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Hurricanes For Mariners
When the word hurricane comes to mind, it draws up images of death and destruction. To a sailor these images become more threatening when they think of all their most precious assets vulnerable and at the mercy of the storm.
Marine Safety

Mariners are faced with a significant challenge when formulating an effective plan to protect their most cherished property. Despite valiant efforts, many mariners have lost their boats to the ravaging effects of the storm, especially when they have to rely on mooring for protection.

However, whether at sea or in port, mariners must follow certain guidelines to ensure the safety of themselves and their crewmembers.

Although research and technology have increased our understanding of hurricanes, we still have trouble predicting the movement and intensity, two very important factors in survival along the coast. Since we can’t prevent the threat of hurricanes, we can only reduce certain risks by listening closely to updated weather reports so that sailors can fully evaluate the situation and make the best possible navigating decisions.















First, one must understand that there are certain areas in the North Atlantic that are prone to hurricane development and the tracks that they follow.

Knowledge of these locations is extremely important, especially during hurricane season, in order to keep a safe distance away from an active system.

There are two factors in particular that mariners should be aware of:

1)    Hurricanes depend on warm water for their strength (26+ degrees Celsius). Ocean regions with sea-surface temperatures equal to or greater than this can rapidly intensify a developing cell. Two of the most dangerous regions prone to warm surface temperatures are the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Stream.

2)    The second danger that the Gulf Stream places on sailors is very steep, short period waves caused by the interaction of ocean current with hurricane winds. When high winds from tropical storms or those from a hurricane come into contact with opposing ocean currents, navigation becomes extremely difficult.

Rules Of Thumb

When a tropical storm or hurricane has become active, it is important for mariners to follow a few key rules to keep themselves safe and take into consideration the errors in hurricane prediction.

1) 34 KT Rule

Avoid operating your vessel in the vicinity of the 34-KT (knots) wind field, meaning stay well outside this given radius. Maneuverability decreases significantly as sea states reach critical levels at and above this given value of 34 KT.

Sailors should also realize that waters outside this region are dangerous enough to limit navigation and speed of the vessel. Maintaining an even larger radius around the 34-KT zone keeps you well out of harms way and gives you much more time to react if the storm turns in your direction.

2) 1-2-3 Rule

Known as the single most important rule, understanding the use of this technique should be mandatory for all vessel operators. The reason why it is so important is that it takes into account forecasting track errors (FTE), which are unfortunately unavoidable with our knowledge at present.

Although it was developed for use in the North Atlantic, it can also be applied to other areas of hurricane risk. 

Similar to the 34 KT rule, the 1-2-3 Rule establishes a minimum recommended distance from a hurricane.

1 = 100 mile error radius for 24 hr forecast

2 = 200 mile error radius for 48 hr forecast

3 = 300 mile error radius for 72 hr forecast

Inexperienced mariners, or vessels with decreased crewmembers are advised to keep an even bigger buffer zone between their ship and the storm, especially during higher uncertainty forecasts. It should also be noted that this rule does not apply to hurricanes that rapidly intensify, expanding their 34 KT wind field outward.

3) Never Cross The T

When a weather report has been issued, including the path that the hurricane is expected to take, appropriate navigation decisions must be made in relation to the hurricane’s movement. An operator must never plan an escape route that crosses the hurricane’s track (crossing the T).

No matter how steady a hurricane might be moving at the present time, a system can quickly accelerate resulting in disaster for the ship trying to cross in front of it.

4) Calculating Closest Point Of Approach (CPA)

In order to maintain a safe distance away from a tropical storm system, one must also know how close they can get to a hurricane before they become entangled in the storm’s wind and waves. It is imperative to obtain the latest official forecasts and to keep assessing the situation along with emergency procedures if the hurricane begins to shift.

While using all the above steps to navigate your vessel out of the path of a hurricane, mariners should never leave themselves with only one option. In the open waters of the Atlantic, this is not so much of a problem, as it is in the confined waters of the Western Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

The easiest way to avoid this is to steer clear of waters with limited maneuverability early on, so you are not trapped as the storm approaches.

Mariners In General

All mariners should take precautions when severe storm or hurricane conditions approach an area. High winds and heavy rains can delay rescue attempts by the Coast guard and other agencies or conditions might be so severe that these services become unavailable.

Due to the uncertainty of weather movements and related draw bridge closures, mariners should make their way through these passages well in advance of the gale force winds, so they are not forced to rely on search services.

Be aware that adverse weather conditions generated by a hurricane can cover an area hundreds of miles wide and that those who are not in the direct path of the storm can find themselves in dangerous situations.

The best thing to keep in mind is that you can always replace a boat, but you can’t replace a life.


Approach Port Or Leave

The decision to leave port or to dock is based on numerous factors that every mariner has to take into consideration, but most importantly, the decision has to be made early! Many times have ships decided to leave port to avoid danger and ended up in disastrous situations because their choice came too late. Mariners should pay attention to the following factors when determining the course of the ship.

1) Time Versus Distance – the risk of damage to a vessel at sea rises dramatically as the motion of a hurricane increases towards the maximum safe speed of the vessel attempting to leave port in advance of that storm. When deciding on safe time/distance measurements, you must also account for stormy weather delaying preparations to leave port. Strong wind and sea conditions can also slow the movement of a ship to safety.

2) Protection Offered By Port – factors such as the direction that the strongest winds are predicted to blow and storm surges must be accounted for when deciding whether to seek shelter at pier side, by anchorage, or further inland for better protected anchorage. Storm surges can temporarily submerge piers and winds can cause boats to break away causing substantial damage to itself or other vessels

3) Hurricane Track Errors And Damage – When judging whether to leave port if it has been anticipated to be hit by the hurricane, one must bare in mind that hurricanes predicted to make a perpendicular landfall have the smallest amount of track error as opposed to systems moving parallel to the coast.

Also, ports that take a direct hit are much more heavily damaged than if a hurricane has to travel over land to hit the port or runs parallel to the vicinity of the port.

Recreational Boats

When a hurricane is reported off the coast, it is wise to begin writing down different options you have if the storm decides to intensify and head your way.

No matter what your plan, you should make sure it is completed before any evacuation notices are issued. By waiting too long, you not only decrease your chances of moving your boat to a safe place, but you also put yourself in a very dangerous situation.

Boaters should be aware that drawbridges are required by law to remain closed when gale force winds of 34 knots or greater approach. Severe storms like this are no place for boaters so be sure to keep in touch with authorities so that you will have access to a port when you need to return.

If your boat can be moved by trailer, you may wish to tow it to a safer location, or store it in your backyard with methods approved by the manufacturer to weigh it down.

The downside of storing your boat outdoors is that while filling the hull with water might prevent it from being thrown about, it doesn’t stop trees or other debris falling on it.

If however, you’ve decided to leave your boat in the harbour, contact marina operators who are the most knowledgeable and can advise you on the best methods for securing your boat.

The one thing boaters must never do is to take their vessels out to sea and ride out the storm. Most boats are not designed to withstand the large sea waves and high winds generated by these severe storms.

Furthermore, navigation becomes treacherous as buoys can be moved about or destroyed by these storms. It is therefore important that mariners keep up to date on the weather and plan their activities accordingly.

After The Storm

Once the hurricane has passed over, you must wait to retrieve your boat until authorities have declared it safe to return.

Once you are allowed back into the harbour, assess the damage and avoid placing yourself in danger trying to get to your boat. Never try to reach your boat if it has been forced into the water and is surrounded by debris. Instead, wait until authorities have made safe access available and be sure to seek professional help when salvaging or retrieving a partially sunken boat.