Preventing storm damage to boats

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How to prepare watercraft for stormy weather

Warmer temperatures not only bring on boating season – but also storm season. Taking proactive measures for preventing storm damage to boats and other property is crucial for boat owners and the marine community, whether you’re in Hurricane Harbor, Tornado Alley, or the relatively smooth West Coast.

While West Coast storms occur far less often and cause far less damage than on the Gulf Coast or the East Coast, occasionally damage-causing storms do happen.

Several years ago, a low-pressure system carrying storm force winds swept through Sausalito, California, completely severing several smaller piers from the main dock. The entire assembly, including boats, was swept intact into San Francisco Bay.

Several months ago, strong winds pounded Washington’s North Sound, grounding a fishing boat after the squall broke mooring lines while the crew was asleep, slamming the 52-foot vessel on its side against the rocks near Squalicum Harbor.

Granted, many of these tips will seem a bit extreme for West Coast boaters, but since the Arrowhead Marine Program provides coverage in nearly every state, we’re sharing general tips for storm preparation, coast-to-coast.

Prepare an action plan

Step one in preventing storm damage to boats and other property is to decide ahead of time where the best place to store your boat will be, to ride out the storm:

  • If you can trailer your boat, this is typically your best bet. Move it to a safe location away from tidal waters. Pull the drain plug and remove any electronics and other valuables on board. Ideally, store in a garage; if it must be left out, then secure to very strong trees or a “deadman” anchor.
  • If your boat must remain in a marina berth, then ensure the dock has sturdy pilings and offers reasonable shelter from open water and storm surge. Double up all mooring lines, but provide enough slack so the boat can rise with higher tides.
  • If your boat remains on a mooring, check with your marina or mooring provider to determine the maximum load the mooring will withstand, particularly in a storm.
  • Never leave a boat in davits or on a hydrolift.
  • Trying to outrun the storm is never a good idea, unless you’re on a large vessel with a crew well-experienced in storms.
  • Check your lease with the marina or storage facility, so that you know your responsibilities and liabilities, as well as theirs.
  • Cover all lines with chafe protectors (such as a double neoprene garden hose cut along the side), particularly where the line is likely to fray, and add extra fenders and fenderboards.
  • Determine a safe place to offload any items from your vessel that may blow overboard, and keep a checklist so you know which items to remove. This will help later if you need to file a claim.
Related: Checklist for Getting Boats Ready for the Season

Work your plan

You already know to monitor weather broadcasts frequently. The key here is taking action as soon as possible, because the higher the winds, the more difficult any preventative actions become, and the longer they’ll take. Give yourself plenty of time to batten the hatches and prevent storm damage to your boat, then get yourself back to safety.

  • Shut off all devices using electricity except bilge pumps; fully charge the batteries and consider back-up batteries so that pumps can run for the duration of the storm. Disconnect shore power cables.
  • Improve the watertight integrity of your boat, both above and below the water line. Seal windows, doors and hatches with duct tape, if necessary. Shut sea cocks and cap off or plug through-hull fittings without valves, such as sink drains.
  • Remove all portable equipment (sails, dinghies, cushions, etc.). Lash down anything you’re unable to remove such as tillers, wheels and booms.
  • Make sure your insurance policy is current.
  • Keep all records at home, including your insurance policy, boat registration, lease agreement with the marina or storage facility, a recent photo of your vessel and an equipment inventory. Your inventory should show what items remained onboard and which you removed for safekeeping. A photo inventory is a great tool, should you need to file a claim later.
  • Keep on hand phone numbers for your insurance agent, marina or storage facility, and others where appropriate such as the U.S. Coast Guard or Harbor Master.
Related: Boat theft prevention: How to thwart thieves and enjoy the water in your boat

After the storm

  • Re-check all dock lines and mooring pendants.
  • If any vessels are upriver behind you, you may need to modify your mooring so that other vessels can navigate past you. Otherwise, they may cut your mooring lines to get beyond you, which will cause even greater damage.
  • Do not enter the water to check for damage until getting the all-clear from the power company or electrical maintenance crew. Electrical lines may be down; generators may still be operating. The attached lines will be charged. There may be stray AC current from submerged outlets, shore cords in the water, etc.
  • Do not use matches or a lighter to check for leaking natural gas or propane. Just use your nose.
  • Take steps to secure your vessel and equipment as soon as possible, to prevent further loss. If there’s been any theft or vandalism, make a police report for use in filing your insurance claim.
  • Photograph any damage and make a list of these damages plus any suspected ones.
  • Promptly call your insurance agent to file a claim, and contact a repair yard or contractor to get an estimate.
  • Were you lucky and your boat rode out the storm safely? Just check with the Coast Guard or local authorities to ensure that local waterways are clear and safe to navigate, and that all local aids to navigation remain “on station,” before you head out again.
Related: Producers, Help Your Boat Owners Navigate Warranties Carefully

If you’re caught out in any bad weather

  • Keep an eye out for approaching dark clouds which may signal a squall or thunderstorm.
  • Check radio weather broadcasts periodically for latest forecasts and warnings. Heavy static on your AM radio may indicate nearby thunderstorm activity.
  • If a storm catches you afloat, immediately don a personal flotation device and stay below deck if possible. Keep away from any metal objects not grounded to the boat’s protection system.


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