Preparing for Hurricane Charley

This illustrated article from Tom and Jean Service details the steps they took to prepare their 1977 CSY 44 cutter for Hurricane Charley.

Dear Family & Friends, 

Thanks to all of you who prayed for our safety during Hurricane Charley-your prayers worked, and we are safe and sound.

Back in port – Anchor rodes and rigging laid out on the dink's bottom for washing.

The last few days have been quite an active period for us, as we prepared a boat (really more of an overhaul project than a boat…) that had not been underway in over 5 years for the greatest challenge that we can face afloat-a mature hurricane. Last Wednesday we worked most of the day getting our overhaul supplies, workbench, and 5 years' worth of "shore-stuff" off the boat and into a garage ashore. Return trips from the garage brought back to the boat all of the "boat-stuff" that we had temporarily stored ashore. Our old 1991 Toyota Corolla served us well as a small truck-duty she is often called upon to perform-and it made many back-and-forth trips between the garage and the boat.

August is really hot in St. Pete, and that heat really wore on us as we worked to get all the boat's gear in the right place, so that we could start the job of rigging for heavy weather. We had to get this close to right the first time because a hurricane is pretty much a come-as-you-are party. Once the wind gets up much above 60 knots, there would be very little opportunity to effect a change in our preparations.

Tom's experience as a Navy Diving & Salvage Officer, and our circumnavigation aboard S/V JEAN MARIE have taught us not to over-estimate what can be accomplished after the onset of heavy weather. During his years in the Navy, Tom rode out eight tropical cyclones, in three different oceans, aboard large steel ships, crewed with strong competent men. He had seen this shot before, but this time we knew this would be a different situation as a middle aged couple (and a 14-pound miniature dachshund) prepared a 27-year-old, 44-foot fiberglass sailboat to face the sea's greatest fury. Having owned S/V JEAN MARIE for over 17 years, circumnavigated her (including riding out a tropical storm in the Indian Ocean's Chagos archipelago-2 months prior to the start of cyclone season…), we had experience sailing with each other, we knew our boat, and we had outfitted her with the right gear.


Jean swings the fisherman back aboard using the whisker pole as a boom, with the whip led to the main halyard winch.

Our 1977 CSY44 cutter was perhaps the strongest production fiberglass sailboat ever built: but no vessel, of any size, is strong enough to withstand the forces experienced in a hurricane if the situation gets out of control-and that can easily happen in the extreme violence of a mature hurricane. While we were cruising we obeyed the FIRST RULE of voyage planning, and stayed out of active hurricane areas. We used our mobility, as do all of the smart cruisers, to keep us safe from hurricanes. But we were still preparing S/V JEAN MARIE for her next voyage, and without that precious mobility we found ourselves facing our worst fear-an oncoming hurricane.

We have always said that we would leave the marina and go to a hurricane anchorage if we were ever seriously threatened by an established hurricane, and Charley met all the necessary parameters by last Tuesday. By late Tuesday night the projected track went right up the peninsula of Pinellas County, and dead through downtown St. Petersburg, the projected winds were 105 knots (a Category Two hurricane), and the projected storm surge (our greatest concern) was 12 feet above normal high tides. That amount of storm surge would put the tops of our mooring pilings here in the St. Pete Municipal Marina about 3 feet underwater: and make them near useless in keeping our boat positioned in the center of the slip. Additionally, once those piling tops were submerged, they become a very serious hazard to the hull of our boat. Many boats have been sunk in hurricanes by beating the bottom of the boat's hull on the top of a submerged piling-and holing the hull. A marina slip in a storm surge is indeed a dangerous place. Then there is the problem of the other boats.


Tom rigging chaffing gear on our new 3/4-inch nylon doublebraid anchor rodes.

Some (unfortunately too many) of the boat-owners never even showed up to prepare their boats for the oncoming hurricane, and many of those owners who did try, did not have a clue how to prepare (or the proper rigging). If Hurricane Charley came into Tampa Bay, once the winds and storm surge got up, many of these boats would be moving around and crashing into others-and all of our preparations aboard S/V JEAN MARIE would have little effect on her safety. If the predictions of the National Weather Service were realized, our marina would be a junkyard of sunken boats and broken dreams.

Finally, there was the usual bench full of morons sitting outside the marina bathhouse, sucking on beer cans. These poor souls were going to "party" through the hurricane in pretty much the same way they spend most of their days. When the hurricane hit, they would likely become objects of search & rescue teams, a drain on St. Pete's precious emergency resources, and a hazard to anyone in their vicinity. Clearly, the safest place for us was somewhere else.

