WHAT MAKES A PORT OR MARINA A HURRICANE HOLE?
The term “hurricane hole” is open to interpretation. According to ancient Aztec myths, a hurricane hole was a cave where Tlaloc, the angry god of storms, promised to leave fishermen in peace — but only if they got in there before he did. It was a dangerous challenge. For today’s boaters, the term hurricane hole still has a vague definition. What we call hurricane holes in Mexico are simply places where we can berth our boat during hurricane season and be reasonably sure it won’t get destroyed. Notice the caveat? In fact, true hurricane holes are a myth, because hurricanes aren’t 100 percent predictable. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico during hurricane season, so here are a few suggestions for what we can all do to beat Tlaloc’s challenge and increase our safety.
WHAT MAKES A HURRICANE HOLE?
What characteristics make any anchorage, port or marina safe enough to be considered as a hurricane hole? First, it should have a history of not being ravaged by the 74- to 95-knot winds and giant breakers that Category 1 hurricanes generate. For the past 165 years, Mexico’s national oceanographic and meteorological agency at Manzanillo has been collecting data on hurricane tracks, their daily wind strengths and forward speed over ground. The wealth of data was archived, digitized and absorbed into the U.S. National Weather Service and is now easily accessible to boaters at wunderground. com/hurricane. Another good one is weather.org/mexico.htm, from the Mexican National Weather Service. A second characteristic is that the bay should be surrounded by high land that blocks most of the initial wind and waves from 360 degrees.
Why 360 degrees? Because during a direct hit, the other half of the storm arrives with winds from the other direction. Puerto Escondido in Baja California Sur is a good example of this wraparound shield, as are Bahia San Carlos in Sonora and the inner basin of Mazatlan’s Marina District in Sinaloa. In Jalisco’s Barra de Navidad, the marina basin of Marina Isla de Navidad additionally shields the docks from the flow of debris- and silt-laden runoff brought down by flash floods that accompany tropical storms. Third, ask yourself if there’s going to be safe swinging room (at anchor or on a single-point mooring) for all the boats that will cram into that particular hurricane hole at the last moment before the storm arrives. The free anchorages at Puerto Escondido, La Paz, Bahia San Carlos and Barra de Navidad all have a history of anchored boats dragging down on their neighbors, sometimes dragging them to shore, known as the “10-pin effect.” Ironically, all four of these ports have at least one sheltered marina where the outcome might have been better. Which hurricane hole has the best track record in this respect? Puerto Don Juan outside Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja California Norte. As in most yacht areas, boaters at Don Juan run a volunteer Cruisers Net on VHF 22 at 0800 daily to relay the latest weather reports and, sometimes, to broadcast how many boats are already anchored there. Presumably when 30 to 40 boats are already inside, others will head up to Puerto Refugio anchorages on the north end of Guardian Angel Island.
HOW CAN WE INCREASE OUR SAFETY?
Pay attention to weather broadcasts on local VHF and national HF radio services, and plot the daily path on a reference chart of all storms that begin near the Gulf of Tehuantepec or the Bay of Campeche. Why? Because hurricanes almost always start as innocent-looking tropical depressions. Look first at Northwest Caribbean reports, because “Easterly Waves” in the Gulf of Mexico can emerge as Pacific hurricanes.
The savvy mariner will be able to say, “I’ve got my eye on you.” If we didn’t have an HF radio, and if we absolutely had to make a long offshore passage, we’d hire a reputable weather service and receive by email or satellite phone our choice of customized reports — as often as daily if we chose. Some weather routing services don’t know Mazatlan from Manzanillo, but we’ve had intelligent service from Bob Jones, the operations manager of Ocean Marine Nav Inc. at ocean marinenav.com/. Even if we’re staying on board inside a hurricane hole marina, we fender extra well from the dock and the boat next door. Adding some kind of shock absorber to the bow and aft docklines is an excellent safety measure. Add chafe gear to docklines and fenders. Before the storm’s outer bands arrive, we remove everything external that adds windage to the boat’s profile: sun awnings, seat cushions and deck chairs, the dinghy up in davits. Drop roller furling sails, halyards and all, and lash down the main sail cover. Roll up zippered vinyl windows on the enclosed flybridge. Our checklist often includes dropping a soft Bimini and lashing down its aluminum struts. In 50-knot winds, everything becomes a deadly missile. If you’re leaving your boat behind in a marina anytime during summer, get this accomplished at least a day before you depart the boat. Some marinas will let you store your dinghy ashore. All marinas will check your docklines daily, but anything more is by special written arrangement. If you end up having to sit out an actual hurricane while your boat is berthed in a marina, don’t stay on board. Why? Dock sections can quickly come loose, flip over and submerge beneath sinking boats, so you won’t be able to get off. This is sage advice from several veterans of Hurricane Marty, which devastated La Paz in September 2003. Port captains close their port to vessel departures when a hurricane comes within a 48-hour radius, but arrivals “seeking refuge” are always encouraged — especially if you have a safe berth to go to inside.