Hurricane Preparation and Aftermath, Hurricane Irma

Forgive me for making such a long blog post this time. I have a lot to say about our hurricane preparation for Hurricane Irma. ~ Tom

hurricane preparation for Hurricane Irma
Hurricane preparation in the mangroves

We live on our Endeavour 43 sailboat, Pearl Lee, so we keep a close eye on tropical weather systems. Watching Hurricane Irma since well before she was a hurricane was almost a hobby for us. As she strengthened we became more concerned.

Since Hurricane Irma looked most likely to go up the eastern seaboard, our concern was mostly for friends in her projected path. Boot Key Harbor was expected to be effected, but due to distance, was predicted to get only tropical storm force winds. We were prepared to stay on our mooring with just a bit of hurricane preparation. Knowing that food and water might be hard to get immediately after the storm, we stocked Pearl Lee accordingly.

On Monday, September 4 the computer models changed drastically. Suddenly Hurricane Irma was headed right for us! We thought about it all day as we anxiously checked every update. By the end of the day we made the decision to activate our hurricane preparation plan.

To understand hurricane preparation, you should understand a bit about hurricanes. Damage from hurricanes is by two modes, wind and water. Wind force goes up exponentially with velocity. Doubling velocity, results in 10 times the force, and reports for Hurricane Irma at this stage were in the 150 mph range. That’s 100 times the force of 37 mph wind! Storm surge is caused by the wind and low pressure, making artificial tides that can be far higher, or lower, than normal. I have read that after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, all of the keys were under water due to a 20 foot storm surge. Wind driven waves can also be immense. Because hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise the direction of the wind depends which side of the storm you’re in, and will change as the storm moves. Pearl Lee is a good, strong boat, but even aircraft carriers avoid major hurricanes.

With the help of our friend Jeremy, who drove down from Fort Lauderdale, we began hurricane preparation on Tuesday, September 5. The entire harbor was abuzz with activity, as many prepared for Hurricane Irma’s arrival. Here’s a run down of what we did, and why:

  • We removed all sails. I believe this was essential to saving the boat, and the sails. Even a furled sail, or a sail cover can represent a lot of drag with hurricane force winds. Many damaged boats litter the harbor with remnants of tattered sails still blowing in the wind.
  • Our solar panels were all removed. Being horizontal, our solar panels don’t catch much wind, but in a hurricane the boat will sometimes be sideways to the wind. At that point she’ll heel (lean) allowing wind to catch those big flat surfaces.
  • Canvas and frames were removed. By now you’re getting the idea. Even the one inch tubing of our dodger and bimini frames can add significant load during hurricane strength wind.
  • We removed both booms. Not a problem with a head wind, but we knew Pearl Lee would get hit with some side wind.
  • All running rigging (ropes), were taken off to reduce windage. We kept the running backstays, feeling the extra support for the masts was more important.
  • We moved Pearl Lee to our predetermined hurricane hole. With our 5’6″ draft we were somewhat limited in our choices. I picked a 90 degree corner in a canal for the best possible wind protection. A narrow canal that you can tie to both sides of would be better, but we didn’t have that option here.
  • We tied into the mangroves with seven lines, each from a different hard point on the boat and going to different mangroves. Spreading the load is important. All lines were a minimum of 50′ long to allow for storm surge, and each was tied with a bowline knot around several large roots.
  • Of course we  used chafe protection on all lines. We had a few bits of fire hose, but also used 3/4″ garden hose. Both did their job effectively. We had no visible chafe on our lines. That may have been because Pearl Lee was pushed into the mangroves most of the time.
  • We set bow and stern anchors to help hold us off the mangroves and land. More would have been better, but time and materials didn’t allow it. We had the anchors but not enough rope.
  • Since our topping lifts attach at the mastheads, we wrapped a halyard several times around mast and topping lift to keep everything secure.
  • Cleared the deck of everything that could become a projectile. We both gave the deck a final walk before leaving, making sure everything that could be removed was, and everything else was secure.
  • We closed through hulls to minimize chances of sinking. Anything can happen.  Through hulls are big valves that let water in or out for drains, engine cooling, etc. Closing these simply removes some catastrophic possibilities.
  • The refrigerator was emptied and turned it off to preserve battery power for our bilge pumps. We actually turned off power to everything except our bilge pumps for two reasons. Fire safety in the case of water getting in or wires chafing, and to give our pumps the best chance of running until our return if necessary.
  • We stored our dinghies in the concrete marina building. If we hadn’t had this very convenient option, we would have filled them water, sinking them for later retrieval.
This aerial photo was our first evidence of Pearl Lee’s condition after the storm.

It was a lot of work, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking THIS could be the detail that saves Pearl Lee from Hurricane Irma. At about noon on Wednesday, September 6 we left Pearl Lee hoping we had done enough, and for some luck, as we headed to safety in Alabama with Jeremy’s family.

Friends and family supported us the whole time, offering their homes and any other help they could. It was truly incredible. We are truly blessed to know such wonderful people.

On Sunday, September 10 our hurricane preparation was put to the ultimate test. Hurricane Irma hit the keys as a Category 4 storm about 25 miles WSW of Boot Key Harbor. The most dangerous NE quadrant of her eye wall grazed Boot Key Harbor with winds near 150 mph. She was the most powerful storm to hit the Keys in half a century.

