What We Learned While Escaping Hurricane Irma

By Rich

Let me start off this article by saying that those of us with property and / or lives we love in Fort Lauderdale got lucky that Irma’s track brought her eye well west of us. As such we really only got a punch in the nose as opposed to the comprehensive beating those in the Caribbean and western Florida and the Keys got. Our thoughts go out to all of those who were more gravely affected than we were.

With that being said, Irma still shook up Fort Lauderdale quite a bit, as the above screen shot from one of Lauderdale’s surviving web cams shows. Lauderdale saw sustained winds of 60 knots with gusts into the 90s, considerable flooding and even a few tornadoes.

As such Irma was a learning lesson for us and we wanted to pass on some pearls of wisdom to our readers based on our experiences. Here they are, beginning with those that are not yachting specific (“general learning”) and followed up by those that are (“yacht learning”).

General Learning

Have a plan to get out early if a hurricane’s forecast path points at you. Plan on a departure several days before the scheduled arrival

Irma was scheduled to arrive in south Florida early Sunday morning, September 10th, so I booked a flight out on the prior Friday evening. That’s wasn’t early enough.

On Wednesday September 6th Southwest cancelled the flight and it sent us into a scramble. I had to drop my hurricane preparation of the boat to grab one of a rapidly dwindling number of available rental cars so I would be able to catch a flight out of Florida from an airport further north. As of those moments, we didn’t know exactly what airport that would be, we only knew that I needed a rental car if I was going to be able to reach any of them. We found cars available at the airport, to which I dashed in an Uber. There I found an insane mob scene of travelers trying to get out of the state. The photo below couldn’t capture all of the people snaking around the roped-off area right before security nor how far the line of travelers extended out of range of the camera. It was unlike anything I have ever seen.

Fortunately I was able to get a rental car and returned to the boat to continue implementation of my Named Storm Plan with my brother Tom. After we secured the boat (thanks again Tom!!!!) a 20 hour drive in stop-and-go traffic followed all the way to Atlanta to catch my Friday morning flight, which Lisa had booked for me in the interim.

Whew! If I had planned from the beginning to leave earlier (Thursday or even Wednesday) the entire fire drill could have been avoided.

General Learning #2: If possible have a remotely-located friend or family member serve as “mission control” during an evacuation to help make flight & rental car reservations, and to help guide you around traffic if traveling by car

Having Lisa available in Maryland to make and cancel flight reservations, route us around the worst traffic jams, and to field non-critical communications was a godsend. There would have been no way to complete our Named Storm Plan for the boat and still get out of harm’s way without having her serve as Mission Control. Thanks sweetie!

General Learning #3: If possible, route all non-critical text & voice communications through your “Mission Control” designate to keep critical lines of communication clear

While in a mad scramble to prepare the boat and get out of the state, it became very clear just how many people love us when they started texting and calling me to check in. (Thanks my dear friends, family, and framily! I love you all too and it means the world when you come out of the woodwork all at once to be sure I am OK).

However, as heart-warming as this concern was, it became impossible to field all of the communications and still focus on the critical tasks at hand. So I replied to each non-critical communication by asking the sender to direct all inquiries to Lisa such that she could provide updates on my status. We also made a post on Facebook to the same effect. It worked beautifully – allowing Lisa and I clear and immediate lines of communication while still keeping all of those who love us informed.

General Learning #4: Cell phone navigation programs functioned poorly during our emergency evacuation by car. We plan to download and test GPS-based apps that have pre-downloaded maps as replacements

The default navigation apps used on cell phones often rely on good cell phone signals to aid in identifying your position and to download local maps as needed while you travel. We found that traffic was so dense during the evacuation that the cell towers became congested, which in turn caused these navigation apps to malfunction – either by failing to identify our location or by honing in on a location but failing to download the corresponding map (with the result that we appeared as a dot on an empty graphical grid). Worse, on other occasions the apps would silently fail and simply stop updating our location with the risk that we could miss exits. All of these malfunctions caused a significant safety hazard by distracting us from driving while we tried to figure out whether the current position was correct or whether we’d missed an exit.

There are plenty of free or low-cost apps that have pre-downloaded maps and use GPS instead of the cell phone signal to locate your position. We are testing those now.

Yacht Learning

Yacht Learning #1: Have a PRACTICAL named storm plan on file with your insurance company, not one that you file to try to minimize your premium or deductible

Our Named Storm Plan was simple, easy to follow, and did not require the need to move the boat or have it hauled out. However, we heard anecdotal stories of other yacht owners calling their insurance agent and asking “what they should do” about the storm. If a hurricane is coming, your insurance agent is not the person to call for advice on preparation.

