Liveaboards tempt fate in the path of Irma

While Floridians wait anxiously for the arrival of Irma, the Caribbean has already felt her wrath. The damage has been extreme, leaving some island communities all but flattened. Entire villages are torn apart, marinas have become indistinguishable, and hundreds of boats lie wrecked along the shores. The devastation is overwhelming according to the limited communications received from those who stayed.

For the liveaboard and cruising communities that congregate in these picturesque island communities the loss of a boat is the loss of a home, a dream, a retirement, and a substantial investment. Charter boat operators, large and small, will have to start from scratch, likely missing out on the coming winter’s busy season. Though the value of human life is far greater than property, whether ashore or afloat, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to face such a storm.

We are lucky in the Northeast that we rarely encounter these powerful hurricanes. Perhaps we’ve made a deal with the devil in exchange for brutal winters. Yet even this far North, it is worthwhile to consider how to prepare.

I presented the question recently to the Maine Sailing and Cruising Facebook group, curious how local mariners would treat a hurricane bound for the Northeast coast. The consensus was quite clear that depending on the severity of the storm, the options would range from anchoring in a protected hurricane hole with heavy ground tackle to hauling out and strapping the boat down to the ground.

Like the rest of the country I’ve been watching the news coverage, and I’ve seen countless interviews with people choosing to hold their ground despite the evacuation orders. Among them have been a few liveaboards, choosing to ride out the storm on their boat. I must say that this decision seems exceedingly foolhardy to me. And before you accuse me of judging from afar, please keep in mind that I have a lifetime of experience on or around the ocean, a degree in marine transportation, a boat which I live aboard, and a career as merchant mariner.

There are many storms I’d be willing to ride out, possibly even a smaller hurricane. Never would I test my fate with one of the most powerful storms ever recorded. The people interviewed spew the same garbage you hear from many overconfident mariners, “The boat is made for riding out storms.” “It will float up with the storm surge.” “I’ve been through many storms before!”

Check out this story on CNN!

I sincerely hope that I am wrong in saying this, but the small (relatively) fiberglass boats tied up in packed marinas and anchorages seen behind the interviewees do not stand a chance against 150 mph winds, 10 feet of storm surge, and violent waves. Something is eventually going to give. It doesn’t matter how many lines you put out, because it only takes one poorly secured boat to start a chain reaction.

No matter how tough you think you are, there is absolutely no way to control or secure a boat once it has broken loose in a hurricane. Which leads me to my main question: what is accomplished by staying aboard? Caught in the midst of a hurricane, surrounded by hazards, with no proactive means of self preservation is hardly a recipe for survival.

The most sensible thing to do is to treat a boat like you would a home. Prepare to the best of your ability, and evacuate. It’s not heroic to ride out a category five hurricane at a marina, it’s silly and reckless. The desire to protect property, whether a boat or a home, is instinctual and understandable, but it won’t be of much use to you when you are dead.

To all those in the path of the storm, stay safe. To all those who’ve left their beloved property behind, good luck. And for all of the boaters here in the Northeast, let’s take this opportunity to come up with a hurricane plan of our own.

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.