HURRI-CAN or HURRI-CAN’T?
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.