Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Storm Anchoring Techniques

Intensity secured in a secluded bayou in anticipation of a possible hit by Hurricane Dennis. I've got four anchors in the creek bed: two off the bow and two off the stern, in addition to four long lines secured to stout trees on shore. This waterway is protected from any possible wave action, so the main threat is hurricane force winds.

Here is the second part of a two part series I wrote for South Mississippi Outdoors and Recreation on preparing your sailboat for hurricane season:

Preparing your boat for hurricane season

Part II: Storm anchoring techniques

Last month I detailed the supplies and gear the owners of large, non-trailerable vessels should keep on board during hurricane season. Since that article was printed, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been threatened by Tropical Storm Cindy and Hurricane Dennis. Most boat owners on the coast took evasive action as Dennis was bearing down, but luckily it passed far enough to the east to have little effect.

Most boat owners by now should have what they need to secure their vessel in a storm, and many already have favorite “hurricane holes” they plan to evacuate to each time the coast is threatened. While it may be possible to ride out smaller storms like Cindy in the marina, as many of us did at Point Cadet, the bigger storms and hurricanes will require finding more protected waters and getting away from docks and pilings. Fortunately, the Mississippi Gulf Coast offers an abundance of bayous, canals and other sheltered waters that offer a lot of protection.

Since my boat is a sailing vessel that draws more than four feet of water, my focus is on the specifics of securing a sailing vessel, but many of these techniques are applicable to motor vessels as well. Any boat drawing more than a couple of feet is quite limited in where it can go near shore on the Gulf Coast, so it pays to explore your planned evacuation area in advance and make sure you can get in and out without running aground. The idea is to get as far from open water as possible into sheltered waters where you will be protected from the effects of wind-driven waves. While some boaters chose to anchor out in semi-exposed bays and estuaries where the boat will have plenty of swinging room, doing so means you will have rely 100 percent on your anchors and anchor rodes. Boats anchored this way can survive hurricanes if the anchor rodes are well protected from chafe and the deck fittings they are cleated to are sufficiently reinforced to prevent them from being torn loose. Since the wind from hurricanes often reverses direction if the eye passes close enough to your position, it is important that the boat is secured from every possible angle. One method is to set three anchors out at 120 degrees to each other and connect the rodes to a strong swivel that is then connected to the bow. This allows the boat to swing in any direction with at least two anchors absorbing the force, at least in theory. Another method also successfully used by cruisers is to put more than one anchor, usually two or three, connected in series on a long chain that is then connected to the bow of the boat by one rode. This method also allows the boat to swing and the multiple anchors reduce the possibility of dragging, but all your hopes are riding on one rope or chain, and if it parts it’s all over.

The biggest problem with either of these methods out in somewhat open water is that hurricanes can generate surprisingly big waves even in what seems like a peaceful cove or bay. If the storm surge causes the water to rise several feet, barrier islands, jetties and other breakwaters might be submerged and suddenly you find yourself exposed to breakers. Even properly set storm anchors can break out when a boat is pitching and pulling in rough waves, not to mention the risk of taking on water through deck openings such as hatches. This is why most boaters chose to head deep into the woods on the bayous and canals such as the Industrial Seaway, where the exposure to possible waves is almost non-existent.

Another advantage of narrow waterways is the presence of trees and the possibility of tying up your boat to both banks as well as setting anchors. According to marine surveyors and insurance adjusters in Florida after last year’s devastating hurricanes, the boats that came through with little or no damage tended to be secured in such canals with anchors and lines to shore. Most of the boats that were destroyed or sunk were the ones left in marinas.

Preparations for Hurricane Dennis turned out to be a drill, but the measures I took were as follows: First, I monitored the latest coordinates and forecast track given at each update by the National Weather Service. Second, since most of the computer models showed the storm was likely make landfall somewhere east of Biloxi, I decided to sail west to put as much distance as possible between me and the storm if it did take more of a turn in our direction. Third, once I made that decision I left as soon as possible, before the evacuation of all the out-front marinas became a mad scramble. And forth, after cruising some distance west, I entered a protected bay while the drawbridges were still operating and then worked my way as far as my draft would permit into a bayou and series of abandoned canals. Some other boats were already tying up in the area, so I found an unoccupied hole well away from them. One problem is that many boaters don’t have proper anchors or enough lines, and getting too close to them in a storm can get your boat smashed, so I like to find a place to hide far away from the crowd. Finally, once I was situated in a wooded waterway about two boat-lengths wide and 6-8 feet deep, I pointed my bow northeast into the direction of the strongest expected winds and then proceeded to set four anchors in the creek bed; two at slight angles off the bow and two at similar angles astern. All these were set on more than 100 feet of rode to allow plenty of stretch in a storm surge. I then secured four additional lines at angles to sturdy trees on the bank, making sure there was enough slack to accommodate a water level rise of several feet. I feel like the boat was as safe as it could be in such a situation, but it was a great relief that the preparations I made were not tested by a Category 4 or 5 storm.

