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Hunt for the elusive ‘hurricane hole’

Your home waters will shortly be included in a Tropical Storm Watch and from the projected path of the storm you will soon be in a Warning status, if not a Hurricane Watch status. You need to get your home secured (lawn furniture in and the like) and you need to take care of the boat.

Your home waters will shortly be included in a Tropical Storm Watch and from the projected path of the storm you will soon be in a Warning status, if not a Hurricane Watch status. You need to get your home secured (lawn furniture in and the like) and you need to take care of the boat.

If the vessel is on a trailer, you have two choices. Either it goes with you when you evacuate (if necessary) or it stays put in a secure area. If the boat is too large for a trailer (or you do not own a trailer suitable for the boat) and the boat floats at a dock, you are faced with whether to move the boat to a more “secure” location or tie it off as best you can and put all the portables in a safer location.

“Hurricane Hole” is the common expression for a secure/safe place to put your boat, but where are these locations and how do you find them?

Unfortunately, most are gone, or as one respondent to my question put it, “All of the old hurricane holes are someone’s backyard now.”

However, sheltered areas do exist and you should develop your own personal hurricane plan, including where to take the boat, and have the plan ready to put into action. A dry run is also recommended to ensure that the plan is really workable. There are sources of information that are available if you decide to move your boat. The location and use of these sources is the focus of this article.

Hurricane preparation

Moving the boat to a more “secure/safe” location involves the logistics of the actual move and then getting home after the boat is secure in its new location. Where to move the boat is the first question. When to move the boat is the next question — and both answers depend on the size of the storm, the probability of land fall that will affect you and the conditions under which you will be making the move. In addition to the wind and possible rain conditions, there are some constraints that could influence where and when you move your boat.

Constraints that will have an impact on your actions include the draft of the vessel, how much clearance it needs to get under obstructions, how much (and how soon) the storm surge will impact your area and bridge closure schedules. For example, the vertical clearance given for a bridge in the closed position is from mean high water and there is the need to factor in any increase in tide height caused by the approaching storm (or decrease in depth caused by the same as a strong offshore wind can lower the local water levels).

Then there is the question of, “How protected from surge and wind is the location?” This is followed by the question of storm debris threat (water- or wind-borne, falling trees, etc.). Of course, the tide schedule as compared to your time envelope to move the boat needs to be considered. And, not to be forgotten is the permission of the land owner to use their location and/or anchor offshore from them.

My Sisu 26 draws a little less than 3 feet of water, and with everything down needs a minimum of 7 feet, 6 inches to get under a bridge. While I can decrease the clearance by increasing the draft (pump water into the bilge or put in some 50-gallon drums full of water to trim the boat down) most people cannot do so easily.

Sailors can decrease the draft and the vertical clearance by hanging a drum (or bag) of water off the boom with the boom supported (main halyard for support) and the boom swung out to put the weight amidships. As a result of the depth and minimum clearance factors, I need to look for a location that allows both adequate depth of water and no low overhead obstructions.

I have a couple of locations, but both are an hour trip across the open water of Apalachee Bay to reach the rivers and then another hour (or two) to get up to a secure area. To move my boat, the time envelope of tide and wind conditions crossing the bay are the main considerations. What are your choices?

Shelter from the storm

Using a local hurricane hole or other sheltered location requires you to get your boat to that location, secure the boat and then get back out. Finding a local location is a matter of reviewing what is in your area.

Aside from the needs of your boat in terms of draft, you have bridge closures to deal with (unless your boat is already above the bridge line for your area). Most draw and swing bridges are locked down when the wind reaches gale strength (Beaufort Scale — 39 mph or 34 knots), which can be long before the storm reaches your area. Therefore, when your local drawbridges lock down and the clearance when the bridge is closed are major considerations. Remember: We are talking about both highway and railroad bridges.

For example, the ManateeRiver (west coast of Florida) is well-marked and goes up into the county quite a ways. However, the United States Coast Pilot notes the following that would affect the use of the river once the bridges are closed:

“Three bridges cross ManateeRiver at Bradenton. The first, U.S. Route 41 fixed highway bridge close E of the municipal pier, has a clearance of 41 feet. The second bridge across the river, the Seaboard System Railroad (SCL) bridge 500 yards above the highway bridge, has a bascule span with a clearance of 5 feet. The third, U.S. Route 301 highway bridge about 500 yards above the railroad bridge, has a fixed span with a clearance of 40 feet.”

The key bridge is the railroad bridge with a clearance of 5 feet. I grew up fishing on the ManateeRiver and I can assure you that even a small (16-foot) boat has trouble getting under the closed bridge at high tide. Either you wait for the bridge to be opened (which it was unless a train was scheduled), fished until the tide dropped enough, or you pulled the plug to sink the boat enough to get the clearance (putting the plug back in before proceeding). The point here is that the lowest bridge is the determining factor in your calculations.

Some counties have taken the low bridge clearance factor into account and have developed “flotilla evacuation plans” where a large number of boats rendezvous at a given point and are then escorted through the bridges. The bridges are opened in sequence to allow all the boats to get safely through and “up river.” Once the flotilla plan has been executed, the bridges are locked down for the duration. Thus, you may want to see if your local government has such a plan in place. If not, you may want to encourage them to develop such a plan.

Finding a safe location

You have a number of information sources if you have access to the Internet (or a good local library). There are FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps that show the possible effect of surge or inland flooding rains; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ storm surge map for each coastal county; NOAA’s online nautical chart site; the USGS “seamless” site (topographic, air photo, etc. as overlays); direct air photo sites (TerraServer, Terrafly, or Google Earth, for example), and then the variety of waterway and cruising guides.

