Hurricanes: The Sometimes Horrible Reality of Cruising

I’ll have to admit, this is one part of being a cruiser I really don’t like.  You thought I was going to say docking, didn’t you?  Admit it!  While that is definitely one.  That and de-docking (Annie term).  I also loathe the threat of hurricanes.  As a cruiser, you don’t just own a boat.  You love her.  She’s not just fiberglass and wood to you.  She’s a friend, a member of the family, your home, your ticket to world travel.  And she holds so many memories.

I remember the day Phillip and I shoved off the dock, April 17, 2013, with our new-to-us Niagara 35 and saying goodbye to her previous owners.  Jack and Barbara had spent twenty-four amazing years sailing her along Florida’s west coast, as well as the Keys and Caribbean, Jack even single-handed her in the Mackinac race several times, and now they both had tears welling up in their eyes as we waved goodbye.  It was like they were sending a child off to college, a mix of hope for an exciting new chapter in her life, but also the pain of watching her leave.  Seeing how tough that decision was for Jack and Barb, I cannot even begin to imagine what it feels like when that precious element of your life is ripped from you without choice, and not to set sail on a new adventure, but smashed to bits, never to be enjoyed again.  By anyone.

My chest aches writing this and thinking of all those, many we know, thousands we do not, who lost their boats in the recent storms.  Hurricanes are just a horrible reality cruisers and boat-owners have to deal with.  And, while many can plan to stay outside of the hurricane box during the season, or haul-out every time a tropical storm watch develops, many simply cannot get out of the path due to other obligations: work, family, money, time, etc.  So, they have to strap their baby down as best they can, say a prayer, and hope for the best as a hurricane barrels down on her, whispering “Hold fast, girl.”

Others find their only option is to try to sail away from the hurricane.  Many—who are unfamiliar with offshore sailing and the impact weather, wind and gear failure can have on the speed and success of a voyage—when they see hundreds of boats destroyed from a hurricane think: “Why didn’t they just sail to somewhere safe.”  It’s not always that simple.  Hurricanes often form quickly and can cover a span of hundreds of miles.  Irma was 400 miles wide.  Four.  Hundred.  Even in favorable conditions, sailboats just don’t go that fast.  On a boat like ours, if you’re averaging 5-6 knots an hour, you’re doing great.  But, that still means you are only traveling roughly 130 miles a day.  If a hurricane the size of Irma is set to hit you in three days, that doesn’t give you a very comfortable window of time to get out of the path, and that’s assuming the path holds, which is always a gamble.  You may find yourself out there in 10-20 foot seas and winds over 120 mph.  It’s rare any live-aboard sailboat can survive that.

Phillip and I recently watched a fellow cruiser and friend from Marathon, along with her boyfriend and dog, who had tried to sail north away from Irma, and they had to be rescued off the coast of Clearwater by the USCG.  (Article here, and I hope to be able to speak with Pamela and Sebastian once they have more fully recovered and learn what happened so we can all benefit from this harrowing, but thankfully life-saving, event.)  Phillip also told me I needed to read John Kretschmer’s At the Mercy of the Sea, before writing this.  While it is the next book on my list, I felt too strongly about this now, while we’re all bracing for, and still recovering from, so many vicious storms.  But if any of you have read that book and would like to share, please feel free to do so in a comment.

I will also admit, having grown up in the middle of New Mexico, I am, thankfully, very new to the horrid reality that hurricanes bring to living on the coast.  Ivan was the first hurricane I experienced.  I was married at the time and my husband’s parents lived in Perdido Key.  He kept watching news footage of weathermen and women, shouting in the spitting rain, picking up twigs and overturned road signs, and satellite image after satellite image for two days, and I really didn’t understand why.  How is watching that going to change anything?  You just board up your house and leave, right?  Then come back and assess the damage.  Little did I know.  Hurricanes do not just cause damage.  They decimate.  I did not know houses could be leveled to mere slabs, with not a scrap of wood or even a personal belonging in sight.  My husband and I drove far west through Mississippi, then down south—literally rounding the west wall of Ivan as it came up through Alabama—to get to Perdido Key.

We waded through water in thick underbrush to try reach his parents’ neighborhood from behind because the roads were blocked.  I did not know at the time the dangers of wading in open water after a hurricane.  Had I, I would have never followed him.  But, I did, and I cringed each time I saw a snake drop from a tree near me while I carried my small black lab, blue heeler mix, Dixie, in my arms.  It was a horrible experience.  When we reached his parents’ street, we found two feet of water in the house, four in the garage.  It was a mess.  Soiled, filthy, wet remains of what once was a beautiful, warm, welcoming home.  And this was just a house with water in it.  Over the course of the next few days, we walked the streets along Grand Lagoon and Perdido Beach Boulevard and that’s when it really hit me.  Washers, dryers, chairs, pillows, and framed photos were piled up on the street in dunes of debris taller than me.  Houses were slabs.  Huge pine trees were mulch.  Condos on the beach looked like they had been eaten.  Whole floors bitten away by some giant monster.  Entire swimming pools, surrounded by concrete and tiled patios and gates were literally gone.  Only sand was left.  That’s when I learned what hurricanes can really do and how easily the ocean, if she’s angry enough, can take whatever she wants.  It is a simple and undeniable fact.  You cannot predict or control the weather and sometimes she’s just going to win.  She’s just going to take.

