by Don Street
June, too soon
I recently made a discovery that could revolutionize the Caribbean charter yacht business. It offers an opportunity to extend the charter season an extra six weeks, while enjoying the best sailing weather of the year.
Checking NOAA’s records on hurricane activity in the North Atlantic, I saw that from 1851 to 2020 only two hurricanes had ever hit the islands of the Eastern Caribbean during the month of June and the first two weeks of July.
During this period the wind blows 10 to 12 knots — seldom less and never more, except in brief squalls. But bareboat charter companies often have their fleets already secured for hurricane season.
The low risk of hurricanes before mid-July is of particular interest to the charter boats and organizations operating in the Virgin Islands. The west coast of Virgin Gorda, north coast of Tortola, northwest of coast of St. Thomas, and north coasts of Culebra and Culebrita all have magnificent white sand beaches where boats do not anchor in the winter because of the groundswell. However, groundswell season ends approximately mid-April. This gives a full ten weeks of wonderful cruising after the groundswells end and the risk of hurricanes increases. If charter brokers and charter companies advertise this “shoulder” period, I feel in the next few years it will revolutionize the charter season.
June and early July are great for cruising sailors, too. The weather is lovely and the anchorages will be less crowded — at least until the charter companies catch on!
Minimizing hurricane risk on the hard
May and June, while you’re enjoying the great sailing, is also the time for boat owners to organize what you’re going to do with your boat for hurricane season. If you are going to lay up ashore, contact the yards you’re interested in, ask how many boats they can haul and how many (if any) blew out of their cradles or jack stands the last time the yard was hit by hurricane. Ask what, if any, changes have been made to minimize the chance of that happening again.
Make your decision on what yard to choose after you have verified with your insurance company or underwriter that you will be covered for hurricane damage there. It is also important to obtain from the yard manager a signed agreement that the boats on either side of yours will also be properly laid up to withstand a hurricane. Book early, since the popular boatyards will fill up fast.
Properly stored boats can survive a direct hit from a hurricane, and strapping boats down to “dead men,” or ground anchors, seems to be key. For example, in 2017 as a hurricane approached Marina del Rey in Puerto Rico, a 38-foot boat with a fin keel was hauled at the last minute. After the hurricane passed the boat was still standing upright, although the jack stands had blown away. It was held upright by heavy straps
secured to dead men.
Also be aware of the amount of pressure per square foot generated by high winds. The pressure per square foot goes up with the square of the wind velocity. At 60 mph the pressure is nine pounds per square foot; at 120 mph it is 37 pounds per square foot; at 180 mph it is 83 pounds per square foot!
So, should the mast be unstepped for hurricane storage? The load in pounds on a 60-foot mast is exerted about 30 feet above the deck. At 100 mph, the load is 1,700 pounds; at 120 mph, 2,245 pounds; at 140 mph, 3,350 pounds; at 160 mph, 2,425 pounds; and at 180 mph, 5,450 pounds. These loads might be bearable when the wind is in line with the axis of the boat. But with the wind on the beam, with these loads centered at 30 feet above the deck, will a boat on the hard stay upright?
Even if you decide to leave the mast standing, dodgers, biminis, spray curtains, and all sails should come off. Wrapping a roller-furling jib in its sheets might keep it from unfurling, but this gift-wrapped bundle presents a lot of windage aloft. All halyards except the main halyard should be run up to the top of the mast. The boom can be detached and lashed down along the toerail.
If you cannot lay up your boat yourself and must rely on the yard to do the job, give the yard detailed written instructions on what should be done. I highly recommended that you hire a surveyor, and give him or her a copy of those instructions and a letter of authority, so that he or she can make sure the yard lays up your boat properly. This will be money very well spent.
See more many more tips on minimizing hurricane season risk for boats stored in the Caribbean at www.street-ilolaire.com and on page page 24 at www.caribbeancompass.com/online/ march18compass_online.pdf.
If not hauled out
Don’t leave a boat for the summer on a hurricane mooring unless the location is completely remote from all other boats. Even if your boat is on a good mooring, the chances of it being hit by another boat dragging or adrift in a storm might be high. That is how I lost Li’l Iolaire — a 28-foot yawl could not survive being attacked by 55-foot catamaran!
If you are going to stay on the boat and keep it in commission in hurricane season, what to do if a hurricane is aimed at your anchorage? Forget about riding out a hurricane on anchors or a hurricane mooring. Be ready to take evasive action. As soon as depressions off the coast of Africa below the Cape Verdes or sometimes farther west pick up a circular motion, they are named and tracked by NOAA. Once the wind is over 42 knots they are labeled tropical storms. At 62 knots they become hurricanes, which can blow anywhere from 62 to 180 knots or more.
