I have kept my 39ft sailboat in the Morgan
Creek Yacht Basin on Isle of Palms, SC since 2012, so we have endured several storms of various intensity and paths over the years. There are several threats to your vessel you must consider, and depending on the expected path, timing, and intensity of the storm, you can minimize your risks through a range of measures from which you can choose at the time. There is no one solution that protects you against all scenarios.
Main Risks can be bundled in the following categories:
1. Shifting Winds
3. Tides/Storm Surge
5. Other vessels
6. Hard physical infrastructure
7. Flying debris
1. Shifting Winds
Where the central eye of the hurricane is predicted to be relative to your vessel position is a big factor in deciding how to mitigate wind risks. Unfortunately, predictions accurate enough to make a decision typically come too late when you have a direct hit or glancing blow from the storm. However, with a less direct storm approach path, and a little luck, wind direction will be primarily from one quadrant, varying no more than 90-120 degrees. In that case, a bahamian type anchoring system, with bow and stern anchor
points orienting your bow into the expected wind quadrant works to minimize wind risks. No swinging at anchor, minimized wave action on the beam, etc. And you can shelter in a narrow stream to minimize fetch.
But otherwise, you should plan on your vessel encountering winds from nearly every quadrant, in which case, you should allow your vessel to swing 360 degrees maintaining your bow into either the wind or the resulting wave action. In Charleston, this drives you to head
for the main rivers or larger bays, where the problem of fetch becomes predominant
In the Charleston area, there is little shelter from the wind provided by onshore natural or manmade structure. No hills or cliffs. The low country (aka lowcountry) has very few trees to provide wind breaks. One reason I selected Morgan
Creek Harbor was the wind break provided by the surrounding homes on either side of the harbor. While very near the coast, it is still the most sheltered marina in the area.
Wave action created by a long fetch under storm conditions can be significant, especially with wind against current
. The only way to mitigate against this is to tuck into one the many small creeks that flow into one of the main rivers (Wando, Stono, Cooper, Ashley, Edisto, Wadmalaw, etc.) But this tactic drives you to a bahamian anchoring method and precludes swinging at anchor. So expected wind conditions as outlined in 1 above will impact wave risks.
3. Tides/Storm Surge
Storm surge is potentially the most damaging factor resulting from the storm, but is very dependant on the timing of the arrival of the storm surge at your specific location relative to the local high tide at your location. If the surge arrives at or near low tide, its effects are mitigated. If it arrives at high tide, its effects are amplified. Because hurricane speeds vary unpredictably, you won't know till 12-24 hours out the juxtaposition of high tide and storm surge arrival. It is nerve racking.
There is the infamous aerial photo
after Hurricane Hugo showing the entire fleet of boats berthed at the Morgan Creek Marina beached on Goat Island. The floating docks were floated completely off the tops of the pilings and pushed by wind and waves across the ICW
and onto the nearby Goat Island. All pilings at the Marina have been lengthened since Hugo, so it would take a significant combination of tide and surge for that result to happen again. Staying aboard during recent hurricanes, I measured a 4 ft+ margin of remaining piling length at high tide and peak storm surge. Your marina may be different, so ask the locals.
Recent storms have been less intense from a wind velocity standpoint, but significant in total rainfall. Be aware that days after the storm passes, as rainfall in the entire catchment area flows down into the main rivers, the current
will be significant and a lot of floating debris will be roaring down the streams and rivers. There is a balance between risking these currents to recover your boat quickly after the storm and getting your vessel out of harms way of the floating debris, potentially puncturing your hull
if you are in a main channel swinging on the hook.
5. Other vessels
Other vessels become a threat either in a marina environment
, in a hurricane hole when in close proximity, and when swinging on the hook downstream from a dragging vessel. You will be too busy securing your vessel to also have the time to ensure your neighbor is sufficiently secure. In a Marina, a strong social network and mutual supporting relationships well before hurricane season goes a long way to ensuring all vessels are as secure as possible. As you will know, many of the vessels berthed in Charleston are not owned by locals, but owners living 4-6 hours away in some cases Few, in my experience take the time to double up their docklines and strip their sails
before the storm. A recipe for disaster. Assess the situation in your local marina and decide accordingly. I have gone to a hurricane hole on one occassion (2016) and remained aboard in the marina for all the rest since 2012. The only time I experienced damage was at the hurricane hole. Why you may ask did I experience damage at the hurricane hole? Well....
6. Hard physical infrastructure
For Hurricane Matthew, 2016, the predicted path of the eye was tracking 50 miles offshore
the Isle of Palms 72 hours out. Any deviation west would mean a direct hit on IOP. On the Wednesday morning before the Saturday predicted landfall, I decided to head
out from my IOP slip towards my pre-selected hurricane hole. I was the last vessel to traverse the Ben Sawyer drawbridge at 11:30 before it shut down at noon on Wednesday due to high winds. NOTE: Draw Bridges in the area will not open when winds exceed 35mph. This condition can exist several days before the storms arrival.
