From the Bridge
By Dorie Cox
Many yacht captains in Fort Lauderdale prepared for a Category 5 hurricane early last month. After first landfall in the Caribbean with rare sustained winds of 187 mph, Hurricane Irma continued on a changing trajectory while captains and crew prepared for the worst.
After the storm hit the Fort Lauderdale area with lesser winds, recorded maximum winds of 111 mph at a marina near I-95 and State Road 84, much of the area was without electrical power. Although captains were busy untying, cleaning and putting their yachts back to work, six of them made time to share what they learned about storm preparations.
With an experienced group of mariners who had weathered large storms, we expected little new information, but instead heard a few surprises. One was a problem with hurricane contracts, a pre-storm agreement between a shipyard and a yacht for pre-arranged dockage during storms.
“I signed a hurricane contract back in February, but the yard — I’m not going to say who — didn’t honor it,” one captain said. “I was hopeless. The bridges [on the New River] were going to be locked down, and we had nowhere to go.”
“I don’t trust the hurricane contract for that reason,” another captain said. “The contract means nothing. I really wonder who they were helping first.”
Individual comments are not attributed to any particular person in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.
The first captain had signed the agreement, but another captain said that many hurricane agreements require pre-payment.
“It’s like Las Vegas; You pay and you don’t get the money back,” he said. “Plus the contract changes.”
“The entire thing is not regulated; they can do what they want,” another captain said. “A contract can cost $5,000, and next season it’s $10,000.”
Several captains did not expect the lack of safe dockage. In the case of Hurricane Irma, several yards had to turn away yachts requesting temporary space. One captain preferred dockage in a marina, but could not find any available. Many yachts changed plans after a mandatory evacuation was called for the barrier island, including all marinas on the east side of the ICW, and many of those yachts sought shelter in other marinas.
“I was surprised how the yards filled up,” a captain said. “I know many went to Mexico, but some of the boats that were still here, with the range, should have gone, too.”
One captain did not expect to see so many yachts without crew onboard during the storm.
“I was surprised at the number of unattended yachts, but that was maybe because some require the crew to be off the yacht?” he said.
Although in charge of an owner’s multimillion-dollar yacht, captains also are responsible for the personal safety of crew. Several captains said they don’t have a choice; their insurance companies dictate who must be onboard during a hurricane. Overall, those differences depend on each policy according to the deductible, the boat size and the flag state, a captain said.
“Some companies consider crew a hazard and require no one on board, and others require the entire crew to be onboard,” a captain said.
Several captains said his insurance policy did not specifically mention crew onboard during a hurricane.
“I don’t believe it spells it out one way or the other,” he said. “But I did not stay on the boat, and I would not ask my crew to stay on.”
“Our insurance said to not be on the boat,” another captain said. “The insurance can cover a boat but not the people.”
“I had a meeting and told the crew they have a choice, stay or we will pay for your hotel,” a third captain said.
“I offer for the crew to leave,” a fourth captain said. “But if it’s a Cat 5, I think our yacht is safer than a house. Even if it sinks in the harbor we would still be safe in the pilothouse.”
And even though insurance did not specify, several captains felt they should be onboard.
“You have to watch when it shifts,” a captain said. “If the wind is coming on your stern, you know your bow will be loose. All day and night I make adjustments.”
Another captain made several adjustments to his boat, but two of the captains did not make adjustments during the storm.
“There is always something to do,” a captain said. “I feel like if something happened, the insurance company would probably say, ‘Were you on board?’ I am ultimately responsible.”
Another captain had crew that did not report to work.
“I had two deckhands, they just left; it was me and the engineer to do all the prep,” this captain said. “I heard from a friend that his crew left and he was trying to find someone to work with him.”
“That is a good time for some new crew,” another captain said.
Long before hurricane season, each of the captains said they prepare a hurricane plan.
“It’s required,” a captain said. “We have a written hurricane plan that gets checked by the insurance company. We turn it in. If it’s weak, they ask for a new plan.”
The captain said his plan includes taking the yacht up the New River in Fort Lauderdale to a marina considered safe. All of the captains weighed in with details: sizes and types of lines and fenders and how they will be used, what will be stowed, the removal of all canvas, types of anchors that will be used and where the yacht will be.
