Debate continues on hurricane haul-outs

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John Sprague lost his marina in Hurricane Jeanne last year.

“We’re still closed,” says Sprague. “We took a $3.2 million hit.”

John Sprague lost his marina in Hurricane Jeanne last year.

“We’re still closed,” says Sprague. “We took a $3.2 million hit.”

The water in Lake Okeechobee was already three feet above normal from Hurricane Frances when Jeanne swept across the lake, its winds driving waves over the breakwater at Sprague’s Everglades Adventures R.V. and Sailing Resort in Pahokee.

A 70-foot aluminum houseboat tied at a floating dock tore a section of dock loose, and the boat ploughed through the marina onto shore.

“A lot of the damage to the docks was from boats that didn’t leave the marina,” says Sprague. Just about everyone agrees that the worst place for a boat during a hurricane is on an exposed dock in the marina.

Slammed by wind and waves, the boat beats the dock up until it breaks loose and causes yet more mayhem as it careens through the harbor.

Florida marina owners say dock insurance is hard to find and prohibitively expensive after several tough hurricane seasons. Forecasters predict a long cycle of high hurricane activity ahead.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get these boats out of the marinas and out of the water,” said Joe Lewis, president of the Marine Industries Association of Florida and owner of Mount Dora Boating Center, a marina and dealership in Mount Dora, Fla. “Leaving them at the dock is not an option. It’s not good for the insurance companies, it’s not good for our docks, it’s not good for the boats.”

Marinas had tried writing into their slip contracts a requirement for owners to move their boats from the dock as soon as a hurricane watch was issued, but a 1994 Florida law enacted after Hurricane Andrew — the only one of its kind in the nation — now prohibits marinas from doing that. BoatU.S., the boater lobby, was a strong advocate for that law. Mike Sciulla, BoatU.S.’s government affairs vice president, says the law puts human lives before property. “Once a storm watch is issued, no one knows where to go,” he says. “Given the vagaries of these things, it could be a suicide move.”

Trying to contain both hurricane damage and their insurance costs, the Florida industry is pressing for some changes in that law. Floated last year in Tallahassee without much success, its proposal would encourage boaters to move their boats out of the marina after a watch is issued. If they don’t do that, the marina operator can secure the boats that stay at the marina, charge boat owners for that work and won’t be held liable for any damage to the boat during the storm. Finally, if any of the boats left at the marina damage docks or other marina property, the boat owners would have to pay for that damage.

Sciulla says BoatU.S. “adamantly opposes” forcing boaters out of marinas before a storm or holding them liable for dock or marina damage. Marinas “will try to make it so financially untenable they’ll force the boater out,” Sciulla said. “It amounts to the same thing.”

If there is any common ground, it is broad agreement that industry, government and boaters need to work together to find safe alternatives, if there are any, to boats staying in marinas during hurricanes. Lewis says exposed marinas can secure contracts with marinas up rivers or in other safe places to move their boats there for hauling before a hurricane. Sprague says he is working on a proposal in Palm Beach County to turn waterfront parks into emergency haul-out facilities for boats up to 40 feet. The county would provide the land and buy blocks and jackstands and a couple of hydraulic trailers to haulout boats, and hire a contractor to manage the hurricane haul-outs.

“This would be for boats that have no place to go so we can clear out the marinas,” he says. Sprague says studies show that boats do much better in hurricanes when they are hauled out instead of being docked.

Lewis says boaters as well as marinas benefit from minimizing marina damage. At least 10 Florida marinas closed for good after one or more of the four hurricanes that ripped through Florida last year shut them down. He says the state can’t afford to lose any more marinas.

The Florida House’s natural resources committee is authoring a study of the issue and plans to bring insurance, boater and marine industry figures together to try to hammer out a solution that works for all.

Preventing boat and marina damage “is in the best interest of both the marinas and the boaters,” Lewis says.