Establishing a Plan and Preparing Your Boat for a Storm

The following article is basically as it appeared in the June 2006 issue kicking off the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season. This year, I am printing that same article with changes and improvements. I still believe that this is the best plan and thought process that the average boat owner should put in his head and use to successfully protect his boat. Along with the article in last year’s July issue (available on our Web site) on making the time to prepare your boat, this practical plan is the best I have found.

This plan is for the boat owner who keeps his boat in the water at a dock, which is the greatest number of sailboats out there subject to damage resulting in significant financial loss.

I also attended the BoatUS Marina Preparation Hurricane Symposium this year (note: and the one they held the following year in 2008) and learned a lot more about saving boats and marinas.

Boat Insurance Increases

The biggest change that I have found in the last two years affecting boat owners is the cost of boat insurance. For many, it has become completely unavailable or very expensive—sometimes three to four times what they were paying before the 2004 season.

Much of this increased cost is because boaters didn’t prepare their boats at all, or not enough, and insurance companies paid out a lot of money. Some boaters took advantage of their insurance and used it to get rid of their boat or get a new sail or Bimini. Some of the fault lies with the insurance companies, which didn’t plan out their losses correctly over many years. Many who suffered the greatest are those who prepared their boats the most, and the insurance companies didn’t care, dropping them because they were simply a statistic. A change must come about in the insurance industry as many just got out of boat ownership because of higher rates.

The owner of this boat did nothing to prepare it. This is a good example of what can happen to a headsail that is left up. This was in barely tropical storm-force winds that were many miles away from a stronger hurricane center. The damage on the starboard side where the boat rubbed against the dock was extreme, possibly totaling the boat. Neighbors at this marina added extra lines after the storm arrived, minimizing a lot of the damage. Photo by Steve Morrell.

Number One Priority: Get Yourself, Your Home and Your Family Prepared First

In retrospect, I look at this as the number one roadblock to not preparing your boat. If you do not have these things in your life ready and prepared for a storm, then your boat will be sacrificed when you run out of time. Clearly, it is less important when it comes down to it. Of course, this does not apply to those people whose boat is their home.

What You Must Do

Since the ’70s, hurricanes have been few and far between, and many people have become complacent about them, thinking, “Why worry?” Then along came 2004, followed by the 2005 season. Thousands of boats throughout Florida and the northern Gulf coast states were damaged, many destroyed.

Now, I wonder if the pendulum has swung the other way—only because I talk to people who think if the storm is big enough there is nothing you can do to save your boat. That could be true, but it’s not. After the 2004 and 2005 season, I started investigating what boat owners can do to save their boats. I put out inquiries for stories of success and failure and every chance I got, I asked people what they did and did it work. I went out and observed boats at docks during storms and saw what worked and didn’t.

What I learned was that you can save your boat. Yes, if the storm is big enough, even all the preparations might not save it. But in doing nothing, you can pretty much be assured that your boat will be damaged, or even destroyed.

To maximize the chances of your boat surviving a storm, it is really quite simple what you must do:

  • You must have a plan.
  • You must carry it out.

The main purpose of this article is to get boat owners to do something, and I will help show the minimum you can do for the maximum gain. Because of space constraints, we are only going to talk about boats at docks, concentrating on fixed docks, since that is the majority of cases (although floating dock preparation is very similar and these ideas can be used). We will have more on other situations, like anchoring, in future issues. We will keep this article simple for a good reason: So you will use it.

Won’t My Boat Get Destroyed in a Large Hurricane No Matter How I Prepare it?

To a certain extent this is true, but we must learn how to prepare our boats to defend against the storms we are most likely to get hit with.

What are you most likely to get hit with? That’s easy. You are most likely to get hit with just tropical storm-force winds. Let’s see why.

Most tropical storms are the weak ones. In 2005, 27 tropical storms developed. Fifteen became hurricanes, and seven of these were Category 1s. Twelve never went beyond the tropical storm level. It is easy to prepare your boat for a tropical storm or a Category 1 hurricane. In 2005, that would mean that for 19 of the 27 storms, you can easily prepare for them.

But there is one greater factor many forget: The chances of you (or your boat) getting hit by tropical storm winds is increased greatly because you are also likely to get hit by the outer edges of a hurricane passing nearby. In all tropical storms, the winds get weaker as you get farther from their center. Category 1 hurricane winds are above 73 mph. Tropical storm winds are from 39 to 73 mph and will not be far from the center of the storm. In larger storms, these winds can be a long distance from the center and will cover a large area. Tropical storm winds extended 230 miles from the center of Hurricane Katrina. That is a tremendous area.

For those of you who think these tropical storm-force winds will do no damage, look again There were thousands of unprepared boats damaged from just the outer edges of storms, because (except in emergencies) the boat owner (1) didn’t care (2) didn’t think he was going to get hit by the brunt of the storm (4) didn’t have a plan (5) didn’t know what to do or (6) didn’t have time to do anything.

