With modern technology on our side, early warnings and reliable communication mean that you should never have to outrun a hurricane in a sailboat. If you’re unfortunate enough to be caught off guard or silly enough to tempt fate, there are some things you can do to improve your chances of survival, but the safest bet is always to give a storm a wide berth.
Can a sailboat outrun a hurricane? It’s important to be clear about what we mean when we say “outrun.” Given enough of a head-start, you can get clear without ever seeing a cloudy sky. But as the distance between your craft and the storm narrows, the stakes get higher, and the decisions you make could be the difference between life and death.
The best advice is always to avoid the storm by the widest distance possible. When circumstances make that impossible, it’s important to make wise decisions. Read on to learn what advice we have to offer as the situation worsens.
The Best Way to “Outrun” a Hurricane in a Sailboat
If you monitor weather reports before and during any ocean voyage in your sailboat, you should be able to avoid hurricanes entirely. At the end of the day, even if your boat is docked directly in line with the path of an oncoming hurricane, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Boats can be replaced—that’s what insurance is for.
If you have enough advanced warning of a hurricane’s approach and a strong indication that where your boat is located will put it at risk, you might consider moving it to a port that is outside the storm’s impact zone. When you do so, you’ll be counting on everything going right so that you get to where you’re headed on the schedule you’ve set.
“Hurricane Hole” is a term used to describe a port with conditions that will protect your boat as much as possible even if the storm passes directly over. Coves surrounded by high-wall cliffs are one good example of a textbook hurricane hole. If you make it to port well in advance of the storm and moor with the proper procedures, you will have done all that you can do.
“Hauling Out” is another good option for protecting your boat during a hurricane. If you can make it to a marina in advance of the storm with enough time to spare, there will likely be room on land for you to have them take the boat out of the water. If you go this route, make sure to seal your boat against rain and flooding. When possible, have the boat tied down securely.
When Avoiding the Storm Isn’t an Option?
On Boating Magazine’s list of the five dumbest things that you can do in a hurricane—Sail boating is #1. But sometimes, despite our best-laid plans, we might find ourselves in a tight spot. Knowing what to do and taking the correct action quickly will be essential to making sure that a bad situation doesn’t get any worse.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself – what are these guys so worried about? After all, a sailboat runs on wind power, and hurricanes have strong winds. So, a hurricane should make a sailboat go faster—fast enough to outrun the hurricane, right?
There are a number of factors that will negatively impact your ability to maintain your craft’s top speed as the distances between you and a hurricane decrease. Some of the most important ones to consider are:
- Pulling in Your Sails
- Preparing the Craft for Rough Seas
- Fighting Rough Seas
Pulling in Your Sails
As winds get stronger and seas get rougher, it will become necessary to pull in your sails. Failure to do so will risk losing your sails to the wind. It will also make it more difficult, if not impossible, to control your craft in rough seas.
Not only will pulling in your sails take time and attention away from your effort to maintain top speed and outrun the hurricane, unless you have an exceptionally strong inboard engine on your craft, it will also reduce your top speed significantly.
Preparing the Craft for Rough Seas
In addition to pulling in the sails, there are a number of other steps that you’ll need to take to prepare your ship for taking the brunt of a strong storm. Each of these steps will require time and attention that will take away from your efforts to outrun the storm.
You will need to seal the boat against rough seas and ready your engine’s fuel filtration system for the rocky ride. You will need to tie down anything and everything that could cause you and your crew injury if it is tossed about by the rough seas. Are you starting to understand why it’s so important to just stay clear of the storm in the first place?
Fighting Rough Seas
It might sound counter-intuitive, but when you’re trying to navigate rough seas, you actually want to slow down to avoid unnecessary damage to your craft and your crew. At a certain point, it won’t be up to you anymore. As wave sizes increase, your ability to make distances at speed will fall completely outside your control. You’ll be left doing what you can to remain afloat.
If the Worst Should Happen
Maybe circumstances beyond your control have made dealing with a hurricane unavoidable. If mechanical problems have left you exposed or broken communication equipment has caused you to be caught unawares, there are some things you can do to increase the odds of surviving the ordeal:
You probably think of this technique as a way to avail yourself of the most favorable winds, but when you’re in rough seas under motor, it can be a great way to reduce the impact on crew and craft alike. Head into the prevailing seas at 15 degrees or so and maintain for 10-15 miles. Then switch your tack to 15 degrees to the opposite direction of dead ahead.
Avoid dangerous rolling and increase the safety of your craft and comfort of your crew as much as possible as you try to navigate your way out of trouble.
Set Course for the “Safest” Quadrant of the Storm
While there is no such thing as a safe part of a hurricane, the conditions are generally the most severe in the northeast quadrant of the storm (for Atlantic Hurricanes). If you are forced to ride out the storm in open seas and have the ability to position your craft in relation to the storm’s quadrants, the southwest is your best bet.
Sea Room and Steering-Way
You’ve probably heard of large ships riding out storms at sea. That’s because being tossed upon the shore or against a dock can be a significant threat to your craft in hurricane-force winds and seas.
That doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to head out into a storm if your boat is docked. But it is something you should consider if you try and fail to outrun a hurricane. Once the storm is upon you, getting closer to shore can actually introduce additional threats.
Fair Winds and Following Seas
We hope that we’ve convinced you to stay as far away from hurricanes as possible—ideally, this will apply to you and your craft. When things don’t work out that way, it’s a good idea to remember that your sailboat can be repaired or replaced. Risking the lives of your crew to “cut it close” is never a risk worth taking.
Still, as we noted above, sometimes things go wrong, and a worst-case scenario can’t be avoided. If you should find yourself in such a situation, all you can do is make the best of it and hope that everything works out. By following the tips that we’ve provided, when and if you can, you’ll increase the likelihood of a good outcome.