A Great One Rarely, if Ever, Suffers a Direct Hit
Peter Swanson channels his inner John McPhee as he explores the geological virtues of the perfect hurricane hole.
Amore secure harbor than any in Florida, which suffered 2,000 sunk and broken boats during Hurricane Irma. Better, too, than anywhere in the battered Virgin Islands. Better than anywhere in the Caribbean north of Trinidad. Heck, historical storm data shows this place is safer from hurricanes than Rhode Island.
The place of praise is a harbor on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic. Luperon is the down-island hurricane hole of hurricane holes. Off and on, I spent a couple years there at anchor, some while working on tourist catamarans at nearby resorts.
People need to be careful when they talk about hurricane holes because somebody who doesn’t know any better just might believe them. I took issue recently with a fellow who insisted Great Harbour in the Bahamas was a “great hurricane hole.” It was a hurricane hole, I agreed, but not a great one because there can be no great hurricane holes in the Bahamas. That low-lying archipelago might as well be catnip to hurricanes.
Geology as well as geography has made Luperon a great hurricane hole for several reasons—some obvious and some not. A narrow entrance opens into two basins, both of which are surrounded by hills and have deep sticky muck for holding. But the harbor has a climatological advantage as well. The best shelter in the world isn’t much good if the location itself is a hurricane magnet. The opposite is demonstrably true in the case of Luperon, which has not had a direct hit since hurricane tracking began in 1851.
Irma came close in September, passing 50 miles north of Luperon as a Category 5. Neither Irma nor Maria did much harm to Luperon, which as usual provided refuge for dozens of foreign cruising vessels as well as native commercial craft from across the Dominican Republic’s North Coast and the Turks and Caicos. The latecomers ran lines from their bows into the dense mangroves that surround the harbor and finished the job with stern anchors. Mangroves are another feature that make a hurricane hole great by providing something flexible and forgiving should a vessel be blown ashore. They are surely better than concrete bulkheads and pilings.
My main man for weather, especially throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean, is weather router Chris Parker. Parker likes Luperon as a hurricane hole because of two over-arching factors: Hurricanes at this latitude tend to move from east to west, and Luperon Harbor has its back to a mountain range called the Cordillera Septentrional.
The illustration at top shows Luperon Harbor. The other shows the Virgin Islands totally obscured by multiple hurricane tracks since the mid-19th century. Luperon has had a few direct hits by tropical storms (green lines) but none by hurricanes. Note that two of these storms began as hurricanes but lost their strength crossing the mountains of the Dominican Republic.
Parker explains the science behind his thinking:
Prudent mariners know a hurricane’s right-front quadrant (relative to its forward motion) is typically the most dangerous part. In the right-front quadrant, not only do winds blow toward the path of the hurricane, but strength of wind increases by the forward speed of the hurricane. We typically find about 90 percent of tornadoes and waterspouts and most destructive microbursts in this quadrant.
Conversely, the left quadrants of a hurricane forms its “navigable semicircle.” In these left quadrants, where wind blows away from the path of the hurricane, we subtract two times its forward speed from the “max sustained wind” (usually found in the right-front quadrant), so we typically see fewer severe weather events here.
To illustrate the difference in wind speed due simply to storm motion, let’s examine a stationary Category 2 hurricane with 90knot sustained winds. Put the hurricane in motion at 10 knots of forward speed and the moving hurricane will support 100-knot winds (Category 3) in its right-front quadrant, but only 80-knot (Category 1) winds in its left-front quadrant.
In addition, although hurricane structure varies, with most west-moving hurricanes along the latitude of the Northern Caribbean, the bulk of inbound tropical moisture feeds from the south into the right-front quadrant while air feeding into the leftfront quadrant is pulled from the north (drier mid-latitudes).
No location in the western North Atlantic is completely safe from hurricanes, but if we were looking for a relatively safe spot, it would lie on the north coast of a large mountainous landmass. Almost all hurricanes move in a general westerly direction during most of their time in the tropics. Later they turn north, then northeast or east-northeast. There are exceptions, but this is the usual pattern.
If a west-moving hurricane passes along—or just north—of the north coast of our large mountainous landmass, then harbors along the north coast will experience the weaker south side (leftfront quadrant) of the hurricane.
If a west-moving hurricane passes over our large mountainous landmass, dry air and tall mountains disrupt the hurricane’s structure, causing a rapid weakening of the entire system.
If a west-moving hurricane passes south of our large mountainous landmass, then it is so far from the north coast that conditions on the north coast are mild.
Where can we find a protected harbor along the north coast of a large mountainous landmass? Luperon is one excellent example:
In order for a west-moving or northwest-moving hurricane to affect Luperon, it would have to pass over 100 to 200 miles of the mountainous Dominican Republic, including several peaks over 10,000 feet located south of Luperon. This would severely weaken the hurricane, minimizing damage.
The north coast of Cuba enjoys a similar topographical advantage, and there is a harbor very similar to Luperon called Puerto Vita, which benefits from the same overall tracking patterns and topography.
I will confess that Luperon was more interesting 20 years ago than it is today. The cruising community then included many real-deal mariners from all over the world, and there would be as many as 120 boats in the anchorage during hurricane season. Most were occupied.
In the intervening years, as word spread of Luperon’s shelter and relatively low crime rate ( just a few burglaries in a bad year), more Americans have chosen the harbor to store their boats unattended. This is almost never a good thing for the neighborhood. That’s why well-managed anchorages such as Boot Key Harbor in Marathon, Florida, forbid long-term unattended vessels. This type of harbor management, however, is not yet practiced by Dominican authorities.
The good news I took away from my recent visit to Luperon is that the rustic Puerto Blanco Marina, the social center for the cruising crowd, has renovated its restaurant and docks, thanks to new management.
The Dominican Republic is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but unlike Cuba, it is blessed with few natural harbors. Consequently, it is best explored by land. So anyone seeking shelter from storms and wanting to explore a quirky Caribbean Island (about the size of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont put together) should consider Luperon as an excellent staging point. Resident ex-pat cruisers will watch your boat while you explore the country by rental car.
This photo shows the multiple levels of high ground that are necessary to protecting a hurricane hole anchorage.
A motoryacht ties up to the mangroves in Luperon Harbor.