing Your Boat for Hurricane Season

Hurricane season is part of life here in the Caribbean, so planning and being prepared for potential storms each year is important. If we learned anything from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, it’s that those of us who own boats here on St. Croix need to be especially diligent. According to NOAA, 377 boats were sunk or beached in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands alone as a result of the 2017 storms. The good news is that properly ‘buttoning up’ your boat for incoming storms can help you avoid damage.

All boats, whether big or small, power or sail, should be prepped for hurricane season. The most important thing for boat owners to have at the beginning of the season is a detailed plan for what to do if a hurricane is forecast. Here are some key items your plan should include:

  1. Decide whether you will store your vessel on land or on water, and where the boat will be stored, moored or anchored in the event of a hurricane.
  2. Make a list of all the materials and supplies you will need to prepare your boat in the event of a hurricane, and make sure you have them on hand at the start of the season.  
  3. Gather all the documentation for your boat, including the title/deed, registration, mooring permit (if applicable), insurance information, and take lots of photos from different angles of your boat’s pre-hurricane condition.

If a hurricane is coming your way and you need to put your plan into action, we want you to be as prepared as possible. For those who may not know, a Hurricane Watch indicates that hurricane conditions 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 is when you should start implementing your hurricane plan. There are few resources here on St. Croix to haul your boat our and store it on the hard in the event of a storm, so we spoke with Kyle Lajoie at Gallows Bay Marine Store about what boat owners should do to get ready for a hurricane. Here’s what Kyle (and several other reputable sources) recommended:

Clear Topside & Reduce Windage

In high winds, especially those sustained at over 100+ mph, anything that creates drag or resistance to the wind moving over the boat can be torn off and become a projectile. To protect your boat from damage, as well as other boats and property around you, remove everything that could possibly detach from your boat and go flying. 

  • Strip as many items as possible from your vessel’s topside and store them down below or in your lockers. These items may include bimini tops, dodgers, sail covers, antennas, removable fuel tanks, motors, sails, roller furling, outriggers, solar panels, swim ladders, wind generators, chairs, and cushions. If items cannot be removed, be sure they are strapped down and secured as much as possible.
  • Make sure to close and secure all hatches and openings, and lock them where possible. You can also use duct tape to enhance the watertight seal around hatches and portlights. While a point of debate for some, you can also tape large windows to hold together should they be hit by flying objects during storm.
  • Deflate your dinghy and store it upside down on your deck, strapped down as tightly as possible.
  • If you have a sailboat, unstep your masts since sailboat they create a large amount of windage and can cause a lot of damage if broken – especially if they become a projectile! If you choose to leave your masts up, attach your halyards to small lines and run them to the top of the mast to reduce windage on your lines. 

Prep & Stow Down Below 

Preparing below deck is equally important to clearing off topside. Make sure everything is properly stowed because your boat will be moving…a LOT…and in many directions.

  • Stow everything that could fall or fly around the cabin as the boat moves including dishes, food, small appliances, tools, spare parts. Securely stow EVERYTHING, and tape cabinets and lockers shut for added security.  
  • Make sure your batteries are fully charged, so that they can last without shore power, and they can run the bilge pumps if necessary. 
  • Make sure that all the bilge pumps are working properly and that the bilges are running clear. Vacuum out and thoroughly clean bilges to make sure they remain free of debris so they won’t clog. 
  • Fill all of your water and fuel tanks before the storm to add weight to your vessel, and to so you have those resources after storm passes.
  • Make sure your boat is properly grounded. There is a lot of lightening activity during hurricanes, and you don’t want your boat’s electrical system to get fried…and you certainly don’t want any electrical fires onboard.
  • Close through hulls, except those for the bilges which you may need to pump water overboard.
  • Turn off propane tanks to avoid any propane leaks.
Gallows Bay Marine offers all of the lines and supplies you need to secure your boat

Securing Your Boat for the Storm

You will want to be sure you are ready with all of the following:

  • Dock/Mooring Lines:  Out with the old and in with the new! According to Practical Sailor Tests, old lines lose 49-75 percent of their strength – so you don’t want to risk a years old line holding your boat in 100+ mph winds when. Lines should be either two or three strand nylon, and boats longer than 34 feet should use 3/4″ lines at a minimum, if not 1″ lines. Use long lines if your boat will be moored to a fixed dock or piling, that way your boat can float up as the water level goes up. (Lines that are too short can break or in some cases actually pull the pilings out of the water or pull the cleats from the dock.) 
  • Line Protection/Chafing Gear: Reduce the possibility of your dock lines breaking due to friction by installing chafing gear (rubber garden hoses or old fire hoses make great chafing gear). Also, consider switching to dock lines with a thimble spliced to the end, through which a short length of chain is run that is shackled to the dock cleat. At anchor or on a mooring you can use mooring compensators or snubbers to reduce the stress on your lines.
  • Cleats: Check the strength on he back plates of all cleats, and tighten or replace any nuts, bolts, or cleats that are worn or corroded.
  • Fenders: Fenders are extremely important! They protect your boat from banging into pilings, docks, and other vessels. Tie fenders horizontally when on a vertical piling, and tie vertically when on a dock or finger pier. The more fenders you have out, the better.
  • Anchors: Considerable testing of the holding power of anchors in all types of bottoms has been conducted by BoatUS, numerous anchor manufacturers and Cruising World. It was found that the most effective anchors were the fluke-type (such as Bruce, CQR and Danforth) which bury themselves under load. Mushroom and dead-weight anchors drag with relatively little effort, but the more anchors you have out the better.
Images from BoatUS

In a Marina/at Dock

Here on St. Croix there are three marinas, Green Cay Marina, St. Croix Marine Center, and Salt River Marina. If leaving your boat in a marina, secure it to the slip using double or triple lines and make sure to use chafe protectors wherever the lines rub up against the dock or the boat to keep the ropes from breaking mid-storm. Since a hurricane hits in all directions, you want to tie double lines and cross each cleat to form two angles and double the resistance. Use longer lines, which will allow your boat to rise and fall with the storm surge. The more lines you use, and the longer the lines, the better.

Also, make sure the dock pilings are strong enough to hold during the storm and tall enough to stay above the surge. The University of Florida recommends positioning your boat so that the bow faces the strongest winds, so try to get your boat pointed accordingly. 

If you want to haul out for an incoming storm, or for hurricane season, St. Croix Marine is the only St. Croix resource for emergency haul out in advance of a major storm.

On a Mooring

While most moorings can withstand storms and squalls, hurricanes place an extraordinary load on the ground tackle. The best anchors are helix types, which screw into the seabed. You may also want to put out additional storm anchors as a precaution (see ‘Securing Your Boat at Anchor’ below). Also, if your boat will be on a mooring, this is a good time to replace or upgrade your mooring pennant and ensure that it has chafe protection. Don’t forget to position your boat so that the bow faces the strongest winds, and put out all the fenders you have to help fend off any boats that may come in contact with yours if someone breaks loose from their mooring or anchors.

At Anchor

If you must anchor your boat in the water during a hurricane, try to do so an area where waves have the least distance to build up and the boat is most protected. Since the wind will veer around as the storm goes by, be sure your boat is protected from a wide range of wind angles. If you can find one, ‘hurricane holes’ that are completely enclosed provide the most protection. If you’re using a hurricane hole, scout ahead of time and make sure you will be able to get to it easily and quickly. Tie your boat to the surrounding trees and use anchors as described below to secure the vessel. As noted above, remember to position your boat so that the bow faces the strongest winds, and put out all the fenders you have to help fend off any boats that may come in contact with yours if someone breaks loose from their mooring or anchors.

Two or three anchors can be used for security. One approach is to set two anchors in linear formation connected together by chain, or in multiple directions at 90° to the anticipated direction of the wind. Three anchors can be set in an array of 120° and led to a single swivel and line leading to the bow. According to Cruising World: ‘In all mooring and anchoring arrangements, remember to increase scope to allow for storm surge — 10:1 if possible. Use heavy, oversized chain and oversized line in an approximate 50/50 ratio for the bow line. If you are using all-chain rode, use a sturdy snubber approximately 1/10 the length of the rode. The addition of a sentinel (riding weight) to the rode will lower the angle of pull on the anchor and reduce jerking and strain on the boat. Remember that additional scope requires additional swinging room.’

On Land

If your boat is trailer-able, 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 and it should offer protection against the wind and flying debris. 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 have to leave your boat out in the open, it’s a good idea to fill up the bilge compartment with water to weigh it down. Also, tie/strap the boat and trailer down to the ground. Let about half the air out of the trailer tires and block the trailer’s wheels to keep it from moving. To prevent fires, cut off the electrical system and remove all batteries. Also, be sure to check the condition of your trailer throughout hurricane season to perform in the best and worst conditions. Make sure the bearings, leaf springs, tires and rim are all in good, working order.

Image from Florida Sea Grant

We here at GoToStCroix hope this information will ensure you can get your boat ready for hurricane season, and in the event of a storm. If you have questions, or need any of the materials or supplies noted above, you can stop by Gallows Bay Marine Store. Please be prepared, and here’s hoping we have an uneventful hurricane season!

Hurricane Preparedness & Severe Weather Resources

– Jennie Ogden, Editor

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