Welcome to paradise, where the sun always shines, and the crystal-clear waters call your name like a siren song. At least in the high season. The notorious Atlantic hurricane season lurks around the corner once the dry season ends. Mother nature can be fierce and cause storms like an angry ex-girlfriend leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
In this article, we’ll talk about when the hurricane season is and explain how tropical depressions usually form. Then, we’ll explore some of the most popular hurricane holes in the Caribbean that are considered relatively safe. We’ll walk through some essential considerations depending on whether you plan to park and leave your boat or continue to cruise and stay onboard.
And who knows, maybe we’ll meet and have a few beers together along the way?
When is hurricane season in the Caribbean?
The Caribbean hurricane season officially starts on June 1st and runs all the way through to November 30th. June and July are usually relatively safe, but you must be extra cautious during the peak hurricane months from mid-August to October.
Every once in a while, hurricane season wreaks havoc on coastal communities, leaving devastation in its wake. But have you ever wondered how these severe weather systems develop?
How a hurricane develops
First, it starts with a tropical wave, a low-pressure area typically moving through the Atlantic Ocean. If conditions are right, the tropical wave can develop into a tropical depression, with winds up to 38 miles per hour or 33 knots.
As the depression gains strength and its winds reach 39 mph or 34 knots, it becomes a tropical storm and is given a name. Once the winds reach 74 mph or 64 knots, the storm becomes a hurricane with a well-defined eye at the center.
The hurricane wind scale
Hurricane winds are classified on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which measures wind speed in miles per hour (mph) and knots. The scale ranges from Category 1 to Category 5.
Category 1 hurricanes have sustained winds of 74-95 mph or 64-82 knots, and Category 5 hurricanes have sustained winds of 157 mph or 137 knots or higher.
So, to sum it up, the hurricane season can be a wild ride of tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes that bring destruction and chaos to coastal regions when they make landfall.
And if you’re ever in the path of one of these storms, be sure to take it seriously and follow all the safety precautions. Because when Mother Nature decides to throw a party, you don’t want to be caught in the middle of it without a plan. This brings us to the next topic.
Where do sailboats go during hurricane season?
While there are many popular places for yachts in the Caribbean, even during hurricane season, it’s important to note that some areas are safer than others. By looking at the history of named storms and hurricanes, it’s possible to identify the regions most likely to be hit.
NOAA offers an excellent tool that allows you to study logged storms and hurricanes from the past, including their paths and strengths.
As you can see, most people sail up the northeastern US coast or south to Grenada, Trinidad, or west toward the ABC islands and Central America.
Grenada has several popular anchorages and marinas well suited for the rainy season. Spice Island Marine at the bottom of Prickly Bay is one of them, along with Prickly Bay Marina, Port Luis in St. Georges, and Clarke’s Court Boatyard & Marina in Woburn Bay.
Grenada isn’t technically outside the hurricane zone, but history has shown that hurricanes rarely hit the island, making it a viable and safe option.
I have friends that left their boat in Grenada without issues and know people who plan to do so over the coming season.
Carriacou is the southernmost of the Grenadines but belongs to Grenada and lies about 15 nautical miles northeast of Grenada.
Tyrell Bay is well protected from anything but westerlies making it a popular spot amongst sailors who wish to avoid hauling out or staying in a marina. Several mooring buoys are available, and boat sitters can be hired to keep an eye on the vessel.
If some nasty weather starts brewing nearby, the boat sitters typically move the vessel into the mangroves as a precaution. If you live on board, Trinidad is just a 110-nautical miles sail south, which can be wise to put in your hurricane plan if you wish to stay here.
Carriacou Marine has a small yard with a travel lift and a marina south of the bay for those who wish to stay in a marina or a boatyard.
Tyrell Bay Marina lies to the north and is well-suited for larger boats. A friend parked and left his boat there during the 2022 season and had no issues.
Trinidad is the larger and southernmost of the two islands of Trinidad and Tobago and lies just outside Venezuela, close to the continent. The island is far enough south to be considered outside the hurricane belt.
However, some insurance companies will want you to head even further south to cover you through any named storms. Chaguaramas Bay is very well sheltered from the elements. The two most popular options for cruisers are lifting their boat out in Peake’s Boatyard or Powerboats.
