The Word is Surge

May 8, 2015Winter 2015

Indstrry experts and marina owners say the nation’s recreational boaters should note one major lesson from the historic $675 million in damages inflicted on them from Superstorm Sandy:

Surge, in addition to wind and wave strength, must be factored into vessel preparation.

National weather officials have debuted surge-mapping as part of real-time forecasting this storm season, which may make it easier to prepare for storm surge—the abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above-predicted tides. And at the same time, heeding Sandy’s warning, Rhode Island’s recreational marine community, from Block Island to Barrington, is poised to respond to the risk.

Certainly, had marinas in low-lying areas of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut had the advantages of greater piling height and hardstand elevation in combating storm surge of 10 feet or higher with an additional 4 feet of waves, the postscript from Sandy might have been written differently.

Consider the summary after a field review of the U.S. East Coast by a catastrophic event assessment team from Boat U.S., a national advocacy group and insurer:

“Every method used for securing large numbers of boats for Sandy had significant risks simply because so much of the marina infrastructure wasn’t designed for surge of this magnitude,” wrote Beth Leonard, BoatU.S. technical editor. “This will quite likely change as marinas rebuild, and going forward, understanding the surge risk in your area, picking a marina with that in mind, and preparing your boat for both surge and wind should ensure that fewer boats are damaged or destroyed.”

So how well are marinas and mooring fields in the Ocean State prepared for surge?

If conversations with stakeholders in the three renowned Narragansett Bay destinations of Newport, Jamestown, and Barrington are any measure, not only do Ocean State boaters benefit from a high level of awareness, they’re ahead of the curve on surge as well as many other aspects of storm prep.

Newport Harbormaster Tim Mills, Conanicut Marine founder William Munger, and Brewer Cove Haven Marina general manager J. Michael Keyworth are in charge of different types of refuges.

Newport, a world-renowned open roadstead of an anchorage, has more than 900 moorings in addition to traffic from cruise ships, ferries, cargo containers, and transient boats. Conanicut Marina is situated in Jamestown, on Conanicut Island, at the mouth of the bay. Brewer Cove Haven Marina is tucked in farther up the bay in Barrington, off protected Bullock Cove.

Each of these locations experiences different risks from storm surge and wind and offers different benefits to boats that are moored there.

Varying factors at each harbor site that impact the risks to boats include topography, prevailing wind direction, water depth, the state of mooring tackle and population of the mooring field, the ground level of hardstand facilities where boats are hauled in the offseason, piling height, and fixed versus floating docks. 

— By Elaine Lembo
Aerial Photograph by John Supancic


  1. Expect your marina or municipal anchorage to have a storm emergency plan; understand it thoroughly six months ahead of hurricane Know the area’s vulnerabilities and have an alternative plan. Owners of small boats may consider having them hauled; larger sailboats and megasized power yachts may benefit by relocating to the protected Kickemuit River, New Bedford, Mass., or to New York’s Hudson River, Munger advised.
  2. If you choose to keep your boat on a mooring, ensure that the mooring tackle is sound and the pennant—the line connecting the buoy to the boat—has anti-chafe gear. Also, realize that “it’s the guy upwind of you that will be the problem,” Mills said, particularly if that person’s vessel isn’t properly secured
  3. If you are tied to a fixed slip, dock, or pier, use long breast lines—the lines connecting the side of the boat to the fixed structure—“so the boat can go up and not get impaled when it comes back down,” Munger Floating docks that move with the rise of water are increasingly seen as a desirable alternative.
  4. If a storm’s coming, be a responsible property owner. Take advantage of the many reliable sources of information about boat prep.
  5. Marina owners and managers should constantly upgrade facilities. Keyworth, who has drafted plans based on his study of damage done by dozens of hurricanes, has spearheaded the upgrade of his yard. “We have to be aware of surge,” he said. “I’ve had the good fortune of being able to reconfigure the facility. The docks are stronger and the pilings are higher. If you want to stay in business that’s what you have to do.”

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