Hurricane Prep: Jacks versus Slacks

Sail News

Plaintiff’s Rest (at far right) riding out Hurricane Dorian in Great Harbour

Does anyone else ever get the feeling they’re being followed by hurricanes? It may be a bit of hubris, but it honestly seemed that way recently. First, in 2018, Hurricane Michael raged a mere 100 miles east of where our 1985 Niagara 35, Plaintiff’s Rest, was up on jacks in Pensacola, Florida. Then, in 2019, Hurricane Dorian chewed up everything in its path just 60 miles north of where we had her tied her up at a dock in the Bahamas, in “slacks,” as we now call it.

Fortunately, Plaintiff’s Rest survived both storms. (Knock on wood!) Not only that, but while luck (as is invariably the case with hurricanes) was a major factor, having now prepared our boat in two very different ways in two very different locations, my partner, Phillip, and I have learned a number of valuable lessons on how best to prepare for the worst.

The author gives her baby a kiss for luck 

The author gives her baby a kiss for luck 

How to Secure on Jacks

Hurricane Michael packed an intense, 140-knot Category 5 punch when it made landfall in early October. Unfortunately, living in what I call the “corner pocket” of the Gulf of Mexico, once a hurricane forms there with an eastern trajectory, all bets are off in the Panhandle. You really can’t ever move your boat to safety, because there’s never any guarantee where the storm is going to end up.

Of course, hauling out is no guarantee, either. But at least it’s a pretty sure bet your boat won’t sink on the hard, which is why we chose to pull Plaintiff’s Rest after Michael began barreling directly toward us. In addition to our usual storm prep, Phillip and I also took a number of extra steps to ensure the boat would be as secure as possible. These included:

1. Strapping the boat down with drill-in, auger-style ground anchors (Be sure to call the boatyard, though, before you start drilling!)

2. Putting seizing wire on the jack handles so they wouldn’t spin loose in high winds

3. Tying the jack stands together with a sturdy line to create a kind of “cradle”

4. Removing all canvas (seriously, every stitch, all sails, covers, the stack pack, dodger, bimini, etc.) to minimize windage

5. Dropping all halyards, leaving a couple of Dyneema messengers with which to re-run them afterward

6. Winding all remaining lines around the base of the mast or binnacle and obsessively taping a cover over them (You can never over-tape!)

7. Removing the furling line from the furling drum and securing the drum with a carabiner

8. Taping the bimini and dodger frames to keep them secure (more tape!)

9. Taping down any and all instrument covers (yes, obsessively)

10. And finally, giving your boat a kiss for luck and sending up a prayer!

I’m happy to report the end result was Plaintiff’s Rest came through unscathed.

Plaintiff’s Rest stripped of every scrap of canvas to reduce windage

Plaintiff’s Rest stripped of every scrap of canvas to reduce windage

The Beauty of Slacks

Although I wish I could take credit for the term “slacks,” that honor goes to Steven, the dockmaster in Great Harbour Cay in the Berry Islands, Bahamas. After our Michael scare in 2018, Phillip and I decided to ditch the corner pocket and try our luck in a hurricane hole we’d heard about in the Bahamas. Tucked in the middle of what is basically a 360-degree atoll with a single 50ft-wide cut through 20ft tall limestone, Great Harbour Cay is about as protected as it gets. Not only does the narrow inlet (coupled with an abrupt dogleg no less) provide impressive protection from waves, but the surrounding hillsides also help block the wind. No sooner did Phillip and I learn Great Harbour had suffered virtually no damage in the wakes of both hurricanes Andrew (1992) and Matthew (2016) than we were sold. True the non-floating concrete docks there gave us pause, but the exceptionally devoted staff soon won us over again. When I told Steven we would be leaving our boat through hurricane season, he had one thing to say: “I’m going to need 12 dock lines.”

I had one thing to say back: “I love you.”

The author’s technique for doubling up dock lines on a single cleat—note the chafing gear 

The author’s technique for doubling up dock lines on a single cleat—note the chafing gear 

The following are the steps we took to secure Plaintiff’s Rest in Great Harbour, steps that helped her survive one of the worst storms to hit the region in living memory.

1. We moved the boat to the center of two slips and “spider-webbed” her out; Steven has a 14ft plank he uses to crawl back and forth from the dock to the boat to secure lines (If you can’t take over two slips, go nuts with the fenders.)

2. We tied six lines at “standard” length to secure the boat for normal tides

3. We tied six backup lines slacked out to allow for potential storm surge, which would likely snap the first set of lines, and/or the possibility they might fail at some point due to chafe

4. We installed plenty of anti-chafing

5. We followed steps 4-10 from our Michael prep, making sure to remember a kiss and a prayer; you never know when she may need it!

As chafing gear, we use six 10in segments of fire hose through which we run our six primary dock lines before placing them in their chocks. We also thread a Dyneema line through a small hole in each hose, which we then tie down to keep them from working loose. Because these lengths of hose take up the entire space within each chock, our second set of “slack” lines simply went over the toerail.

To secure two separate lines to each cleat, we use a pair of loops at the end of each one. The trick is to put the loop for the standard line on the cleat first. We then run the slack line up through the standard-line loop before putting it on the cleat as well. This way the slackline loop helps keep the standard line on the cleat. (This is also a great trick for securing a line to a cleat that another boat is already using without cleating “over them.”)

Again, given the inconceivable power of a major storm, there’s no guarantee in the event one of them ever starts coming your way. Nonetheless, taking a few extra steps beforehand can help see your boat through all but the worst of them. Best of luck to all this hurricane season! 

Hurricane Dorian was a Category 5 monster

Hurricane Dorian was a Category 5 monster

Hurricanes Categorized

The Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale (SSHWS), which organizes hurricanes into five different categories based on their sustained wind speeds, was developed in 1971 by civil engineer Herbert Saffir and meteorologist Robert Simpson, the then director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center. The system also describes the kind of damage that can be expected. Storms Category 3 or higher are considered “major” hurricanes, but categories 1 and 2 can still be dangerous. Also, never forget that wind is only part of the deadly mix that is a major storm. There’s also flooding from torrential rains and storm surge, and of course, mountainous waves offshore. The official Atlantic hurricane season (which includes the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico) runs from June 1 through November 30, though hurricanes can also form in December. Hurricane activity tends to peak around mid-September. For 2020 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is forecasting an “above-normal” Atlantic hurricane season with up to 10 hurricanes and three to six “major” storms.


Category 1 — Sustained winds of 64-82 knots: Very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days.

Category 2 — Sustained winds of 83-95 knots: Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks.

Category 3 — Sustained winds of 96-112 knots: Devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes.

Category 4 — Sustained winds of 113-136 knots: Catastrophic damage will occur: Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Category 5 — Sustained wind of 137 knots or higher: Catastrophic damage will occur: A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Source: NOAA/National Hurricane Center

July/August 2020

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