– This guide is dedicated to the sailors and boaters of Coral Bay. Through their collective knowledge and wisdom, this work was possible.
If you are a new boat owner in the Virgin Islands, the approach of hurricane season can be a confusing time. Your hair is guaranteed to be raised by the stories of the long-timers who have seen their boats safely (or not so safely) through storms like Hugo and Marilyn.
What these sailors have to tell you is true, so don’t dismiss their tellings of harbors full of sunk boats, terrifying and sometimes deadly nights of tending lines, and catastrophic damage. Your most valuable source of information on preparing your boat for a hurricane will come from people who have literally weathered the storm.
Some good news, the big megillahs don’t happen nearly as often as you might believe. In the Virgin Islands, decades stretch between hurricanes stronger than a category 1. However, this is not permission to get complacent. In fact, it’s the opposite.
You can’t predict the year a big storm will hit, and a small storm can become a big storm in the blink of an eye. In the boating world, each and every warning must be respected. Lack of preparation has meant the loss of property and injury to those that underestimated the power and unpredictability of mother nature.
What is a Hurricane
Tropical cyclone is the generic term for a rotating, organized system of thunderstorm activity that originates over tropical or subtropical waters. In the Atlantic Region, when the sustained maximum winds of a tropical cyclone reach 74 miles per hour, the storm is called as a hurricane. Typhoons and cyclones are the same weather phenomenon, the only difference is where they appear in the world – typhoons are Pacific storms and cyclones appear in the Indian Ocean.
These storms can be massive, reaching 600 miles across. In 2015, Hurricane Patricia reached the highest maximum sustained wind speed ever recorded, clocking in at a whopping 215 miles per hour. Patricia caused $460 million in damage through Central American, Mexico, and Texas, but this cost is small compared to the billions caused by lesser storms which struck more populated areas such as Katrina.
The official hurricane season starts June 1st and ends November 30th. This doesn’t mean that hurricanes do not happen outside of these six months, they do. This is just the most active time of the year. My personal observation is that storm activity is at its height in September. The old sailor’s rhyme is a fairly true rule of thumb. However, since its original penning, the season has shifted a bit, running into November.
June too soon
July stand by
August come it must
October all over . . .
Freak Storm Behavior
Modern meteorology and forecasting is a marvel and a blessing. Atlantic storms usually telegraph their punch as they form low-pressure areas off the coast of Africa. This forewarning gives us ample time to prepare as a storm either forms or doesn’t form. This is the rule, but there are exceptions. Hurricanes can develop, without warning, in the Mid-Atlantic or even closer to the Virgin Islands, and storms that appear to be far out of range have been known to suddenly change tracks, switch back, shoot south or north, or do any number of other unpredicted things.
Be vigilant and be prepared. Don’t expect a storm to do exactly when your weather source says it is going to do.
Anatomy of a Hurricane
As a hurricane forms, an area of low pressure in the tropical Atlantic become organized, warm air starts to condense, forming clouds and thunderstorm activity. What starts as a tropical wave intensifies into a tropical depression. Condensation causes more warm air to rise, decreasing air pressure further, and sucking in the surrounding air from all directions. As more and more air rushes in to fill the low-pressure area, the storm strengthens and begins to rotate. Once it achieves wind speeds of 39 miles per hour, it is considered a tropical storm. As pressure continues to fall, the strengthening rotation pattern continues which forms the center or eye. The strongest winds of a hurricane are located at the wall of the eye. As wind speed continues to increase, and the storm will build in intensity until it is disrupted by unfavorable conditions such as a land mass, cool waters or wind sheer. At that point, it will begin to decrease in intensity and break apart.
The direction a hurricane approaches from is of particular interest to boaters. If you a protecting a home, the steps you take to prepare are the same regardless of whether the storm is passing from the north or the south. However, for boaters, the way your deploy your anchors, your orientation, or even the harbor you choose can change depending on the wind’s direction.
You should know what you are doing with your boat in the event of a storm well before June 1st. Create a written plan and keep it with your boat documentation and your storm refuge permit(s).
Here are some of the best options:
1) Take your boat out of the water
Select a boatyard with a summer/storm storage package. When shopping for a place to haul out, consider the location of the yard. Try to pick an area that is not located in the flood plain, which is 10 feet or more above sea level, and make sure your boat is stored away from trees or roofs. Your boat needs to be properly decommissioned and all windage removed before storage. For a checklist, click here.
Request that the yard conducts periodic inspections of your vessel and the jackstands while it is in storage. If a large storm is approaching, request that the yard strap your boat to the stands and anchor the stands into the ground. If you put a smaller boat or dinghy on a trailer, make sure your boat is chained to the trailer and the trailer is secured to the ground.
2) Moor your boat in the Hurricane Hole Storm Refuge located in Coral Bay, St. John
The National Park, with the aid of the Chesney Foundation and the Ocean Trust, installed a state-of-the-art storm mooring system in Coral Bay in order to provide safe storm berths for resident boaters and to protect the mangroves and ecology of the Coral Reef National Monument. During a storm, boats are tied to the one-inch chain fastened to the ocean floor by heavy-duty sand screws. The mooring system is installed through the eastern bays of Borck, Otter, Princess and Water Creek and is designed to berth 96 vessels in hurricane conditions. Permits are available to boat owners who will be in the Virgin Island for at least 50% of storm season. New permits are granted annually at a lottery held around May (sometimes April or June). Once issued, your mooring is renewable each year provided you are in compliance and apply for the renewal.
