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sitting out a hurricane
Lisa Copeland

Just two years ago, Hurricane Lenny wrought havoc in the Caribbean, and I was on hand aboard Hawk with my cruising partner Evans to endure that storm. The single most important lesson that hurricane taught us was: Prepare for the worst. Despite all the recent technological advancements in the weather-sensing community, hurricane forecasting remains more art than science, and should be treated as such.


Broad expanses of water like this allow the breeze to build
 and the waves as well. It's best to seek a more sheltered spot for a hurricane.

Based on the early forecasts, we prepared for a Category 1 or 2 hurricane (65 to 95 knots of wind) with the strongest wind strength from the southwest. In the end, we experienced tropical storm force winds from the south-southeast. But if Lenny had followed the same script 80 miles further south, we would have experienced winds in excess of 100 knots for a minimum of 24 hours. And we weren't ready for that.

Given that hurricane preparations must start at least 24 hours before the storm hits, the accuracy of forecasts simply does not allow for any certainty with respect to wind speeds or direction. The National Hurricane Centre's own numbers, as quoted by Steve Dashew in Mariner's Weather Handbook, prove this. Over the last 10 years in the Atlantic, the 72-hour forecast was accurate to within 251 nautical miles; the 48-hour forecast to within 169 nautical miles; and the 24-hour forecast to within 71 nautical miles. Given that the average hurricane's eye measures from four to 22 miles in width, even 24 hours in advance the forecast is too inaccurate to predict whether the hurricane will pass to the north or south of a given position—making it impossible to be certain of the direction from which hurricane-force winds will come.


Often times the best idea is to use mother nature's anchors
—the mangroves—to ride out a hurricane. 

After watching the locals—veterans of many hurricanes—prepare, and after interviewing several couples who had successfully weathered Category 3 and 5 hurricanes, we now know that well do many things differently next time. Here's what we would do the same and what we'd do differently in selecting a spot to anchor—and why.

Protected Anchorage    There seem to be two models for sitting out a hurricane in the Caribbean. In well-protected anchorages and lagoons like, Simpson Bay Lagoon on St. Martin, boats set out four or more anchors at various angles to the boat. In mangrove-lined anchorages like English Harbour, Antigua or Marigot Bay, St. Lucia, boats set a bow or a stern anchor, get as close to the mangroves as they can and then tie lines from the opposite end of the boat to the mangroves to hold it in place. In either case, only a serpentine entrance or completely encircled lagoon will keep large waves from entering the harbour. The mangrove method provides more reliable attachment points because the storm anchor can only be laid out in one direction from the boat, and other anchors will not have the same holding power. We favor the using nature's anchors, the mangroves.

Minimal Fetch    Clive Shute and Laila Sterndrup, who sat out 150-mph winds aboard their 30-foot boat in Hurricane Luis in Oyster Bay, St. Martin, told us: "You can do everything right, but if a 60-foot boat drags down on you, things will still go wrong." Especially in places where charter boats are left unattended, dragging boats often pose as much of a threat as hurricane-force winds. So, taking refuge where there's a minimal fetch can help eliminate damage as there won't be any boats to drag down upon yours.


The ideal hurricane hole will have a short fetch
and be well-protected by land on most sides.

Waves also create risks, especially in shallow anchorages. "We were anchored in seven or eight feet of water," Laila said. "When we started to get four-foot waves across two miles of fetch, I kept waiting for us to slam into the bottom." In the upper arm of English Harbour where we selected our refuge for Hurricane Lenny, there was no room for anyone to anchor in front of the boats tied into the mangroves, and we had less than 100 yards of fetch in any direction.

Bow To    We watched Zach from Sun Yacht Charters drive half a dozen charter boats straight into the mangroves with their engines on full revs until they were hard aground. Then he tied two bow lines into the mangroves and put out an 85-pound Danforth anchor off the stern quarter in the direction of the strongest forecast winds. "These boats sat out 100-mph winds from Hurricane José right here three weeks ago," he told us. We went stern into the mangroves for three reasons: we didn't want to damage our bottom paint, we wanted the wind and rain on our bow so the hard dodger would give us some protection and allow us to keep the companionway open, and we preferred to handle our ground tackle using the windlass and bow rollers. But when Hurricane Lenny reached Category 4 status, our reasoning seemed less than sound as we both started worrying about our rudder. Next time, we'd try pick a spot where we could go bow in and take the strongest winds over the bow.

Wind Breaks    Even within a sheltered anchorage like English Harbour, wind speeds easily doubled within 100 yards depending on the local topography. We selected a spot with a high hill a half mile away to the southwest, the direction where the strongest winds were forecast to originate. We soon found that the hill was as likely to accelerate the wind coming over it block it. Being stern-to, we couldn't go as close to the mangroves as the Sun Yacht Charter boats around us, so when the wind stubbornly remained from the south-southeast, we ended up taking the full brunt of the storm-force winds on our beam, which put tremendous strain on our port stern lines and anchor rode. The local boats in English Harbour all went to two coves with mangroves on three sides, tucked in almost side-by-side with their bows touching the mangroves and created a huge, interlocking web of lines and anchors. They ended up with low windbreaks within eight or 10 feet on at least three sides, giving them full protection from winds in all but one direction. We'll favour that approach next time.


Each boat responds to heavy winds at anchor in its own way. If you can, it's best to anchor near boats with similar
underbody and displacement characteristics.

The locals here in English Harbour didn't worry about what the forecast said. They prepared for Lenny exactly the same way they prepared for José and Luis, and the numerous hurricanes in between. They set themselves up to withstand maximum winds from as many directions as possible. That approach—in their well-protected harbour—works. No boats were lost in José in English Harbour despite sustained winds in excess of 100 mph. So we know what we'll do—and not do—the next time a hurricane comes calling.