St Jude’s storm in 2013 highlighted the importance of securing your boat when the forecast looks ugly. Yachting Monthly's Chris Beeson talks to experts about how to batten down the hatches in harbour
‘January is the worst month of the year for boat insurance claims,’ says Simon Tonks of marine insurer Navigators & General. ‘Over the last five years, claims in January are 40 per cent higher than the average month, with 257 per cent more weather- related claims. Storms and winter damage are the major cause.’
Those are compelling statistics. If they weren’t persuasive enough, St Jude’s storm in October 2013 must’ve convinced even the most laid-back owner that precautions must be taken if expensive damage is to be prevented – to others’ boats if not your own. ‘The combination of freezing temperatures, driving rain and high winds makes this a particularly vulnerable time of year for boats,’ says Tonks.
‘Over just a few months ropes can wear, fenders burst, bilge pump batteries run down, sails become unfurled, cockpit drains block with leaves and lines work lose. Taking a few simple measures to protect your boat now might help to avoid a nasty surprise later on.’
When a serious storm is forecast, it’s not enough to know that your boat is in harbour. Whether she’s berthed in a marina, swinging to her mooring or laid up on the hard, you need to be absolutely sure that she’s completely prepared for the onslaught. If you’re at home, it’s always worth going down to check, if only for peace of mind. To help you get ready and plan for the worst when storm conditions are forecast, we spoke to seven experts to find out how best to prepare your boat, whether she’s on the hard, in a marina or on a mooring.
The message we got again and again from our experts was this: remove windage. Regardless of whether the boat’s on the hard, in a marina or on a mooring, the importance of removing anything that the wind can grab is paramount because it reduces the loads on whatever is keeping you safe, be it cradles or props, mooring lines or strops.
If she’s ashore under a winter cover, make sure it’s as tight-fitting as it possibly can be, ideally like shrink-wrapping. If you do have a cover, don’t lash it to anything that supports the boat like cradles, props or crossbraces in case they get wrenched out of position by a gust. The best bet, as you’ll have plenty to do on deck and below, is to remove the cover and stow it.
Take down all of your dodgers, biminis, boom-tents, MOB gear, spinnaker or whisker poles, outboard, tender, liferaft and either get them below or better still, take them home. If your sprayhood doesn’t have a cover and can’t be lashed down securely, take that too.
Also stow the mainsail and the headsail. The storm will get its nails into your furls and the sails will be ribbons by the morning.
Once the main is unbent, lash the boom to the toerail. If you still have the blanks for dorade vents, remove the cowls and fit the blanks to close them off. Check that the scuppers and cockpit drains are completely clear and if you can’t secure your instrument sun covers with tape, put them below.
If you’re on your own and can’t handle unbending the genoa, furl it tight while the genoa sheet car is as far forward as possible. The top of a furling genoa is always loosest, so doing this will tighten the furl at the top. Keep furling so that the sheets are wrapped around the sail at least twice and for belt and braces thread a sail tie through the clew and tie it tightly around the sail. Then cleat off the furling line securely and tie a line from the genoa tack to the pulpit, so there’s zero chance of it unfurling.
To reduce windage, unbending the main is far and away the best option, but if you’re on your own and you can’t, get a long piece of line, secure one end at the gooseneck and gasket the sail as tightly as possible, then lash the boom to the deck. If you have a stackpack, run the lazyjacks to the mast and gasket the sail in the stackpack.
Take as much valuable kit as you can home with you, so that if the worse should happen, you haven’t lost everything. Close and lock all hatches, portholes and windows. Rain has remarkable properties when powered by a gale and it will almost always find a way in, particularly around older hatches and windows with worn seals, so go around the inside edges of older hatches and ports with gaffer-tape to make sure she won’t leak.
Shut all seacocks, except the cockpit drain seacocks, which must be left open.
Left unchecked, chafe will eat through your lines in short order. Protect your lines where they pass through fairleads or run over a toerail – where they will rub – using old rags, split pipe, sticky sail repair patches or bits of old sail bag and tightly wrap your lines. Most hosepipe hasn’t the diameter to wrap mooring lines but there are other options. We used flat drainage pipe from a DIY store.
There will also be a good deal of snatching as she works in her berth, testing cleats on deck and pontoon and wearing lines. Think about adding some mooring line dampers to absorb the worst of the snatching.
Across most of the UK, gales are a rare event (thankfully), so we aren’t always well prepared when they hit. But give the situation a little thought and you can limit damage considerably. The St Jude’s storm was well forecast and the direction and strength of the winds was known in advance. If your mooring or marina berth leaves you without enough shelter from the worst of the weather, consider moving to somewhere with more shelter and less fetch.
In the 1987 storm, Aldeburgh Yacht Club lost ten boats to swamping because their moorings are in an exposed north-south reach. For St Jude’s, it was clear that those moorings would again be in the firing line, so the club’s boatmen moved the boats upriver to an east-west stretch that afforded more shelter. The result of this action was that no boats sank. If there is time, move the boat to a safer mooring or marina. If your boat is moored in an exposed location, or you do not have total confidence in your ground tackle, consider having the boat hauled out.
