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Hurricane chart work

Oct 5, 2015

During and before hurricane season you will read and hear lots of information on what to do when a storm approaches, and how to escape and remain safe. However, the most important thing is to pay attention, so that whatever happens you have days of warning. With a longer warning period you might very well be able to move your boat to a more sheltered harbor, or possibly even far enough from the storm to avoid the worst of it. 

The primary early warning tool is the National Hurricane Center's (NHC) website (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/). Keep the site bookmarked on your cellphone, your home computer or wherever you'll be able to check it every day. The NHC is previewing a new website (http://www.nhcpara.noaa.gov/) with responsive design that will work better on phones and tablets. 

The NHC provides a downloadable and printable PDF Atlantic Basin Hurricane Tracking Chart that I find very handy. The paper chartlet is gridded so it is easy to plot latitude/longitude coordinates. I print out several blank ones and keep them on board so that I can plot out the course of a storm and have a ready reference to its progress, without having to fire up a computer or a phone. 

I have found that cellphones and the Internet are generally reliable and faster to get back up and running during a hurricane event. In many areas trees quickly take down power lines, along with phone service and cable TV, but cell towers have backup power and by the nature of the system there is a lot of redundancy. Even if you lose a signal from one tower, you may be able to move around a bit and pick up another tower. 

In recent years the NHC has become less useful to mariners when a hurricane makes a close approach. Critical information on storm location, progress, potential tracks, etc., is replaced by endless repetitions of warnings to "complete preparations" and "seek shelter." Strangely, this is when local television weather becomes a mariner's best friend. Local weather announcers are struggling to fill endless airtime so they microreport every detail and nuance of the approaching storm just about when the NHC becomes useless. Unfortunately, you do have to be patient during the inevitable reports from reporters trying to stand in the wind and rain to show everyone how terrible the weather is. 

I'm not a fan of TV on board a boat, but if you have one, use it! As an alternative, I have found many stations offer a live stream on the Internet, or it makes a good excuse to hang out in the marina lounge or a local bar! Unfortunately, in most places broadcast radio is much less useful — it is hard to find a station broadcasting detailed, accurate weather. 

When prepping for a storm your chartplotter, paper charts and cruising guides become critical. If I don't have paper charts of the area, I print out a very detailed chart of my surroundings and I keep it in a plastic zipper bag. You never know when the electronics or your power supply will fail, and things are likely to get very wet — even down below!

Many boaters have their main plotter at the steering station, which is not where you want to be located during a hurricane or a close approach. Make sure you have some sort of plotting device that can be used down below. As a storm's track relative to your location becomes defined, there is often time to readjust lines, move anchors to better locations or even move the boat a short distance to get better shelter. A chartplotter down below will tell you if there is enough water to get in behind that protective point, or whether you are now going to be downwind of that large marina with boats and docks breaking loose! 

Assuming you've got your boat well secured and in good shelter, often the biggest problem is debris or other boats floating down on you. I spent a good portion of Hurricane Bob lying on the bow of my boat fending off floating junk including an upside-down ATV, a large old Christmas tree and numerous 100-pound propane tanks. Often the biggest danger is other boats breaking loose and taking you with them, so use those charts to not only determine what will be immediately upwind of you but what might be floating down the river, bay or harbor from an unseen marina around the bend or an abandoned wharf falling apart. 

Needless to say, with that early warning you have had (you've been monitoring the NHC, right!?), you've explored the territory around your boat in the dinghy and have plotted out all possible hazards. I have a portable depth sounder that I use in the dinghy to give me an accurate idea of depths and hazards all around the boat for some distance — in case I drag, or in case I have to move the boat deliberately for some reason. In Maine I once found that the mooring the harbormaster had put me on allowed my boat to swing over a large boulder that would have been very close to my keel depth at an extreme low tide. I moved. Take those depth readings and write them down on that big-scale, small area paper chart you have printed out. This chart can be useful later if you find your boat has dragged into a shoaler area. 

Think ahead, use your charts to plot out every detail of your sheltered spot, and be prepared with backups for the backups when everything is soaked and broken! Stay safe this hurricane season.

John J. Kettlewell is a marine author, editor and photographer. He and his wife Leslie are co-authors of the Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk, Virginia, to Miami, Florida.

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