We’re almost a week into hurricane season, and just about every media source has produced a hurricane special, a hurricane handbook, or some sort of a hurricane how-to guide. Since it seems like the “in” thing to do and I don’t want to feel left out, my version is presented here.
Here’s the most important thing to understand about hurricanes: You really don’t know what you’re facing when one is coming, and you’re not really going to know what hit you until after it’s all over. No matter how many hours you spend watching the weather channel or anxiously clicking for updates on NOAA weather websites, there is simply no telling what the conditions will be at your exact location during a hurricane. A difference of a mile or two in your position can make a huge difference in the effects. Our best weather forecasting is not nearly precise enough to make forecasts at that level.
The second most important thing to understand about hurricane preparation is that it’s not something that you want to be figuring out at the last minute. If you plan to cover the windows on your house, you should have the stuff to do it way before a storm is threatening. Same thing if you’ve got a boat to worry about. Don’t expect to be able to run to the hardware store or the marine supply store at the last minute and get that extra bit of rope when you discover that you can’t quite reach that last dock piling. What, you didn’t ever actually test hooking everything up in advance just to make sure?
Another important thing to know: No two hurricanes affect an area in the same way. So take it with a grain of salt if somebody wants to give you advice and claims expertise by saying something like “I was here for Irma” or “I was here during Charley” or (and this one is getting hard to find nowadays) “Let me tell you what happened when Donna ...”
A very telling example of the variability of storms can be gleaned from the reactions of residents of Punta Gorda after the town was hammered by Charley in 2004 and brushed by Irma in 2017. After Charley’s direct hit, the single most common reaction I heard was “I will never stay in town for another hurricane.” After Irma skirted our area to the east, there were a bunch of people who decided they’d never evacuate again. A better strategy would be to keep your options open until it’s “go time.”
Hurricane preparation for homes and for boats is a topic of heated debate. It seems that everybody has their own ideas of how best to defend your property. That’s right, defend. You are mounting a defense against damaging storm conditions. Hurricanes are all about wind and water — sometimes lots of wind and lots of water. And the water can be either fresh water that falls from above or salt water that rises from below.
We’ve all seen video of high winds peeling roofs off buildings, tossing cars around and creating towering surf. Hurricane winds are tricky to defend against not only because they can be very strong, but also because they change direction as the storm passes. The protected lee side of your house or marina doesn’t offer equal protection from all possible wind directions.
Torrential rains can create flooding and drainage problems and all that wind can push around enough sea water to create very high or very low water levels on the Gulf, Harbor and canals, each of which creates different hazards.
If your neighbor’s roof blows off and lands on your boat, it really doesn’t make much difference what steps you took — but there are things you can do to increase your boat’s survivability in a not-quite-worst-case situation. If you’ve got a trailer boat that’s kept outside, try to find a spot where there are few overhanging trees. Make sure deck drains are clear, and remove the drain plug. If it’s got a bimini top or other easily removable canvas, put it in the garage. Get two or three pairs of screw-in ground anchors and run ratchet straps over the top of the boat. Crank them down tight to hold the rig so it can’t easily roll or tumble.
Boats in the water are more complicated. Remove everything that’s removable and fold down the antennas. Make sure all bilge pumps are operable and all batteries are well-charged.
It’s very, very difficult to secure a boat against a hurricane if that boat is parked at a dock where it can only be tied to one side. There’s just no good way to hold your boat off the pilings and have it secure against high winds and against the possibility of very high or very low water. This is why most people cross-tie with long lines that stretch across canals.
This will require some advance planning: You’ll need permission from whomever’s property you will be accessing, you’ll need long lines and connecting hardware, and you’ll need to know exactly when you are allowed to do this.
You might be surprised by the amount of boat traffic in the canals right before a storm. You usually can’t stretch lines across a canal to block navigation, but most waterfront municipalities have a cut-off point for when cross-tying is allowed in advance of a storm. This is a dicey situation, because you want to have your boat tied before bad weather makes it unsafe or difficult to handle the boat and lines, and squally weather can arrive days before the actual storm.
Another complication is that if your planning to evacuate, you still need time for that after you’re done with the boat. If you plan to cross-tie, you can have everything connected on your side of the canal and everything connected on the boat and ready to pull across to the other side as soon as it’s permitted.
Ideally, your boat will be tied so that it has room to move around both horizontally and vertically as winds and waters change during the storm. You’ll want to have lines connected to as many “things” as possible on both your boat and on shore. If a line parts, a cleat fails, a ground anchor pulls out or a piling breaks, you may still be OK if you have multiple lines and connection points.
There are so many theories and strategies for storm preparation that this column could talk about nothing but those topics for the entire duration of hurricane season, and nobody wants that. Whatever your plan, the most important thing is to stay safe.
Let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.