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Advice from a veteran cruiser

Talk is easy, and you hear plenty of it about hurricanes. But it’s amazing how high winds can blow words out of your mouth. In a hurricane you usually can’t even stand up, much less talk. Even frantic screams are lost in the howl of the wind.

It’s wise to take educational courses and read informative articles about handling storms. Every bit of knowledge helps when dealing with the devil. But the best thing to do, if you can, is to secure your boat as well as possible and head for shelter ashore, as far inland as you can get.

We’ve ridden out hurricanes, hurricane force storms and tropical storms far too many times on Chez Nous, our Gulfstar motorsailer, but we certainly don’t recommend it. We’ve been aboard because we didn’t have better choices under the circumstances of our location at the time and our lifestyle. We’ve lived aboard since 1979.

The power of a hurricane is so great that it’s difficult to even imagine what it can do to earth and sea, your boat and you. And it’s not just a brief maelstrom like a severe thunderstorm or a tornado. It may last for a day or more. It may spawn many tornadoes, as well as rain so heavy you can hardly breathe in it. Its “normal” winds can strip forests, turn flat water into mountains and create deadly airborne missiles out of benign objects. Just to get from one end of the boat to another, I’ve had to crawl along the deck in wet suit, dive mask and snorkel. And when I got to the other end I realized it was all wasted effort. I couldn’t see anything but rain, and I certainly couldn’t do anything.

The power of hurricanes becomes far more sinister when you realize that they seem to have minds of their own. Despite the best forecasting techniques in history and meteorologists dedicated to accurate predictions, we never know for sure how strong one will grow, how quickly the strengthening will occur and whether the storm will arrive early or late. We can’t even be sure of the track.

In the overall scheme of things a slight jog in the course may seem quite insignificant. After all, there’s a lot of ocean and earth over which it can play out its devastation. But if you’re on a boat (or elsewhere) there’s only one scheme of things that matters, and that’s what’s happening to you. A slight jog of the monster’s track can make the winds you experience much stronger or much weaker. It can change the direction of the winds, turning what once seemed a safe harbor into an invitation to death, with seas and drifting boats and debris piling in and pummeling your boat. A course fluctuation can create a flooding storm surge or a merciful low tide. It can mean you’re in a prolific breeding ground for tornadoes that you’ll never see because of the wind and rain, or that you’re in a slightly safer area.

So I believe in learning, following the best forecasts, making careful plans and trying the best I can under the circumstances to take care of my boat safely. I love it far more than most people love houses or cars or other things. But despite that, I have to remember that my boat is just that — a thing. And after doing the best I can for it, well in advance of the storm, I look after my family and myself.

I’ve covered storms and a variety of related topics in my monthly Sea Savvy column. Search the archives at Keyword: Neale.