Preparing for Katrina

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 30, 2005

This week, with Hurricane Katrina on everyone’s minds, we continue our look at hurricanes and ways to deal with one of nature’s most brutal forces. I have to admit I briefly debated if I actually would discuss this third topic, which looks at considerations if you are underway during the

&uot;approach of&uot; or &uot;in&uot; a hurricane.

The reason I hesitated with this specific topic is because some might think that it was OK to be underway in such a storm. It isn’t. Every mariner, from the most experienced to the newest boat owner needs to do all they can to avoid being underway.

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With all the modern science involved accurate weather forecasting is a reality. Science has advanced so much that everyone should have a very good handle on weather issues well before and during even the shortest underway period.

Modern technology has really made the chance that a boater, operating offshore, will get caught in hurricane force winds and seas less likely. A &uot;Weather Fax&uot; is relatively inexpensive and provides boaters the opportunity to get useable data, which is accurate. In addition, if operating closer to shore, tuning into the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s radio system provides nearly continuous updates. Modern satellite telephones offer even more options for the more the well to do.

But what if despite your best efforts you get caught in a hurricane, such as Katrina, which pops up. Consider the following ideas.

I have been underway in a Nor’easter while in command of a cutter, and regardless of the size of your vessel you don’t want the stern totally exposed to huge monster waves. The biggest reason involves control and the ability to maneuver with that type of force on your stern.

In my personal opinion this is one of the most difficult shiphandling problems that the owner of a recreational vessel can face.

But the sea and waves are only one part of the problem. The vast majority of those sailors, who go offshore, have spent the money to but a recreational boat that handles physical punishment. There is potentially a different story for how the owner and crew will react. In hurricane conditions, even within the &uot;outer bands&uot; the fatigue factor, regardless of your physical conditioning or that of the crew, are huge issues. This type of weather will cause a variety of reactions and emotions which impact the crew. From fatigue and fear, to the physical pounding which inflict various parts of the body including knees and backs weather like this will drain you. Hurricanes will cause the vessel to heave, roll and &uot;slam&uot; with the waves. (&uot;Slam&uot; is not a technical term, but you get the point). This will affect your crew.

Throughout history, there are hundreds of &uot;sea stories&uot; involving sailors, who abandoned their die thinking they would sink, only to die themselves, while rescuers found their vessel intact. The whole issue of abandonment needs to be carefully considered by every vessel owner well before going to sea. In speeches that I have given before yacht clubs I have recommended that sailors run scenarios through their mind to be fully prepared for the unthinkable, one of the scenarios is this exact issue.

Common sense dictates that everyone needs to get into survival suits and personal flotation devices.

In discussions with seasoned owners I was very surprised that few had considered this initial step. It is perhaps the most important move you can make to ensure survival. Just like pro football players need to run through plays in their mind, the same holds true for offshore sailors, run the reactions to a hurricane through your mind before it happens.

Another consideration, when underway in a hurricane – what to do if the boat swamps? Most experts suggest that if the boat itself swamps stay with it, while reinforcing to everyone to keep together. Even in late August in the Gulf of Mexico the need to keep the group in one area is imperative. The reason is simple. If everyone makes an effort to stay together the search and rescue effort has at a better chance for success. Along the same lines, if the boat swamps look to use the lifeboats which you are carrying (you are carrying lifeboats, aren’t you, if you are offshore?) as your shelter.

If all your efforts fail, or if you feel overwhelmed and you need help, call for assistance! As reported in the U.S. 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. Remember the Coast Guard Emergency frequencies are Channel 16 VHF and 2182 MHz and to help responders find you quickly – don’t forget to energize your EPIRB.

The whole issue of trying to survive while caught in a hurricane can’t be covered in this amount of space.

In fact, I could double the word count and still not even scratch the surface. What I hope this column has done is spur the readers to get much more detailed information by purchasing one of several outstanding books on heavy weather boating. A search of both two local bookstores and some of the mega &uot;on-line&uot; book store sites revealed at least a half-dozen

different titles; many of which focus on either sailing or power boating.

Finally, there is one final idea, one final thought, one final item I want to reinforce as strongly as possible, both as a retired Coast Guard officer and boating enthusiasts, simply – you should never plan to be on a boat during a hurricane! &uot;Riding It Out Underway&uot; will be a MAJOR mistake.

Think about it.

Until next week…Boat Safe….and Boat Smart!

Joe DiRenzo is a retired Coast Guard officer and former cutter Commanding Officer, who currently works as a civilian for the Coast Guard. A nationally published author on maritime terrorism and port security issues he has written the Boating column for the News-Herald for the past four years.