By late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning we had pretty much everything ashore that needed to be ashore, and all of the boat gear aboard that needed to be aboard. At least the "big hunks" were in the right place. Although we still had many items and details on the To-Do List, after over 18 hours of heavy work in the August heat, we needed to lay down for a while. After turning in at 0300 Thursday morning, we were back up-and-about and working the List by 0800. The next iteration of the hurricane prediction process, issued by the National Hurricane Prediction Center in Miami at 0500 that morning, further confirmed that Charley was indeed a Category 2 hurricane and was bore-sighted on St. Pete: arrival in Tampa Bay was predicted late Friday night, with rapidly deteriorating conditions by Friday afternoon. This was not a drill, and it was just about time to go… Jean went to her office to make the final preparations for the firm's computers and banking, while Tom continued preparing the boat. Jean completed her office work and was running supplies for us by midday. We were not only preparing for the immediate threat of Hurricane Charley, but we needed to be prepared to survive independently in a devastated St. Petersburg after the storm passed.

Tom's experience working with relief crews in Homestead, Florida after Hurricane Andrew brought to us a clear understanding that if the converging predictions of the National Weather Service came to pass, St. Pete would be a dark and barren wasteland for weeks after the storm was gone, and we needed to be ready to support ourselves independent of shoreside logistics for a prolonged period. After several years in a marina environment, there were a lot of stores and equipment that needed to be found, purchased, and brought aboard: and Jean knew just how to do it. Since the vast majority of the landsmen who inhabit St. Petersburg would not understand the urgency of the situation until the next morning, we were able to get around town easily, and find what we needed-and we intended to be gone by the time that the general population reacted to the impending hurricane mid Friday morning.


S/V Jean Marie's foredeck rigged for the storm.

While Tom finished loading the boat, Jean moved the vehicles to storage on high ground. By 1535 Thursday afternoon we were clear of our slip and underway (for the first time in over 5 years)-with only about 24 hours left to complete our preparations. We briefly tried to lay an anchor in the outer harbor between the marina breakwater and the downtown airport, but the holding was poor, and we quickly aborted those efforts and continued on to our primary destination on the Manatee River on the south shore of the outer reaches of Tampa Bay. We had rigged a hurricane moor here several years ago during a near-miss, and we knew it to be a safe place with good holding for our anchors.

After a squally 4-hour transit across the bay under power, we arrived at a cove behind Desoto Point on the Manatee River just before dark. There is a large cross facing this cove to the south, marking the spot where the explorer Desoto and his crew first landed on Florida's west coast: and it provided us a timely reminder that our faith in God would be the most important element in dealing with the challenges that lay before us. Somehow that basic tenet can easily be forgotten in the hectic preparations leading up to a situation such as the one that faced us…The wind was light from the southwest, with about 1 knot of ebb current running downstream in the Manatee River. It was time to go to work and lay a moor that could possibly determine the fate of our boat, and maybe even our lives.

Our hurricane moor consists of 4 anchors deployed approximately 90 degrees apart, with all 4 anchor rodes lead aboard over the bow through different entries (two bow rollers, and a closed chock internal to each bulwark). The rodes lead off the bow so that S/V JEAN MARIE can weather-cock with her bow facing the hurricane no matter which direction the wind comes from. This is vital since no amount of ground tackle will hold a vessel broad-side-to in even tropical storm force winds. Additionally, with this configuration we always have at least 2 anchors holding the boat. If a vessel is allowed to sail around her anchorage (and most do to some extent), when she comes up short against the outer extent of the rode-bringing all her weight to bear-it is likely the anchor will be pulled out of its hole, and she is then underway. Two anchors on any axis of wind limits this tendency to sail around the anchorage, and thus a vessel is much more secure.

Our greatest concern wasn't dragging the anchors: with enough wind every anchor will eventually drag until it hooks something solid, and then will hold until it comes apart structurally. Anchors constructed with welds or mechanical fasteners will come apart sooner than forged anchors…Three of our four anchors (genuine Bruce, genuine CQR, Luke Fisherman) are exceptionally strong anchors structurally-and they need to be for these survival-type anchoring situations. When the anchors start dragging, if the vessel has enough room, and if the rodes are of a different length, then she can keep dragging in a controlled manner until all 4 of them are adding to the composite holding-and then the engine/propeller can contribute its part. But we needed an open anchorage with plenty of room to execute this plan.

