Surviving Hurricane Irene

Sirocco on mooring in Irene
Riding out Irene

I sailed to Massachusetts this summer to try to avoid the worst hurricane season.  I was counting on the fact that Cape Cod hadn’t been hit by a hurricane in twenty years, and the storms are usually considerably weakened if they do hit there.

The last hurricane to hit the area was hurricane Bob, back in 1991.  I was at the Beverly Yacht Club junior regatta for that storm and vividly remember many boats breaking loose from their moorings in Marion Harbor.  The boats that got free were washed high up onto the lawns of the ostentatious homes around the harbor.  They crashed up on breakwaters and were blown onto the grounds of Tabor Academy.  Some of the boats that stayed securely moored through the storm were heavily damaged when other boats dragged down on them.  Even the yards weren’t safe–I remember one row of boats toppled like dominoes after one large sailboat blew over and took out its’ neighbor, starting a chain reaction.  The memories of that hurricane and the resulting aftermath have made me always very cautious about properly preparing my boat for storm season.

Since I had acquired Sirocco just before hurricane season I hadn’t yet had time to outfit her with all of the heavy anchors and rodes that I feel are necessary to feel safe riding out a storm on my own gear.  My best gear was stuff that I had bought for my previous boat, a Contessa 26, which was 1/3 the displacement of Sirocco.  My two bower anchors are a 33-lb Rocna anchor with its’ 90 feet of 5/16″ high-test chain and 15/16″ plaited rode; and a 35-lb CQR on about 65 feet of 1/2″ BBB chain and a 3/4″ 3-strand rode–perfectly adequate for Sirocco in normal weather and even normal bad weather (up to about 40 knots), but I didn’t feel that the gear was up to holding the boat against a hurricane, even when I figured in my extra rodes, Fortress FX-23 anchor, two additional 22-lb Rocna anchors that could be used in tandem or all separately.  What was missing was at least one truly honking big anchor and rode that I could rely on as a strong-point for my storm mooring setup.

Now keep in mind that all of this gear is on a relatively low-windage 28′ boat, which may sound like a lot of gear to some.  But, I actually bought those anchors (except for the CQR, which came with Sirocco) for my previous 26-foot, 6,000-pound boat, and felt that my ground tackle was comfortably sized.  You could say that I am pretty close to being obsessed with anchors.  The reason for my obsession is simple–anchors are what let me sleep when I am not underway at night and I do so enjoy actually being able to sleep.  It makes me shiver when I see other boats out cruising, even if just for the weekend, with tiny, single anchors because I know that they might someday be anchored to windward of me and start dragging.

I want the heaviest anchoring gear that I can reasonably store and handle.  I want redundancy in case of breakage, loss, or tricky situations that require multiple anchors.  I want, no, need heavy ground tackle because when a front comes through in the middle of the night I want to be able to look around, see that the boat is holding fast, and then go back to sleep without worrying that I am going to wake up to the sensation of the boat sideways to the seas and drifting downwind because the anchor is not holding.  I sail alone quite a lot and need to be able to count on a good night’s rest if I am in an anchorage in order to be able to make good, safe decisions on the water the next day.

Anyway, with hurricane Irene bearing down on the Buzzard’s Bay area I felt woefully under prepared with the gear that I had on board.  I first tried anchoring in a small, closed bay next to Phinney’s harbor that offered good holding and limited 360-degree protection, but in a 30-knot southwest wind I could see that the waves were going to be a factor.  My next thought was to run north to Maine, where I could reasonably expect the winds to stay under 45 knots.  The problem with that plan was that I didn’t really know Maine that well and didn’t want to sail all of that distance north only to discover that I had chosen an anchorage that had a bad bottom, or was choked with moorings, or filled with other boats there running from the storm.  There wouldn’t be enough time to explore and find a good harbor if I didn’t get lucky with some good advice found through a guide or acquaintance.  With the hurricane only 48 hours away I decided to stay and secure Sirocco as best I could to a 5000+ pound mooring that was offered to me to use if I wanted.

I finally decided on using the mooring because I felt confident that Sirocco could survive the wind and wave action if properly secured to sufficiently heavy gear even though the mooring was located in an area more exposed than I would have liked, with a fetch of up to 3/4 of a mile depending on the wind direction.  Eve and I removed everything from the deck including the dodger, sails, boom, spinnaker pole, and even the dorade cowls.  I taped the chain pipes and hatches shut.
The next task was to secure the boat to the mooring.  New 3/4″ 3-strand nylon line was used to make two new 25′ mooring pennants.  With Eve’s help the ends were spliced with 12″ eyes on one end and thimbles on the other and the lines were protected with lengths of fire hose and reinforced vinyl tubing.  The eyes were dropped over the mooring bitts and tied down so they couldn’t come loose.  The thimbles were attached to the mooring with a 3/4″ shackle.  That was my primary connection.  As a backup I took 5/8″ braided nylon dock lines and led them from the forward mooring cleats to the mooring.  They were several feet longer than the pennants so as not to take a load unless a pennant broke.  A final safety measure consisted of two 35′ lengths of 5/16″ high-test chain shackled from the mooring to the bobstay fitting.  If all of the lines broke then the  boat would still be chained to the mooring.  Sirocco would have to drag the mooring ashore or else she would suffer major structural failure before breaking free.

The chain was purposely longer than all of the other pennants to allow the lines to stretch to absorb the shock of waves slamming into the boat.  If the load came to be on the chains I was relying on the 36″ mooring ball to absorb shock with its’ buoyancy–it would sink as more and more load was placed on the mooring system.  If I had planned on staying on the boat I would have attached the chain in some way that would have allowed it to have been released under load, but since I was not going to be aboard during the hurricane I opted for seized shackles since I would not be there to release it anyway.

As the wind built it became apparent that Sirocco was still mostly riding to the current rather than to the wind.  This was causing her to ride over her pennants at times.  I was glad that I had protected the bobstay with vinyl hose and duct tape, and made the chafing gear on the mooring pennants as long as the bowsprit.  Chafe is always the biggest enemy during a hurricane.  When the wind starts getting up over 60 knots even a very small harbor can build a nasty chop that will cause the boat to pitch.  The resulting motion will saw through the loaded mooring lines if proper precautions are not taken.  Sirocco‘s chocks are large enough for her oversized mooring lines to be protected with many layers of chafing gear.  I used vinyl hose and two layers of fire hose this time.  I believe that reinforced neoprene hose would have been better than the first layer of vinyl that I used.

Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Buzzard’s Bay.  There were still some gusts of hurricane force recorded by nearby Massachusetts Maritime Academy, with some gusts up to 85 mph.  I recorded winds over 70 mph with a handheld anemometer while standing on shore near where Sirocco was moored.  Even during the height of the storm Sirocco rode quietly–not sailing about excessively or heeling very far in the gusts.   Sirocco is a low boat by modern standards, and that helps reduce windage, which keeps the loads lower on her moorings.  I didn’t once observe her put enough load on the mooring to sink the mooring ball.

The next day we went out to inspect Sirocco and were greeted by nothing worse than a lot of bird calling cards and some seaweed on deck.  Everything else was as it had been left before the storm.  On closer inspection there was some minimal chafe on the fire hoses, and a little chafe on the bobstay chafe gear, and some wear on the bottom paint at the bow where Sirocco had over-rode her mooring due to the current.  There was a noticeable settling of the splices in the new mooring pennants, which showed that they had come under heavy load at some point.  I was happy that all of the preparation had paid off.  Sirocco had come through unscathed.

I am currently shopping around for that big honking storm anchor in case I am not lucky enough to have access to a heavy mooring next time.



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