Boat Disaster Narrowly Avoided

We narrowly avoided seriously damaging the boat in a wind storm this weekend. As first-time boat owners, we were attentive and worried about our new boat with the first couple of gusty days in the 30+ mph range, but became more comfortable as we'd weathered each wind or rainstorm without any issues.

From October through about March each year, Western Washington periodically experiences severe wind storms. These storms generally have little or no precipitation, but the wind speeds can be very high. Normally, these heavy winds blow down from the north as a front pushes through, and the geography of the lake provides a natural breakwater that protects our moorage. But in this weekend's windstorm, the high winds were driving the waves from the south, bearing down on our boat with the full force of every wave. Just to the south of us, Hunts Point measured gusts as high as 51 mph. Further south, in Oregon, they measured gusts as high as 94 mph from the same storm. These hurricane force winds knocked down lots of trees in our area and there were power outages throughout the city.

On Sunday morning, the winds had died down quite a lot, but they were still blowing pretty strong across Lake Washington with winds still coming from the south. We went down to our dock to see the boat, not because we were worried about how it had weathered the storm, but to show a friend who was visiting our lovely Fantasia. As we headed down towards the dock, from a distance, we could tell things were not normal. We could see the mast swaying side to side, more than ever before. Once we could see the dock and the boat, it became clear why. There were swells about 4 feet tossing the boat around continuously and the starboard aft line had snapped, allowing the aft of the boat to swing out away from the dock with every wave.

The combination of up and down motion of the boat from the large waves, along with the intense stretching from the force of the waves, had caused the aft mooring line to wear against the cleat. While the line snubbers helped, they weren't enough to absorb all the force from these strong waves. This created a situation where our lines were rubbing up/down and being stretched across rough metal cleats. The starboard aft line was shredded, rubbed through until it finally snapped. The starboard bow line had held, but just barely. It was worn about 2/3 of the way through. I don't think it would have survived another hour.

If that starboard bow line had snapped too, the boat would have been held just by the downwind lines on the port side of the boat. From the port bow, we tie off to a concrete post which is situated about five feet aft of our bow. When launching and docking, we have to pivot the boat around this post since there is also a hydraulic boat lift directly to the port and aft of where we tie up. If the starboard bow line had also snapped, each incoming wave would have been smashing Fantasia up against that concrete post. The fiberglass hull would have been severely damaged and it is quite possible the boat may have sunk right there.

Needless to say, we were very lucky that we went down to have a look at the boat early Sunday morning. After some frantic scrambling, we managed to re-secure the boat while it was still being tossed around violently. We attached some new moorage lines. Greg tied the remaining good part of the bow line, with the snubber attached, to a much thicker line with a sheet bend. A sheet bend is a great knot for joining two lines together especially when they are different thicknesses. There are other knots that may have worked well too, but we had very little good line left on the section with the snubber.

Examining the boat as best we could in those conditions, we could detect no damage. The wave action made it impossible to even attempt to get the boat away from the dock, so we secured her the best we could with a few much heavier lines. We reviewed the weather forecast and decided not to push our luck. With more heavy winds predicted for Tuesday and our seasonal rains in full swing, Monday would be the day that we would pull Fantasia out of the water and trailer her for the winter.

Wind storms like this one do happen regularly here in the Pacific Northwest throughout the fall and winter and sometimes they can be wicked. In 1979, a wind storm hit the Hood Canal region to the west of us with sustained winds of 85 mph and gusts estimated at 120 mph. The floating bridge on Hood Canal sank in the storm, and Douglas firs, 3' thick, snapped like popsicle sticks. Fall and winter weather in the Pacific Northwest can be a challenging environment for any moored boat.

Valuable lessons learned:

  1. Not all windstorms are created equal. Take into account the effects of geography, wind direction and how much protection from wave action your moorage provides.
  2. While your mooring lines may be sufficiently rated for the boat you have, they may not be nearly enough for the weather you might need to endure.
  3. We either need to have well protected moorage, behind a good breakwater or we need to take the boat out of the water before fall/winter weather sets in (no more waiting for one last sunny day).
  4. Not all cleats are created equal. Some are very smooth, but others are rough to provide more friction for stability. That friction can bite you if it damages your lines in heavy weather.
Tip: Slice a section of rubber garden hose and wrap it around your docking line anywhere there may be a friction point, like a cleat or edge of a dock. It will protect your lines and is cheaper to replace than good quality docking lines.