Hurricane Preparation for Boaters

The Atlantic Hurricane Season runs from June 1st to November 30th every year and poses an inherent risk for boat owners throughout the Eastern United States. According to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, an average Atlantic Hurricane Season has 14 named storms, 7 hurricanes and 3 major hurricanes (Category 3, 4, or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale). By sheer odds, that means that sooner or later, any boat owner who keeps a vessel within a hurricane zone will have to deal with the threat of a major storm damaging their boat, possibly even experiencing the reality of the storm itself. In the worst case scenarios, owners will be forced to make use of their boat insurance to make claims and repairs to their vessel.

When Is The Height Of Hurricane Season?

During Hurricane Season, the months of August, September and October are the most active. More hurricanes and tropical storms are produced in the Atlantic Basin in those three months than at any other time during the year, and thus the risk for strong winds, storm surges and storm damage is the greatest along the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Maine as well as the Gulf Coast and even inland Eastern states. The first named storm typically forms in mid to late June, the first hurricane tends to form in early to mid-August, and the first major hurricane forms in late August or early September.

However, long before a hurricane threatens your investments, you should have a firm set of plans about how to prepare so you can weather the storm and avoid serious damage to your pride and joy. Organize your thinking, gather your gear and have your plan in place. If you have to act, act decisively, and give yourself time to help your neighbors on the water; their preparedness can have a direct impact on your own success in avoiding damage, too.

As you establish your hurricane prep plan, topics to consider include:

Hurricane Isaac approaches the Gulf Coast in 2012. There's little time left to prepare at this point. Photo courtesy of the National Hurricane Center.
When you see this on the TV or computer screen, there’s little time left to prepare. Photo courtesy of the National Hurricane Center.

Hurricane Boat Preparation Strategies

Location is generally considered the main factor is how well a boat is likely to fare in a hurricane. And remember, jetties, sea walls, and sand spits that may normally provide protection to a given area may well be underwater during a hurricane.

As you try to find the best location for your boat, consider the following:

  • How protected is your boat? In its normal berth/storage location, is your vessel protected from wind, waves, and storm surge? This question applies just as much to a boat that lives on a trailer in a low-lying area, or under a big tree, as it does to a slip-dweller or a boat that lives on a mooring in a big harbor with an open fetch to the sea.
  • How crowded is your marina or storage area? Perhaps even more importantly, how do your neighbors keep their boats – are they squared-away and seamanlike, or are they slobs, or ignorant, or absent? Very often, people who have done a good job preparing their own boats for storms are undone by the boats of others breaking loose and sweeping down on them, taking out mooring lines, dislodging anchors, ripping out cleats, and causing hull damage and even greater losses.
  • Storm surge threat. If you can have your boat hauled what will the conditions be like on the shore? How high above high water could a storm surge reach? There have been plenty of cases when boats hauled out in advance of a storm have then floated off their stands or trailers and been damaged in the boatyard.
  • Safety Policies of Marinas. Does your boatyard, marina, or town harbormaster have plans in place that will help to safeguard everyone, or is it every boat for itself?
  • Higher Ground Plan. If you boat is on a trailer or you have a trailer for it, can you haul it to the most sheltered location possible on high ground?
hurricane ike damage
This marina in Galveston endured plenty of boat damage during Hurricane Ike; boats that were removed from the storm’s fury obviously stood a better chance of avoiding damage. Photo courtesy of the US Coast Guard District 8.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, the smart money says to haul your boat if you have time and ability because insurance data shows that boats are less likely to be damaged when ashore. Boats stored on land on jack stands have a better chance of escaping damage if they’re also strapped down to helical anchors or (if available) eyes embedded in concrete. If a haul-out isn’t possible or advisable in your case, the next decision will be whether to leave your boat where it is or try to get it to a better harbor or hurricane hole. Of course, a lot of other people will have the same idea. Hurricane holes tend to get mighty crowded in a hurry, but often there’s a spirit of cooperation involved, and at least you know you’re in the company of other people who care about their boats.

Location is another factor in boat insurance cost and coverage options, so make sure you understand where your boat is and how it is stored may effect your coverage. While it’s not usually a legal requirement in most areas in the U.S., boat insurance can make the difference between navigating a crisis calmly, and having to pay thousands and thousands of dollars if things go wrong. 

Essential Hurricane Preparation Tactics

With the location nailed down, there are a number of measures you’ll want to take to minimize the potential for damage.