Why?

To begin with, the skipper of the vessel is responsible for preparing it for the storm, not the insurance agent or anyone else. Second, since you prepared your Named Storm Plan it should logically follow that you are familiar with its contents. Thirdly, an insurance company doesn’t especially like to pay claims. It’s bad for business. As such a skipper asking his or her insurance agent for yacht prep advice puts the agent in an awkward position. If the claims department later argues over payment of the claim, the LAST thing an agent wants is to have the customer shifting blame for the loss back on to the agent for his or her “bad” advice.

Also, as stated above, make your Named Storm Plan REALISTIC instead of drafting one that you expect will “please” the insurance company. I heard of one customer calling the agent to say they could not implement the plan because it called for the yacht to be hauled out at a marina many miles away which obviously could not haul and store their yacht two days before a hurricane with no notice.

Duh!

Did this owner consider the very high probability of encountering this scenario when he or she wrote the plan? This owner was forced to improvise a new plan with obvious implications the size of their storm deductible, to say nothing of their ability to get insurance again in the future if their evident lack of planning had resulted in a claim.

Write your plan so that you know it can be implemented. Yes folks, hurricanes really can hit Florida so YOU MIGHT NEED TO IMPLEMENT THE PLAN. As my insurance agent coached me, develop your Named Storm Plan (and prep your boat for the storm!) as you would if you didn’t have insurance at all.

Yacht Learning #2: If at all possible, do not tie your boat in such a manner that it can contact a dock during the storm (even if that is normally how it is stored)

We were lucky to have extra room in our marina, so we tied Le Saberage in such a manner that she was suspended between two docks and could contact neither unless our lines broke or pilings failed.

If at all possible use this method. We had no damage during the storm because our lines and the pilings held, but we did see damage to other boats that made contact with docks.

Here are two examples of what happened to boats that were intended to be tied up along a floating slip and to be protected by fenders:

The fenders simply popped and / or the boat’s rocking caused them to ride up atop the dock and allowed contact between the hull and the dock.

In a situation like this where being tied along a floating slip is the only option available, fasten some of your fenders to the dock, not to the boat. That way as the boat rolls, the fenders won’t ride up onto the top of the dock and allow contact. I learned this while docked in Charleston last fall. Where cleats are not available for the purpose, even concrete floating docks may have wooden edges that allow you to screw in O-rings to which the fenders can be tied, as shown here:

It may sound like common sense, but if there is room enough in your marina to suspend the boat between two slips, make sure your dock lines are short enough to keep the boat from contacting either slip! Incredibly, in our marina alone we saw three examples of power boats with lines across two slips that were long enough that half of them literally served no purpose.

The photos below illustrate the problem. This power boat owner added a ton of lines to the starboard side but they were completely useless. They were so long that they never would have come into play before the boat made contact with the dock on her port side. One look at the boat and this would have been instantly obvious to an experienced boater. The owner only escaped damage because Irma had the good courtesy to blow from the east and then the south, both of which pushed this boat to starboard not port.

Better lucky than smart some times, apparently.

By contrast, this owner made the exact same mistake and will now have a big repair bill coming. Note that the pressure of the piling against the big picture window in the topside of the boat caused the rubber gasket to fail, creating a big leak and the need for the picture window to be removed and re-bed.

As a side note I like these big topside picture windows less and less the more I see them for reasons exactly like the above. If the topside had been solid there would have been little to no damage.

Marina managers would do well to double check the manner in which yachts are tied up prior to a hurricane with an eye toward preventing incidents like those pictured above. In two of the cases in our marina where power boats were allowed to contact the docks, they were well into the process of destroying the docks before Irma moved on (as pictured below). Had Irma come directly over Fort Lauderdale, they may have completed their work with devastating consequences for other yachts in the marina.

Yacht Learning #3: The critical element to preventing dock lines from chafing is preventing movement at fairleads or at the end points

Two methods served us well for preventing movement at the piling end of the knot: making sure the lines had long runs, and making sure the knots were very tight around the piling itself. Pictured below is an exception. This line ran from our bow to a piling directly in front of our boat about 15 feet ahead. This line was run to prevent the boat from crashing her stern into the dock behind, and so was necessarily a short run. Look at how the up-and-down pitch of Le Saberage’s bow had caused the line to start machining through the wood of the piling, while the wood of the piling was busy destroying the line. Left like this too long, the piling would have won and the line would have failed.

