We have left our happy home perched on stands three hurricane seasons now and feel perfectly qualified to tell you what you should do with your boat when leaving it in the tropics for hurricane season. Such foolish arrogance in the face of hurricanes is a sign that the advice is worth no more than any advice you get in any marine bar. Basically, hurricanes are like earthquakes: if the big one hits you, you will probably suffer damage. The best defense is to get your boat completely out of the way. Failing that, you have to balance your sense of risk with the costs of securing your boat. The more mundane enemies of pests, mold, rust and sun can be defeated. However, you must do enough work securing your boat to keep it from being a hazard to others. The following is a set of things we have done for our boat. If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. Not doing them is even more work.
- Mark the places you wish to have compressed by the travel lift. The lift straps will crush your knot log paddle, through hull intake screens and other protrusions. Dive your boat before haul out and mark on the toe rail where you want the straps placed.
- Before hauling, fill the diesel and water tanks to the brim. We have not had problems with bacteria in either tank and have added biocide to the diesel tank only once and a small amount of bleach ( 1 tablespoon ) to the water tanks and have not had any particular problems. You will want full tanks for two reasons: 1) moist air in the tanks will cause trouble and 2) the more your boat weighs, the less likely it is to blow away. Catamarans look suspiciously like an airfoil in cross section and should be strapped down. We know of eyewitness reports of one cat whose anchor held fine in Ivan and whose anchor chain served as a kind of kite string. When the cat became fully airborne, the weight topsides caused the boat to invert and land mast first into the bay.
- The best place for stands is at (or near) internal bulkheads. The bulkheads will absorb the lateral pressure of the stands and not deform like a section of unsupported hull. Feel free to insist that your boat is leveled and gets sufficient support fore and aft. The travel lift operators want to lift another boat for the next customer; you want yours to be safe all summer. A good yard will wait until you are satisfied. The stands are ideally welded together and/or part of a concrete base with tie downs. However, this is not always available. We had separate stands and tried to hold them together by removing the anchor chain and winding it around the stands at the bases and at the tops. One pass at the inside edge of the foot of the stands and one pass at the head of the stand and then used a spare halyard to tie and tighten the chains by cinching them at the midpoint between each stand and thereby tensioning them. This may or may not help in a hurricane (it has not been tested), but the boat seems to vibrate a lot less in the wind when you are on the hard and it may help. Best is if the yard actually welds the chains which pull stands on opposite sides of the hull towards each other but this is not always possible. Some yards are building cradles which are much better than separate stands. You would also like the soil on which the stands sit to be well drained and stable or, better yet, concrete. This is also not always the case. Ideally, you would have the entire boat strapped down to attachments screwed into the ground. Also not always possible. We have also seen hurricane pits into which your keel is placed (and then wedged) to lower it and prevent capsize. You are looking for something which will keep the stands from vibrating away from the sides of the boat and sinking into the soil in the high winds and torrential rains of the summer season thereby allowing the boat to fall over.
- It is best to remove the mast and store is securely away from the boat. This is a good time to inspect, repair, clean and lubricate your rigging. If you do remove the mast, you should expect your yard to store your boat only with others who have had their masts removed and be satisfied with the security for the masts. Cats (which will not tip over) should be stored separately from mono hulls.
- Remove all loose canvas: bimini, sails, dodger and any thing else which you can remove to reduce windage. This is a good time to wash and dry (as well as perform any repairs on your sails). Deflate and stow your dinghy. (RIBs should be deflated, and strapped down very, very tightly). We put thin cordage in place of the running rigging to serve as messengers for the lines' replacement when we return. If you have solar panels, or wind generators, remove the panels and/or blades and store them below. This you must do as such items will become dangerous missiles in a big blow.
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- Put anything which can mold in plastic garbage bags which you tightly seal with overhand knots. Books, clothes, the above mentioned lines should all be stowed in bags and moved below. Smaller items will survive well in zip lock bags. Electronic gadgets should have their batteries removed; batteries should be placed in a sealed container and the gadget stored in a separate sealed container. This includes flashlights, handheld, radios, voltmeter and circuit tester. My favored straw hat was not given this treatment and was pretty much a biology experiment on our return.