Evacuating Point Cadet (For Good)

With the power out at Point Cadet Marina due to flooding in Tropical Storm Cindy, I was now faced with making a decision as to where to go to get out of the path of Hurricane Dennis, which was setting it's sights on the northern Gulf Coast with about the same track as last year's Hurricane Ivan.

My friend Artie returned to Biloxi on Thursday, and like me, he was of the opinion that we should go west and try and get farther from the dangerous east side of the projected track. The hurricane was forecast to hit anywhere from the mouth of the Pearl River to Appalachicola, Florida. Artie made up his mind to go to Slidell, where he had taken his boat last year during Ivan. I was going west too, just not as far. I knew of some well-protected canals off of Bay St. Louis and drove over there a couple days in advance just to double check and be sure I could get in there. One thing was for sure: we couldn't stay at Point Cadet, and I didn't want to go up in the Industrial Seaway, Old Fort Bayou, or any of the other crowded "hurricane holes" of Back Bay. This storm was too uncertain and still looked like it could make a direct hit on Biloxi or Gulfport.

When I left Point Cadet, I took my docklines with me, knowing that I was leaving this exposed marina for good. While Point Cadet is convenient for daysailing, it's disadvantages were starting to outweigh the advantages, from my point of view anyway. First of all, this marina is one of the most expensive on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. While the facilities are good and the security is adequate, for what they charge I think there should be gates on the docks to keep anyone but boat owners from wandering around out there freely all night. Secondly, with all the development going on in Biloxi and the Isle of Capri Casino overlooking the marina basin, these docks are as far from peace and quiet as you can get. Since the new parking garage has been open, there have been all too many nights when I was jolted out of a deep sleep on board Intensity because some idiot's car alarm went off. The concrete walls of this garage are like an echo chamber and amplifier when this happens. Another annoyance at this marina is the frequency big public events, like the recent Billfish Tournament, which draws huge crowds of drunken spectators that converge on the entire point and take every available parking spot, as well as create noise and disturbances, including fights, well into the wee hours of the morning. This marina also has a policy of mandantory evacuation, even in Tropical Storm warnings, forcing boat owners to leave even if like me, they are frequently out of town and far from Biloxi. Evacuation for a major storm like Dennis is understandable, but getting panicked telephone calls from the marina office every time the wind blows gets old.

I gave up my slip after the threat of Dennis was over and I had the boat secured in a marina elsewhere. Doing so, I found out that I would have to wait up to 3 weeks for the return of my deposit, which consisted of two month's rent up front before I could move into the marina. The same was true for the deposit I had to put up to have my power turned on there. Truely, this marina was not worth the hassel, but I will miss the many friends I met there and will stop by from time to time to see them.

Tropical Storm Cindy

This photo was taken shortly after daylight on July 6, when Point Cadet Marina in Biloxi was still submerged by the storm surge from Tropical Storm Cindy.

It's been awhile since I've posted anything new here, mainly due to having to deal with more storm threats on the coast, which is amazing for this early in the year. Tropical Storm Cindy was making it's way across the Gulf the evening of the 4th of July, so the next morning I had to rush to Biloxi to secure Intensity. There wasn't enough warning time for the marina to try to enforce a mandantory evacuation, so when I got there 95% of the boats were still there and the owners were preparing them to ride it out at the docks by doubling up lines and putting out fenders and such. Landfall was forecast to be sometime before dawn, but the storm wasn't expect to do much, other than cause a 4-5 foot storm surge near the center of circulation. I planned to spend the night on board to keep an eye on my lines and to watch Halcyon, my friend Artie's 27' Pacific Seacraft. Artie was visiting family in Chicago and couldn't get a flight back in time to prepare for the storm.

