Surviving Sandy: Seamanship Tips For Weathering Hurricanes

Sometimes you end up in less than optimal situations no matter how you try to plan. We had been keeping an eye on Sandy for about a week when we pulled into Portsmouth, Virginia, one of our favorite stops along the ICW.
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Sometimes you end up in less than optimal situations no matter how you try to plan for contingencies. This was the case for us when Hurricane Sandy struck. We had been keeping an eye on the storm for about a week when we pulled into Portsmouth, Virginia, one of our favorite stops along the Intracoastal Waterway. All indications were that it would be another late-season storm that would remain offshore causing little more than some rain and a couple of breezy days.

That all changed a couple of days later when we found ourselves preparing for a serious storm tied to a fixed municipal dock with short pilings. One lesson we learned in past storms was that it is best to be safely anchored than at a dock. But as we began hearing about filled places we feared that all safe harbors would be taken, and leaving would cause us to lose the secure spot we had, so we began planning for the worst.

This photo, taken before the brunt of Hurricane Sandy, shows the web of lines securing aCapella and other boats at Portsmouth.

This photo, taken before the brunt of Hurricane Sandy, shows the web of lines securing aCapella and other boats at Portsmouth.

On the positive side, we were well protected from the winds on most every side by high buildings. The other boat owners sharing the basin were experienced cruisers—one from Australia, one from France, and one who was completing a circumnavigation from San Francisco (going around the long way). We had great trust in the boats that we would share this event with.

We were not too concerned about the winds and had confidence in our fellow boater's abilities. The real danger would come from the storm surge, which was predicted to put us at the limits of the pilings we were tied to, coupled with a westerly shift in the wind that would push us toward, and perhaps, on top of those low pilings. Both the wind shift and storm surge were predicted to happen at the same time.

The problem to overcome was how to best keep our boat away from the pilings and off the wall should we be lifted above them.

CRISSCROSSING LINES

After consulting with the other boats in the basin, we each began crisscrossing lines to the far pilings to hopefully hold the boats away from the nearby pilings when the wind shifted. Some of the sailboats dropped anchors in the basin, which is charted at 16 feet deep at mean low water. Being the only trawler in the basin with four sailboats, aCappella was offering the largest windage and was the only boat positioned to have the wind pushing directly onto the pilings during the surge. Our 10-foot-high bow and the expected 5-foot storm surge at high tide gave us an effective height of 33 feet higher than the basin floor. Given the fact that the basin was only 110 feet wide, we would not have enough anchorline scope for reliable storm protection. Another way had to be found.

This sketch shows the locations of the vessels riding out Hurricane Sandy at Portsmouth basin. Note the use of anchor rode to keep aCapella away from pilings.

This sketch shows the locations of the vessels riding out Hurricane Sandy at Portsmouth basin. Note the use of anchor rode to keep aCapella away from pilings.

We had used six spare lines to tie us to the wall. We were fortunate that in addition to the pilings we had huge cleats designed to hold the Norfolk/Portsmouth ferry. The cleats provided several advantages. First, they were outrageously large and cemented into the wall. In addition, they allowed us to strongly cleat off the lines rather than depend on lines that could slip off the low pilings as our hull rose with the rising water level.

To hold us away from the wall, we strung our spare anchor rode to hold the stern off. About 80 feet was let out, consisting of 15 feet of chain followed by heavy line. The chain would keep the line wrapped securely around the piling. We were concerned about the stretching of line and took every opportunity to pull in the line whenever we had an easterly component wind during this prep time. If I were ever designing a trawler, I’d plan for a couple of winches in the stern corners for this eventuality. It would have helped greatly.

For the bow, we decided to use the anchor chain from our main anchor to hold us off. This would give us more strength and less stretch than a line. Even moderate stretch across 110 feet of the basin would be unacceptable. The problem was stringing the heavy 3/8-inch chain across the basin, securing it, and then pulling it tight enough to hold us off.

Stringing it was a laborious and dirty job but really pretty simple. The chain was disconnected from the anchor and ferried across in the dinghy to an opposite piling. Now the chain needed to be pulled tight. We wanted the chain held off the bottom to ensure a constant pull away from the pilings close to the boat. The catenary effect would act as a spring but the more we could pull in, the more securely we’d be held off the wall.

As Hurricane Sandy passes, storm surge and tide combine to raise the water levels.

As Hurricane Sandy passes, storm surge and tide combine to raise the water levels.

ON TO PLAN B

The original plan was to use the anchor winch back on the boat to pull the chain in. Unfortunately, the 90-degree angle of the chain would not allow it to work. So we needed a Plan B. We love having Plan Bs.

Several years ago we realized that should our davit break we had no backup means of lowering the dinghy. So we purchased an emergency block and tackle at a hardware store rated to lift the dinghy weight and stored it on the flybridge. Being from Maine, the block was designed to hang a 1,500-lb. deer or moose from a tree—more than enough to launch our dinghy. It also had a 3/8-inch chain hook on each side making it seem custom made for our trawler. Fortunately, we have never needed to use it with the dinghy. We pulled it out of the packaging and set it up. The operative sentence being, "We pulled it out of the packaging."

This chart illustrates the change in water levels throughout the storm.

This chart illustrates the change in water levels throughout the storm.

This was not the time to learn how to use the block and tackle. We should have tested and used the part long before the need occurred. But this was the hand we were dealt and the lesson commenced.

We tied a line to a large concrete street barrier and run to within 20 feet of the piling where the chain was attached. The block and tackle was put between that line and the chain. The procedure was to reach out into the water to attach the chain hook to the chain. The block and tackle could easily pull in the few hundred pounds of weight. Another chain hook would lock the chain once some was pulled in by the block and tackle. The hook on the block would then be re-deployed further out on the chain. Over and over this was done to pull in a good 40 feet of chain that had been draped across the basin floor. We knew we were doing a good job when we could see the chain change the angle where it was leaving the boat.

In the end, we had 123 feet of chain strung across 110 feet of basin with 8 feet of side bow height. The bow had been pulled about 5 feet away from the wall, so theoretically, we couldn't land the bow on top of the pilings if the water rose substantially. Extra water height would also straighten out the chain holding us off even more—theoretically.

We were reminded of a Yogi Berra quote, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” We assured ourselves we had done everything possible, and now it was Sandy's turn at bat.

The Monday morning high tide combined with the storm surge created a predicted total height of 7 feet (see chart). That would give us a foot of piling exposure and would be quite dangerous. Thankfully, the predictions were a little aggressive, and we ended up with 2 feet of piling exposure at peak surge. The anchor chain and line held us well off the pilings and wall even with the stronger westerly winds pushing us toward the wall. In this lucky trial, theory won and gave us some additional experience that we hope we'll never have to use, although next time, we'll be better prepared.

During the worst part of the storm, the water nearly tops the dock pilings.

During the worst part of the storm, the water nearly tops the dock pilings.

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