- Clean the bilges and pump out any accumulated water. You want the inside of the boat to be clean and dry. Clean and drain the heads. Put fresh water in the heads and seal with saran wrap on the bowl but under the seat. This will prevent the pump seals from drying out on you so the heads will function when you return without creating a biology experiment.
- Drain and replace the engine oil (you don't want that sour oil sitting there all summer). Might as well put in new fuel filters and oil filter. Run a little fresh water through the engine. We did this by running a hose into the raw water strainer, starting the engine and letting it run until we had a healthy flow out the exhaust. We left the impeller in one year and took it out one year. The year we didn't, we lost the impeller after a month. The manufactures recommendation that the impeller be removed and I will do so in the future.
- Wash and spray your engine with CRC or some other protective coating. Spray the hose clamps with CRC SP400 or some other protective anticorrosion wax.
- Remove battery terminals or switch off batteries. If you have a small trickle charger available to keep the batteries topped up disregard this. If you have someone to check waer levels in the batteries and well regulated solar panels, you can leave batteries attached. Spray all contacts and the interior of your power panel with CRC.
- If you can't remove them, tie down the bimini frame and the boom. Put some kind of anti chafing gear under same. Make sure that you cannot swing your boom back and forth using all your strength. A hurricane is stronger.
- Stow inside anything that can blow away. This includes pretty much everything which is potentially detachable including (but not limited to: cushions, lines, flags, BBQ grills, generators, solar panels, spare water and gas cans and fenders).
- Remove all food stuffs. Give them to other cruisers or give them to local people but don't leave them in the boat to attract rodents. We spread a little boric acid in hidden places to get any roaches which evade our defenses.
- Get rid of flammables: give your dinghy gas to someone. Get rid of the butane lighters, charcoal starter, solvents, oily rags etc. Shut off propane tanks.
- Run fresh water through the outboard engine with the gas tank detached and run it until it stops to get rid of all the gas in the carburetor. You can do this by immersing the prop area in a bucket of fresh water. Lock your dinghy engine in a lazarette.
- Close all sea cocks but one (which will serve as a drain for the hull). That sea cock should be the lowest one and have its hose detached so that it can drain the hull if water gets in. You can put bronze or plastic mesh in this sea cock from outside to prevent ingress of critters. One boat we know was broken into with minimal losses but the thief left the hatch open. The summer rains filled the hull with water which reached over the settees and pretty much destroyed the interior. Do not place your vessel under a tree as the leaves can block the scuppers (causing floods) and critters can move into the resulting attractive nest by dropping down from above. Another boat we know was moved under a palm. The fronds blocked the scuppers and rats dropped down from above into the resulting nest. It was three months before he caught the last rat and meanwhile, they had eaten most of his wiring.
- Check that all hatches and ports are securely dogged down and locked. We tape tin foil to the inside of all ports and hatches to keep the harsh sun off all the interior. Many boat owners cover the entire boat or just hatches with canvas to prevent UV damage.
- Spray companionway hatch lock with CRC. Spray any lock you wish to be able to open on your winter return with similar anti-corrosion. We neglected to spray our fuel fill cap and had to replace it when it welded itself to the fuel fill fitting over the long, wet summer.
If your boat is hit by a major hurricane it will probably sustain damage. If you are in the water, in your boat leave the area in plenty of time. If you are caught by a hurricane, get off the boat. You will probably not be able to do much to save it in the midst of a storm and you can always replace a boat. Everything not living is repairable and after a hurricane a lively business springs up refloating, repairing and selling boats. No one goes into the resurrection business. In Ivan a great number of boats were damaged but for most boats stored on the hard, damage was limited to hull, toe rail, lifelines etc which are relatively minor repairs. The exception is boats which completely blew away (a particular problem with catamarans which must be strapped down) or were ground to bits by other vessels (a particular problem with boats anchored in hurricane holes). Boats which lost masts suffered the biggest delay in repair because masts are very difficult to find replacements for. There are very few major hurricanes in the Caribbean basin and all the pronouncements about where they will or won't hit are based on the statistics of very small samples. Like living in an earthquake zone, you must assess your risks and the costs of mitigation.