  • Close All Openings – Secure your hatches, ports, cockpit lockers, bow and stern lockers, and anchor locker. Tape over any openings that could take in water such as engine vents, companionway doors or slats, or hatches.
  • Check Bilge Pumps – make sure your bilge pumps are operating and the pump outs are not blocked by any debris. If you’re boat takes on water, either through heavy rainfall or waves over the gunnels, it is vital the boat’s bilge pumps can keep up.
  • Strip off all canvas to reduce windage and prevent it from being ripped to shreds. This means Biminis, dodgers, awnings, mainsails, roller-furled jibs – anything made of fabric. It’s amazing how many people think they’ve done their prep work simply by folding down their Bimini or taking a few wraps of line around a furled sail. When the wind gets up above 60 knots or so, it seeks out even the smallest weakness in canvas, exploits it, and almost methodically goes on to destroy the whole cloth structure and usually any metal framework holding it together, while putting enormous stress on the entire boat. While you’re at it, also remove flags, ensigns, pennants, fishing rods, grills, life-rings, cushions  – anything not screwed down that could present a surface to the wind.
  • Securely fasten lines. If your boat will be riding out the storm on a mooring or at anchor, double or triple your attachment points, spreading the loads between multiple cleats, using a bridle if necessary, making attachments to through-bolted fittings, around masts at their partners, through bow-eyes, etc.  Whenever possible, tie to heavy fixed objects on the land-side – bollards, pilings, trees – and remember to allow slack for the maximum expected storm surge.
  • Use chafing gear any place a mooring line or anchor rode runs through a chock or fairlead, over a roller, or may touch a solid object. There is some debate on the topic, but traditional leather or heavy cloth chafing gear, as opposed to hard rubber or reinforced water hose, is probably better in storm conditions. It is heat, developed from intense friction, that tends to weaken and destroy a line more quickly than mechanical chafing.
  • Dacron/polyester lines resist chafe better than nylon lines and have a higher breaking strength. Nylon stretches more. Use polyester for bow and stern lines, nylon for spring lines and anchor rode.
  • Proper Slack On Lines: In slips, allow for storm surge in bow, stern, and spring lines (as well as the regular tide). Use spring lines to pull your boat away from the dock, and work with the yard management and your neighbors to set up grids of lines that will help keep boats away from finger piers and neighbors. Add lines wherever possible. According to BoatU.S., your boat should “resemble a spider suspended in a large web.”
  • Spread the load on cleats by using as many different ones as possible, rather than attaching multiple lines to a single cleat.
  • Hang fenders everywhere you can.
  • Check Your Insurance Coverage And Deductible. Are there changes or requirements in your hurricane insurance coverage in the event of a named storm? Now’s the time to make sure you’re fully covered and have fulfilled your own responsibilities to ensure it remains in effect. Boat Trader also partners with Geico on our own Boat Insurance service page where buyers can learn about what kind of insurance is right for their vessel and learn how to quickly get a boat insurance quote online.
The cyclone Catarina, which made landfall in March 2004 in Brazil, was the first hurricane observed in the South Atlantic. Note the clockwise rotation. Photo courtesy NASA, from the International Space Station.
The cyclone Catarina, which made landfall in Brazil. Note the clockwise rotation. Photo courtesy NASA, from the International Space Station.

Hurricane Prep for Boats on Lifts

Boats stored on lifts have their own unique set of hurricane preparation issues. While lifts may seem like a safe place for a boat in a hurricane, they are not. In fact, boats on lifts are subjected to being blown off the cradle (when not tied down) or being submerged by a storm surge (when securely tied down); bunk boards can break; the lift and boat can grind against the lift motor or pilings; and the boat can be set adrift if the lift collapses. Therefore, it’s best to remove the boat from the lift if at all possible and store it ashore. There may be situations, however, where this isn’t practical or possible. In those cases:

  • Strip off all canvas and secure anything that’s not bolted down, as you would with boats in other hurricane storage situations. Same goes for securing hatches, ports, etc., as well as taping over openings that may take in water.
  • Remove drain plugs and make sure cockpit drains are clear so the boat doesn’t fill with water and collapse the lift.
  • Raise the lift as high as possible.
  • Attach lines – Attach the boat to the pier with strong lines, to secure it in place.
  • Plug Exhaust Ports – If the boat is an inboard, plug the exhaust ports to prevent water intrusion in case water levels rise high enough to swamp them.

Additional Hurricane Prep Options

Beyond the must-do’s there are some should-do’s which may or may not be possible in different individual cases.

  • Remove electronics and store them at home.
  • Remove valuables and loose gear that might get ruined, and that insurance might not pay for – binoculars, galley equipment, bedding, clothes, fishing gear, etc.
  • Replace Halyards – On sailboats, halyards should be replaced with thin messengers. If the mast can be de-stepped, this is also recommended.
  • Charge Batteries / Check Bilge Pumps. Make sure your batteries are topped up so that they can keep up with your bilge pumps, and make sure you have back up bilge pumps.
  • Take photos of your own preparations, in case an insurance company needs them. Also it will help you remember for next time.
A simulation of the storm surge in New England at the height of the Hurricane of 1938, a brute that caused tremendous devastation then, and would cause far more today. The yellow areas show a surge 10 feet above normal high water. The red areas in New London, Providence, and Buzzard's Bay were even worse. Image courtesy of the National Hurricane Center.
A simulation of the storm surge in New England at the height of the Hurricane of 1938, a brute that caused tremendous devastation then, and would cause far more today. The yellow areas show a surge 10 feet above normal high water. The red areas in New London, Providence, and Buzzard’s Bay were even worse. Image courtesy of the National Hurricane Center.

Finally, remember that it’s never a good idea to stay aboard the boat in a hurricane. Once winds top 100 mph and surging water presents a danger to the boat, there’s little or nothing a person aboard can do. And during Hurricane Andrew, six of the 21 deaths directly related to the storm took place on boats where people were attempting to ride it out. So get that boat into the safest possible situation, then take shelter on land to do the same for yourself.

Additional Resources:

Editor’s note: This article was originally written by Doug Logan and published in July 2016 and was rewritten and updated by Ryan McVinney in July and September, 2022.

Written by: Ryan McVinney

C. Ryan McVinney is a film director, producer, writer, actor, boat captain, outdoor enthusiast and conservationist. He's currently the host and director of Boat Trader's award-winning Stomping Grounds TV show that explores boating culture across America. McVinney also directs and produces the documentary series Cult Classics and the extreme superyacht show LEGENDS for YachtWorld, as well the popular Factory Fridays video series for boats.com. He is a regular contributor to leading marine industry publications.

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