I chose Peake’s Boatyard last year, left Ellidah in June, and returned in January. You can read about how that went here. The staff is very friendly and can help you arrange anything from a contractor to a rental car or shuttle to the supermarket or airport.
Trinidad gets a lot of rain in the low season, and the humidity gets extreme. I heard horror stories from others about extensive mold damage to the interior, so keep in mind that you need a dehumidifier or AC running if you intend to lock and leave the boat for an extended time.
I hired a contractor to check my boat two times a month to ensure everything inside was fine and that the dehumidifier was working correctly.
There is also an issue with crime in the country, and I recommend you do some research before heading there. I didn’t experience any problems but only ventured a little outside the boatyard.
4. ABC – Islands
The ABC islands consist of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire. They lie further west, with its southern border towards Venezuela and the western towards Colombia. Hurricanes rarely hit these islands, but one called Felix passed by just north of them in 2007.
However, the ABCs are still considered an excellent spot to ride out hurricane season. You will find several good marinas and haul-out facilities between them.
Aruba has Renaissance Marina and Varadero Aruba Marina & Boatyard. Curacao has Curacao Marine in Willemstad, and Bonaire has Harbour Village Marina. I have yet to gain first-hand experience with the ABCs, but we will visit them later this season on our way west.
When you sail away from the eastern Caribbean heading west, you’ll eventually venture out of the hurricane zone, which gives you many options.
Colombia is famous amongst many cruisers, and especially Santa Marta and Cartagena receive a lot of praise for their vibrant and exciting cities.
Shelter Bay in Colon and Bocas del Toro further west are good options in Panama. The country is hot and humid, so precautions like an AC or dehumidifier are recommended if you need to lock and leave your boat here.
Panama also gets many lightning storms, and it can be a good idea to talk to your insurer to ensure you are appropriately covered.
Im sailing to Bocas del Toro for the coming wet season. The Island archipelago consists of 7 islands and more than 200 islets. I’ve been recommended Red Frog Marina and Bocas Marina by fellow cruisers with first-hand experience, so you’ll eventually get an update on how it goes.
The Rio Dulce river in Guatemala is another excellent and popular option. You can take your boat up the river and moor it inside the protected mangroves, which is definitely a fantastic place to explore.
Although I have never been on a sailing trip in Guatemala, I did travel there many years ago. I highly recommend it for its stunning natural beauty, hospitable locals, and affordable prices.
Factors to consider when choosing a hurricane hole
When choosing a safe location for your boat during hurricane season, it’s crucial to take your time and do thorough research to find a place that suits your needs and budget.
A well-chosen location can save you money on boat projects and, more importantly, prevent a potential disaster if a storm or hurricane hits.
Your location will depend on whether you want to lift out, park in a marina, or continue to cruise and stay on a mooring buoy or at anchor.
Let’s look at some factors to consider before choosing a hurricane hole.
Beware of the hurricane zone
First and foremost, research the hurricane zone and try to stay out of it during the wet season. This might seem obvious, but it’s important to emphasize since many yachts have been lost throughout the years due to ignoring this factor.
If you must stay in the zone, make an escape plan and be ready to move quickly if a nasty weather system is headed your way. Below, you can see the result of Hurricane Irma in 2017 after hitting Tortola in the BVIs. Don’t put yourself in this situation.
Your boat size and draft
When it comes to finding the perfect hurricane hole, size does matter! You want to make sure your boat’s draft and size are compatible with the location you have in mind. Remember that some mangroves and rivers might be too shallow for a vessel with a deep draft to enter.
Also, some boatyards have limitations on boat size and weight for your vessel to fit in the travel lift, so check the specs before you arrive. And if you’re sailing a wide catamaran, not all marinas will have a berth to accommodate your boat’s curvy hips.
Picture this: You’re in a marina, and a massive wall of water is rushing towards your boat, lifting it up and tossing it around with tremendous force.
A hurricane storm surge is an abnormal rise in seawater level caused by a hurricane’s strong winds and low pressure. This surge of water can reach heights of up to 20 feet or more, and it can cause catastrophic flooding in coastal areas.
The storm surge is hazardous for boats because it can lift them off their moorings or push them onto land, causing damage or destruction. The surge can also create powerful currents that make navigation and control of the boat difficult or even impossible.
Boats left in the water during a hurricane are at risk of being swamped, capsized, or sunk by the surge, high winds, or debris carried by the water.
