Sailboat Sailing on Water Near Island

Fear is what I feel. I’m scared. My husband, Simon, is also scared although he doesn’t admit it as much as I do. Hurricane Matthew is less than a week away and reports predict a path heading up the east coast of America. Our home, a 56’ sailboat named Britican is currently docked at a marina in Charleston, South Carolina with a clear view of the Atlantic Ocean. Protected by land, we are not.

Currently Matthew is a Category 5 hurricane with 140mph winds heading north in the Caribbean.

Waiting for a hurricane

Chances are that the hurricane will lose strength but based on latest reports we’re expecting possible 90mhp winds by the time he reaches us.

Tropical storm Hermine, a hurricane that eventually downgraded to a tropical storm, hit us last month with winds topping out around 50 to 60mph (Check out the article and video, Preparing our boat for a hurricane for our first tropical storm experience). There was wind, rain a tiny bit of thunder and lightening. On a few occasions we had to adjust a line or push a popped up fender back between the boat and the dock. Overall, however, the conditions weren’t too bad. Some boats had minor damage, but what frightened me was the destruction of parts of Pontoon A at the marina (we’re on Pontoon B). If the marina starts to break up, what control as boat owners do we have?

Surely people with homes get nervous when the report of a potentially destructive hurricane is on its way.

Homeowners, however, have no choice about what to do other than, ‘do we stay at the house,’ or ‘do we evacuate.’ If the forecast is looking particularly grim, government or state led officials will enforce a full evacuation anyway.

For a boat owner, however, we have choices. We can move our house. We can choose to stay in a marina, have the boat hulled out and put on land, set sail to potentially get out of the hurricane’s path or we can find a river, head inland as much as possible and anchor the boat. No matter what we do, we’ll be praying. If we choose to anchor, we then have to choose whether to stay on the boat or get off. With little certainty about anything, we have some potentially difficult decisions to make.

If the hurricane is above a Category 1, it’s highly likely that our marina will not survive.

Our boat is tied to a floating finger pontoon. The pontoons are floating cement structures anchored to the sea floor by more cement and thick chains. With enough disturbances, the chains will break, the docks will separate and the marina will essentially float away.

Our best bet, while surveying the situation based on today’s weather report, is to start considering a trip up the Cooper River. As long as the depth is enough to accommodate our 7.5’ draft (depth that the keel of the boat sits below the water), we can travel up the river, navigate through as many bends as possible and find a cove that allows for a 360 swing. With the cyclical nature of hurricanes, once anchored we’ll have to assume that the storm will potentially have wind hitting us from all directions eventually; we’ll need to be able to completely swing on our anchor without touching bottom.

But once we anchor, do we stay with the boat?

I suppose there has to come a point when the forecast either predicts weather that warrants an evacuation or it doesn’t. If we need to leave the boat, we’ll do so by using our tender…but where do we go? And what do we do with our tender and outboard?

I think the issue I’m struggling with most is that I’d rather stay in the marina where I feel ‘safe’ amongst other boats. However, if the forecast is correct I have high doubts about the structural integrity of these floating pontoons. Our neighbor, Ron, a seasoned live aboard, has been extremely helpful with discussions on various options. He’s lived through hurricanes – he knows the drill. I’m thankful and grateful that we have someone with wisdom nearby…but of course…

…I don’t know what I don’t know and that freaks me out.

If we motor up river, what if we can’t find a place to spin on our anchor? What if it’s too shallow? What if conditions get bad and I have to take our daughter to a safe location…and Simon requests to stay on board alone? What if the boat ends up 20 miles on land in someone’s living room? What if…?

Throughout our five-year sailing history, of which 2 ½ years have been full time, we’ve encountered a variety of storms. Heck, we’ve sailed through three Force 10 storms (to put that in context, I think Force 12 is hurricane – Force 10 is bad) and have experienced waterspouts, lightening and thunder, hail and torrential downpours. At marina’s, we’ve worked hard to protect our boat when major storms hit…Once, one of the cleats from the dock pulled right out. We quickly managed to use another cleat and no damage occurred.

We’ve lived through storms. We’ve got that t-shirt. When forced to endure a storm we have the confidence to know we’ll most likely survive. What we haven’t lived through, however, is a full blown hurricane. And frankly, I don’t feel the need to gain that experience now or ever.


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