Hurricane Preparations: Watercraft

Hurricane Season in the Atlantic began June 1 so; it is time to begin preparations for your watercraft in case tropical storms and/or hurricanes affect your area. On average, two hurricanes affect coastal areas of the U.S. each year. Preparing a watercraft before a hurricane strikes is critical to minimize or even eliminate damage.

Moving a boat to safer ground is the foundation of a good hurricane plan. Studies show watercrafts, which are stored ashore, receive much less damage than those stored in the water during a hurricane. Be aware of your marina’s hurricane plan as some marinas and yacht clubs have evacuation plans to pull as many boats out of the water as possible and secure the rest. Waves, spray, and rain during a hurricane will likely overcome smaller, open boats and high performance powerboats with low freeboard.

Knowledge of the expected storm surge is important if you plan to store your boat ashore. It should be stored well above the expected storm surge. Storm surge is an abnormal rise in sea level accompanying a hurricane or other intense storm, and whose height is the difference between the observed level of the sea surface and the level that would have occurred in the absence of the storm. Storm surge is usually estimated by subtracting the normal or astronomic high tide from the observed storm tide.

Boats tipped off jack stands and cradles by rising water; typically sustain less damage than boats left in the water. The part of the watercraft exposed to the wind, should be reduced as much as possible and make sure your boat has extra jack stands. You should use at least three on each side for boats under 30 feet and 5 for larger boats. Support the jack stands with plywood and chain them together. To help reduce wind exposure in sailboats, you can put the keel in a hole. Smaller sailboats can be laid on their side. High-rise storage racks can be vulnerable in a hurricane’s strongest winds. Take your boat home if possible. Secure your boat in a snug harbor if you plan to keep it in the water. Storm surge and the direction of the strongest winds are major considerations in determining a snug harbor.

Storm surges can be as high as 20 feet in extreme cases so a seawall or sandy spit that normally protects a harbor may not offer any protection during extreme events. Storm surge increases with the category of a hurricane i.e. surge is higher in a category 3 than in a category 1. Rocks and other watercraft can easily damage boats so; crowded, rock strewn harbors are not a good place to keep your watercraft in a hurricane. There is a chance of another watercraft breaking loose and banging into yours or vice versa. Finally, if you plan to anchor, check your charts for the water depth. The best anchoring is usually in sand, followed by clay, hard mud, shells, broken shells, and soft mud. In addition, water can be blown out of the harbor, leaving watercraft stranded briefly. If this happens, your watercraft would rather settle onto anything but rocks.

The strongest winds of a hurricane are near the center (eye) and usually on the eastern half of the storm. The greatest storm surge usually occurs where the eastern section of the eye makes landfall. The greatest risk of tornadoes in hurricanes is in the northeastern quadrant of the hurricane. If possible, position your watercraft where there is an obstruction in the direction where the strongest winds will likely come from. This will serve as a windbreak and reduce the amount of force exerted by the wind. It may also reduce the amount of storm surge the watercraft endures.

Making preparations before a hurricane hits is important. In fact, it is a very good idea to have plan of action ready before each hurricane season begins, including precautions for things other than watercraft. Making last minute preparations can be dangerous.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC), when sustained winds of 74 mph or higher are expected within 24 hours or less, issues a Hurricane Warning. A Warning is too late, in most situations, to prepare your watercraft. Securing the house, gathering emergency provisions, and evacuating the family will need greater attention. More valuable hurricane information can be found on the NHC’s website at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov.

NHC issues a Hurricane Watch when hurricane conditions are expected to threaten coastal areas, within 36 hours. Waiting for a watch may be too late to head for the marina or to move the watercraft to a safer location. There will likely be thousands of others making hurricane preparations at that time.

The best advice is to prepare or move your watercraft when a hurricane is a possibility, even before a watch. Hurricane forecasts are not precise but can give a general idea of the path and strength out to five days. If you wait too late, and your plan includes relocating the watercraft, you may encounter locked down bridges and the location you choose may be inaccessible. Alternatively, if you planned to have your watercraft weather the storm ashore, you may find the marina is too busy to haul it.

When a hurricane is approaching, you should certainly do everything you can to protect your watercraft: secure extra lines, set out anchors, add chafe protection, strip the boat above and below decks, etc. Make your preparations and then head inland. You can replace your watercraft but not people. One of the most dangerous mistakes one can make is to stay aboard his or her watercraft during a hurricane. There is little, if anything, one can do to save a watercraft when winds are blowing 100 mph, tides are surging, and visibility is only a few feet.

Watercraft owners should remove expensive equipment before the storm. After the storm, marinas will contend with downed power lines, blocked roads, and wrecked boats. Widespread looting is a problem after a storm, and personnel may not be available to protect the marina and boats.

Seal broken ports and hatches to prevent further damage below. Engines should be pickled, treated in a proper chemical bath, as soon as possible. In addition, if a boat is underwater, do not raise it until someone is available to pickle the engine.

Another thing to consider before a hurricane hits is you may have legal obligations for what happens to your watercraft, or what it does to other’s property, during a hurricane.

There is a well-established legal doctrine that almost everything, which happens during a hurricane, is an “Act of God.” If your watercraft blows into someone else’s house, you are not responsible for that damage unless you are negligent in taking reasonable precautions to secure your watercraft.

Watercraft owners, who fail to take reasonable precautions to secure their vessels, are liable for damages caused by their vessels despite the storm. Thus, a watercraft owner who decides to abandon his boat to an insurance company, risks not only a possible denial of an insurance claim, but a lawsuit for any damages the vessel caused. A watercraft owner is legally required to take “reasonable and prudent” actions to prevent his property from damaging others. Reasonable and prudent actions are those any experienced boater would take, not a half-hearted effort for appearances sake.

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