Hurricane Preparation through the Eyes of a Dockmaster

Hurricane Boat Preparation Plan for a Florida Dockmaster

Paul Warren, Dockmaster at a Florida marina, discusses the preparations he has for his marina and what he does to prepare the boats at the marina for a coming storm.

Hurricane preparations are a serious matter-regardless of your perspective. However, the perspective of a marina dockmaster is substantially different from that of a boat owner. Ultimately, however, we all have the same objective: to weather the storm with minimal damage to our respective properties.

At the outset, it should be recognized by all concerned that a dockmaster’s primary responsibility is to protect his/her facility. Damage to the facility can come from a variety of sources: boats chafing away on pilings until they’re half their original diameter; boats tied loosely so they crash into the docks and power pedestals, tidal surge waves dislodging deck boards; tie poles (pilings) being broken by torquing action of boats tossed by waves. Our job is to minimize the potential for this kind of damage.

chain and rope around a piling
Chains around pilings acting as chafe gear instead of your dockline.

We certainly have a secondary responsibility to assist our boat owners with their preparations. Every dockmaster I know has a wealth of information, experience and techniques that can assist boat owners with their hurricane preparations. I know that I spend a considerable amount of time and effort each year researching lessons learned from previous storms, talking to other dockmasters/marina managers for their tips, and, simply thinking about the processes and how to improve our planning. However, the boat owner – need to ask us for our advice. Remember, again: our first priority is to protect our facility.

Here are some suggestions that will help both of us:

  • Maintain a “Weather Eye.” This means paying attention to more than today’s forecast. It means for tropical storms/hurricanes, updating yourself (and your dock mates) regularly on potential trouble in the tropics. You should be loosely tracking each low pressure area in the Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico. You should be tracking each tropical wave coming off the coast of Africa. You should be paying attention to the “sea surface temperatures” in the Atlantic/the Caribbean/the Gulf. If you do this regularly, you’ll develop an internal sense about the potential of a given weather system to develop into a potential threat to your marina or your boat. (Note: One of the best Web sites I’ve found for broad hurricane information is presented by Robert Lightbown of Crown Weather Services.)
  • Be Action-Oriented. Don’t wait until a full hurricane warning is in effect before arriving at your boat. Take action NOW, while the wind is still blowing 8-15 and the waves are still 1 to 2 feet. If you wait until you’ve got storm conditions, you’ve lost! – valuable time, valuable resources and, potentially, the value of your boat. Action-orientation is an attitude – either you adopt it or you don’t. Your choice!

    Many lines secure the boat to the dock
    A multitude of lines helped secure this boat.
  • Plan Ahead. Planning means having a written hurricane plan completed to remind you what steps you need to take. (Give it to your crew and your marina’s dockmaster.) It also means having the basics of hurricane prep done at the start of the season; storm lines in place in order to double-up your dock lines, chafe gear in place on your dock lines, fenders and fender boards in place to protect your topsides. Even these basic precautions will allow me, as your dockmaster, to sleep better at night.
  • Recognize that your marina manager has his/her own “Action Plan.” While they’re there for advice on the fly, lending a helping hand may stretch their resources and restrict their ability to secure their facility. Each boat owner should be “independent” with pre-arranged resources (crew, friends, materials, etc.) to be self-sufficient.
  • Have proper “emergency” equipment available. Last year, I found having a “come along” (ratcheting block and tackle gear) extremely helpful, using it to pull boats off pilings and docks-I used it several times. Remember, the marina may have some equipment, but if you really want to protect your boat, it’s up to you.
  • Have backup supplies on hand. Materials like spare dock lines, spare fenders and fender boards can be expected to be used in almost every storm. Various tapes (e.g., duct tape, masking tape and electrical tape) are likely to come in handy in the aftermath of a storm. I also like to have several nylon straps w/ratchet adjusters available for securing dock boxes to the deck, for securing boats on lifts (heavy duty straps, please) and for securing dinghies in the dinghy rack. – Administratively, mark personally-owned items such as tools, fenders and other equipment with your name or boat name. It facilitates quicker return of borrowed/lost items.
  • If you need help preparing your boat, consider hiring temporary day-workers, preferably people with substantial boating knowledge and skills – like USCG-lifenders protected the boat from the dockcensed captains, yacht maintenance services and other experienced individuals. You should give clear and specific assignments and tasks.
  • Hold a hurricane drill, preferably at the start of the storm season. It’s important to have a plan of action for preparation, with specific assignments. If you walk through the process when conditions are calm, it gives you a chance to ask questions, make adjustments, note additional tools and/or supplies and, in the end, feel more confident about your ability to deliver your boat safe on the other side of a storm.
  • Use fenders and fender boards. They do a good job of protecting your boat, when positioned properly. (If tying from the lifelines/railings, twisting the hanger lines will help keep them in position.) This may seem obvious, but I’ve observed the majority of boats have too few or no fenders hung prior to a storm.
  • Try putting a length of chain (say, about 4-6 feet) around your dock pilings. These act as chafe gear for your storm lines. That way the chain-not your dock lines-rub against the pilings. Needless to say, the pilings should be stronger than the dock cleats. (I’ve seen cleats pulled out of the dock and fasteners sheared, setting boats adrift.)
  • Stagger the position of your sailboat in the slip so that your mast or spreaders are less likely to get caught on your neighbors’ masts or outriggers.

Hopefully, these tips and techniques will help you to come through the next storm(s) with minimal or no damage to your boat or your marina. Hurricane preparation is a state-of-mind that includes planning, purchases and practice well before the first storm looms on the horizon.

Capt. Paul Warren holds a USCG 100 GT Master’s License, is a US Sailing-certified Coastal Cruising/Navigation Instructor, former Sailing coach at US Naval Academy, former Sailing instructor at both Offshore Sailing School and Annapolis Sailing School, an active racing and cruising sailor and boating educator. He has been involved in the marine industry in various positions since 1964.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Southwinds in the Hurrricane Section.