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Lessons Learned From Hurricane Irene

October 1, 2011

Lessons Learned From Hurricane Irene

By Stu Hochron

Not often do boaters get the chance to experience a hurricane. After a few decades of boating, and a dozen or more serious storms that skirted our area, Irene arrived. Along with many of our readers, Shana and I got the chance to learn, first hand, some Hurricane preparedness lessons. We were joined during Hurricane Irene by NFTB contributing photographer Gavin Ashworth, and his wife Miryam. Gavin’s photographs are, as always, a welcome addition to the story. While our experience represents only a small part of this hurricane’s effect on boating, our observations, along with those of readers, are important in understanding the power of a hurricane, and the benefits of preparing for its arrival.

Several websites offer excellent information regarding recommended methods for preparing vessels for storms. Probably the best of these sites is BoatUS’s presentation, Preparing Boats and Marinas for Hurricanes. As Hurricane Irene approached the northeast many of us gathered recommendations from these sites, from professionals, and from fellow boaters. Then, as with every dress rehearsal and set of “best made plans”, it was time for the real thing. Our storm theories would be tested. The results of our decisions with regard to storm preparedness would soon be evident. What follows is a discussion of several key decisions that every boater needed to make before Irene arrived, how we decided what to do and why, and the conclusions we drew from the results.

Applying extra lines is a key element to safety when planning to ride out a storm at dockside

Decision No. 1-To Stay or To Leave a Hurricane Hole

Every expert tells us that the safest place for a boat during a hurricane is on land. Next best is to be properly tied to a secure dock, as far away from large bodies of water as possible. Next on the list of “safe choices” is anchoring in a hurricane hole with three heavy anchors set at proper angles to the anticipated storm. Although we were anchored in an area where other boaters had ridden out former storms, we chose to leave a known hurricane hole and move up-river for greater protection. Our decision considered the following:

  • Wind directions during a storm may be unpredictable
  • Other anchored or moored boats, if broken free, would present an unmanageable danger during the storm
  • We were not prepared to deploy three (3) hurricane anchors and adequate chain/rode as required
  • We wanted to preserve our option to move onto land if conditions deteriorated and became dangerous

As it turned out, our decision was the right one for us. Boats did drag and/or break free from anchors and moorings during the storm, and this caused considerable damage. Some boaters who had planned to stay aboard in marinas did eventually choose to move to land because of uncomfortable or dangerous conditions.

Lesson No. 1

In the face of a Category 1 hurricane, having the option to move off the boat and onto land is important.

Decision No. 2-Choice of Marina

We chose to move twenty-five miles “upriver” from Block Island Sound, to a marina in

Chafing gear, commercial or otherwise, is prudent preparation for a storm

Barrington Rhode Island. As it turned out, moving to Brewers Cove Haven Marina was a particularly good idea for a variety of reasons:

  • Pulling the boat out of the water was an option
  • Dockage was available at new floating docks that were equipped with pilings designed to withstand hurricane surges
  • Numerous hotel choices were available nearby
  • Prices were reasonable, and did not change because of the storm
  • Marina employees rose to the occasion, and made every effort to assist boaters and protect vessels

Lesson No. 2

As a Category 1 or greater hurricane approaches, it is prudent to seek shelter at a marina that is located inland, as far from open water as possible, and that provides high quality docks designed to withstand storm surge.

Decision No. 3-To Pull the Boat or Remain in the Water

Fenders-an essential piece of the storm protection puzzle

Because Irene was predicted to be, at most, a Category 1 hurricane (winds 74-95 mph), and considering the high quality of the docks and the location of the marina, we decided to stay in the water during the storm. This decision was based on the following:

  • Experts advised us that properly prepared and secured boats at dockside generally ride out Category 1 hurricanes without damage
  • The marina’s docks were nearly new, floating docks, and were designed to withstand greater than Category 1 storms
  • Boats could be pointed downriver, into the direction of the heaviest predicted winds
  • Adequate space was available between boats at docks

Lesson No. 3

Properly located, designed, and maintained docks can adequately protect properly secured boats during a Category 1 hurricane. For those who chose the right marina, but failed to remove all canvas and sails, the story was different. Canvas was shredded on numerous boats, and sails were torn off booms and forestays from vessels whose owners took storm preparation short-cuts.

Decision No. 4-To Stay Aboard or Seek Shelter on Land

Our decision to seek shelter on land was based on the following factors:

  • Our ability to safely exit the boat, and to travel to a hotel, after the storm began
  • Our limited capacity to make changes in the boat’s preparations during the hurricane
  • The potential for significant discomfort, illness, or injury while staying aboard during the hurricane

Hurricane Irene Wind damage adjacent to a Rhode Island marina

We decided to leave the boat and stay in a nearby hotel. A pair of live-aboards, who had decided to stay on their boat at a neighboring dock, moved to land mid-storm when a) it became apparent to them that escape on rocking/jumping docks could become dangerous or impossible if they waited any longer and b) life aboard became uncomfortable and difficult as the lee toe rail remained pinned by wind under water.

Lesson No 4

While a properly secured boat can easily withstand a Category 1 hurricane at the right marina, boaters may not be as resilient.

Decision No. 5-How Best to Secure a Boat to a Dock

Prior to the storm each boater needed to decide how best to secure his/her boat given storm predictions and available resources.  We relied on the heaviest dock lines available, and doubled those expected to be under the greatest strain. While most boaters did not unitize commercially available chafing gear, improvisation abounded. In the end we saw no boats at docks that, if otherwise properly tied, suffered line damage or breakage due to chafe.

Canvas and sails that were not heavily tied down were at risk for being shredded, however, numerous boaters wrapped lines around sails attached to booms, and survived with no apparent damage.  We did not see anyone remove masthead equipment such as wind direction indicators. None of these appeared broken after the storm. Our wind instruments were not removed, and were not affected by the storm and its 80 mph winds.

Lesson No. 5

Even if preparations are less than ideal (ie: failure to remove sails or all canvas from decks, or to use chafing gear), little significant damage may result form 80 mph winds. It does not take a vivid imagination to envision how boats less than ideally prepared would have fared if the wind had reached 100 mph.

Summary

The lessons we, and others, learned from Hurricane Irene must be interpreted narrowly.  They derived from a storm that locally delivered, at its peak, 80 mph winds. But the importance of observations from such a natural experiment in preparedness for a Category 1 hurricane should not be diminished, especially if made by multiple observers.

From our perspective we conclude that, as in the past, we will continue to subscribe to the adage “prepare for the worst and hope for the best”. Making the extra effort to move inland, setting extra dock lines protected with chafing gear, and stripping all canvas and sails from the boat has proven, once again, to be good insurance. Lastly, considering how much information is out there, spending a portion of the off-season reading storm preparation resource material will likely turn out to be time well spent.

If you wish to share your “lessons-learned” from Hurricane Irene with fellow readers, kindly send them our way.

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