A Simple Storm Preparation Plan Carried Out is Far Better than a Complex One Not Carried Out

Create a simple plan. If people believe that there is nothing they can do because a big storm will just destroy their boat anyway, they will probably do nothing. We have just proven how you are more likely to get hit by tropical storm winds than anything stronger. It is easy and takes little time to prepare for these conditions.

If you create too big of a plan that takes a lot of time, you might not ever carry it out, thinking you’ll never have enough time. So work on a simple plan and on priorities. If you know you won’t ever have the time, then maybe you should keep the boat constantly ready all season, or maybe for just that part of the season you are most likely to get hit: Remove the sails and canvas, double your dock lines, add spring lines, add some chafe protection, add fenders. It’s now ready for a lot of storm conditions. If it’s going to be worse, then maybe you will have time to beef up the preparations a little bit.

Practice the plan at the beginning of the season. Have everything ready to be installed quickly. Use a check list.

When the time comes, you might be more concerned about you, your family and your house than preparing your boat, so create a plan you know you will have time to carry out. You could save your boat and thousands of dollars.

Preparing for Tropical Storm Winds or a Category 1 Hurricane is Easy

This might even be true for a Category 2, or even a Category 3 storm, but there are so many other factors involved with these stronger storms that it is hard to say. Storm surge is a huge variable, and its intensity depends on the time the storm arrives. But in preparing for the smaller storms, it is easy.

Many people seem to forget that sailboats are designed to take some pretty rough sea conditions—both in waves and wind. The problem is when foreign objects get involved, objects like pilings, docks, seawalls, land, underwater obstacles, other boats and then, of course, flying objects. You can’t do much about the last item, but you can about the others.

Preparing a boat for a storm is common sense, but there are just a few basic principles: Reduce windage, beef up your dock lines, use spring lines to prepare for a storm surge, use chafe protection and put out fenders. Keep the boat in its slip. That’s it. Simple and easy. Actually, getting your boat ready is the easy part. The hard part is making sure you carry out your plan.

Reduce Windage

Boats have an advantage over houses because they can move around and deflect the wind, taking some of the shock by absorbing some of the energy with moving about. Although this movement has its advantages, we want to minimize it so the boat doesn’t meet a fixed object, like a dock. So the first thing that must be done is to remove all the sails and canvas. No matter what, remove the roller furling headsail. If it becomes unraveled, it has lots of windage and leverage up high for really shaking a boat around. Get rid of it.

Make sure you secure the top roller furling mechanism that comes down when lowering the roller-furled headsail. It needs to be secured with line and/or bungee cord to something fixed, like a stanchion. Secure the halyard tightly somewhere, too.

Next, remove the canvas; dodgers, biminis, etc. Remove the canvas frames (carry a cordless drill. It turns a 20-minute job into a 5-minute job). Practice once so you won’t run into any unforeseen frozen screws.

In lighter winds, some people will keep the mainsail on the boom. They will then wrap a line real tightly around the sail cover—so tightly that a woven “cocoon” is created. If you have in-the-mast roller furling, you might want to remove the mainsail, as it is still weight aloft, besides the added windage from the clew that slightly sticks out.

Make sure any loose objects on deck, like anchors, are stowed, (same with gear below—secure as if at sea).

Beef Up the Dock Lines

You need to double up all your dock lines, plus add a few more as you think necessary. If you really need a fast plan, have the lines doubled all the time during the storm season. If your slip has stand-alone pilings, it is a good idea to at least have your second line already secured to that piling, ready to grab with a boat hook. Have all your lines ready and tested for length (and marked at the securing point) and convenient at the beginning of the season, even labeled—which line goes where. Have them cut for a convenient length. Store them separately.

Make sure you know how you are going to double up your lines. Many boat cleats are not big enough to have two lines attached. You might have to slip one through the eye of the cleat and another secured as normal. Use other objects to secure to: mast, winches, sliding cleats on sail tracks, etc. Some people describe a well-secured boat as being in a “spider web” of lines.

Make all your lines tighter as they will stretch.

Add Spring Lines for Storm Surge

Spring lines do two things. They help hold the boat in place like any dock line, but, with fixed docks, they are the only way to hold the boat in place as the tide goes up and down. The longer they are, the more surge they can handle.

In a sense, all dock lines are spring lines, as they all will allow some up-and-down movement from the tides, but they are called spring lines when they are long, and they are considered those running parallel to the boat’s length. Running them both directions, fore and aft, is even better. A 30-foot spring line will allow only five inches of lateral movement (have five inches of slack) with the tide going up or down as much as five feet—a 10-foot range!

Storm Surge. NOAA photo.

Storm surge is the water being blown by the wind and piling up in a certain direction. Since hurricanes rotate counterclockwise in our region, then the storm’s right front quadrant will be pushing water toward the front of the storm’s path and pulling it away from the path on its left front quadrant. It will be greater forward as the storm’s forward movement will also add to the piling up of water. How the storm hits will determine whether the storm is going to be creating a higher than normal tide as it pushes the water in or a lower tide as it pulls it out. If you anticipate higher, then raise your lines higher on the pilings. If lower, then put them lower.