You won’t believe how they used to grant permits! Read A Remembrance: The 2008 Dinghy Brawl for Safe Hurricane Moorings for the tale by Bob Tis.
Regulation – Do not tie lines to the mangroves or any shore vegetation in Hurricane Hole. Failure to comply will result in the suspension or revocation of your storm refuge permit and a possible fine.
3) Anchor your boat in a protected bay
St. John’s Hurricane Hole is an excellent option for a variety of reasons. However, if you are elsewhere in the Virgin Islands and do not have a registered berth in Hurricane Hole, you can select another protected bay based on the direction of the storm’s approach and other factors. In this case, you need to educate yourself. I can provide a list of bays where vessels have weathered up to category 4 hurricanes, but it is up to you to select wisely, to use your gear correctly, and to use enough of it to see you through with no or minimal damage.
Some of the more known bays boater have used for refuge are Benner Bay and Mandahl Pond on St. Thomas; Mary’s Creek and Cruz Bay on St. John; Krause Lagoon and Green River on St. Croix; and Ensenada Honda on Culebra. Ideally, you want a small area of water that is not crowded, has good holding, and is protected by land. Remember, do your homework! These bays can be your salvation or a death trap depending on the storm’s behavior. Also, many are shallow. You don’t want to arrive at your pre-selected bay of choice only to be blocked because you draw too much to enter.
4) Secure your boat in a slip at a marina
This is not a great option in a big storm, but it can be adequate in a smaller one, especially if the marina is built with floating docks with tall piling. A crowded marine with short pilings and fixed docks is a recipe for disaster. If you do choose to stay at a marina, secure your boat to your slip with at least six to ten lines and make sure that you allow for a storm surge of at least 10 feet.
Ask your marina for their storm policy ahead of time. Some marinas will not let you stay during a hurricane. It will be a very unwelcome surprise if you are told to leave when a storm warning is issued and you do not have a place to put your boat. There are very few marinas that accept storm guests, so don’t count on a marina as a last minute option.
Securing Your Vessel
The most important thing to remember as you secure your vessel is to stay cool. This can be much more difficult than it sounds. Anchorages get crowded. Tempers flare. Last minute “storm guests” will show up displaying a lack of knowledge, lack of gear, or probably both… and they may choose to anchor right next to you. Remember, everyone around you is trying to protect their property and their lives. Panic and anger can cause oversights and mistakes (not to mention, fist fights), so keep it together. Your priority is to secure your vessel to the absolute best of your ability, then to help others who are less knowledgeable. This help may involve asking or helping someone to move to a more appropriate place.
At the minimum, you will need:
- Four anchors (the bigger, the better)
- 800 feet of rode (do not use sheet lines, if at all possible)
- Chafe gear (fire hose, rug, fabric, duct tape, plastic hose)
- 6 to 10 shackles (screw pin bow with 1.25” jaw if on chain in Hurricane Hole)
- Seizing wire
- Tools (at the very least, a knife, wire cutter, screwdriver, hammer, fasteners, and a channel lock or adjustable wrench)
- Mask and snorkel
- More anchors!
- More rode
- Swivels and thimbles
- Scuba gear
- Whipping twine
- Screw gun
- Lithium grease
- Gloves and eye protection (old-timers swear by a dive mask and snorkel if you have to go on desk during the storm)
- Hose clamps
- Backup pumps
- Toilet bowl wax rings (emergency fix for leaks)
Preparing Your Boat
“He who does not prepare is the cause of the storm.”
— a Coral Bay saying
Congratulations, you have a hurricane plan, storm gear, and your spot; now you need to prepare your boat. Maintenance needs to be done BEFORE the approach of a storm.
Make sure all systems are operational – check your engine, batteries, bilge pumps, generator, and radio. Clear any debris or blockages from your cockpit scuppers and make sure it drains. A water filled cockpit is not a good thing.
Clean your boat’s bottom. Not only will a fouled bottom make it difficult to reach a storm refuge, it will cause a huge amount of drag during the storm and increase strain on your lines significantly.
Reduce windage. Let me repeat that, REDUCE WINDAGE. This is of the utmost importance. If you have a sailboat, take down your roller furling headsails. Do it! To keep it up is a sure way to cause damage to yourself and everyone around you. Please don’t just wrap a line around your jib, take it down!
Sportfishing boat owners should take down as much outrigging and reduce windage from the towers as much as possible.
Remove your bimini, dodger and solar panels. Clear all loose items and lines from the deck. You can even take down your halyards. (Just make sure you have a plan on how to get them back up.)
Have a plan for your dinghy. If at all possible, don’t leave it in the water behind your boat or on the davits. Secure it on shore.
Many, many boats have been lost when their lines have chafed through. You MUST protect your lines with chafe gear. The rub on unprotected lines can cut through in minutes and can easily melt through plastic and rubber hose. Rug or fabric wraps are the most desirable, according to some. Others prefer hose. Either way, you need to use something. In an emergency, you can even slather lines with lithium grease. Be VERY careful to keep the grease off the deck. The last thing you want is to slip and fall into the water.
Chafe is a hazard not only above the water but below. Be aware of rough areas or shell on the chain, rocks or coral by the chain, and protruding seizing wire. If you can finish a line with a thimble, excellent, but most people don’t have this skill. Threading your lines though plastic hose before tying to a chain or anchor