Thankfully, I decided at about 10:00 p.m. to move my truck to the second floor of the parking garage. It was a good thing I did, as the storm did pass directly over Biloxi and we got the full brunt of the storm surge at Point Cadet. Hearing wind howling in the rigging of dozens of sailboats and someone's roller furling genoa being torn apart with vicious popping noises that sounded like gunshots, I stuck my head out of the hatch at 4:30 a.m. to find that we were experiencing a storm that was right on the verge of a Category 1 hurricane. Much to my surprise, I was looking down at the tops of the dock pilings, as the water was nearly 3 feet deep over the concrete docks of the marina. It was quite unsettling to see all the boats in the marina floating well above the docks, their lines disappearing at a downward angle to the submerged cleats they were secured to. Beyond the seawall surrounding the marina, angry waves were racing through the channel and a rise of one more foot of storm surge would have left the marina vulnerable to them, probably resulting in disaster for most of the boats. As it was, many of the vessels I could see from my vantage point in the driving rain were straining to come loose and some were heeled over almost to their beam ends by the 60-70 knot sustained winds we were experiencing. Looking over into the parking lot, I could see that the folks who left their cars there and on the ground level of the casino parking garage would regret it. The water was half way up the doors on most of the vehicles I could see.

Shortly after daylight, the eye passed over our location and the winds became calm, then resumed their fury from the opposite direction (west) as the storm moved on along it's path. Few boats were damaged other than torn biminis and sails on the ones the owners didn't secure.
I had no problems with Intensity and Halcyon was fine as well. Later when talking to Artie, however, I learned that he had left his car on the first floor of the parking garage when he caught a ride to the airport. It was unfortunately flooded, but like all real sailors, his boat was his priority and he had forgotten to mention the car to me the night before.

With all the meter boxes submerged, Point Cadet was now without power for an indefinate period of time. This was not a good situation with Category 4 Hurricane Dennis bearing down from the Caribbean with a projected path to the northern Gulf coast in just a few days. Not having power would make it hard for many boat owners to top of their batteries and prepare for the coming mandantory evacuation, not to mention the inconvenience the liveaboards would suffer in the sweltering July heat with the ability to run their air conditioners.

I was faced with several more days of hurricane preparations myself, and needed to make a decision about where to take Intensity.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

More "Island Time" in store for this year...

Although I planned to do a lot of local sailing out of Biloxi this year on Intensity, that hasn't happened as much as I hoped. Instead, I keep getting totally unexpected offers to go places I had no intention of visiting this year. Sitka, Alaska for one.... that was a great trip and a chance to see a coastal area I had long wanted to see and hope to someday explore at length. I certainly didn't start the year off thinking about a trip to Alaska, considering all the other projects I have going on, but I'm glad I went.

Hawaii wasn't on my list of places to visit either, but now it looks like I'm going to Maui sometime before Thanksgiving. This opportunity came about as a result of the Alaska trip. A friend of the yacht owner in Sitka saw the work I did there last week and has asked me to go to Lahina Bay to fabricate and install some teak covering boards (or caprails) around the cockpit of a 29' sportfisherman he keeps there for winter use. It seems these Alaska residents are used to the necessity of flying everything and everybody in and out, so it's no big deal to fly a boat carpenter in from somewhere as far away as Mississippi. It's okay by me. Like Alaska, I've always wanted to check out Hawaii anyway, so I'll be packing a tool kit as soon as I can figure out the best time to go by the Thanksgiving deadline.

Key West is another place I didn't plan to see this year. Unlike Alaska and Maui, I've been there plenty of times, both by kayak and by road. This time, however, I'll be sailing there with a friend I met at the marina in Biloxi last year when he arrived there from Texas on the start of an open-ended cruise. Artie Vaughn sails an immaculately-kept and well-equipped Pacific Seacraft 27 named Halcyon. He plans to winter over in Key West and possibly go on to the Bahamas. He doesn't particularly like single-handing on long passages like a crossing of the
Gulf, so he's asked me to help him take her across on a rhumb-line passage from Biloxi to Key West. This should be a great trip. We will likely leave the 3rd week of October, or thereabouts, depending on hurricane activity this year and the water temperature of the Gulf.