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Hurricane Season on the USA East Coast

By SY Yindee Plus — last modified Oct 22, 2014 02:25 PM
The Bright family (UK) on their cutter-rigged sloop Yindee Plus have been cruising the world since 2009. This report is about their time spent cruising the East Coast of the States during the hurricane season of 2012-13.

Published: 2014-10-21 23:00:00
Topics: Weather
Countries: USA

Hurricane Season on the USA East Coast

Intercoastal Waterway in the Fall: © SY Yindee Plus

USA East Coast for hurricane season (2012 - 13)

There are very few foreign boats in the USA and yet the east coast is a fantastic cruising area. Although it’s almost all low-lying there is a wide range of scenery around you and incredible wildlife. The east coast towns are all historically interesting and have great museums and culture. Best of all, there are simply thousands and thousands of wonderful anchorages with all round weather protection, and if you want a break from the sea you can spend long periods on the Intracoastal Waterway. Yes, the formalities are arduous and probably put a lot of people off, but we felt it was all well worth it. We had an amazing time there.

Immigration clearance:

All British people arriving via their own boat need a ten year multiple entry visa. This needs a little planning. The application has to be done online, photos to precise specifications have to be uploaded and each applicant has to have an interview at a US Consulate. If you can do all this before you ever leave home you will save yourselves a lot of stress. Otherwise, you’ll have to arrange to have the interview somewhere on the way. Appointment delays do occur and you’d need to bear that in mind. Check the US website for visa applications for more information. We were lucky. We made Barbados our landfall, when we crossed the Atlantic, specifically so that we could attend our interviews there. We waited only one day for the appointment. Friends of our’s waited three weeks. In some countries the wait is months. We haven’t heard of any cruisers being denied a visa.

Check the latest entry requirements on  http://www.noonsite.com before you arrive. It’s also wise to download all the Boating Laws (federal and state) and make sure you can comply with them. International Col Regs stop at the entry to harbours, so local boating laws may differ. The US coastguard is entitled to board your boat at any time while you are there. Fines are issued for infringements. The USA loves rules and regulations; you can’t go anywhere without the ubiquitous signs telling you what you can and can’t do.
On arrival, the rules clearly state that you cannot leave your vessel until you have phoned the Customs and Border Patrol. Some cruisers bought US compatible mobile phones in the Bahamas for this purpose. We worried about this, but were told that you are permitted ashore to make the phone call ! We dinghied across the anchorage to a friend who had a phone, but we know of at least one other boat who went ashore to phone and had no problems.

Once you arrive in the USA the length of time you are permitted to stay is totally up to the official who clears you in. There are no guidelines, you cannot predict it and it may be detrimental to ask for a time period. All you can do is be as nice and friendly as possible and hope they are too. We cleared in at Charleston, South Carolina, in company with three other boats. Three British boats were given a 7 month stay, the one Australian boat was given just 6 months (they were the only ones to ask for 7 months!). The length of stay is stamped on the I 94 document, not in your passport. Make sure you are given an I 94 (one of our friends who cleared at Beaufort, NC, was not given these, by mistake, and ended up having to pay for an excursion to Canada to sort it out).

If you have already entered US territories in the Caribbean (ie Puerto Rico) then you may already have your cruising permit. If not, then this is usually issued within a day or so. You have to call the CBP office to arrange an interview to receive the permit. They will want to see registration papers for the boat at the very least, but it would be worth taking insurance and builder’s certificates and any other documentation with you, just in case. When the cruising permit is issued an inspection of the boat may take place. This also seems to be random and related to individual officers’ preferences. In Charleston none of the boats in our company were searched or had food stuff or plants confiscated. In Beaufort, North Carolina, most boats had food items removed (although these differed with different officials).

After worrying about USA clearance, the reality for us was that the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer was exceptionally friendly and we felt properly welcomed to the US rather than harassed.

Once cleared in, foreign boats should be given a booklet ‘Reporting Requirements’, which details the need for you to phone the CBP every time you change your location within the US. In fact, each state interprets the rules differently. In the south we were only required to call once when we entered the state, whilst north of Virginia we were meant to call every time we moved. There is no requirement to check out of states. It didn’t seem clear to us how this helped deter terrorism, but we did our bit and called them when they asked us to (most of the time....sometimes we forgot or missed places or we couldn’t get a mobile phone signal). You are asked different questions each time and sometimes there is no record of your previous call...

You don’t have to clear out of the country; in fact it's not easy to even if you want to. You are advised to leave and then post back the I94 (we suggest with a photocopy of the next country’s stamp in your passport, so you can prove you left when you should have done). We've also held onto the 'proof of postage' that we were given should we ever need it on entry to the US again.

