It was a dark and stormy night, the wind was howling, the lightning flashing, the waves were building and the boats were dragging down. The sandy bottom at the Dry Tortugas was never the greatest holding ground, and this night in particular proved the point.
How sailors can sleep during such a blow is beyond me. I suspect it is akin to the solo around the world with sailors who catnap for weeks but fall dead asleep once they near land and never awaken until their boat drives onto the rocky shore. Something in the brain identifies, incorrectly, that the nearer land, the safer for the boat. Anchoring behind Fort Jefferson with its seven million bricks must be mighty soothing because so many boats drag while their occupants slept.
There is a lot of excitement when a boat suddenly appears out of the driving rain just at the edge of the spreader lights or anchor light. The boats seem to be moving at great speed towards you, but it is usually an illusion brought on by the overload of adrenalin pumping into your system. Still any entanglement with another vessel during a storm might also disengage your anchor and you'd be dragging too!
In a crowded anchorage like the Dry Tortugas, one would expect a lot of experience because most of the boats have come at least a hundred nautical miles to get there. Some have ocean-crossing experience, and some are near novices. Yet not all the boats that dragged that night were skippered by inexperienced boaters. One boat that went by us twice was returning from Mexico and had the wrong type anchor on the bottom.
We were holding fast with one large 'Fortress' Danforth style anchor, one hundred feet of half-inch rode and 12 feet of half-inch chain. In my experience this type of anchor set-up holds well in sand and broken shell. It also can be reset if it drags a short distance. The aluminum Fortress is light and strong and stores nicely on the bow pulpit.
We've never entered an anchorage without consulting other skippers already there. It's the neighborly thing to do because everyone wants to talk, and sharing information is as natural as breathing for long-distance boaters. I think I've learned something in every anchorage I've been in. One thing is for certain, sleep lightly or have someone standing watch.
Those cruising-type boaters do a lot of planning. Plan the next leg of the trip, the nightly meal and the time happy hour begins. There are great happy hours on the picnic grounds on Garden Key and other good anchorages around the world. About the only non-planned event are the occasional potluck dinners that spring up when a charcoal grill is ignited in a picnic area.
Planning to ride out a storm is good because thunderstorms comes up quickly and can surprise the most seasoned Florida boater. They vary in intensity and some are like miniature hurricanes. Getting caught by one of these is excusable and almost inevitable. On the other hand staying on your boat during a 'cane is idiotic.
I imagine that the few ill-advised boaters who stayed on their boats during the rash of hurricanes earlier this century saw many boats whipping passed them before their own vessel joined the parade of boats heading for the beach. I saw a television report of a man who swam through crashing surf after his boat piled up with other boats. He escaped and lived to tell his story but I imagine he will need plastic surgery to take the wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights look from his face.
The old adage about leaving the boat in the best shape but taking the wife and kids, your insurance policy and any pets with you as a hurricane approaches is good advice. Boat/US estimated that the damage to recreational boats from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne totaled $680 Million.
Boat/US is a major insurer of recreational vessels and should know. The individual storm dollar damage breakdown is: Hurricane Charley: $130 million; Hurricane Frances: $300 million; Hurricane Ivan: $150 million; and Hurricane Jeanne: $100 million (these figures do not include damage to commercial vessels, marinas or other infrastructure). Hurricane Andrew's total was $500 million in 1992.
According to Boat/US, vessels with a hurricane plan already in place prior to a storm's arrival fared much better than those whose owners waited until the last minute or neglected to take precautions. That doesn't just pertain to boaters but homeowners, too! A good Hurricane plan needs a checklist because there is always one more thing to do! We might be forgiven for being complacent after so many years between hurricanes.
The losses to boats caused by Hurricane Charley were small when you remember that Charley was a Category 4 storm. BoatUS attributes that to Southwest Florida having more trailer-worthy boats. The vessels tied up to residences in the miles of canals took the brunt of the storm. There were many damaged vessels in dry-stack storage but they don't break that down. The insurance companies are now recommending that dry-stack boats be removed and trailered inland if possible.
Preparing for a storm, thunderstorm or hurricane takes a lot of planning and BoatUs is a great source for information. Visit their website, www.boatus.com/ for a trove of helpful tips on keeping your boat safer. But never stay on your boat in a 'cane!
Boatguy Ed is the president of Innovative Marine Coatings, which manufactures Southwest Florida. He's the past Commodore of the "Dead End Canal Yacht Club" contact him at the DECYC Facebook page. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.