Finding safety inside a hurricane

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 15, 2003

This week we conclude our month-long look at hurricanes and ways to deal with one of nature’s most brutal forces.

I have to admit I internally debated whether to actually discuss this fourth and final topic because of the message it might send.

For two plus years this column has always looked at safe ways to boat. Discussing how to survive a hurricane underway might send the message that being out in this type of storm, in any vessel is OK. This is not the case. I want to make it clear that a prudent mariner should not place himself in a position to have to wrestle with a hurricane. The odds are against you! A prudent mariner needs to have the best possible situational awareness of the weather. However, after re-watching the movie &uot;The Perfect Storm,&uot; I knew I needed to discuss the topic of underway operations in a hurricane, if for no other reason than to give people something to think about.

Email newsletter signup

When you think about it modern technology has really made less likely the chance that an offshore boater will get caught in hurricane-sized winds and seas. Equipment such as WeatherFax is relatively inexpensive and provides boaters the opportunity to get useable data. In addition, if operating closer to shore tuning into the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s radio system allows nearly continuous updates.

These precautions are obvious. But what can a serious recreational boater do as a hurricane force storm approaches?

For starters I went to the Canadian Yachting Association Web site and looked at their recommendations. Recreational sailors in Canada, especially in the water off the Maritimes, face some of the most unpredictable weather in the world. The Association’s recommendations are both logical and easy to understand.

If you’re on a sailboat there are a couple of approaches. The Canadian Yachting Association recommends that you shorten your sails.

&uot;It’s easier to shake out a reef than put one in. Therefore, reef early and progressively, ahead of the weather&uot;, recommends off-shore Instructor Barrie Jackson. &uot;The longer the crew waits, the more difficult it is to reef. A rule of thumb about reefing is to shorten sail to balance the boat in the gusts and the squalls.&uot;

A second approach may be to simply heave to. One other physical recommendation came from the same article, &uot;tow a Danforth anchor from 300 feet of line. Although, a warp won’t slow the boat much, it will provide directional stability, keeping the stern to the seas.&uot; The flip side to this recommendation is that an owner has to ask him or herself, &uot;Do I want the most vulnerable area on my vessel (the stern), exposed to breaking monster waves?&uot;

Besides the vessel itself a second consideration for operations within a hurricane is to start looking at the effect on the crew. Understand that your vessel, especially if it is well-built and designed for off-shore use will probably take the physical punishment which hurricane force winds inflict a lot better than the crew will. Throughout history, there are multiple stories of sailors, through the world, who have abandoned their vessels thinking they would sink, only to perish themselves while the vessel survives. In all cases get everyone onboard into Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) and survival suits.

In hurricane conditions, the fatigue factor (regardless of the physical conditioning of the crew) will be a significant factor. This type of weather will cause a variety of emotions and reactions which impact how a crew reacts.

Remember the reaction of the crew on both the doomed fishing vessel and the sailboat during the movie the &uot;Perfect Storm&uot;? Hollywood got this one right!

From fatigue and fear to the near continuous physical pounding which can be inflicted on various parts of the body including knees and backs, the toll on the human body is significant. Hurricanes will cause the vessel to heave, roll and &uot;slam&uot; with the waves. (&uot;Slam&uot; is not a nautical technical term, but you get the point). This can and will effect your crew.

If the boat itself swamps stay with it! Once in the water there will be a huge challenge to tether passengers and crew together. Do this as quickly as possible. Reinforce to everyone to keep together. Even in the middle of August in the Caribbean the need to keep the group in one area is imperative.

Again, think of the movie &uot;The Perfect Storm.&uot; The National Guard member in the movie who was lost did not band together with the other members once they jumped from the failing helicopter.

Along the same lines, if the boat swamps look to use the lifeboats which you are carrying (you are carrying lifeboats, aren’t you?) as your shelter. The same principal applies; stay together, keep warm, and get onboard when able.

Consideration of these first two major issues is important. The next thing a prudent mariner needs to do is a risk assessment towards heading for shore. A lot depends on the path the hurricane is taking and the confidence you have in the projections. In the past ten years I have seen six different Category IV and V hurricane that have taken…&uot;turns&uot; (not a technical term!) in which they were predicted to be heading for one area and at the second veered right or left to hit a different area. One way to be ready for this situation, and use the option to seek shelter is to hold the latest hurricane haven publication. If you have the opportunity go to the following web site: and look at the work has been done on various ports.

If all your efforts fail and you need help, call for assistance. As reported in the Coast Guard Storm Center’s website ( &uot;If you get into trouble call for help immediately. Keep in touch with the Coast Guard or anyone else you can reach so someone knows your location and assistance can be sent if needed.&uot; Remember the Coast Guard Emergency frequencies are Channel 16 VHF and 2182 MHz and don’t forget to energize your EPIRB, making sure that all information is registered.

Obviously in one column I couldn’t cover even a fraction of all the issues that a boater will face in the worst of heavy weather. However, you can get much more detailed information and recommendations by purchasing one of several outstanding books on heavy weather boating. A search of both two local bookstores and some of the online bookstores indicated at least ten different titles; many of which specialized in either sailing or power boating.

If you are looking for a free information Boat US has a hurricane booklet which can be ordered directly on line. Go to their link: and fill in the requested information. It is worth the two or three minutes it takes to fill out the request.

Finally, if there is one idea, one thought, one item I want to reinforce as strongly as possible both as a career Coast Guard officer and a boating columnist it is that you should never plan to be on a boat during a hurricane! &uot;Riding It Out Onboard&uot; will be a MAJOR mistake.

Think about it!

Until next week, Boat Safe… and Boat Smart!

LCDR Joe DiRenzo III is a resident of Suffolk and a regular News-Herald columnist.