Storm-force winds are Force 10 winds or greater on the Beaufort scale. That’s sustained winds of at least 48 knots, or 55 mph—sobering conditions, even in port. Buildings may sustain structural damage. Deck gear—such as Bimini tops, dodgers, sails and covers, hatch screens, jerry jugs and dinghies—might carry away.
About a year ago in Greenport, New York, a violent frontal passage blew a steeple and roof section off a church in 65 knots of wind. Bimini tops split at the seams, genoas unfurled and flogged themselves to shreds, and dinghies blew around like toys. Storm-force winds are brutal, but if you have a storm strategy, then you can prepare your boat and protect against damages—a task that is your responsibility as a boat owner. Leaving the boat as-is on your mooring with high winds predicted and calling the insurance company after the fact is negligent. Hope is not a plan. Praying sure didn’t help the church.
When getting ready for storm-force winds, reduce windage by taking sails, Bimini tops, dodgers, awnings, canvas deck covers and flags off the boat. Remove or lash down equipment or objects that could carry away. Stow water toys, cushions,
portable solar panels and fishing gear.
Storm winds often come with prolonged or torrential rain. Secure dorades, ports, hatches and vents—especially in the cockpit, which can directly flood the bilges. Be fastidious about the cleanliness and free-flowing ability of your scuppers. Don’t pile gear in the cockpit, as the piles could cause blowing leaves to dam up and clog cockpit drains and scuppers.
Wind or flooding causes extraordinary heeling, exposing through-hull fittings to the sea that normally would be well above the waterline. A friend once drilled out for a vent through-hull for a head, but went on vacation before installing the fitting and hose. Heavy snow caused the boat to heel and submerge the hole. The boat sank. The moral: Close head and sink seacocks or insert wooden plugs as part of storm preparedness.
All bilge pump components must be in good order and switched to automatic mode. Float switches should function flawlessly and be free of debris or obstructions. In addition, batteries should be fully charged since shore power may be out for a prolonged period.
Docks provide shelter and security in storms, but also are hazards. Lying on the windward side of an exposed dock is the worst-case scenario. Based on the predicted wind direction, try to position your boat so that it will be blown off the dock and so thrashing seas can’t force water in your engine’s exhaust line, up and over your riser, and into the engine. Plan accordingly.
Awareness of storm surge is critical. The buildup of water level in advance of a low-pressure area can cause a storm surge to mount 10 or more feet above normal tides.
Do your dock’s cleats or bollards have stout backing plates and through-bolts with good washers? Too many old docks have wobbly cleats and some are foolishly “repaired” in place with lag bolts.
Storm lines need to be better than your usual dock lines: longer for a surge, larger for strength, newer for reliability, and doubled up for redundancy. Chafing gear should be installed on your lines to absorb friction and the chafing material should be secured to the lines themselves.
Unfortunately, some builders provide undersized chocks and cleats. If this is the case on your boat, sailboat winches or anchor windlass drums are stout alternatives. Fenders only provide adequate protection if they are inflated to capacity and are big enough for your boat. Rig a fender board between fenders on your boat and a piling, and avoid tying fenders to a floating dock.
If your boat will lie on a mooring, then assess the location. An open anchorage will guarantee a longer fetch and rougher wave action—and more friction on your pennants. A sheltered mooring is easier said than done, but even a partial lee is better than none. What weight is your mooring? When was the gear last inspected? Is the scope long enough to accommodate a storm surge?
Hurricane Bob, in August 1991, was one of the costliest hurricanes in New England history because of the high surge that came with it. Sag Harbor, on New York’s Long Island, had moorings placed inside the breakwater on short scope to accommodate more boats. The storm surge lifted mooring buoys and chains into a vertical orientation, tipping mushroom anchor stocks upward. This broke the holding power of even the largest anchors, and the rocky breakwater was littered with boats.
The sight of a 72-foot steel schooner lying on its beam on the beach, trailing its 3,000-pound mushroom anchor and its healthy, heavy-duty storm pennants, left a lasting impression on me.
Extra mooring pennants with good chafing gear are a must. When I kept a boat on a mooring, we had extra long and stout storm pennants made with special chains and chafing gear. Our storm plan called for swapping out the regular pennants with the storm gear.
Be mindful of bow anchors, roller chocks or platforms. If necessary, remove or pad anything that will chafe your pennants.
After preparations are finished, take the boat papers in hand and leave the boat. If neighboring boats don’t act as responsibly as you do, then notify your harbormaster or marina manager.
For hurricanes, follow the storm track and make plans to move or haul your boat. Do not stay aboard in hurricane-force winds. Many insurance underwriters pay (or partially pay) for hurricane haul-outs. If you have that coverage, does the company require you to name your facility preseason? Most boatyards can only handle so many boats. Get on the list.
Exceptional winds can turn a safe harbor into a nightmarish place in short order. We can’t always beat Mother Nature, but we can make meaningful preparations to mitigate the damages.
If your storm plan entails tying to pilings, make sure they’re tall enough to keep floating docks captive in a storm surge. Whole rafts of boats, securely made fast, have been known to rise off their pilings and blow together downwind in massive pileups, docks and all. Also ensure the poles are in strong, reliable condition, and are spaced far enough apart to allow for extra-length storm surge dock lines.