Managing Hurricane-Season Risk
for Boats Stored in the Caribbean
by Don Street
Whether or not climate change has increased the frequency or strength of hurricanes, it’s irrefutable that the number of yachts in the Eastern Caribbean has skyrocketed over the past 60 years, and thus more boats are damaged by storms. Insurance losses to hurricanes have also skyrocketed. What can we do to ameliorate the situation?
More yachts have meant more losses
Grenada provides a good example of the expansion of yachting and the related increase of loss exposure to underwriters through the years. In 1892 Grenada was hit by a hurricane, and then by five tropical storms, but no yachts or underwriters suffered a loss. The next hurricane to hit Grenada was 62 years later, in 1954 when Janet struck. Yachting-related losses included the Grenada Yacht Club, then a wooden building set on the steamer pier, being swept away; a couple of small local sloops that had been converted to yachts being damaged; and a dozen locally built Mosquito dinghies being demolished. The losses to marine underwriters, if any, were small.
But half a century later, in 2004, Hurricane Ivan cost the marine underwriters a bundle. Yachting in Grenada had expanded to the point that there were about 175 boats stored ashore for hurricane season. There were probably another hundred or so in commission in the water. In one yard, a hundred boats blew over. Of the boats in the water, about 20 got underway before the storm arrived, bound for Trinidad, Margarita or other locations, and escaped being damaged. Others were secured in various so-called “hurricane holes”, and a high percentage of these suffered major damage or total loss.
But catastrophic loss is not inevitable
Since then, lessons have been learned. Boats can survive with an acceptable percentage of loss in marinas or laid up ashore if the marina is properly designed and boats are properly stored on the hard.
This was proven at Puerto del Rey in Puerto Rico, where the losses as a result of two hurricane hits last September were minimal.
Of the yachts afloat in Puerto del Rey marina during the hurricanes, I’m told that only four percent were total losses and two percent were deemed to have major damage. In the late 1980s, Dan Shelley had Puerto del Rey marina designed so that boats in the marina would have a good chance of surviving a hurricane. The north-south breakwater is 525 yards long, topped by a wall 12 feet above high water. The finger piers are high enough to cope with a three-foot tidal surge. (When I visited the marina shortly after it was built, I pointed out that if he did not build a dog leg of about a hundred yards running northwest from the main north-south breakwater, there was going to be a problem with a “bobble” in the marina whenever the wind went into the northeast, and a disaster if the wind went northeast during a hurricane. In the mid-1990s such a dog leg was built.)
Of the boats on the hard at Puerto del Rey, I’m informed that there was major damage to only three percent, and no total losses — as the first hurricane approached, they double-chocked the boats and tied them down to deadmen with nylon straps.
In December 2017 I checked with every yacht-storage facility in Antigua, St. Lucia and Grenada, asking them to describe their storage facilities and procedures for laying boats up during hurricane season. There were some variations between the yards, but all strap the boats down to deadmen buried in the ground, or to sand screws, or to one-ton concrete blocks.
At marinas, boatowners and marina staff will have to anticipate the effects of storm surges, as well as hurricane-force winds. Are fixed docks high enough to be above water with a three-foot tidal surge? If floating piers, will they stay in place?
The importance of reducing windage
When laying up a boat to withstand a hurricane, whether in a marina or a boatyard, everything possible should be done to minimize windage.
Few sailors, yard and marina owners, or insurance underwriters realize 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, then comes the question: should the mast be unstepped for hurricane storage? The load in pounds on a 60-foot mast is exerted 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.
The load on dock lines in a marina also goes up with the square of the wind velocity. Thus the load on your dock lines at 40 knots is four times that at 20 knots. Three-quarter-inch three-strand nylon has a breaking strain of 12,600 pounds — but I have recently learned that this figure is for dry line. Wet nylon loses 20 percent of its strength. A splice costs another ten percent and a knot 15 percent.
More hurricane layup thoughts
All boats stored on the hard during hurricane season should be chocked with one jackstand for every eight feet of waterline length. Jackstands must be tied together port and starboard with rebar welded to the stands. Plywood pads must be placed under each jackstand so that it does not sink into soft, rain-soaked ground. The handles must be wired so the jacks cannot unwind. For boats with especially deep keels, the keel should be in a pit dug into the ground to reduce the vessel’s windage aloft.
When laying up a boat to withstand a hurricane on the hard, pull a through-hull so rainwater that is driven below will drain out rather than flood the boat. On the outside of the drain hole, secure two small rods forming an X, or wide wire mesh, to make sure a rat does not enter the boat. I know of a couple of boats that have had this happen with disastrous results. Also make sure there are no termite tracks from nearby buildings or dead trees. I have heard of cases where owners returned to find that termites had destroyed the interior.
When choosing a marina or boatyard for the summer, ask the manager what was the percentage of major damage and the percentage of total loss due to the last hurricane that hit the marina or yard. Then make your decision 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 your boat will also be properly laid up to withstand a hurricane. Finally, if you are leaving the island before your boat is hauled and chocked, it is essential that you hire a surveyor to supervise the hurricane-proof layup and send his report to you certifying the operation was properly done.