“The marina requires a copy of your hurricane plan, too,” a captain said.
Several captains came up with a few changes for their hurricane plans.
“One thing I will do better next time is gas; I will keep it full,” one captain said. “I was thinking I would buy in bulk to get a better deal, but I should have had more.”
“That’s actually in my hurricane plan,” another captain said. “Our plan says to never have less than half a tank.”
A hurricane plans depends on where you are geographically, a captain said.
“I would haul out if I was in Palm Beach for the storm surge,” he said.
One captain learned his yacht didn’t have enough lines and fenders, and he joined several other captains with last-minute purchases.
“The owner doesn’t want to spend money,” a captain said. “But a hurricane’s coming!”
One captain told of a hurricane years ago when he wanted to move the yacht to a safe location.
“The owner said, ‘I don’t want to burn up fuel, can you just stay at anchor?’ ” he said. “What? It’s a hurricane.”
Sometimes yacht owners have unrealistic expectations of what work can get done after a storm, a captain said. At the time of the lunch discussion — about a week after the storm — most of the shipyards on S.R. 84 were still without power.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time,” one captain said he told the owner. “People can’t get to the boat and other people have real emergencies.”
So why are these yachts in a hurricane area during hurricane season, anyway? Answers varied to work being done, or it is where the owner wants the yacht.
“Insurance requires you to leave during certain months; if not, you pay a higher deductible,” one captain said. “When I left for the season once, I had a $12,000 reduction in insurance.”
The conversation veered to a few tips on hurricane preparations. Every captain agreed, it is a lot of work.
“Prep took two days with all of the crew,” a captain said.
“My prep took a week by myself,” another captain said.
And it’s not over when the prep is over, a captain said.
“Then the first thing you do when your prep’s over is to take pictures and to document what you have done,” he said. “And take them again after the storm. I take pictures of the neighbor’s boat, too. Some were not prepared.”
That brought up the topic of nearby yachts not properly prepared. Because an unsafe boat affects neighboring boats, one captain said he and the dockmaster re-tied and fixed some things on several boats.
Can captains touch another yacht without permission?
“Sometimes you have to,” a captain said.
“I would still call the boat, but during a storm you can help or fix things,” another captain said.
Neighboring boats concern many captains.
“I was scared of a boat near me with scaffolding,” a captain said. “The work crew had removed the plastic but the scaffolding was still there. It could have been devastating.”
“I was scared of a sailing yacht’s wind turbine,” another captain said. “It was not tied and could have been a projectile.”
But each captain at the lunch felt confident he personally had done all he could to prepare.
“I could not have tied one more cleat,” a captain said.
“Plus, I went shopping and had $300 worth of food,” another captain said.
This group of captains has many resources available, but we wondered what was most valuable during the storm.
“My phone,” several captains said at once. They used them for storm forecasts, resources and to connect with each other.
“Fenders,” another captain said.
“The VHF,” a third captain said. “We picked a channel in the marina and all stayed in communication.”
A captain got unanimous agreement with his answer of camaraderie.
“Everyone was helping,” he said. “People on other boats came over and offered me help and said if I needed anything to ask.”
But even when everyone works together and all possible precautions have been taken, there are still things that can be out of anyone’s control.
“What scares me is fire,” a captain said. He was tied with other boats in a marina and he said emergency services do not respond in high winds. “Especially with all the generators. You can’t smell with the wind. And there will be no fire rescue to help.”
Although this group of captains was prepared, they did learn a few things from each other and all agreed that hurricanes take a toll. They cost money in preparation, supplies and down time from trips or yard work. Several days of preparation can take a while to recover and schedules are compromised.
And hurricanes take a toll on mental health.
“The biggest thing is, this is a lot of stress and aggravation, forget about the money,” a captain said. “Owners don’t always understand what we’re doing.”
As the storm was on track to hit southern Florida, one owner wanted to visit the yacht to check on interior upgrades. Right after the storm, while the crew reassembled the yacht, another owner called to asked if a non-urgent task had been completed.
“They just don’t get it,” the captain said. “You have to say no sometimes during a hurricane. And we are not used to saying no.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email Dorie for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch.