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Direct Hit: Experienced Captains Share Lessons of Hurricane Preparedness and Survival

By far the most powerful storms on Earth, hurricanes expend so much energy that they can be measured in terms of atomic explosions. According to hurricane expert Dr. Kerry Emanual of MIT, Irma, the Category 5 hurricane that leveled the Caribbean and parts of South Florida and the Florida Keys in 2017, generated the equivalent energy of seven atomic explosions (420 trillion joules) every minute. Before tapering off, the storm unleashed twice the energy of all the bombs dropped during WWII. And then there was Hurrican Dorian, a disaster of monumental proportions, with 200 miles-per-hour sustained winds, leaving a trail of unprecedented destruction in its wake. Although storms like Irma and Dorian proved to be unusually powerful, many experts believe that these mega-hurricanes will become more common in the future if global temperatures continue to rise. Heat and water vapor fuel hurricanes, so, unfortunately, these storms frequent the same latitudes as billfish, especially during the summer months. This connection means that both marlin fishing and hurricane dodging go hand-in-hand throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

A view of the Treasure Key Marina in the immediate aftermath of Dorian. Photo courtesy Tim Bright

The relationship is so strong that insurance companies place certain restrictions on where and when you can visit certain latitudes without having a hurricane plan and/or paying and additional fee. Most insurance companies use The Box as the demarcation lines of the hurricane zone. For insurance purposes, the box uses the following coordinates: North of 12 degrees 40 minutes North, West of 55 degrees West, South of 35 degrees North, and West of 110 degrees West. This box stretches from the middle of Texas to Bermuda at the top, and from south of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to just offshore and a bit south of Acapulco, Mexico in the Pacific on the bottom. Hurricane season runs from the end of June through November, which is the perfect time to hunt blue marlin in the Carolinas, Bahamas, the Gulf Coast, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and all the other Caribbean hot spots. Cost for additional hurricane coverage can be a bit on the expensive side, sometimes as much as an additional 15 percent, but it a lot less than the cost of replacing a boat. While insurance might protect your investment from a hurricane in the worst-case scenario, it takes a knowledgeable, experienced captain to keep your vessel out of harm way in the first place. If you cant get out of the way, a professional captain is the best way to ensure the great care needed to protect the boat and limit the damage if a fast-moving storm makes getting out the way far too dangerous. The following captains either recently went through a hurricane or have ridden them out in the past¦youd be wise to follow their advice.

Devastation sustained on the Overseas Railroad in the Florida Keys during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

Capt. Chuck Moore | Charleston, South Carolina

A long-time captain and professional mate based out of Charleston, South Carolina, Capt. Chuck Moore has seen his share of hurricanes, the biggest being the category four monster, Hugo, that wrecked his home state in 1989. I stayed for Hugo, but I was a young man then. I have a family now, and Ill never ride another one out. If another one like Hugo comes to Charleston it going to wipe out a lot of stuff we have grown so much since then, says Moore. For Moore, who now runs the 50-foot Custom Carolina Boat, Artemis, this large boating population means that you need to start making preparations for hauling out well before any warnings. There are a lot more people and a lot of new boats. Those new people panic early so if you wait until the warning you can be too late if you dont have a slip reserved. Luckily my new owner owns the boatyard, but if he didnt wed be sure to have a guaranteed haul-out agreement signed with a marina. Our insurance even pays for the haul out. They want you out of the water. Moore says he watches every storm that forms in the Caribbean and once they start predicting landfall ten days out, he starts making initial preparations to haul out just in case. Ive waited too late in the past and had to take one up into the Cooper River and tie off onto the old dolphin pilings. Ive ridden a few out, lost a couple of outriggers. During Hugo I remember seeing the swing bridge spinning like a top as we were bringing people back. I will never stay for another one, says Moore. Even little storms can be dangerous. If you think you might need to take the curtains down, the answer is yes, says Moore. And remember, once you leave town, a lot of times there aint no coming back. Plan on being away from the boat for at least several days. If you cant haul out and need to stay in your slip make sure you have plenty of rope. If you think you need another rope¦you need two. Make sure to check the cleats as well. Most people dont think to take a good look at what they are tying off to a bad cleat can rip right out.

What was left of a dry storage facility in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Capt. Rand Clark | Rockport, Texas

Hurricane Harvey meandered through the Gulf of Mexico during the last days of August in 2017 before making a sudden turn and strengthening dramatically. Harvey became a hurricane on August 24¦two days later it had morphed into a Category 4. That day, August 26, Harvey came ashore at San Jose Island, just east of Rockport, Texas. It was the first major hurricane to make landfall in the United States since Wilma in 2005 and the first Category 4 storm to hit the Texas coast since Carla in 1961. Unfortunately, Capt. Rand Clark was on the 55-foot Viking, Bleu Sky, at that time and he got a front row seat to the devastation a category four storm can bring. Port Aransas and Rockport arent like Florida¦these sleepy little fishing villages just werent designed to withstand hurricanes, says Clark. People are still rebuilding to this very day. A lot of money left here, but a lot of other money is coming back in. Some industries took a beating, like the shrimpers and day charters; while others, like the construction business, are booming. It has affected hundreds of thousands of people. Nobody expected this to happen and it to be so severe. When you watch a tropical storm blow up into a Category 4 hurricane in just two days, it leaves an impression. Clark number one lesson he learned when dealing with these storms¦treat every hurricane as a potentially catastrophic storm. You cant predict mother nature, says Clark. I think you should think of every storm as a Category 5 and act accordingly. When Harvey was in the Gulf and became a Category 1, people were saying it not going to be bad or it not going to hit us, but I started making calls to get hauled out immediately at our marina in Rockport. We are kind of trapped. Hurricanes tend to move to the east, so if we were to head south we would have been locked in¦because you cant go into Mexico. People waited until the last minute to haul out so it was a scramble around here with people heading to Galveston or getting hauled out. And, we dont have a lot of big shipyards here to get a lot of people out quickly. Clark also says you should not let your ego keep you from making the executive decision to get out. Some people decided to stay and ride this one out. They wanted to look after their stuff. I was planning on staying but when it hit a Category 2 my wife said we are getting out. Im so glad that we did¦my neighbor house was totally destroyed. The Governor told people who were staying on the Island to go ahead and write their Social Security Number on their hands. I know some people who stayed, and they said it was the worst mistake theyd ever made in their life. The only good thing that came out of this storm was the way our community came together to help each other after it had passed through, says Rand. You got to know your neighbors and meet a lot of new people. You learn how to trust people pretty fast as well.

Capt. Randall Gaines | Port Aransas, Texas

Unlike Capt. Clark in Rockport, Capt. Randall Gaines wound up keeping his boat in the slip during Harvey approach. Although the 50-foot Viking, Pandemonium, made it through the storm relatively unscathed, this hurricane put a big dent in Gaines confidence. We did surprisingly well when you consider the magnitude of this storm, however, as soon as you think you know what these things are going to do, you realize that you dont know anything. This one really knocked back my confidence a bit, says Gaines. This one just got on top of us so fast, and it was so big so fast¦I had nowhere to go. A couple of boats tried to run to Louisiana, but it was so rough they had to turn around and come back. Gaines credits quite a bit of his good fortune during the storm to the presence of good floating docks in his marina. Although you have to realize that you might be as prepared as you can be, you also have to realize that your preparations may fail no matter what you do. Our floating docks were in good condition so the number of boats lost was literally in the teens among the over 200 boats in the marina. The use of chaffing gear on your lines is huge. I put clear plastic hose on all of our lines, and I didnt pop a single one. It was ten or 12 feet above high water in our marina. I have a picture of me standing next to the piling with the black mark where the rollers stopped two feet above my extended fingertips. Each and every one of those lines are important and Gaines says that he doesnt think he could have put another one on the boat. My Dad always said that if you think you have enough, put another one on. I tried to sink the boat with lines! says Gaines. Dont worry about scratching the paint or gel coat¦repairing that stuff is cheap compared replacing a boat sunk in the slip. Even though his boat suffered little damage, Gaines would much rather get out of the way than batten down the hatches. I was planning to leave right up until the last minute, but when it exploded from a Cat 2 to a Cat 4 on Friday morning I was stuck, says Gaines. Im a solo act, I dont have a full-time mate and that weighed a lot in my decision. My window to leave was Thursday mid-day¦if I had a full-time crew, I probably would have got out early. However, I didnt want to run from the storm in bad weather by myself. Fortunately, I dont think we could have done it any better…were we very lucky. If you have the speed and the ability to run, get out of their way and dont be there when they get there. If you have to stay, try not to tie up around sailboats, falling masts do a lot of damage, says Gaines. And be prepared to lose at least one outrigger¦they always get busted.

Sunken and beached vessels of all shape and size”a common sight post-Dorian. Photo courtesy Coco Partlow

Capt. Randy Jendersee | Homestead, Florida

After spending more than 30 years chasing blue marlin in the storm-prone Caribbean, few captains have faced more hurricanes than Capt. Randy Jendersee. Jendersee currently helms the beautiful 75-foot Weaver, Sodium. After having to ride out Hugo on the Free Enterprise in 1989, Jendersee now has only one hurricane plan: get the boat out of harm way. I ran 350 miles and ended our fishing season early to get out of the way of Irma¦it only blew 20 and it was good. Ill never ride one out on a boat again. During Hugo, we ran to Virgin Gorda and anchored up off of Bitter End. We had hurricane-force winds for 28 hours¦a Cat 5 moving at 4 mph. Luckily our anchors held. We were in 30-feet of water and had three anchors out that were pulling uphill. We had a small island behind us about 150 yards back, which we figured would be our refuge of last resort. We just kept cooking meals in the cockpit thinking everyone was going to be our last one. We couldnt go inside because of the noise from the rods rattling on the ceiling. We just sat outside up against the bulkhead. It was scary. Of all the boats that headed for Culebra, Puerto Rico, only about a half a dozen made it. The problem at Culebra was they were up against the cliff and the water was too deep¦the anchors couldnt hold. Eddie Herbert even had to let the little Merritt go in the middle of the storm, says Jendersee. We got into the rum so hard after we made it out alive that it took us over half a day to get our anchors out¦once we had spent a day recuperating from the rum. Since sportfish boats are often working out of the country in remote locations, the haul out option is not always available¦or even a good idea if it is. If you are in the direct path, hauling out isnt going to help that much¦the boat will probably end up on its side. Ive hauled out on several different occasions in the United States (at American Custom Yachts) which does prove insurance-wise that you are trying to keep the boat safe. I still think that the safest thing to do is to just get out of their path, says Jendersee.