Preparing for the Hurricane season

12/09/06

 

 

The hurricane season is officially from 1. June to the 30. of November each year. This is the time that tropical storms and hurricanes can develop out in the Atlantic and crash into the islands. As I write this letter the first storm of the year is building up over Cuba. The destructive powers of these weather systems where demonstrated last year when New Orleans was destroyed by Katarina, while all the islands in the Caribbean have their hurricane histories none is of this scale. But it does not take a Katarina to damage your yachting prospects next season.

All oceans do have their season of violent storms - winter storms in the North Sea, Mistrals in the French Mediterranean coast, typhoons in the far east and monsoons in the pacific and Indian oceans. This is the time when a prudent mariner sails away, stays in port or haul their boats. As a result the Caribbean is nearly empty of boats as most have sailed off to do the summer season in Europe or North America. For us who stay behind this is a time to prepare well to meet the blow if it should come your way.

The Hurricane Tracking Center  (NOAA) has once again predicted an above average season for tropical storms (wind 40 - 80 knots) and hurricanes (wind +80 knots). NOAA predicts 150 - 170% of normal activity leading them to suggest 16 tropical storms and 9 hurricanes this year. This does not ,however, mean that your island will be hit. The Caribbean sea is as big as the Mediterranean sea, and most hurricanes either seems to hit the US far to the north of us or sizzle out far offshore. When we crossed the Atlantic last November two hurricanes passed to the north of us. Both where late hurricanes and lost their energy somewhere to the north of us in the middle of the ocean. It is 8 years since Antigua was hit.

Every skipper here in Antigua have their strategy. Some tried and tested, but many dictated by the insurance companies. Some insurers still claim that staying south of a certain latitude is the only strategy. The hurricane Ivan trashing Grenada two years ago, destroying hundreds of boats in the process, proved them wrong a couple of years ago. Latitude is no guarantee. Only thorough preparations is.

The waters of the Caribbean has been sailed for hundreds of years. To protect ships and their valuable cargo the old mariners established "hurricane holes" all along the chain of islands we call the Caribbean. These are safe harbors where the hurricanes, and more importantly storm surge, will not reach the boats.  These bays, creeks and harbors are protected by coral reefs and land formations that dampens the wind and flattens the surge. Many in addition has man-made structures like chains and anchors laid out. In English Harbor hurricane chains from the old days of Admiral Nelson is still in place on the bottom of the harbor. If a hurricane was on it's way that's where the entire English Royal Navy would seek refuge. Today with modern forecasting, satellite pictures and supercomputers other options are available for us as the storm centers are tracked carefully all the way across the Atlantic. Updates are given on developments several times a day on the radio in addition to internet forecasts and SSB radio forecasts and so forth. Here are some different strategies and the boats that are going to test them.

Fleurtje is a large, 140 feet, majestic three masted schooner. One of the truly beautiful yachts that cruise these waters. This summer they will stay in Antigua. With a professional crew, big engines and long waterline she plans to outrun the Hurricanes. When the warning comes that Antigua might be hit she will set out to sea. By monitoring the progress of the hurricane very carefully she will aim for the safe quadrant at maximum speed. Flurtje is capable of +14 knots - many weather systems move slower than this. Given ample warning from forecasters she should be able to  get away. The art of the strategy is for the captain to choose the right time to leave port and head to sea. Too late and they want be able to run away from the storm. Too early and they might be off for no reason at all. Last year they sailed app 3000 nautical miles running away from storms. That equals an Atlantic crossing.

Alatea is a classic sailboat form the end of the 19 th century. She does not have a large engine or a high freeboard. Ocean sailing is not what she is kitted out for with her more than 100 year old frames. Her strategy is to find a spot in the mangroves in English Harbor. This is a strategy used by marines for several hundred years including Admiral Nelson and his fleet. English Harbor is well protected, the anchoring ground is good and the mangrove forest provides excellent shelter. She will burrow her bows in the mangroves and  throw out what ground tackle she has. All the lines she carries will be used to tie her to the trees and roots in the mangrove forest. For the boats that have chosen this strategy previously storm damage has been caused by other boats breaking loose, or scratches from the Mangrove trees.

Heidenskip is a 80 foot Van Der Stadt design made for speed. She spends her summer here in Antigua where her professional skipper has his home and family. Being a local he knows these waters very well and has his own hurricane hole. When the storm warning comes she will sail up a small private creek on the east side of Antigua well behind a large barrier reef. Heidenskip will be moored to trees on both sides of the creek and all anchors will be out with lots of chain. Well protected from storm surge by reefs and hills surrounding the creek she should be safe. The advantage of this strategy is that she will be all alone so no other boat can break loose and cause damage to her.

Suerte, a sporty aluminum cruiser, chooses the most common strategy. She is now on her way south to Grenada to be laid up. Being south of the insurance companies "line" Grenada becomes quite a center for cruisers spending their summers in this area. She will be put on the hard and tied to the ground. Sails and all loose items will be taken off her and stored safely below. Her crew will leave her there, but many a cruiser stay in Grenada with their boats throughout the season. Trinidad is another summer hide out for cruising boats. It's large marina and servicing facilities fill up with boats from all over the world. Low labor costs and good repair facilities makes this one of the favorites. It is quite a crowd of yachties here in the summer months.

Our own Coconut will be put on the hard here at Antigua Slipway. This full service yard is nested inside English Harbor and is very well protected. When Coconut is lifted she will be placed on a concrete storage area. The cradles will be welded together and large trucking straps will be attached to anchors in the concrete and pin her to the ground. Having a large wing keel also provides a low center of gravity as well as a solid broad foundation to rest on. Coconut can actually dry out on her keel. It is going to take a lot to blow her over. Her spray dodger, sails, dinghy, ropes etc will all be taken off and stored ashore. Of cause the neighbor boat is still a worry. If she is not taken care of properly we might still be in trouble. Before storage on land Coconut's mast will be removed and stored ashore. This was a late addition to the plan enforced by our insurance company Pantaenius. The problem is that the other boats keep their masts on. So how this is going to help us is unclear. It does however provide me with a chance of going through the mast properly though before we continue our cruise.

Staying in a marina

At Jolly harbor on the west coast of Antigua it is possible to stay in the marina if a hurricane should be on it's way. This is not allowed in many marinas as the risk of damage is too great. Jolly Harbor being very well protected can afford to offer this option. For us an interesting possibility if a hurricane is on it's way while we are still in the water. Preparing the boat to ride out the blow in the marina involves tying her to everything solid you can find. At Jolly Harbor the dock as well as pylons in the water offer strong points. All boats are given a double space to ensure that the boats will not crash into each other. Your boat will heel approximately 40 degrees in a 100 knot blow. If your neighbor is to close it is easy to get entangled in each others rigs. A marina has many loose objects however and much can be blown in your direction. If you do start moving around it is a real chance of meeting something that is harder than your hull.

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This site was last updated 17-06-2006 23:37:02