If you are expecting a lot of storm surge, you might have to run spring lines across the boat, crisscrossing the dock lines at the stern and bow, essentially making them longer, acting more as spring lines.

If you are preparing for just tropical storm-force winds, surge is generally expected to be less than four feet and 4-5 feet for a Category 1. Remember, though, a strong tropical storm coming at high tide can do more damage than a weak Category 1 hurricane hitting at low tide.

Since you are most likely to be hit with only tropical storm or Category 1 winds, you can probably be there to watch the boat, and adjusting lines during a storm can be important. If you have to adjust lines, make them adjustable at the dock, not on the boat. For those lines that go to a stand-alone piling, make them adjustable from the boat.

How you secure your lines to a piling that is attached to the dock can be crucial. The best way is to go around the piling twice, then make two half hitches to the line. The line will always be free for adjustment, regardless of the strain on it.


Lack of any chafe protection created no problems for Yachting Vacations, the charter company in Punta Gorda that was hit by Charley, a Category 4 storm (see Southwinds, August, 2005).

But chafe was a major cause of damage from Hurricane Frances, another Category 4 storm. Why the difference?

Charley was a small, very fast storm. Frances was a slow, very big storm. Chafe is going to destroy a boat and/or lines over a period of time. Hurricane force winds frequently will hit an area for about four to six hours. These winds persisted for up to 18 hours during Frances. Chafe won.

During Charley, hurricane force winds hit Yachting Vacations for about two-and-a-half hours. Chafe did not matter.

In preparing your boat for the most likely conditions, tropical storm winds or Category 1-winds, chafe will not be a major factor. It is always advised to have chafe protection, but make sure you have it depending on the size and speed of the storm. Unless you have all the time in the world, it is low on the priority list for the weaker storms.

Even these small fenders saved this boat’s hull. This is not damage but dirt and debris on the hull. Photo by Steve Morrell


An old axiom holds true about fenders: You can’t have too many. Fenders can save your boat if the slip is too small, the lines stretch, the storm surge is great, the wave action is excessive, or it can save you from a mistake you made. They are a “cushion” and a margin for error that can be the last saving item. Boat repairs on a hull or rubrail are like a dent in your car; very expensive to repair for even the smallest dent. Watching one boat sloshing around in its slip as it bounces against the dock with its fenders next to another boat that is hitting the dock without them is a picture worth a thousand lessons. They are well worth the investment.

Secure the Boom

I once had my topping lift break during a category 1 hurricane and the boom fell and smashed the compass—the only damage the boat suffered. Now I lower the boom down to where it is just above the cabin top at the cockpit and double up the topping lift using the main halyard, then I secure the boom with lines port and starboard to the two headsail sheet winches to minimize movement and chafe (which caused my topping lift to break that time). If there is a big storm coming, I will consider removing the boom and sticking it down below, padded and braced for movement.

In Summary: A Simple Plan

Below is a summary of a simple plan for the weaker storms. For stronger storms, just take these plans to a higher level with more of everything. This plan will also be simple enough to minimize the time to carry it out, instead of the perfect plan, which might not ever get executed because there will never be enough time for it. The main idea for speed and execution of the plan is no surprises, so practice everything at least once.

  1. Write the plan down in priorities and have a checklist.
  2. Remove the roller furling headsail.
  3. Remove canvas, maybe the frames.
  4. Remove the mainsail. Wrap it with line if a light storm is expected.
  5. Double up all lines, add spring lines and extra lines as needed.
  6. Have chafe protection on lines.
  7. Have lots of fenders.
  8. Make sure all gear on deck and below is stowed.
  9. If you can, be there during the storm to adjust your lines. You will also learn a lot on what is working and what is not. Observe other boats, too, and encourage neighbors to prepare their boats, so they don’t destroy yours.

The Most Important Part:

The complex, better plan is worthless if it isn’t carried out. The simple, inferior plan is superior if it is. Make it so easy and fast to do that you do it.

  1. Write the plan down in priorities and have a checklist.
  2. Remove the roller furling headsail.
  3. Remove canvas, maybe the frames.
  4. Remove the mainsail. Wrap it with line if a light storm is expected.
  5. Double up all lines, add spring lines and extra lines as needed. 6. Have chafe protection on lines.
  6. Have lots of fenders.
  7. Make sure all gear on deck and below is stowed.
  8. If you can, be there during the storm to adjust your lines. You will also learn a lot on what is working and what is not. Observe other boats, too, and encourage neighbors to prepare their boats, so they don’t destroy yours.

The Most Important Part: The complex, better plan is worthless if it isn’t carried out. The simple, inferior plan is superior if it is. Make it so easy and fast to do, that you actually do it.