If staying in commission, have an escape plan
Boats remaining in the water, if in commission and having capable crew, are best advised to avoid “hurricane holes” and forget about riding out a hurricane on anchors or a hurricane mooring. Be ready to take evasive action.
Today, hurricanes are generally well tracked, although the speed with which some intensify has taken many by surprise. (Hurricane Maria developed from a Category 1 to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 18 hours).
Since 1851 only four hurricanes have formed in the Caribbean Sea and then headed eastward: Alice in 1954, Klaus in ’84, Lenny in ’99 and Lili in 2001. There were also two northbound oddballs. In 1872 a hurricane hit Guadeloupe and then headed north, hitting Antigua, Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin and Anguilla before heading out to sea. In 1888 a tropical storm developed in the Grenadines and then continued north and hit every island in the chain including Barbuda before heading off into the Atlantic.
All other hurricanes and named tropical storms affecting the islands of the Eastern Caribbean have formed in the Atlantic headed west, seldom altering course more than five degrees in 24 hours. The alteration of course is almost always to the north; any alterations to the south are usually for only 24 hours and never more than 72 hours. Thus, if you plot the position of the center of the hurricane or tropical storm every day, and a ten-degree cone plotted, you have a very good idea of the area where a hurricane may hit — which is where you don’t want to be.
If a hurricane threatens, get underway in plenty of time to reach a safe destination well south of the storm track. Have an escape plan made well in advance, and make sure your maintenance schedule won’t keep you from being able to go to sea on short notice. If the advertisements are to be believed, as long as sheets are eased, multihulls can do 240 miles per day. Thus, 36 hours after leaving the Virgins a multihull can be safely anchored in Grenada or Trinidad. In all of history, Trinidad has only been hit by four hurricanes.
The below is written in light of my 55 years in the insurance business in the Caribbean, with 50 of those years placing insurance with Lloyd’s underwriters through London Brokers.
Those seeking insurance for yachts that spend the hurricane season in the Eastern Caribbean, should investigate the broker and underwriter/insurance company carefully. Here’s an example why. A broker showed up on a certain island selling insurance for a well-known British insurance company, issuing cover notes, and then policies. He was most helpful to all his insureds, even advising them of hurricane tracks and weather. Some small claims were made, which he paid promptly. It was a wonderful operation — until a hurricane approached. The broker was on a plane out before the hurricane hit. It turned out that the whole operation was a complete fraud; the broker had no connection at all with the British insurance company, which denied liability. The “broker” was finally found, arrested for fraud and thrown in jail, but boatowners never collected a cent.
Many smaller, local insurance companies do not rely on their local reserves to pay large claims. They take out “excess of loss” reinsurance to cover major losses. This works out fine if the local insurance company makes sure they have enough reinsurance to cover a direct hit by a hurricane on their island. But once, on another island, a local, old-time, highly respected insurance company that provided insurance of all types failed to keep raising their excess of loss reinsurance contract as they increased the value of the risks they were insuring. When a massive hurricane struck, the amount of money available to pay claims through their reinsurance contracts was not sufficient to cover their losses, and the company went belly up.
I recommend you get insurance through a broker who will place your insurance with either a reputable US or UK insurance company or Lloyd’s syndicate. Check both the brokers’ reputation on successful settlement of claims and the insurance company’s or Lloyd’s syndicate’s reputation on payment of claims. Note: Unlike most of its competitors, Lloyd’s is not an insurance company. Rather, it operates as a partially mutualized marketplace within which multiple financial backers, grouped in syndicates, come together to pool and spread risk. These underwriters are a collection of both corporations and private individuals. Different underwriters have different records on payment of claims.
If your policy doesn’t provide coverage against damage caused by a named storm or hurricane in “the hurricane box”, you can still cruise — you are covered for everything except damage caused by a hurricane or named storm. Check your policy for the southern limit of the hurricane box. If it’s 12°30’N you can head for a harbour on the south coast of Grenada if you are sure a hurricane will enter the Caribbean so far north that it is no danger to Grenada. If your boundary is 12°N, head to Trinidad.
A final word
I witnessed my first hurricane in 1938 — still the most disastrous to hit the east coast of the US, with 486 lives lost, 4.6 billion in modern dollars damage, and 400 boats in Manhasset Bay, where I grew up and learned to sail, either sunk or stacked up on shore. At age 14 I filed my first hurricane-related marine insurance claim regarding damage to my Snipe as a result of the 1944 hurricane. I have survived seven hurricanes on boats. I am presently in the process of settling a claim in Ireland about damage of our property in Hurricane Ophelia. Hopefully, sailors, yard and marina owners, and insurance underwriters will consider the above information before hurricane season 2018.
Don Street’s cruising guides to the Eastern Caribbean, which include his expanded advice about hurricanes, “Reflections on Hugo”, are available at Amazon.com.
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