I felt so clever having found this hurricane hole on Google Earth
, the only spot in the region with a deep (enough) water depth
, a hairpin turn with TREES!! on both sides of the stream, and within a days motoring from the IOP. My plan was to tie up to the trees ashore bow and stern rather than rely on a potentially poor holding bottom. After securing the vessel, I would launch my inflatable dinghy
, cross the major river and beach at a nearby landing site, where a friend would pick me and dinghy
up and wait out the storm in the comfort of his home with a well stocked bar. Masterful!
But as I entered the stream off the major river, in the distance I saw the tall pilothouses of TWO! harbor tugs. As I rounded the bend en route
to my hurricane hole, those tugs were lashed to TWO!! river barges, lashed side by side and straddling the entire width of the stream! This prevented me from reaching my hurrican hole, which lay another 400 yards upstream from the barges. My disappointment was consuming.
I proceeded to work plan B, which was to anchor slighty downstream from the two barges and so I began laying out my all chain rode
. As I did, a small runabout from the towing company approached a told me I should not anchor there because a THIRD!! tug/barge lashup was heading my way with intent to hunker down in the stream right where I was anchoring. He would foul my anchor chain in the process. On the horizon, I could see the top of his pilothouse approaching the stream entrance. I was in no position to argue. Mass wins this argument. I had to move and fast. I recovered my anchor, and at the suggestion of the tow company dude, headed for a nearby bulkhead fixed pier. The SC Department of Natural Resources trawler
was tied up there and the tow company dude said no one would take issue with me tying up as well. I went with Plan C.
Having tied up to the bulkhead, I needed a way to hold my boat 4-6 feet off the hard infrastructure of the pier. Luckily, there was a very robust piling about 40 ft away on the other side of the stream. I had a large diameter line used for towing my "old school" water generator propeller
. With the help of the runabout, we tied one end to my bow, ran the line around the piling, and then back to the boat, where I secured it to my stern. I winched it as tight as I could to take out any stretch. It sounded like a good plan. It wasn't.
During the storm, as I was drinking my beers, the winds shifted through nearly 360 degrees and the tide rose during the storm flooding the banks of the pierhead. Because of this, the line running behind the pier just shifted to and fro with the wind pushing alternatively against the bow and stern. So the bow hit the pier during certain wind directions and the stern hit the pier during others. Fortunately, my boat is built like a tank and the pier actually took more of a beating than my boat! But it did manage to punch a hole in one of my 1/2 inch lexan
portholes and leave a nasty dock rash on my starboard quarter forward. Dissappointment, but not tragedy.
What I SHOULD have done with the line around the piling was do a round turn, or even two round turns to prevent the slipping that occurred. Rookie mistake....lesson learned.
When I recovered my boat 3 days after the storm passed, there was still floating debris roaring down the channel of the river. But I was moving with the current, so less of a threat. When I returned to the marina, I spoke with a couple who had remained on board their vessel in the marina during the storm. They said that while it was a harrowing experience they would rather not repeat, their boat had no damage. Mitchell had been downgraded to Category 1 by the time it passed off IOP, so I decided then and there that unless future storms were Cat 2 or higher with "near approaches" to IOP, I would take advantage of the wind shelter provided by the surrounding homes and remain on board in the marina. Since 2017 I have weathered all remaining storms onboard in the marina without incident or damage.
Proximity to structures or trees presents its own risks from flying debris. If a house gets taken out by storm surge or wind, lots of ballistic missiles present a threat. Take that into consideration in selecting you location.
Whether swinging on the hook or anchored bow and stern, if your ground tackle isn't adequate, you risk grounding or impacting other boats or hard infrastructure. While grounding in the soft pluff mud of the low country is unlikely to deliver significant damage (short of encountering an oyster
bank), the more costly outcome is your boat floating away at extreme high tide + storm surge depths to an area that at normal tides is high and dry or partially submerged. Last hurricane, an errant sailboat ended up in the marsh under the IOP Connector causeway in 3 feet of water. Only a swarm of PWCs were able to drag it out to deeper water for recovery. Recovering a grounded vessel well above the high water mark will be costly.
Well hopefully my lessons learned will be helpful to you in making decisions about your actions during the next hurricane. Key take away is to not have ONE plan, but a series of audibles you can execute depending on the circumstances presented by the weather
guessers. I'm a retired military strategic planner and one of the often quoted "words of wisdom" is:
"No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy's main force."
And so it goes for Hurricanes as well.
Plan ahead and stay safe!