Cruising guides and Charts: 

It wasn’t possible to buy cruising guides and charts of the USA in the Bahamas, but you can buy them in Puerto Rico. Don’t be tempted to spend a huge amount though. Buy just the guide and chart for the area you expect to enter the country. You will find it easy to buy new in chandlers and second hand folios and guides are in all the marine consignment shops (www.goodoldboat.com/resources_for_sailors/consignment_stores.php)

The cruising guides are all written for US boaters who travel from north to south and are not that easy to use. They take a good deal of study and you have to have the accompanying NOAA chart. There is a much better option:
ACTIVE CAPTAIN.COM
This is one of the best things about sailing in the USA. Before you get to the US sign up for the website (online version is free but you can pay to download it; about $40 and well, well worth it). It offers an interactive map in various formats which is totally used and updated by cruisers. Once we started using this we never touched a pilot guide again. If you need an anchorage in an area, just zoom in and look at the green markers. You can find out information about depths, wind protection, scenic quality, facilities ashore etc). The pilot books are out of date as soon as they are published but Active Captain is updated all the time. We can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s genius. The brains behind AC are a liveaboard couple so they understand our needs.

Internet from the boat:

This is another thing we loved about the USA. Forget dongles for the laptop as you can’t get them anymore here. Just get a wifi hotspot in your boat via your tablet / ipad or buy a 'mifi'. There are plenty of mobile phone networks to chose from, but Verizon are the only ones with total east coast coverage (in 2012). We only had one occasion when we couldn’t get a signal, in a remote marsh in Georgia. Most of our friends had wifi with other networks and found that they couldn’t use them for days on end.

We signed up for a 2 year contract and they said we could cancel when we moved abroad. In fact the cancellation was a little protracted so they got extra money out of us, but we still felt it was worth it.  It cost $50 per month for 5GB and each extra GB is charged at $10. This was better than the pay as you go deals our friends had but the deals change all the time so it’s a matter of talking to the salespeople in the stores. Don’t go downtown for a phone shop though. Downtown is for boutiques and gift shops. If you need to buy anything useful it will be in an out of town mall.

If you're European, you'll need a phone too: ours use different technology. We bought a cheap Verizon one for $25 and bought top up cards. We spent about $120 on top up during our stay.

Weather

The weather determines where you go, and when, while you are in the USA. Summer in the south, the Carolinas and as far north as New York, is scorching and characterised by severe thunderstorms in the afternoons (The Chesapeake is infamous for this too). We were delayed due to the need to make repairs and were still in North Carolina in mid July. It became difficult to leave the boat unattended after lunch as most days we’d be bashed by squalls with strong winds. Everyone in these states watches the weather radar information on the TV and internet. We used this website for our thunderstorm radar info: http://www.wunderground.com

Most people travel north fairly quickly once they enter the USA, aiming to be north of Cape Cod by August, but once you arrive in cooler waters the risk of fog is always there. We entered Long Island Sound in fog and then arrived in Maine in fog. It is rare to see a local in Maine without radar fitted to their boat and we were really glad to have our broadband radar on board. Fog is less common in August than in July in Maine. We only saw it on a few more occasions between mid August and mid September but once we got to Florida in December the cool air was combining with the warm sea water to produce yet more fog...

Maine in the summer can be heavenly: we had the most perfect weather for over a month: hot enough for shorts and T-shirts but not that tropical sweaty heat we’d had further south. It gets cold quickly as soon as September arrives though. By the time we left we were wearing thermals, hats and gloves!

If you’ve heard about all the lobster pots in Maine....it’s true; they are everywhere in huge quantities. It seemed almost impossible to navigate when we first arrived and then we just got used to it. It didn’t put us off as Maine was so worth it to visit.

If you left Maine at the very end of August it’s possible to keep warm by moving south until you reach the Chesapeake where, in mid October, it starts cooling down. The problem then is that you can’t go south of Cape Hatteras until at least early November. Your insurance company may permit you to go south before then but we really, really wouldn’t advise it: there is no-where to go on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) with a deep draft boat if a hurricane is bearing down on you. Most of the waterway south of Georgetown, SC is marshland and would become open sea with any sort of storm surge. Also, the bridges are required by law to remain closed when winds reach sustained speeds of 25 knots, so you’d get completely stuck. The Chesapeake is a huge area with countless numbers of hurricane holes so you are much better off waiting around that area. When Hurricane Sandy came through at the very end of October 2012 many of our friends were in the Chesapeake: no boats were damaged. We spent the storm in Washington DC; an excellent protected anchorage with winds of up to 60 knots, but with stronger winds there would be too much risk from flying debris.

