Every year around June there is a mass exodus of yachts from the Caribbean and Bahamas ahead of the impending hurricane season. Terysa Vanderloo and Erin Carey explore the options of where to go next
The hurricane zone extends from Cape Hatteras or the Florida/Georgia border to Grenada, so cruisers who intend to spend the following season in this cruising ground have to make a choice: continue to cruise in the Caribbean during the hurricane season or leave the hurricane zone by going south to Grenada or north to the east coast of the USA. Unsurprisingly, most choose to leave.
Deciding where you want to go depends on how you wish to spend hurricane season as well as where you want to sail in winter. While many cruisers continue to cruise during hurricane season, others store the boat and visit family, travel, or live on land for a while.
Many strike a balance between the two options by choosing a ‘home’ marina from which they can work, send their children to school or summer camp, or simply live within a marina community. While both options are possible for cruisers sailing north to the US or south to Grenada, the experiences of each will be very different.
US East Coast
There’s no shortage of boatyards and skilled labour on the US east coast due to the popularity of sailing in the region, writes Terysa Vanderloo. This is a good time and place to get boat projects done thanks to the huge chandleries, experienced workforce and excellent facilities.
The whole coastline, from Canada down to the Florida Keys, is highly conducive to cruising; the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) stretches the entire length and provides a protected inland route if conditions don’t allow for coastal sailing. The ICW is a worthy destination in its own right, and many cruisers spend time exploring parts if not all of it.
My partner Nick and I chose to spend our time living in a marina in Charleston, South Carolina, which turned out to be an excellent choice. It’s only 400 miles from the Bahamas and so was easily accessible; finding a weather window for the three-day passage was straightforward, and a north-setting jet stream worked in our favour on the way there.
Charleston has many marina options, a good liveaboard community, an interesting culture and historic ‘downtown’ as well as excellent marine services including boatyards for storage. We chose to store our 39ft monohull Ruby Rose on the hard during the peak hurricane months (August to October) and fly home, but otherwise based ourselves in the marina.
Others we met continued to cruise. Behan and Jamie Gifford, with their three children, continued to live aboard their 47ft yacht, Totem, as they sailed north from the Bahamas in 2016. Their priority was to base themselves near family in Connecticut and Boston, but still continue cruising, and they found New England (the six states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) to be an excellent option.
“We loved the old New England charm of Cuttyhunk, one of my favourite stops in a long list!,” says Behan. “The wild beauty of a disconnected island devoid of affectation calls you, gently, in to explore… The only place that left a bigger impression than Cuttyhunk was anchoring off Liberty Island and seeing the lights of Manhattan come up at night.”
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Many cruisers are drawn to the state of Maine, which borders Canada. While the distances involved may be off-putting to some (it’s 1,200 miles from the Bahamas), the reward is one of the most popular and unique cruising grounds on the US East Coast made up of over 4,000 islands. Emily Whebbe, her partner Kai and their daughter have chosen this option for several years in a row between sailing seasons in the Bahamas.
“We found anchorages easy to come by, with multiple directions of protection within a few miles. The towns are really friendly, many with fresh lobster and local produce. We like Maine because you can be in a city one day with arts, events, good food, nice people and good wifi, and then be in a remote anchorage in a few hours of sailing.”
For those looking to remain in one marina for the hurricane season there are plenty of options. Michelle Duca Peacock and her husband Michael, along with their two sons, live aboard their Lagoon 420 catamaran. They spent several years sailing between the Bahamas and the Caribbean, returning to the US for the hurricane season.
They chose to base themselves in a single marina as they enjoyed having a ‘home base.’ Michelle advises booking ahead if this is your plan, particularly if you have a catamaran. She also points out that terminology is important when contacting prospective marinas.
“I’ve found that you don’t tell people you want to be a ‘liveaboard’ on the East Coast, unless they offer liveaboard [which many marinas do not]. Liveaboard implies that you’ll be there year-round.” We agree; it’s important to ensure the marina knows you don’t plan to stay permanently, as they usually have limited slips available for full-time liveaboards, but may well be happy to accommodate a cruiser for several months.
Michelle and her family based themselves in Hampton, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay, and subsequently in Wilmington, North Carolina. Choosing a marina can seem daunting, as there are so many options. Michelle looked for marinas that were relatively affordable (the Hampton marina was $400 per month; Wilmington was $800 per month), and close to a town, but advises booking early as, despite the apparent abundance of marinas, they can fill up quickly.
Costs for dockage on the US East Coast vary drastically, but it’s generally more expensive than Europe and the UK. Our boatyard storage was $12/ft/month ($468/month) and our monthly rate in the marina was $20/ft/month ($780/month).
This tariff was quite typical along the entire coastline. Electricity and water are an additional cost, around $10 per day. A mooring ball in Maine costs between $20-$40 per night, although lower rates can be negotiated if renting a ball long term.
Charleston: Despite being outside the official hurricane belt for some (not all) insurers, Charleston is regularly affected by hurricanes, and having a hurricane plan is strongly advised; ie hauling out at a nearby boatyard or taking the boat to the mangroves upstream. Charleston City Marina is in the downtown area, with slips costing approximately $30/ft/month. Just a 10-minute drive away is St John’s Yacht Harbour, with slips for $23/ft/month.
Maine: Hurricanes very rarely come this far north. There’s no need to spend your time in Maine in a marina, as there is an abundance of free, well-protected anchorages. However, if you did choose a marina costs would be in the region of $20/ft/month depending on proximity to towns and facilities.
New England: New England is a great option for those wishing to cruise actively during summer, but who don’t want to travel as far north as Maine. Marinas and mooring balls are priced higher than average in this part of the US (up to $50/night for a mooring ball) but there are always plenty of anchoring options.
Chesapeake Bay: Home to an extensive inland cruising ground and a dedicated sailing community, the Chesapeake area is just north of Cape Hatteras, which is the all-important demarkation of the hurricane zone for many insurers (check individual policies). It’s a great option for spending the summer either cruising or living in a marina.
The Annapolis Boat Show takes place in October (it’s possible to anchor nearby and dinghy in to the show), and the ARC Caribbean and Salty Dawg rallies depart from this area to take cruisers back to the Caribbean in the autumn.
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