HURRI-CAN or HURRI-CAN’T?

Passage Maker - - @Rest -

When Hur­ri­cane Danny rose up on NOAA’s radar in Oc­to­ber, 2015, Cap­tain Karen Camp­bell and I pointed our 50-foot trawler, Largo, east from Bi­mini to Great Har­bour Cay, Ba­hamas. We were seek­ing shel­ter from the storm, which turned out to be three storms in quick or­der: Danny, Erika, and (shud­der) Joaquin. On the shal­low blue Ba­hamas banks we were in a long line of big boats chug­ging to Great Har­bour Cay Ma­rina, the fa­mous hur­ri­cane hole in the Berry Is­lands. Once there, we bat­tened down, lined in, and strug­gled with the con­stant hur­ri­cane sea­son ques­tion—do we stay or do we go? We stayed, we learned, we sur­vived, and we pre­pared for what be­came the ul­ti­mate sur­vival re­al­ity show this year: Hur­ri­cane Matthew (dou­ble shud­der).

We are per­ma­nent live­aboards, which adds a pause when we try to an­swer the “stay or go” ques­tion. We are not will­ing to take un­rea­son­able risks, but Largo is our home, and all we have. What is rea­son­able to us is not nec­es­sar­ily rea­son­able to the next boater. Af­ter 30 years in Florida, we had sur­vived a few big hur­ri­canes, but none of them was like Matthew.

Matthew came fast and hard, and it so strongly ad­ver­tised its track that most fore­cast­ers agreed that Matthew was a mon­ster, and it was com­ing straight for the Berry Is­lands. De­ci­sion time was upon us: Karen was al­ready booked (as was I) to travel for med­i­cal care in the U.S. Wid­get, our off-kil­ter boat dog, was al­ready booked in Nas­sau for board­ing. So, Karen and Wid­get climbed the small plane’s board­ing steps at the airstrip, and I stayed be­hind, just as many of our boat­ing friends flew in to se­cure their craft. In all, we tal­lied eight salty (but ner­vous) boaters rid­ing out the storm at the ma­rina. Ma­rina man­ager Steve John­son gave us the ma­rina’s con­do­minium as shel­ter, and stayed with us through­out the storm to see that his boats and sailors were as safe as could be.

Ul­ti­mately, Matthew ran over us like a lo­co­mo­tive as a full Cat­e­gory 4, with sus­tained winds over 140 mph on Great Har­bour Cay’s east­ern shore, and 120 mph against the boats down in the ma­rina. Our great fear was storm surge, and we caught one lucky break. When the western wind hit the ma­rina, which would have pushed and trapped any tidal surge in our boat basin, it was dur­ing low tide. We had no storm surge, which is of­ten the boat killer.

I am not an ex­pert, but we do have four storms’ worth of ex­pe­ri­ence when it comes to hur­ri­cane prepa­ra­tion, and what it takes to make rea­son­able de­ci­sions in the face of storms of this mag­ni­tude. On Great Har­bour Cay, we lost no boats, no lives,

no houses, and no planes. Not a bad record, con­sid­er­ing the ex­ten­sive damage in Nas­sau, Chub Cay, and Freeport, as well as some of the smaller fam­ily is­lands.

Here are some of the im­por­tant ques­tions to ask your­self, with thoughts gained from our per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. Please note that these are not rec­om­men­da­tions since each and ev­ery de­ci­sion falls on the shoul­ders of the ship’s cap­tain.