If there’s a big onshore blow forecast and you’re unlucky enough to find yourself against a wall or on an exposed outside berth, try a trick that’s well- known in the Azores to make sure the maelstrom doesn’t smash her to matchwood by morning (see Duncan Wells’ anchoring masterclass in the December 2013 issue). Bend a line on to the kedge, lay it as far as you can to windward and run it through a shackle fixed on a bridle. When the blow arrives, haul in the kedge line with a winch and ease your dock lines. This will hold you off the dock.
ON A MOORING
If you’re at all dubious about the integrity of your ground tackle, put your anchor and chain in the tender and row it as far as you can in the direction of the forecast gale, and throw it all over. Back on board, take in as much slack as you can without over-riding your mooring, then tie a line to your mooring strop, drop it and motor her astern to make sure the anchor is set before taking in on the mooring line again. Think about the bottom, too; for example, in mud a Danforth-style anchor will grip better than most other varieties. If you can take a line ashore, round a strong tree or a rocky outcrop, without obstructing the fairway, so much the better.
She’s certain to yaw heavily and work her lines in strong winds, so fit extra anti-chafe on the mooring strop where it goes through the fairlead and passes through the mooring.
And consider rigging a back-up, too – a bridle strop leading back to both winches in case the Sampson post fails. If you’re not setting it, unship and stow the anchor – it’s likely to chafe at your strop – and for belt and braces, run the anchor chain through the mooring, too. Again, close all seacocks except the cockpit drains and check the scuppers and drains are clear and free-flowing.
Finally, securely lash the tiller or wheel.
Ideally your boat will be laid up in a good quality steel cradle. If you don’t have your own, ask your marina or boatyard when your allocated cradle was made, when it was last surveyed and what the condition report said. Fifteen years is a very good innings for a cradle. Good marinas test cradles annually to inspect their welds, condition and thickness of the metal. If a cradle fails, it’s scrapped. If you do own a cradle, good marinas will survey that too; if it fails, it won’t be accepted. They will also make sure your insurance covers you for any damage caused directly by the weather.
Talk to your marina or boatyard about what they do when a big blow is expected. Does it monitor forecasts and what is its plan of action when a storm is due? Where are the safest, most protected places in the boatyard? Will ratchet straps be used to ensure your boat is not blown out of her cradle? If you’re ashore in a particularly exposed place, are there ground anchor points to which halyards or lashings can be secured?
If you’re on wooden props, ask the yard to add extra props and make sure they’re cross-braced. If your boat is on steel props, can they add more, then chain, or ideally weld, them together? However your boat is supported, make sure she’s trimmed such that water can leave the boat via the scuppers and cockpit drains.
Is the boatyard patrolled during a storm to monitor developments? And will you get updates during and after the storm, to let you know how your boat survived? Bad news or good, you’ll need to know.
Finally, if your halyards aren’t long enough to reach a ground anchor, secure them away from the mast. Secure any items nearby that could be blown on to your yacht and remove all debris from scuppers or cockpit drain holes.
IN A MARINA
Don’t underestimate the trials that a mooring line goes through in a storm. Use twice as many as you usually would – they must be stretchy, and ideally of a heavier gauge. If a storm surge is expected or a gale blows in with a spring flood, secure lines as far up the pontoon pilings as you can.
Rig all your fenders, ideally with covers to prevent chafing against the hull, and consider buying a couple of big ball fenders for the bow and quarter. If you have enough fenders, hang a couple horizontally along the dock. If you’re short of fenders, rig at least two then add a fenderboard.
Close all seacocks except cockpit drains and ensure they run freely.
Once you’ve checked your automatic bilge pump float switch and made sure your batteries are fully charged to run the pump if necessary, switch off everything except the bilge pump and remove the shore power. Before leaving, check boats nearby, particularly to windward, to ensure they are also adequately secured.
A good marina should staff on hand 24 hours a day, walking the pontoons in all conditions to check that no boat is damaged. If they see a boat poorly moored, they will make good and let the owner know what they have done and why. Likewise, if a boat doesn’t have adequate mooring lines or fenders, the marina will point this out to the owner. Once the storm has passed, you should get a call to let you know all is well, just to put your mind at rest.
Unwilling as you may be to leave your pride and joy as the skies darken, don’t be tempted to stay aboard. Boats and kit are replaceable, lives are not. Prepare as best you can, take photos down below and on deck to record your meticulous preparations and an inventory of kit should the worst happen – then lock her up and leave. If you live a long way from where you boat is located, think about finding someone local who, for a modest stipend, can keep an eye on your boat and act on your behalf.
Draw up your storm preparation plans and your man on the dock can execute them, keep an eye on her and let you know how she fared afterwards.