One method of dealing with multiple rodes twisting would be to bring them all to a common swivel, then up and over the bow: but swivels have a poor reputation for dealing with extreme loads, and in our way of thinking this certainly is not the time to have all of our eggs in one basket. We opt for the redundancy of multiple rodes, connected to independent attachment points (cleats), and rigged with multiple parts of increasingly larger hose for chafing gear. This hose extends outboard long enough past the bow rollers/bulwarks to provide some protection from the other ground legs. After the storm had passed we would sort out the twists using the dinghy. Our most serious concern wasn't dragging the anchors-we expected that to happen, and had designed our moor around it-but rather chaffing the rodes where they passed through the bulwarks and over the anchor tray rollers. We assumed that we only had one chance to rig chaffing gear as there is no way of "freshening the nip" on a rode loaded by hurricane force winds. Since there were only 2 other boats present in the anchorage we selected, we could position the boat in the center of the cove so that it would be necessary to drag all 4 anchors to put the boat on the beach. That was the plan…

With S/V JEAN MARIE's bow facing upriver to the southwest, the first anchor deployed was the 45-pound CQR over the port anchor tray roller into 12 feet of water, with 40 feet of chain and 300 feet of 3/4-inch nylon doublebraid (brand new line): we fell back to the end of that rode, shackled in another 300-footer (never been wet, brand new), and fell back another 150 feet. Then the 66-pound Bruce anchor was let go from the starboard anchor tray roller: as we pulled ourselves back upstream with the CQR's rode on the capstan of the Lofrans Falkon horizontal anchor windlass, the Bruce's all-chain rode was paid out as the brake on the disengaged chain gypsy was eased. About an hour after we arrived in the cove we had two legs deployed and firmly set in a southwest/northeast line. By now it was about 2200 Thursday night, and the easy part of the moor was done-what remained was to deploy the third and fourth ground legs off the beam to port and starboard with our 10-1/2-foot Cape Dory fiberglass dinghy. This is heavy work, and the anchors have plenty of ways to punch a hole in the typical inflatable boat used as a yacht tender; we think that a strong fiberglass-hulled dinghy is the right kind of tender for this job. (And because it is great fun to row to town in the morning to fetch warm baguettes for a sleeping crew…) All of the maneuvering associated with deploying this moor, both of S/V JEAN MARIE with her inboard 60HP auxiliary diesel and the dinghy powered by an outboard motor, was done by Jean-Tom was handling the rigging while Jean ran the boat (in the dark, and in a river with a full knot of cross-current running). This is the kind of teamwork that is necessary for a Mom & Pop to successfully cruise a bluewater sailboat. (Jean sez-hey, that water looked more brown to me, and besides, Tom didn't hardly yell at me at all…)

Once the first two anchors were deployed we rigged the whisker-pole over the foredeck as a cargo boom, and used it to deploy the dinghy. The Honda 5HP outboard was mounted, and the dink's gear was loaded. The southeast ground leg consisted of a crown buoy (the position of all the anchors were so marked), a 40-pound Danforth anchor, 40 feet of chain, a 50-pound clump of lead, and 300 feet of 3/4-inch doublebraid nylon. This gear was loaded into the dink anchor first, with the rode figure-eighted out on top. The bitter end of the rode was attached to S/V JEAN Marie's port bow mooring cleat, through the closed chock in the bulwark, and out to the dink. We then ran this leg out into the night on a reverse lay, crabbing up-current, and deployed the anchor in the center of the river. Once that 3/8-inch high-tensile chain starts running out over the dink's gunwale into the black water, and there you stand with a 40-pound anchor in your arms ready to jettison over the side-making damn sure that you don't have a bight of chain wrapped around an ankle-that is when it occurs to one that hobbies such as gardening, or perhaps bird watching, make so much more sense for a 57-year-old man with a bit of a gut…(Lessons Learned for next time-hang the anchor submerged to the waterline over the dink's bow rigged for slip. If we rig this back alongside S/V JEAN MARIE, using the whisker pole as a boom, the rigging and deployment of the anchors from the dink will be much easier and safer.) The northwest leg, consisting of a 75-pound fisherman anchor, 50 feet of 3/8-inch chain, and 250 feet of 3/4-inch three-strand nylon was deployed off the starboard bow in the same manner as was the port anchor leg. These legs would just have to set themselves once the wind came from their respective directions (and they did).

By 0300 Friday morning all four legs were deployed, Schatze the dog had his last trip ashore, and a quick shower in the cockpit felt real good. We were not completely ready, but we were just too tired to put the dink back on deck. It would have to wait until after sunrise. (Jean sez-hey, what is FUN spelled backwards? That's right, NUF… now let's go lie down!)

