The June 1-Nov. 30 hurricane season is when most cyclones develop in the Atlantic basin, but this year the action started early as Tropical Storms Alberto and Beryl both developed in late May followed by Chris and Debby in June. It was the first time that four storms had formed before July since meteorologists began keeping records in 1851.
As boat owners in the Southeast, we look forward to summer but fear the hurricane season for obvious reasons. This year Debby gave us a taste of what a small storm can do to over a few days.
Debby moved sluggishly throughout Florida between June 24 and June 30, when it finally dissipated. Luckily for us Debby’s strength did not increase as much as expected, but it still threatened us with flooding and tornadoes as it hovered over the state.
Coming from Puerto Rico, I’m used to having to quickly prepare our sailboat for incoming tropical storms. We were surprised that many Florida boat owners do not take the necessary precautions to secure their boats, and some did not even come to the marina before or during the storm to check on their floating investments.
Fortunately, we recently moved our boat to the new downtown Clearwater Municipal Marina. Not only is it a state of the art marina with floating docks that can handle up to 12 feet of tide fluctuations, but it also has the most dedicated dockmaster we’ve ever met in our 38 years of sailing adventures.
Dockmaster T.J. Murphy provided extraordinary customer service during tropical storm Debby at the Clearwater Downtown marina, guarding and protecting dozens of boats from Debby’s wrath.
In the five years we have owned our Hunter 376 sailboat Nada Mas! we have sailed her over 3,500 miles and have been to more than two dozen marinas, from The Bitter End in Virgin Gorda, BVI, to The Atlantis Hotel and Marina in the Bahamas, before deciding to dock permanently at the Clearwater Downtown Marina.
We stopped by the marina every afternoon during Debby’s visit to check our sailboat, and every afternoon the dockmaster was there doing rounds, checking lines, fenders, bimini tops, and contacting the owners, when needed, to make sure all their boats were safe.
Murphy put in countless hours of his own time and struggled with 35-50 mph winds when re-tying some of the lines that snapped during the storm. I helped him for a couple of hours and my hands and back were aching, so I cannot even imagine how he felt every night after doing this single-handedly for hours at a time.
We were lucky that there was no damage to the boats in our marina, but we still learned a few things to share with our fellow boaters all over:
• During hurricane season, always double up all your docking lines and fenders before leaving your boat for the day.
• Inspect your boat’s bilge pumps and cockpit drains often.
• Make sure your batteries are charged, just in case the marina has to cut off power to the docks during a storm.
• If you live out of the area where you keep your boat, make an effort to meet your marina neighbors and exchange phone numbers/e-mail addresses so you can communicate in case of an emergency.
• Do not use old jib or main sheets as dock lines as they do not stretch and will snap under storm conditions.
• Remove or fold bimini tops and other canvas on your boat to prevent damage.
• Lower your sailboat’s boom to the deck and secure it tightly.
• If winds over 50 mph are expected, remove and store your sails inside the boat.
• Check to see if your marina keeps a high output bilge pump handy, just in case you need one during the storm. If not, find out ahead of time where you can borrow one.
• Make sure your insurance is up to date.
• Move your boat to a safe marina with floating docks if available.
• Have a storm strategy and implement it well before the hurricane hits.
• Designate a friend to prepare your boat if you’re out of town.
• Remove non-secure items and excess gear.
• Remove important documents and valuables.
• Shut off your fuel tanks.
• Close all thru-hull fittings.
After taking all necessary precautions, remember that the most important thing is to protect yourself first. Never put yourself in danger while trying to protect your boat. Boats can be replaced, but lives can’t.
Does Your Marina Have a Plan?
Just as individuals should have plans for how they will protect their boats from storm damage, marinas should also have plans. Usually copies of those plans are made available when you sign your lease agreement or purchase your slip. Some marinas require owners to file their personal plans and contact information. In the past, some marinas have required boat owners to vacate their slips when storms are forecast. Obviously this kind of information is good to know ahead of time. If you haven’t seen your marina’s plan, ask for a copy.
Tony Miró is a life-long sailor, photographer and web developer who currently lives in Florida. Follow his activities at www.tonymiro.com.