The alert sailor should be tracking these systems daily (or even more frequently) via the US National Hurricane Center at www.nhc.noaa.gov. If properly anchored with appropriate gear, you should be able to weather a tropical storm (winds up to 62 knots). But remember that the load on your gear goes up with the square of the wind speed. Thus, in 40 knots of wind the load on the anchor line will be four times the load at 20 knots. At 60 knots of wind the load will be six times the load at 20 knots.
Then consider the loads in hurricane-force winds. If the load on your anchor line is 500 pounds at 20 knots it will be 8,000 pounds at 120 knots. Anchors drag, rodes break, windlasses tear out of the decks.
If a potential hurricane is approaching the Eastern Caribbean across the Atlantic, as long as it stays below 19°N its track can be predicted with a very high degree of reliability. The tracks almost never curve south of west; they almost always curve north of west. Hurricanes tracking west, down in the very low latitudes, 11° or 12°N, like Ivan, occasionally do turn slightly south, but seldom more than five degrees in 24 hours. A few zigs to the south have lasted 48 hours, and one 72 hours, before turning west.
If a hurricane looks like it is heading for you, 48 hours before it is predicted to hit, head south or southwest, sailing or motor sailing. If your boat is making six knots, in 24 hours you will be 150 miles south of the hurricane, and in 36 hours, 225 miles — well clear of any strong winds.
But if a hurricane is predicted to hit the island immediately to the south of you, that’s a problem. Do you sit tight and figure that the center of the hurricane is far enough south that the wind north of the center will be at a velocity that you can handle at your anchorage or in your marina, or do you head farther south? Now is the time to contact a professional weather router and pay his or her fee!
When hurricanes hit the islands of the Eastern Caribbean they are often small in diameter but frequently very intense, as seen when Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica but did no significant damage to the southern end of Guadeloupe or the northern end of Martinique.
Once hurricanes go above 19° and get into the warm waters of the Bahamas, or pass through the islands of the Eastern Caribbean and get into the warm water of the Caribbean Sea, they frequently increase in size and ferocity.
Also, once above 19°N or once in the Caribbean Sea they become so erratic that their tracks are difficult to predict accurately.
Hurricane season still peaks around September 10th, and storms remain most likely to form between early August and mid-October.
In 1965, NOAA moved the official end of hurricane season from October 31st to November 30th, and in the late 1990s insurance companies followed suit by changing their hurricane season closing date to November 30th. Why? In the last 40 years there have been more November hurricanes than in the previous hundred years. Historically the period from June 1st to November 30th encompasses about 97 percent of the tropical activity in the Atlantic basin.
However, NOAA paints hurricanes with a broad brush. It tracks hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, the Western Caribbean, the Bahamas, the East Coast of the US and the whole Atlantic. But let’s look at hurricanes as they affect the Eastern Caribbean.
The only two November hurricanes to affect the Lesser Antilles since 1981 were
oddballs — they started in the Caribbean and headed east. In early November 1984 Klaus formed south of Puerto Rico, headed northeast hitting the US and British Virgin Islands, and continued eastward passing north of St. Martin. See how the engineless yawl Iolaire, caught unaware on a lee coast, survived at anchor at www.street-iolaire,
The fourth strongest November hurricane on record was 1999’s famous “Wrong Way Lenny.” Lenny formed on November 13th in the western Caribbean and maintained a west-to-east track for its entire duration. It attained hurricane status south of Jamaica on November 15th and passed south of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico over the next few days. Lenny rapidly intensified over the northeastern Caribbean on November
17th, attaining peak winds of 134 knots about 21 miles south of St. Croix. It gradually weakened while moving through the Leeward Islands, eventually dissipating on November 23rd over the open Atlantic. Lenny’s storm surges affected the entire Eastern Caribbean chain.
So, if we conclude that all of June, the first two weeks of July, and the whole month of November are at low risk for hurricanes in the Eastern Caribbean, that gives a chartering and cruising season of a full eight-and-a-half months, including a glorious early summer period. Not bad!
Minimize your risk when hauled out for the 15-week mid-July to late October period — or even keep cruising with a sharp eye on the weather — and the Eastern Caribbean remains one of the world’s best sailing grounds.
For more of Don Street’s writings on many aspects of hurricanes in the Caribbean, from experiences toinsurance, visit www.street-iolaire.com.
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