Prep for a Hurricane

There are several good hurricane-safe harbors on the U.S. East Coast.

prep for a hurricane
Popular as a storm refuge among boat owners in central Florida, Harbor Square Marina was chockablock with vessels for Irma.Wally Moran

Location, location, ­location. No, I’m not trying to sell you a house, but we are talking real estate here, as in where to keep your boat when a hurricane threatens the U.S. East Coast.

After experiencing 2003’s Hurricane Isabel on the ­Chesapeake, having the good luck to be late coming south in 2012, thus missing Hurricane Sandy, and then a near miss of Hurricane Irma’s ferocity last fall while in the central Florida region, I’ve decided, no more hurricanes for me, thanks (well, hopefully). But in the process of preparing for (or running from) those three and a couple of others in the years between, and having watched the paths of other tropical ­cyclones, I’ve developed a list of hurricane holes in case I get caught out.

Just what makes a hurricane hole? There are two things I look for: protection from wind and protection from waves. Given a choice of one or the other, I’ll opt for protection from waves over wind. If you don’t buy into that thinking, just watch any video of a boat in the water during a hurricane. It’s not the wind that causes the damage or pulls anchors loose. Thus, I’m on the lookout for an enclosed area with little to no fetch, and with hills or tall trees surrounding it.

Florida

On Florida's east coast, in my opinion, there was no better hurricane hole than Harbor Square Marina on the Canaveral Barge Canal. Unfortunately, it's been sold to a condo corporation and space is no longer available. It's a square-shaped marina dug ­into the side of the canal. There is ­absolutely no exposure to fetch, and the banks are 15 to 20 feet above the water's surface. Plus, there is a line of trees on two sides, offering further protection from wind. Adding to that, there is no tide due to the lock on the barge canal.

Just how secure is it? When I docked my boat Gypsy Wind there to wait out Irma, I had just tossed out an old bicycle that had been rusting away on the deck. I deliberately left some rust flakes topside, out of curiosity to see just how much wind there might be.

When I returned, the rust flakes were still there. It was as if there had been no wind at all inside the basin. Just 3 miles down the Intracoastal Waterway, in Cocoa, more than 50 boats were badly damaged.

An alternative used by some locals, including commercial shrimpers, is to tie off to trees in the canal itself to the west of the bridge, with a couple of heavy anchors out at the stern. With adequate preparation, a boat tied off in this manner would very likely avoid the brunt of any storm with the banks and high trees to protect it.

Gear Up Once you've found a safe place to keep your boat in a storm, give yourself time to make sure you have enough lines and chafe gear to keep it secure. If not, a trop to the chandlery will be in order.

The drawback to Harbor Square is twofold: getting in, and leaving. First, there is a huge demand for space as a storm approaches. If you aren’t early, you’re out of luck. Next, the marina is shallow, and if your boat draws much over 5 feet, you’re going to find entering the marina a challenge.

Owner Duncan MacKenzie and his crew pack the boats in, tying newcomers in the fairways between the docks and to each other. Thus, when the storm is over, you might have to wait for as many as a dozen or more owners to return and move their boats.

Another nearby marina that has a good reputation for storm protection is Harbortown, which is also on the ­Canaveral Barge Canal. Problem of course is getting space there. The demand is high. In addition, local commercial fishermen and some savvy sailors with deep drafts tie their boats to the shore in the canal west of the lock, counting on the banks and high trees to protect them.

A bit south of Cape Canaveral, Vero Beach is another Florida location with a good reputation for protection. Locals often take their boats into the mangrove creeks north of the town mooring field for protection. However, the mooring balls at the marina have withstood severe weather, and the area offers good protection.

In south Florida, one friend of mine looks for a private dock on the Miami River in Miami, deep inside the concrete cavern created by the tall buildings. This is something one would have to plan well in advance, using Craigslist, or just walking the area.

Georgia and South Carolina

Moving north into Georgia, I’d consider going elsewhere. With 9-foot tides, a storm surge at high tide could create as much as a 20-foot differential between low and high water. Still, if you are in this area, St. Marys Boat Services, tucked up the North River with little fetch and high trees surrounding it, is not a bad choice. Boats here fared much better than those on the docks and anchored out in nearby St. Marys and Fernandina Beach, Florida, where local marinas were destroyed by hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

Reviewing a chart of South Carolina or Georgia, you’ll note dozens of creeks ­offering refuge from the storm. You can get a long way inland if you choose, but it takes local knowledge to know the good ones that offer deep enough water for access. Failing that, websites such as Waterway Guide (waterwayguide.com), which offers a variety of chart data, can be a useful resource.

Dinghy Decision If you are keeping your boat out at anchor or on a mooring during a tropical cyclone, don’t forget to make a plan for your dinghy once you get ashore.

Also, in both of these states, finding a hidy-hole where there is good wind protection from all sides is rare. These are marshy regions with little in the way of a tree line.

The problem is that once you get up one of these creeks, there’s often no way to get off the boat because they’re remote. You might also find out you’re not the only refugee with the same idea and get shut out, with no time to find an alternate location. Suffice it to say, bring lots of line to ­spiderweb your boat.

