As Hurricane Jose passes by us in the Chesapeake Bay, we need to find ourselves a safe anchorage. The hurricane is passing by offshore, but the effects of its massive low pressure system can be felt for miles!
The eye of the storm is only 4*W of our current position, and at our latitude, that comes out to be roughly 206nm away. This is by no means the equivalent of getting slammed by the hurricane, but the winds in the area surrounding it will be significant. We need to seek safe harbor to wait out this massive storm!
Our options as cruisers are the following:
1. Tie up in a marina
2. Anchor in a protected anchorage
3. Sail it!
Tying up in a marina may be the preferred choice for most boaters, as you have the security of tying up to a fixed object. The problem with this is we would be arriving new to the marina and tying up blindly to the structure we encounter. We would be considered a transient yacht, and placed in whatever slip is available. This may entail being in a narrow slip that will bang up your top sides as the storm rages over, or being set on a Tee-Head where the side of your yacht will be pummeled into the pier!
The worst thing about a new marina is you don't know the condition of the marina. The wooden piling you tie to might look find from the outside, but they could be completely eaten away by worms. As your yacht puts pressure on the wooden structure, the piling could snap off! If you have been in a marina for a long time, you would have come to learn its tricks and know how to safely tie up for a storm.
The next problem with marinas during severe storms is that they are subjected to the tides. If the storm floods the waterway you are in, the marina could go underwater! You would need to let your docklines out at the water rises to avoid them getting too tight. If the water is sucked away by the approaching storm, you could find yourself stuck on the bottom for days until the water flows back in.
Back in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy came through, I hauled out Wisdom at the only marina that had space left to haul out. The travel lift slip was 10 feet deep and we drew 6.5 feet. Getting out of the water was no problem, the real dilemma came after the storm! As Hurricane Sandy passed by, she drained the bay of its water, lowering the depth in the travel lift slip do 4 feet! It took nearly 2 weeks for the water to flow back into the creek where the marina was located so that I could be launched again.
As cruisers on a budget, getting stuck on the bottom in a marina slip for days after the storm has passed means we would need to pay for all of those days. Every day that passes could be anywhere from $45 to $90 a day, depending on the transient rate at the marina.
The second option is to anchor in a protected area. This is certainly cheaper than tying up in a marina, but a bit of a gamble. Anchorages can either save or destroy your boat, and the outcome depends completely upon your preparation and selection.
The first thing you want is an empty anchorage. If there are other boats around you, especially upwind from you, you may have to deal with unwanted situations.
The second thing you want to look for is the right water depth. Too deep will require too much anchor rode just to reach the bottom. Too shallow and you may hit bottom in the troughs of the waves. I prefer an anchorage that is 16 feet deep, because that gives us 10 feet under our keel.
The third thing you want is a good bottom that the anchor can dig deeply into. The ideal bottom condition depends on the anchor you are carrying. We have a Mantus anchor, which works best in sand and mud. If you have the option available to you, try to find a bottom that is soft mud covering hard mud. What happens is the anchor will sink deep under the soft mud, giving it plenty of holding power. As it gets to the bottom of the soft layer, it will be perfectly oriented to penetrate the hard bottom below. Soft bottoms can hold well, but they can also allow the anchor to creep through it. A hard bottom will lock the anchor in place and stop it from dragging. Having a soft layer above the hard layer ensures that the anchor will not slide along the surface of the hard layer, causing you to drag anchor as you careen onto a lee shore!
The fourth thing you want is plenty of room to swing. This requires a large open area where you can swing around as the wind shifts. If there is a wreck, landmass, or other boat in the way of a full circle swing, you may encounter that obstacle during the storm so it would behoove you to move to a different anchorage.
The last thing you want to find is 360* land coverage, and preferably tall land. High land, especially cliffs will shield you from the wind, as the land itself shields you from waves. If you have any exposure to a larger body of water, huge waves can come in created by the greater fetch. Obviously, having enough swing room means that the area will be wide open, so you will still experience some wind-related issues.
Finding this perfect place while out cruising can be challenging. Sometimes you will need to make a compromise and anchor in a less than ideal location.
We were lucky to find this place as it offered all the needed criteria and was completely empty! The depth in the entire basin is 16 feet deep and made out of soft mud over hard sand!
While this anchorage may seem like a dream come true, the truth is we were very fortunate to find it and get into it in a timely manner.
We were safely anchored in another river, but decided that it might be fun to go sailing today since the winds in the river (where we were very protected) were rather light. A friend of ours who was sailing further north in the bay told us that the winds were rather light today and the seas were only 1 foot tall. The thing is, we were much closer to the passing storm, so our winds were amplified, as was the sea state!
This brings us to our thrid option, "Sail It!" The bay is rather small, so heaving to for the entire storm isn't very practically as you will probably drift into an obstacle before the storm passes. If the winds are blowing you in the direction of travel that you wish to take, you could always run before the storm to get to safe harbor and wait for it to pass.
We went out in what we expected to be rather light conditions, only to have ourselves beaten into submission! We had a reeked sailplan up, just in case the winds would be stronger than expected, and then we met the full fury of the storm. The winds were a steady 27 knots with gusts into the 30s and waves that required us to look up at the crests! Our original destination was slightly to windward and we quickly changed our minds and ran downwind as we searched for a new place to stop.
Luckily, all this wind gave us an incredible boost of speed! We cruised along at around 6 and 7 knots the entire way, making a 20 mile away destination seem much closer. From anchor up to anchor down, we were only moving for 6 hours, and only 2 of them were very intense as we ran before the storm. On our run, we searched the upcoming rivers for a place that was deep, protected, and the right kind of bottom.
I figured the sailing would be intense as I was raising anchor, but the winds were blowing the same direction we wanted to be going. What only took a few hours of sailing in the storm would have been the equivalent of 2 days of beating to windward during normal weather. The lack of anchorages between these two places meant that we would have needed to spend a night anchored out in the middle of the bay, completely exposed to the ever changing weather of the bay.
Sailiing it might seem like a fun idea at first, but I strongly recommend against it. Going out in a gale to run before the storm is extremely tiring and taxing on the yacht and the crew. Maddie was fighting off motion sickness as I had to steer us through each massive wave that tried to broach us. This was fine for a few hours during the day, but imagine if this was your plan to ride out a storm that is supposed to last 3 days?! You would die from fatigue out there!
Cruising means that you have to be on a sailboat when the weather is far from optimum, but it also means knowing how to prepare for severe weather in a safe manner.