Monday, September 25, 2017

Wisdom of the Snowbirds

After the recent disasters of Irma and Maria in the Caribbean and in Florida many are wondering what can be done to protect their boats during Hurricane Season. Well, #1 is to not be in hurricane prone areas in the first place! We have been spoiled by relatively quiet hurricane seasons for several decades, and many boaters have forgotten the wisdom of the not-so-ancients who would never venture south of Cape Hatteras/Norfolk before November 1.

Today we are seeing harbors like Marathon in the Florida Keys packed with boats in August and September when they used to be nearly empty. It was inevitable that a big storm would come along and demonstrate why the old wisdom was to stay north until after November. This is the wisdom of the snowbirds.

When I first started heading south from New England in the 1980s this snowbird wisdom was ingrained in the boating public. We all headed to the Chesapeake for the big Annapolis boat shows around Columbus Day, then meandered south down the Chesapeake to Norfolk around Halloween time.

Yes, we did occasionally encounter the late-season hurricane in those years, but we weren't trapped in a place like Marathon with few alternatives but to ride it out and hope for the best. Between Virginia and Florida there are literally thousands of "hurricane holes" up winding creeks, and with modern forecasting and the usual week or so of warning most boaters can move several hundred miles up or down the ICW to get into a better position.

I understand that many boaters in places like Marathon consider it "home," and if you have a job or kids in school it is very hard to leave when a hurricane is headed your way. But, I can't beat around the bush--that is a bad plan for your life on a boat!

Some estimates are that 75% of the boats in Boot Key Harbor in Marathon were either sunk or blown ashore. I'm not sure accurate numbers will ever come out, but the general scale of the problem was dramatically illustrated during Irma. Marathon is not a good place to spend Hurricane Season!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Get off the dock in a hurricane

Your boat is almost always better on a mooring and/or on anchors than at the dock in a hurricane. Docks feel solid and reassuring in normal conditions, or even in pretty severe storms, but the difference in a hurricane can be storm surge. The photo was taken during Hurricane Bob with our boat at the time, Echo, on a mooring with anchors out in Cuttyhunk. Only three boats in the harbor broke loose, and they were all due to either inadequate mooring lines or too little scope. One boat picked up its mooring and dragged it ashore. If they had put out 50 feet of line the boat would have been fine.

Why were we there? Simple, the storm was predicted to go right over us, or very close, and the storm surge was predicted to be 10 feet or more. I think we had close to 10 feet. The fishing dock and the ferry dock were under water in Cuttyhunk. Four-wheelers and large propane tanks floated off of land and drifted by us. A small shack floated by, roof upside down, like a boat.

If we had been tied to the fixed docks everything would have been under water. Lines would have to be either impossibly tight, or terribly loose. Even if our boat didn't break loose or float off other boats would have, and they would be right next to us. Watch the videos from Irma of boats sinking in slips, tied securely to pilings and docks, due to collisions with the marina infrastructure or other boats.

Yes, if your are on a mooring or anchor your lines could break, and your anchors can drag. But, at least your boat is pointed into the wind and seas and it can have a chance. When tied up to a dock you are at the mercy of the wind direction and how well your neighbor has prepared, and how well the marina has maintained everything. But, get a 10-20 foot storm surge, and nobody is prepared. At anchor or on a mooring your boat has a chance. Add extra lines and extra scope and the boat can rise with the rising water.

Give your boat a chance in a hurricane.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Hurricane! Secure your car.

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on the Leeward Islands and a landfall in the USA looking very possible as of today, I thought of doing a blog post on hurricane preparation. It is an important topic, but today I will review an equally important subject for boaters: what to do with your car during a tropical storm.

Seriously, your car is often extremely important both before, during, and after a storm. It is likely to be how you get to your boat in the first place, assuming you aren't living aboard. It may be your escape hatch if the storm proves to be too threatening or if the worst occurs and your boat is damaged, aground, or possibly sunk. Third, once the storm has passed your car may be the only means to escape the damaged area, and it will likely be your lifeline to obtain food, water, and repair materials.

Keep the car filled with gasoline, if possible, and consider storing some spare water and supplies there. My trunk always has things like jumper cables and even a small starter battery that doubles as a cell phone charger. Being able to escape a wet, damaged boat and possibly even spend a night in a dry car with a charged cell phone might look pretty good after a storm. You may even consider storing some important valuables in the car, if you can find a great spot to leave it.

The other day I heard a great tip while watching a weatherman talking about the flooding during Hurricane Harvey in Houston. He said check out your height above sea level by using the compass app on your iPhone. My Android phone doesn't come with a native compass app, but there are many in the Play Store and quite a few do include height above sea level. I'm still researching which ones are good and which ones prove to be accurate, but this can be an extremely valuable piece of information to have when thinking about where to put your car. Protection from wind and debris will mean nothing if the car is flooded--seek higher ground!

This often means abandoning the marina parking lot, which is frequently located strategically right next to the docks and the harbor--not the place to avoid damaging storm surges that come with hurricanes. In New England, one can often walk inland a couple of blocks and you'll notice that you are going uphill. Florida, not so much. In fact, it may not be possible to find a place immune to tropical storm flooding within a reasonable distance from the marina. If that is the case, consider parking garages that allow you to go up a floor or two. These tend to be strongly built structures which may also provide shelter from the wind, and more importantly flying debris.

Until you have experienced a hurricane or two it is hard to appreciate the dangers of debris flying through the air. Maybe you have noticed that people cover large building windows with plywood sheets. Think of your car windows enduring the same pummeling. However, don't even think about trying to cover your car with any sort of normal cover. It will either shred in the storm, and/or flap so much the car's paint will be ruined--probably both.

I actually search for parking opportunities that allow me to either point the car into the wind or go stern (rear bumper) to, and downwind of a large, sturdy structure made of concrete. If you park close to such a structure, with the nose of the car up towards a wall, it can prevent rain from driving into the engine compartment under the force of 100 mph winds, and anything that is blowing through the air will be blocked.

Believe it or not, these types of parking opportunities are something I note during the boating season. Where can I park the car, nearish my boat, with protection from likely storm force winds, high enough above sea level to be safe from flooding, and also a place that the car can be left without fear of being towed or broken into? It can be tough to find such a place, so start making mental notes as you explore the area near a new marina or mooring.