July 21, 2016

Time to watch the weather

IT’S TIME for East Coast boaters to start worrying about hurricanes. One owner of a 35-foot sailboat who often crosses over to the Bahamas has already started worrying. He wants to know if sailboats can survive hurricanes. “How high do the waves get, and how do yachts handle them?” he asks.

Well, certainly, many sailboats have survived hurricanes. For example, Atom, a 30-foot Tahiti ketch sailed around the world by Jean Gau, a New York chef, survived a hurricane that sank the Pamir, a four-masted barque, not far away from him.

But it’s misleading to say if one small boat survived a hurricane then others can survive also. There are boats and there are hurricanes, and no two are the same. To a great extent, it depends on how far the boat is from the center of the hurricane, and whether she is in the safe quadrant or the dangerous quadrant.

As for the height of waves, here’s what Captain Edwin Harding, author of Heavy Weather Guide, has to say about it: Waves of 35 to 40 feet are not uncommon in an average hurricane. In giant storms they can reach to 50 feet or higher.

How do you deal with waves that high? It depends on the size of the breaking crests, the characteristics of your boat, and where the nearest land lies, whether you heave to, lie ahull, or run off. In extremis, there doesn’t seem much you can do other than take down all sail, slide the companionway tightly shut, and climb into a bunk with a lee cloth to prevent your being flung out. Any jetting crest that is taller than 55 percent of the overall length of your boat will capsize you if it hits you broadside on — a 19-foot crest if you’re aboard a 35-footer. That’s a huge plunging breaker, admittedly, but they do happen and if the wind is blowing against the Gulf Stream, things can get even worse, and very quickly.

So if I were crossing to the Bahamas and back I’d keep a good eye on the weather forecasts. I never want to be at sea in the teeth of a hurricane, even if I think I can survive because Atom survived.

Today’s Thought
Let him who knows not how to pray go to sea.
John Ray, English Proverbs

Mary had a little watch,
She swallowed it one day,
So now she’s taking laxatives
To pass the time away.

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