This is the risk you sign on for when, knowing this, you decide to still buy a boat and set your sights on exotic locations.  Everything has its risks and nothing is guaranteed.  If you drive a car, you risk an accident.  If you buy a home, you risk losing it to a fire or flood.  If you fall in love and give someone your heart, you risk getting hurt.  But you do it anyway.  Why?  Because that’s life.  Not going or giving because you are afraid of loss is not a way to live.  The one thing that is guaranteed in life is that you’re only going to be here for a certain period of time.  It’s finite.  And you’re going to suffer loss, whether you try to avoid it or not.  You will lose things, pets, and people (even the boat equivalent) whether you decide to live your life fully or not.  So do it anyway.

This is at least what I tell myself when I see so much devastation and loss recently from Harvey, Irma, and Maria and when I feel, now, Hurricane Nate bearing down on Louisiana and the panhandle and it knots my stomach. While I hate the feeling, I try to remind myself it is only because I have such wonderful things in my life to lose, which makes them worth all of the stress, work, blood, sweat and money.  So, with that in mind—as I sit and type this on Friday morning, October 6th at 9:42 a.m., waiting for the 10:00 a.m. NOAA update on Nate and deciding whether we are going to haul-out today or not.  That is such a heated question.

No hurricane plan is a guarantee.  No matter how well you secure your boat, if you’re not there (which you shouldn’t be in any storm too dangerous to ride out), you will not be able to stop another boat, (or barge or tree or a hundred other things that are tossed around like bath toys in a hurricane), from colliding with your boat and causing damage.  You can tie up ultra-secure in a hurricane hole, but your anchor may fail or your boat may begin to take on water and eventually sink.  If you haul-out, your jacks could fail, the boat next to you could topple over, or they can even drop your boat while in the straps.  If Plaintiff’s Rest can stay in the water, Phillip and I would prefer it.

Currently, however, we have a mandatory evacuation from our marina and with not a lot of time or hurricane holes around here that are not probably full already, Phillip and I decided to use our hurricane haul-out option and at least schedule a haul-out for 2:00 p.m. this afternoon.  We also got some great advice from fellow boaters on how to secure our boat even further once she is on the jacks which we’re happy to share with you:

  1. Tie all of the jacks together with wire, chain, or strong line to form a reinforced cradle rather than independent jacks.
  2. Tie seizing wire around the cranks for the jacks to ensure they are not able to rattle loose in the intense vibrations from the storm.
  3. If possible, e., in a non-paved marina, embed earth anchors and strap your boat down to those as well.

If Nate’s path continues to track east and our prediction holds as merely a tropical storm warning and if the marina lifts the mandatory evacuation order, we would like to stay at the dock.  If we did, we would secure extra dock lines with chafe guards (we use strips of fire hose, with little dyneema tie-downs to keep them in place in the chalks).  I also did a post recently on Facebook showing all of our prep (including Pam Wall tips!) on dropping all of the canvas and pulling all of the lines up into the mast with photos, which you can view here.  Whether our boat rides out Nate at the dock or on the hard, she will ride with as little windage as possible.

We welcome anyone else’s tips on best hurricane prep measures and best practices you have found in the past to make your boat more secure for a storm.  Feel free to share.

Phillip and I will be as ready as we can be.  After that, we just have to remember how awesome and fulfilling this lifestyle is and hope for the best.  We hope you, and your boats, all remain safe in the eye of this storm.  If Mother Nature decides it’s our time to suffer a loss, Phillip and I will bear that and be thankful we’ve still got very full lives ahead of us to live and we will rebuild together.  We’ve done it before.

UPDATE: We hauled Plaintiff’s Rest out this afternoon.  She’s stripped, tied down and as ready as she can be.  It’s all we can do.  I gave her a kiss and told her good luck.  Hold fast girl.

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9 Responses to Hurricanes: The Sometimes Horrible Reality of Cruising

  1. Lyle says:

    Fingers are crossed for PR, you and Philip!

  2. Pam Wall says:

    My heart is with you!! I have been through enough of these wicked Hurricanes to know you do everything you can for your beloved boat, and then you concentrate on keeping yourselves SAFE as well. Pammmmmy

  3. Josh Burns says:

    Annie and Phillipe, We are all thinkin about ya and praying for your safe keepin! You are in our thoughts n payers. You mean so much to us you have nothin to worry about. We are here for ya! Mr. Burns.

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S™ III, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  4. bmealways says:

    I kissed Jabez too when I left her at the dock and told her that I loved her so much and to hold Strong!!!

    I pray she holds and no other untethered vessels j Let go and fly down the bayou under their own steam…

    Ivan got her through the storm… an untethered vessel took her out after all of our prep work…

    Pray that God keeps mine and yours and all others as safe as possible!!!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • anniedike says:

      Ahhh, Bridgette! I thought about you a lot today as we were motoring up Bayou Chico and preparing our baby. The threat of others’ people’s boats colliding with yours (when you’ve done so much hard prep work) is always a worry but a very big reality. I’m sorry your baby got hit in Ivan. So many boats did. We did all we could do. Now we just cross our fingers, watch this monster and hope for the best. I’ll be thinking about you!

  5. Norm Martin says:

    Annie and Phillip, best of luck and you seem to be preparing well. Making your own luck with proper preparation is always a cool move. Removing as much windage as possible is the top priority. Have you a plan that accounts for storm surge? During a couple of hurricanes we went through while living aboard, it was the surge damage that was worst.

    I hope no one near you leaves their RF headsail rigged! We are watching the storm and thinking of you.

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