Farther north, try to get into Windmill Harbour ­Marina on Hilton Head Island. This lovely facility is protected behind its own lock, has no fetch and has tall trees on all sides. Culturally, it’s the diametric opposite of Canaveral’s Harbor Square, but it’s just as safe. Again, any available space here when there’s a storm approaching goes very quickly.

In the Charleston, South Carolina, area, I’d choose the Charleston City Boatyard, well up the Wando River, and I’d get hauled out. Better still, go a bit farther north up the coast to Osprey Marina, on the Waccamaw River and just south of Myrtle Beach. This marina is fairly small and very well protected, with minimal tide, no fetch and an imposing tree line on all sides. If you can’t get into Osprey, numerous creeks off the Waccamaw River offer excellent protection.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, the ­marina at River Dunes, near ­Oriental, is probably your best option, offering limited fetch, no tide and a good surrounding of trees. It’s another one of those places that, like Hilton Head’s Windmill Harbour, if you have to be stuck there, you’re at least going to suffer luxuriously.

I hid out there during Florence and my boat was fine, even at the height of the storm, while dozens of boats and an entire marina were destroyed in New Bern, 50 miles away. In fact, the biggest danger I faced was potential liver damage due to the incredible southern hospitality of the residents.

In Oriental itself, ­Whittaker Creek or one of its branches offers good protection for anchoring out. Friends of mine with a home there have weathered more than one ­hurricane with their boat safely at their dock. If you can clear the 45-foot Oriental Road Bridge, the waters beyond it offer ­many protected spots.

Going farther north in the ICW, there are many creeks off the Pungo River — Slade, Jordan and Scranton, to point out three of them — with anchorages offering good-to-excellent protection. Expect local boats, especially in Scranton Creek, because it’s a well-known option in the area.

On the ICW Dismal Swamp route, the anchorage behind Goat Island on the Pasquotank River has long been regarded as a great spot to hole up. That was my destination when running from Hurricane Joaquin, but fortunately, that storm turned east and left us alone. In Elizabeth City itself, it’s possible to go a considerable distance up Knobbs Creek, past the turning basin (noted on the NOAA chart), to find shelter. Seek local advice on this option if you choose it because the creek might be chained off.

Chesapeake Bay

Getting up into Chesapeake Bay, it’s possible to find good shelter dozens of miles from the bay, up rivers such as the Rappahannock, by seeking out their many creeks and small bays. In Annapolis, my go-to spot during Hurricane ­Isabel was Brewer Creek, ­several miles up the Severn River. Again, it offers high hills, trees and very limited fetch. There are ­numerous similar locations in the ­area. You can also take one of the Navy’s heavy ­mooring balls, located at ­various ­locations along the Severn. However, in the unlikely event the Navy shows up wanting your mooring ball, you’re out of luck.

For Isabel, I had three heavy 200-foot lines tied to trees onshore, plus two anchors out in 8 feet of water (at low tide), and another line of about 100 feet tied to a dock behind me. While I could possibly have managed with less, the long lines allowed the boat to easily absorb the 8-foot surge at the height of the storm. Wind was a nonissue due to the hills and trees, plus the shape of the creek effectively blocked the wind from entering.

Overkill? Nope, there’s no such thing as overkill when protecting yourself and your boat from a named storm.

Do your homework, be ready, assume the worst and, above all, be safe.

prep for a hurricane
So how do you find a safe spot if you’re not near one of the ­locations I’ve outlined, or can’t get hauled out where you are?Charts courtesy of Navionics; Image courtesy of Waterway Guide

How to Spot a Hurricane Hole

First, take a good look at your charts. Scope out areas that offer protection from fetch, such as up a river or creek, and that are as far away from major bays and sounds as possible. Then go to Google Earth and take a look at the topography of the area. Do you see lots of trees, or hills, surrounding the anchorage? You do? Sounds promising. Road access? Could be a winner. The images below show Brewer Creek (circled), where I anchored for Hurricane Isabel. Its location, well off of the bay and a distance up the Severn River, offers good protection and minimal fetch.

If time permits, do a visual on your chosen spot to see what you’ll need to secure yourself. In most cases, you’ll need lots of line to tie off to shore, plus the usual chafing gear, anchors and chain, and so forth. At a minimum, search online for any ­information that might be available.

Marina Resources

Harbortown Marina 2700 Harbortown Drive Merritt Island, FL 321-453-0160

St. Marys Boat Services 1084 Point Peter Road
St. Marys, GA 904-219-2869

Windmill Harbour Marina 161 Harbour Passage Hilton Head Island, SC 843-681-9235

Charleston City Boatyard 130 Wando Creek Lane Charleston, SC 843-884-3000

Osprey Marina 8400 Osprey Road Myrtle Beach, SC 843-215-5353

River Dunes Harbor Club and Marina 43 Old Lighthouse Road Oriental, NC 800-975-9565

Wally Moran and his pup, Aduana, routinely sail between the Great Lakes, Bahamas and Cuba aboard his bright-red 1975 Dufour 34, Gypsy Wind.