Tough to an­swer briefly. Some in­sur­ance poli­cies and mari­nas an­swer this for you, re­quir­ing you to go on the hard, leave the ma­rina, or com­ply with your pre­vi­ously ap­proved hur­ri­cane plan. We had no such con­cerns. In Florida, we have a num­ber of man­grove safety holes scouted out, usu­ally far up­river from the ocean, where we can line in to mangroves an­chored in 360-de­grees of pro­tec­tion. Many ex­pe­ri­enced boaters, es­pe­cially sail­boaters, feel they will never ride out a hur­ri­cane in a ma­rina, and will only con­sider do­ing so at an­chor. In many mari­nas, I would agree the ma­rina is dan­ger­ous, but do your home­work be­fore hur­ri­cane sea­son. An ac­com­pa­ny­ing photograph shows why Great Har­bour Cay Ma­rina is con­sid­ered a hur­ri­cane hole. It is carved out from the cen­ter of the is­land, sur­rounded by high elevation on vir­tu­ally all sides, with no di­rect wind or wave ac­cess. The only nar­row cut to the ocean is a ¼-mile dog­leg away from the ma­rina, and its his­tory over the past 50 years shows no loss of boats. This ma­rina be­came our choice, even for Cat­e­gory 4 Matthew.

2. Do I stay on the boat? We feel that the an­swer to this is an em­phatic no. Be­ing near the boat may al­low you to safely come out dur­ing a lull and make an ad­just­ment (for surge, as an ex­am­ple). Our

crew ac­tu­ally did this dur­ing Matthew, as we could see the boats dur­ing the storm when a few lines snapped or tan­gled. Find a solid, his­tor­i­cally safe, stone or con­crete shel­ter with hur­ri­caner­ated con­struc­tion. Have a backup plan. In our case, we found an aban­doned con­crete-and-stone build­ing carved into a hill­side with 360-de­gree pro­tec­tion and con­crete-block rooms in­side. We cleaned out an “End of Days” room and were pre­pared to move if it was our only re­main­ing op­tion. We also found ply­wood sheets and storm-proofed our condo with drill sets and fas­ten­ers, bolt­ing ply­wood into the out­side walls and over the win­dows and doors with the ma­rina’s per­mis­sion.

3. How do I se­cure the boat? First, en­sure that ALL de­bris, fur­ni­ture, rub­ble, and other boats are se­cured or re­moved. Lawn chairs, lum­ber, co­conuts, gear on other boat decks, cool­ers, dinghies, etc. All of it. We formed teams with the ma­rina staff and boat own­ers to help do this. On your own boat, strap ev­ery­thing down with hur­ri­cane-rated straps, or put it in­side. We had a few dinghies pull free from their boat’s deck mounts dur­ing the storm. Dinghies might best be tied on their own away from all boats or sunk with the mo­tor re­moved. Ours was re­dun­dantly cam-strapped to a cus­tom alu­minum davit sys­tem. Tape over win­dow seams. Re­move all can­vas and Bi­mini sup­ports. Lower all an­ten­nas and tightly tape or bungee them. As for se­cur­ing the boat, see the graphic (up­per-right) for a good start­ing place to build a spi­der web sys­tem of re­dun­dant lines. On Largo, this meant 14, ¾-inch braided lines, dou­bling up on spring lines, bow and stern lines. We also used two slip spa­ces and strung our 50,000-pound tri-deck boat between two con­crete fin­ger docks, with con­crete pil­ings 32 feet apart, al­low­ing for surge but not al­low­ing the boat to get within five feet of any dock. This re­quired a way to exit the boat once strung. We de­vised a zip line for this feat. We also found and em­ployed a 12-foot-long 2 x 12 board to use as a move­able gang­plank. For lines, I was amazed at how many boaters did not have the lines re­quired to storm-tie their boat. We pur­chased and stowed 16 new 60-foot, ¾-inch braided lines be­fore we set off for full-time coastal and Caribbean cruis­ing. For us, that was a min­i­mum, and we had over 1,000 feet of line re­main­ing. In the ma­rina, we had at least four lines snap dur­ing the storm at mid-line on well-se­cured boats. Also, buy and use fire hose (with­out the rub­ber in­te­rior) for chafe guard, be­cause lines will part quickly when rub­bing against any sur­face, es­pe­cially pil­ings, cleats, and other fit­tings.