Each number represents a mooring that had a boat attached before the storm.

Here is a picture showing the part of the mooring field that Pearl Lee is normally in, after the storm. Each number represents a mooring, and they were all full before the storm. Unfortunately the boat that occupied “our” mooring is gone.

Our second Pearl Lee sighting came when NOAA released satellite images of the area.

So, how’d we do? Approximately 80% of the boats in Boot Key Harbor were total losses. Many of our friends and neighbors, on water and land, lost everything. Pearl Lee survived with no structural damage. Pearl Lee’s port side has a lot of paint rubbed off from the mangroves Hurricane Irma pushed her against. A mangrove branch punched out a portlight (window) in our head (bathroom) and damaged the headliner. A lifeline stanchion was ripped out by pushing against the mangroves as our boat heeled (leaned)in the wind. Our bow mounted fender holders were bent, but repairable. One was ripped off and found six feet away on a mangrove branch. We found scuffs of her bottom paint on mangrove branches five feet above the water. All in all, I’ll give us a B+.

We broadcast live video of our return to our Facebook friends. You can see that video here.

Here are some things I think we did right:

  • We had a hurricane preparation plan in advance. We made our plans when we were calm and had plenty of time. Part of that was scouting out locations, so we knew where to find shelter and enough water depth.
  •  Once our decision was made we didn’t look to see what everyone else was doing. Confident in our plans and abilities, we moved ahead rather than relying on group think.
  • We were educated, if inexperienced. Literally decades of research, plus talking to hurricane survivors gave us the confidence to make a plan and stick to it, regardless of what those around us were doing. Still, imagine how we felt doing things we’d never done before that we hoped would save our home.
  • We weren’t concerned with overkill. After a hurricane, no one ever says “I wish I hadn’t done so much hurricane preparation.”
  • I was scared. Fear is a great motivator, and I think it was an asset. We didn’t bother listening to the people saying it wouldn’t amount to much, we acted quickly and thoroughly to save our home.

Just after climbing aboard I made this short video of the apparent damage. We had not yet found the broken port, and the port side of Pearl Lee was still against the mangroves.

As for lessons learned, we have a few.

  • Pack your bags before taking the boat apart. Once we stuffed all the equipment from above deck down below, it became nearly impossible to access the things we needed.
  • Ditto for the through hulls. I’m also going to tie open four that are attached to our cockpit drains. In my haste, I closed one of those.
  • Keep our bottom and prop clean, even if we don’t plan to move. Ours was a bit fouled, and that can limit how far we can move the boat as well as effect our maneuvering ability.
  • We need more rope! We lost a couple 50′ dock lines over the last year, and I was slow in replacing them. I won’t let that happen again.
  • I’ll buy and set up spare anchor rodes (ropes) ready for our spare anchors. This would have allowed us to set a couple more anchors. That might have saved us some paint, or maybe not.
  • Our two bow anchors have 5/16″ chain making them very hard to set out with the dinghy due to weight.  I really need to be set them from the mother ship before we tie in.
Untieing lines deep in the mangroves.

We also learned that we are “abnormal” enough that government agencies can’t understand us. While we are self contained, making our own power, and with water and cooking gas for a month or more the county commissioners refused to let us back in until utilities were restored. This was nerve wracking, due to possibilities of damage that needed immediate attention, and looting. They finally let us, and all Marathon residents, back in a week after the storm. Five days after FDOT said the roads and bridges were passable.

Unfortunately at least one family lost their home/boat when it sank at their dock after the storm, but before they were allowed to return, due to no power to run the bilge pumps.

Questions we’ve been asked:

  • Why didn’t we take Pearl Lee and run? That’s pretty simple. Hurricane Irma was a giant storm, hundreds of miles wide. All of Florida was within her possible path. Anywhere we ran, we risked running right into her teeth, and in unfamiliar territory at that. Pearl Lee goes about 7 mph, and at that point Hurricane Irma was traveling at 15 mph. Outrunning the storm just wasn’t possible.
  • How did you know where to put Pearl Lee? We made plans months ago. Kristi (Keg) and I spent a day exploring by dinghy, checking depths and scouting out locations. This way we knew exactly where we wanted to put Pearl Lee in the Boot Key Harbor area. We also identified backup spots in case someone beat us to our first choice. We even scouted some sites near Key Largo and a couple on the mainland.
  • Why didn’t you stay on your mooring? That’s a good question since Boot Key Harbor is the best protected anchorage in the keys, and the moorings here are hella strong. The answer is simply, other boats. With hundreds of boats moored, anchored and docked here, every one of them had the potential to break loose and turn into a battering ram. They can then break other boats free to be more battering rams. In fact, that type of chain reaction is exactly what happened, destroying boats and docks.
  • If you had a do over, would you change your hurricane preparation? Apart from the lessons learned (above), no. I’m satisfied that we did the right thing. Hurricane survival requires a bit of luck, but with good hurricane preparation, I still believe you can put the odds in your favor.

Here’s a video, shot by friends, showing what Boot Key Harbor suffered. Keep in mind that most of these boats represent someone’s home, hopes and dreams. As you can see, our damage is comparatively trivial.


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