Hurricane

Boat owners doubled-up on ropes, fenders, and hope ahead of Hurricane Irma

Luis M. Gonzalez and his brother Ricardo Gonzalez watch the latest Hurricane Irma updates from Luis Gonzalez’s yacht, where he lives with his wife, on Thursday.
Luis M. Gonzalez and his brother Ricardo Gonzalez watch the latest Hurricane Irma updates from Luis Gonzalez’s yacht, where he lives with his wife, on Thursday. spereira@miamiherald.com

Nearly every day at 5 p.m., Gini Gonzalez and her husband Luis sit on the back of their yacht with cocktails in hand, watching people come home from work. They’ve been living on their boat — named Happy Four — at Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove for a year.

Now, they are afraid they’re going to lose it all when Hurricane Irma barrels through South Florida.

“We’ve done a lot of things to it to make it ours,” she said. “My daughter says it’s not home. It’s a boat. But it’s home to me.”

The retired couple, both 70, moved their boat from the edge of the marina closer to shore in hopes the inner parts of the marina would be protected by surrounding vegetation. They doubled up on ropes and tied down everything possible. Once the preparations are finished, they’ll leave their floating home and hunker down with Luis Gonzalez’s sister in Pembroke Pines.

The Gonzalezes are among the hundreds of people along the South Florida coast — a part of the estimated $11.5 billion recreational boating industry in South Florida — scrambling to prepare their boats ahead of the Category 5 Irma, expected to make landfall early Sunday.

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Boat owners at various marinas took all kinds of precautions to protect their vessels. They tied up their boats with thicker ropes and used more ropes than usual. Small fenders were replaced with ones twice their size. Cushions were taken out and placed inside. Sails were wrapped tight and Bimini tops were removed and stored. Blue masking tape secured doors, hatches, and anything that might fly open.

Getting on and off the boats was like navigating an obstacle course of ropes, and it took a leap to step on the boats, since they were tied as far as possible away from the edge of the dock. Some boats were moved up the river, if owners could find a spot.

But they won’t know how well all their efforts will work until the hurricane hits.

Further north at Miamarina in Bayside, James Hudson, captain of a yacht, arrived in Miami on Wednesday. After spending all summer in the Bahamas, he and another crew member plan to stay in Miami through December.

But as of Thursday, their weekend plans included staying put inside the boat during the hurricane. They’ve tied down the boat with thicker-than-normal ropes and larger fenders. As the water rises, they’ll release the ropes allowing for more slack. If they feel their lives are in danger, they’ll make a run for the bathrooms.

“I’m going to the bathrooms in the marina, which are all concrete and no windows, and stay there for a few hours,” said Hudson.

Hudson, his crew member, and a few others planned to stay in their boats at the marina, according to Hudson.

Back in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida, there were 26 direct fatalities, 15 in Miami-Dade alone, according to the National Hurricane Center. The relatively low fatality number is often attributed to massive evacuations exceeding 1.2 million people. Boat damages were estimated at half a billion dollars.

“You’re brave,” Jason Cohen, who was working on another yacht, said to Hudson. “If you get the eye of the storm, it’s gonna be tough.”

He said he works for six owners, and on Wednesday, he spent 18 hours securing boats. This one, which he estimated was worth around $800,000, was his fourth so far.

Cohen gestured to the concrete dock, filled with dozens of yachts and sailboats at Bayside Marketplace, and said: “If it happens here, I can guarantee there’s gonna be boats on the concrete.”

But Hudson found security in the surrounding concrete. Bayside is lined with concrete buildings, full of shops and restaurants. The water is relatively shallow, and the marina at the edge of the bay is further from the ocean itself than other marinas, he said.

Harry and June Pasquier relocated their 52-foot sailboat Gypsy for similar reasons — this marina was the safest place they could dock their boat, they said. Their old boat was damaged 12 years ago by Hurricane Wilma at Dinner Key Marina, but boats at Miamarina were hardly damaged, recalled Harry Pasquier.

That line of thinking and their boat insurance, however, hardly curbed their nerves.

“We’re very nervous,” said June Pasquier. “I think you have to be. If you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong.”

The annual threat of hurricanes and tropical storms hasn’t slowed down the boating lifestyle in South Florida.

The Gonzalezes, whose yacht is docked at Dinner Key, have built a life around boating. Before selling their home and moving onto their yacht, they would spend long weekends on it. Their floating home has taken them to the Florida Keys and the Bahamas.

Luis Gonzalez said he would have paid thousands of dollars to have his boat docked on the river, but few spaces were available and the docks he inspected were in bad condition. So he and wife secured their boat and are mentally preparing themselves to lose it.

“At the end of the day, [the boat] is insured and we’re gonna buy another one, and we’re gonna live in it again,” he said.

Just two weeks ago, they bought a second boat that is stored in Jacksonville.

“It might be a double whammy,” he said.

His wife responded: “But we’ll buy another one.”

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