4. How do I pro­vi­sion for a storm? I be­lieve that any cruis­ing boat should al­ready be “off-grid” ready and pro­vi­sioned to last a long time with­out out­side help, in­clud­ing storm-ready, re­dun­dant sys­tems. Be­cause we are Caribbean live­aboards, she is equipped this way: Largo has 1,500 watts of so­lar, 1,700 amp hours of bat­tery bank power (sep­a­rate from the start­ing, winch, davit, and bow thruster bat­ter­ies), a 3,000-watt in­verter/charger, 4 other charg­ers, 3 gen­er­a­tors (gas and diesel), 50 gal­lons of gas, 800 gal­lons of diesel, a 12-volt wa­ter­maker, a fully stocked 120-quart 12-volt freezer, a 12-volt re­frig­er­a­tor/freezer, 6 large cool­ers, 2 out­boards, 2 dinghies, and more. Our boat is not new. We are not wealthy. But we value our lives and our safety if (as in a storm) all food, power, and most com­mu­ni­ca­tions are cut off. We are also pre­pared to de­fend our boat if re­quired, by law­ful means. Of course, ad­vanced med­i­cal sup­plies must be within reach, and some­one needs to know what to do. We have that train­ing.

5. What com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices should I con­sider? All of them. We have two fixed and two por­ta­ble VHF ra­dios, cell phones, cell phone am­pli­fier, Wi-Fi am­pli­fier, satel­lite phone (the Irid­ium GO), satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vice (Delorme In-Reach), and por­ta­ble so­lar charg­ers for the backup bat­tery sys­tems those smaller de­vices re­quire. As it turned out, we had shut off our satel­lite phone and the turn-on pro­ce­dure could not be done be­fore the storm hit (note to self: don’t be a satel­lite phone id­iot). But the Delorme In-Reach al­lowed us to have the only vi­able com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the is­land for weeks as power and phone were slowly re­stored. Three of us in our band of eight had the Delorme In-Reach, which al­lows you to use satel­lites to text mes­sages to any phone and even to Face­book. The de­vice will also al­low you to send emer­gency mes­sages to the USCG and more. If you use the DeLorme In-Reach, please get the cell phone key­board app and prac­tice with it. Oth­er­wise, you are hunt­ing for let­ters one at a time and spend­ing an hour to send one text. Peo­ple from all over the is­land re­lied on our group to send com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Af­ter the storm, I heard from lit­er­ally hun­dreds of peo­ple who fol­lowed our Face­Book DeLorme texts to see how we and oth­ers were do­ing. Those de­vices also re­quire open sky to trans­mit, so we were of­ten out in the lee of the storm send­ing “we’re safe” mes­sages to friends and fam­ily. Also, we know many friends who use the SSB ra­dio net­work. We ap­prove! We just do not have one yet.

6. What is the most im­por­tant sur­vival tool?

Team­work, with­out a doubt. We as­sem­bled our team of boaters who were stay­ing on the is­land from the out­set. We had meet­ings, dis­cussed strat­egy and re­sources, went shop­ping to­gether be­fore the storm hit, and di­vided du­ties for food, shel­ter, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and other re­quire­ments. We acted like a team. We shared our in­di­vid­ual ex­per­tise and com­mu­ni­cated among our­selves so we knew who might best han­dle cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. We de­cided to act as a group. We kept morale up with pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes. And we got it done.

So, with all this prepa­ra­tion, did we have damage? Yes. Our en­tire cov­ered fly­bridge and radar arch—per­haps 3,500 pounds, with 6 hur­ri­cane-rated so­lar pan­els, radar, in­stru­ments, throt­tles and ca­bling—was lifted off our boat and de­posited al­most 2 feet askew to­ward star­board. Ul­ti­mately, af­ter a week of winches, come-alongs, and levers failed, eight stout Ba­hamian friends and I picked it up and moved it back!

So there you have it: our best rec­om­men­da­tions of what plans and prepa­ra­tions kept our fam­ily safe dur­ing the worst storm to hit this area of the Ba­hamas in 80 years. We hope you never see such a storm, but if you do, we hope this helps you pre­pare, plan, and sur­vive.

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