In this case the line was an “extra” so we would be inclined to run it the same way next time, but the illustration is valid nonetheless. A clove hitch instead of using the loop end of the line would have resulted in a tighter fit that would have allowed less motion, and a longer run (when possible) would have made that motion more benign to begin with.

Here’s another example from the boat end of a dock line. After running out of space on a stern cleat, we ran a line through a fairlead and then about 3 feet to a primary winch in the cockpit. There was so much stretch along that 3-foot section alone that the line slipped off of the chafe gear and began to chafe the line itself at the fairlead:

Next time we will try to fit all lines on the cleat and / or position the chafe gear to allow for the stretch.

Never run lines in a such a manner that they can be expected to chafe on nearby objects. Again, this sounds like common sense, but look at the condition of this dock line from a neighbor’s power boat, which had been run around a far-side piling and then around the edge of the dock! Had Irma stuck around a little longer this line was going to break.

The same owner had deliberately run dock lines once around the piling after cleating them. There are two big no-nos here. First, never trust a dock cleat in a hurricane! Always tie directly to the piling. Second, the run around the piling was an open invitation to chafe.

Yacht Learning #4: The expensive chafe gear at the marine store really does work

We used the expensive stuff almost exclusively but back filled secondary lines with rags as chafe gear. Look at the contrast in condition after the storm – the rags were worn clear through in places and chafe had started on the lines.

Yacht Learning #4: If you haven’t had time to fix a leak or two in the past because they weren’t that serious, now is the time!!!

Small annoying leaks in normal conditions become big problems when the boat effectively is delivered a 60 knot fire hose of rain for 30 hours straight. On this front we were in great condition but I still hose tested some parts of the boat that are normally protected by the dodger (and so would be exposed during the storm). I found and cured one leak that would have been very serious had I not stopped it. I also noticed that my companionway design isn’t 100% water tight. It’s never a problem with the dodger up but it would be totally exposed during the hurricane. My fix was to cover the companionway edges with shrink-wrap tape. It held on superbly, sealed the companionway, and came back off with no residue.

Several other boats in our marina didn’t fare so well. We saw plenty of workers running fans down below on some boats while another had to pull just about every interior cushion from one stateroom out, along with most of the carpeting:

We wish them well but we wonder if the smell of damp carpeting can ever be cured without replacing all of the carpets and insulation.

Yacht Learning #5: Secure the interior of your boat as though you were leaving the dock to put out to sea

Sailboats in particular can heel almost as much as they would under sail, and all boats will roll considerably. You don’t want to come back to find pots and pans have poured out of cabinets onto the cabin sole.

We were lucky; I didn’t fully apply this discipline but most of our default storage locations are generally secured against heel. The exceptions were some small items I had left on the galley counter. This can of lemonade testifies to how much heel must have been imposed; it tried to make an escape to the floor but didn’t quite make it.

Yacht Learning #6: secure all line tails on deck, and anything else that might move (in any way)

We left the tails of our port halyards loose enough that they could flap in the breeze. The result? The 60-90 knot winds banged them around so aggressively that they machined all of the varnish off of the trailing edge of our sea hood. Next time we’ll tie down all halyard tails with a sail tie.

Yachting lesson #7: Be ready to seek alternate bars on land when you return to your boat. Some of your favorites may be destroyed

Pictured below, The Drunken Taco after hurricane Irma. Two of our other favorite bars survived with no damage.

4 thoughts on “What We Learned While Escaping Hurricane Irma

  1. Rich, how were you accounting for storm surge. With the lines all tight enough to keep you in the center, how did you account for the potential of a 10 foot surge?

    1. Two methods Glenn. First, we left plenty of slack in the lines. Second, and arguably more important, we have learned that the best way to deal with large tidal swings (we have seen much larger ones moving south than we saw on the Bay) is to have long line runs. So the act of tying the boat across the slips and putting her in the center serves that end as well. I couldn’t be sure she could have tolerated 10 foot surge but we were very confident about the 5-7 foot surge we expected.

  2. Please read all -boaters especially- This is good, experience based information! Impressive detail! Preparing Le Saberage was and will always be a joy in itself! Anytime such is needed, just say the word!

  3. Wow! A lot of lessons learned! You know, you always have an escape destination with me, here in Atlanta! LOL! Hopefully we never have to go through this again!! Can’t wait to get onboard that boat and do some sailing!!!! I LOVE you and Lisa!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s