Your local planning commission or building department should have copies of the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps for your area. These maps show the projected surge height along the coast and projected inland flooding. Your county emergency management office should also have copies of these maps (plus other information) that may help you.

In addition to the county material, there are also the published SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes — a computerized model run) maps for each coastal county that were created by the Army Corps of Engineers. Each SLOSH map shows the estimated extent of coastal (and in some cases, riverine) flooding based on the storm category.

In Florida the State Division of Emergency Management has a Web site ( ) with a section devoted to online map of all sorts. Among the maps sets is one on projected hurricane surge.

The online FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map ( ) site takes some patience and a fairly high-speed connection. If you use the viewer choice, once you have entered the address of the area of concern, you will get a reproduction of the paper map. Be sure to check the date of the map to see when it was created. To look at your area, go to the site and work you way in through the Map Search approach to find the FIRM ID number for your area. If you know the FIRM ID for the map you need to review, you can use the Product Catalog approach to find the map you want. The ID number is usually 11 characters long and can include numbers and letters (i.e., 1201530307B). In addition to showing inland flooding, the map also shows you the expected flood/surge water depth as part of the coding on the map (e.g., V-20 means flowing water up to 20 feet deep).

The United States Coast Pilot has information on channel depths, bridge clearance, restricted areas, and other items of interest to those using the water. Each of the Coast Pilot publications (nine separate publications) can be found in a good government publications library, ordered from most nautical book stores, or downloaded from the NOAA at:

In addition to the Coast Pilot, NOAA has made all its nautical charts available for review using an online chart view program at:

If you do not know what chart you want to look at, you can go to the NOAA chart catalog at: http://nautical and click on the Nautical Charts and Related Publications on the left scroll bar. Pick Chart Catalog and go from there (the State Option is a good approach). And, if you need information on tides, currents, or the like, you can go to:

One federal site (, maintained by USGS, has almost all the information you need in one place. It works best with a high-speed connection, but my phone modem is adequate if I am not in a hurry. This site has topographic sheets, digital quarter quad air photos (both color and black/white), the existing road net (with street names), and other useful information. The reason the site works so well is that it provides a seamless link to each of the sources of the information/data and then blends the display layers together at the same scale and projection.

General sources

There are a number of Web sites dealing with air photos. While TerraServer and the map capability of Google may be familiar to you, there is also a site called Terrafly ( ) that is quite good.

If your boat is in Florida, you have access to the air photo collection online that is maintained by the University of Florida. These are both archival photos and recent photos. All the photos are available online from the Map & Imagery Library at the University of Florida, which can be found at

Click on Aerial Imagery. If your state has such coverage, the photos for the area of your interest should be available from such agencies as transportation or environmental protection. It might be worth the time to check. An example of what might be available is the Florida Department of Transportation’s air photo Web site at .

Other sources include the waterway and cruising guides that are updated periodically and contain a wealth of information. In addition, if you have one of the newer chart plotters, you have all the charts for your area available to you. These are navigational charts and carry the same information you would get from the NOAA chart viewer (depths, bridge clearances, etc.). If you do not have such a device, the NOAA chart viewer noted above is an inexpensive alternative.

For general road information (i.e., how to get there by land), DeLorme’s Street Atlas is a reasonably priced choice. There is also a commercial, real estate site ( ) that provides air photos and street names that would show you the current development in the area of your interest.

Once you have found a possible safe site, you need to contact the land owner. One of the easiest ways to find this person is through the county property appraiser’s office. In most counties, the appraiser’s office has the plat maps (or other such maps) showing all the land in the county with a code that relates to the identification of the owner.

Depending on the legal constraints (in Florida the information is considered a public record), you could use the property ID code to get information as to the owner’s name, address, and phone number to contact the owner about the use of the property. If your boat is in Florida, you can find your property appraiser’s office at: or

For other states, you can try Google or your favorite search engine (“tax appraiser” + [state]).

Flotilla planning

BrowardCounty in South Florida has organized evacuation flotillas for the boat owners who want to get their boats to a safer location. Those involved have arranged things so that the bridges on the New River will be opened at the request of the Marine Command Post once a Hurricane Watch is issued for the county. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office is in overall command of the operation.

The flotilla operation ends 3.5 hours after the evacuation order is issued or if the bridges have to be locked down because the wind speed has reached 39 mph/34 knots. All participating boats gather at one of two staging areas and proceed to their “safe locations” upriver. It is noted that each boat owner is responsible for acquiring a location to put the boat once the boat is through the bridge line.

The plan is basically for getting the largest number of boats through the bridge line. After that it is up to the owner to secure the boat. For more information take a look at


Hurricane holes are becoming part of the past, or at least more difficult to find, but you can still find a spot if you use the sources noted in this article and remember the three constraints (draft, clearance, time) that affect where your boat can be located.

If all else fails, strip the boat, tie it off as best you can and get yourself (family, pets, etc.) to a safe place on high ground. Do not stay with the boat.

C. Henry Depew is in his “mid-60s” and has been boating in Florida waters (West Coast) since the late 1950s. From 1994 until his retirement in 2004 he worked in the GIS Unit of the state’s Division of Emergency Management building location files on everything that could be considered useful in disaster mitigation, response and recovery activities. This work included everything from regional evacuation routes, marina locations, medical locations and shelters, to railroad crossings and golf courses. The basic material for this article came from a project to locate all the hurricane holes in Florida.