Protection and security
Your chosen location should also offer protection from strong winds and decent on-sight security to keep the boat safe from theft or damage. This is relevant mainly if you plan to stay in a marina or haul out.
Some areas like Trinidad and Panama have very high humidity and get a lot of rain. Consider precautions to avoid water building in your bilge and mold growing in the interior.
If you’re hauling out, ensure the yard offers proper ways of securing the vessel, such as storm cradles, strap downs, etc. If you need to leave your boat, consider hiring a contractor to check up on it while you’re away.
My boat sitter had to empty my bilge after a massive rainfall last storm season in Trinidad.
Available services and facilities
When you’re choosing a boatyard or marina, it’s essential to consider the services and facilities available. For starters, some boatyards require you to hire contractors to work on your vessel, while others allow you to do it yourself.
So, if you’re planning to get your hands dirty with boat projects, choose a place that won’t mind a bit of DIY and find out what services and parts are available in the area.
Some remote locations can be tricky to ship supplies to. You may need to order parts from overseas, which can be time-consuming and expensive. So, it’s always best to research and find a boatyard with excellent access to supplies and parts.
You’ll want to find somewhere with a liveaboard community and top-notch facilities if you plan to stay in one place for a while. Think of a nearby supermarket, laundry service, reliable water and electricity source, and a well-stocked chandlery for all your boating needs.
Choosing somewhere near an international airport with good transfer options is wise if you plan to leave your boat behind. That way, you can fly off knowing that your vessel is in good hands.
Consider your Caribbean sailing itinerary
Plan your Caribbean sailing itinerary carefully. Keep in mind that the trade winds usually blow from east to west, so sailing westward is easier than heading back east.
If you plan on spending the following dry season in the eastern Caribbean, consider sailing to Grenada or Trinidad instead of making the de-tour west and having to beat back upwind.
Consider the weather patterns and seasonal changes to give yourself a good start when the next sailing season starts. If you need some inspiration, take a look at the start of our season here!
Insurance for you and your boat
It is always wise to have proper boat insurance and ensure you understand the company’s hurricane coverage. Talk to them and inform them about your plans and where you will stay. Most insurance companies will only cover damage from any named storms if you remain outside their assigned hurricane box, typically between 10 and 37 degrees north. (Trinidad is at 10.7 degrees).
You’ll also want to ensure you have extended travel insurance for yourself and anyone staying with you. A tropical storm or hurricane can seriously injure you with items flying through the air and floods bursting into the shore and whatnot.
You don’t want to end up with a medical bill that kills your entire cruising budget. Or worse, getting injured without any form of treatment available.
Should I sail and cruise during hurricane season, park in a marina, or haul out?
Deciding whether to live aboard and sail during hurricane season requires carefully considering of your experience and preferences. If you choose to do so, you should be in an area where you can quickly reach a safe location.
Or find somewhere outside the hurricane zone.
The same is true if you want to stay in a marina. Marinas aren’t safe if a tropical storm or hurricane hits; having the option to evacuate or lift out and strap down is wise.
If you want to haul out, consider whether you intend to leave the boat or stay on board. Some boatyards have excellent facilities for living onboard, while others don’t.
Monitor the weather forecasts
One of the most crucial aspects of staying safe as a sailor is keeping a close eye on weather forecasts. And during hurricane season, this is exceptionally crucial.
Fortunately, modern weather prediction technology is excellent, and forecasters can predict the path of a system with a reasonable degree of accuracy. My favorite is Predictwind (you can read my review here), but several reliable sources are available.
By monitoring the weather forecasts, you can prepare yourself if a tropical depression is forming and heading in your direction. You’ll often have sufficient time to track its development and take necessary precautions before it becomes a significant threat.
As we come to the end of this article, I hope that you now have a better understanding of hurricanes and how they impact the Caribbean during hurricane season. We have also highlighted some great spots that are relatively safe even during the peak season and discussed the factors to consider before choosing a safe area.
By now, you should be equipped with the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions and take necessary precautions during the low season, whether you choose to stay on your boat or leave it behind. With proper planning and preparation, you can still enjoy the warm and sunny climate of the Caribbean while ensuring a safe sailing experience.
Remember, safety should always be your top priority. If there is a hurricane forecasted to make landfall anywhere near you, don’t take any chances – get out of there.
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