After 5 hours sleep, we were up and at it at 0800 Friday morning. First we had a good breakfast, and then it was time to get the dink back on the cabin top and lashed securely down. Somehow, no matter how difficult the situation, and at just the right time, Jean's galley produces just the tasty meal we need to fuel our bodies and lift our morale, so that we can do what needs to be done! The National Hurricane Center's 0500 track had Charley coming right up Tampa Bay, with a possibility of the storm strengthening to a Category Three. Additionally, there was a warning broadcast on the NOAA VHF weather radio out of Ruskin that the storm surge could possibly top 15 feet. The situation was both serious and deteriorating, although we did have a few more hours to complete our preparations.

Once the dink was aboard and secured, all ties ashore were severed until the situation reached a conclusion, one way or another…We stood on deck, surveyed the perimeter of our cove, and made a plan in the event the boat ended up on the beach. Losing the boat was not the worst thing that could happen, but losing each other was. We were surrounded by sand beach and mangroves (we picked this spot for both the holding ground, and the soft shoreline surrounding it). If she dragged we would ride her ashore wearing lifejackets, seek refuge in the mangroves, and lash ourselves to a tree. It would not be easy, but that is what we would do. (We didn't tell Schatze the dog this plan, as it would just upset him…) We picked rendezvous points on each shore in the event that we got separated, so that we could go there and hook back up…But enough disaster planning, we had chaffing gear to rig. This was our biggest concern, and last night our energy gave out before this important task was even started. We rigged lengths of 1-inch hose inside 1-1/2-inch hose inside 2-inch hose over the three nylon rodes where they came aboard the boat. That hose was secured with lashing to the rodes so that it hopefully would not ride outboard and expose the line itself to chafe where it went overboard. We only had one chance to perform this critical task, as once the wind was up, and these rodes were stretched out like violin strings, there was no adjusting them-even if we could get on deck, which was very doubtful in 100 plus knots of wind…The Bruce anchor rode was all 3/8-inch HT chain, and it was attached to the port and starboard bow mooring cleats with 3/4-inch nylon snubbers and chain hooks lashed to the standing part of the chain. This shock-absorbing rig would ease the strain to the windlass as a last resort, but only after the snubbers were stretched to about one and one-half times their length.

We were ready, or as ready as you can be in this situation. As a Navy diver, having commanded a Navy salvage & rescue ship, Tom was no stranger to heavy weather and challenging marine operations, but what we were about to face was indeed scary. There is no other way to put it-our hearts were in our throats. At 1400 Friday afternoon, just 1/2 hour after we had completed our final preparations, Jean came on deck and told Tom that the National Hurricane Center had upgraded Charley to Category 4 (a major hurricane) with maximum winds of 120 knots, and had detected a change in the track to the east. Tampa Bay was spared, S/V JEAN MARIE was safe, and Charlotte Harbor was about to be devastated. God bless those poor souls.

The most wind we saw in the Manatee River Friday night was 30-35 knots from the east, and St. Pete had even less. The rain bands were only of moderate intensity, and we were in our bunks by 2200. Saturday morning we were up at 0430, and listening to the first reports on the radio of the destruction of Charlotte Harbor and Punta Gorda. It is hard to be truly grateful to be spared-only at someone else's expense-thankfully we are not in charge of who gets hit, and who doesn't. Although we were safe, we were still very tired, and emotionally drained. The forecast was for heavy rain and thunderstorms all day long, as the trough that bumped Hurricane Charley into Charlotte Harbor over-ran Tampa Bay. At 0815 we started picking up the anchors, by 1110 we were underway for St. Pete in heavy squalls, and we returned to our slip at the St. Pete Municipal Marina at 1430. It was good to be back-hell, it was good to be alive! About the only way we know to show our gratitude is to support the recovery efforts for the folks in Charlotte Harbor, and that is what we shall do.

Many folks have commented on what a shame it is to expend so much time, energy, and money on "unneeded" hurricane preparations. This is what Admiral Nimitz had to say about "unnecessary" preparations for heavy weather:


"The time for taking all measures for a ship's safety is while still able to do so. Nothing is more dangerous than for a seaman to be grudging in taking precautions lest they turn out to have been unnecessary. Safety at sea for a thousand years has depended on exactly the opposite philosophy." Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, December 1944

– On the loss of 3 destroyers and 300 men to a Western Pacific typhoon –

Again, thanks for all of your support.

🙂 Tom & Jean Service (and Schatze the dog) S/V JEAN MARIE

St. Petersburg, FL

Posted by Sarah.Dashew  (August 16, 2004)

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