The risk of hurricanes is a constant during the summer months. It’s worth pouring over the National Hurricane Center website (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov) to put your fears into perspective though. If you look at the past tracks the USA north of Florida normally only gets one hurricane per year. We checked the website twice a day during the season and could watch the developing tracks of hurricanes in the Caribbean. Most went well east of us.

There is no-where on the US east coast that is totally hurricane proof, but the further north you can get during the summer, the better the chance you have of avoiding any. The hurricane season tends to start later for the USA and you should have plenty of time to get north of New York at least before the end of July.

Long Island Sound does get hurricanes sometimes (2012, 2011 etc) and there are literally thousands of boats there in the summer. We felt that there would be little chance of us competing with the locals for a hurricane hole during July and August. If any hurricanes come near Maine they will have lost most of their strength. Head as far inland as you can is the best advice we can give. Castine in Maine is a popular place to sit out the remains of hurricanes. We were told to head up the Hudson River if we were in the New York area.

Come late October, you’ll need lots of warm clothing, duvets, blankets and heating in the boat.

Condensation becomes a problem too. If, like us, your fitted heating system doesn’t work then you can buy a small propane heater in a hardware store. We thought we’d only use it for a month or so, but we still used it in Florida; when the north wind blows it can be just as cold down there. It was sort of nice though to wear different clothes and see the seasons change.

Depths

The majority of your cruising and anchoring will be done in shallow waters. If you’ve arrived from the Bahamas then you’ll already be used to that, but in the US you can’t see the bottom. Mostly you’ll be anchoring in mud: excellent holding but your anchor and chain will be filthy most of the time unless you have some way of cleaning it off. A working depth sounder is essential. Sometimes a few inches under the bottom will make all the difference.

It is common for boats to run aground in the USA. All the cruising boats we know joined TowboatUS as soon as we arrived here. West Marine (the largest chandler chain here) were offering discounted membership of Towboat if we opened an account with them so we did that. Towboat is like a boat version of the AA or RAC in the UK. You will be covered for a soft grounding only (ie in mud or sand) which covers most eventualities, or for engine failure, or they can offer advice about shoaling areas etc. At least one of our friends used the services of Towboat. If you don’t have this kind of insurance then a tow can cost you hundreds of dollars.

Recommended destinations:

Acadia National Park in Maine.

Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. They offer a night’s free docking for foreign flagged vessels which includes free admission to the very expensive and fantastic museum.

New York, where you can anchor behind the Statue of Liberty ! You can also have a free mooring in Port Washington, NY, where it’s possible to take the train to the city.

Washington DC. It’s a long way up the Potomac River but it was so worth it for all those amazing free museums.

Oriental, NC, a sailor friendly small town where it’s impossible to walk anywhere as the locals are so kind they’ll always stop to offer you a ride.

High Street Landing free dock in Portsmouth, VA. You can stay a few days for free, right next to the town, catch the ferry to Norfolk to see the wonderful Chrysler Glass Museum, go to the cinema up the street and get to know the legendary Bob of Mile Marker ‘0’ .

The Intracoastal Waterway

The Atlantic ICW is a 1250 mile (from Mile Marker ‘0’ in Norfolk, VA to Key West in Florida) inland route following rivers, canals, estuaries, and sounds. The surrounding environment ranges from swamp to marshland to wilderness forest to built-up areas of top-end housing to naval bases. It’s a wonderful way of seeing the coastline close-up and many of the anchorages are in wilderness areas with stunning scenery. It is punctuated by inlets which give access to the sea so you can chose to navigate the whole lot or just parts of it. Each section has it’s challenges: shoaling by the inlets in North and South Carolina; the very strong currents and twisty route in Georgia and the huge number of bascule bridges and irresponsible speed boat drivers in Florida. We’ve burnt a lot of fuel in doing it but we’ve loved it. Our best bit was the Waccamaw River north of Georgetown, NC. The pristine forest trees hung with Spanish Moss in the early morning mist were stunning.

At first we wondered if it would be possible for a vessel of our draft (6’2”) to do much of the ICW. We had a taster when we went north: most boats chose to avoid Cape Hatteras and go ‘inside’ for the 200 miles from Beaufort, NC to Norfolk, VA. This is well dredged and maintained and would give no problems for a 7’ draft boat. The bridge heights are another consideration. It is possible to travel the waterway with a mast height of 64’ or less but we removed our aeriel and wind instruments from the top of ours to give us a mast height of only 61.5’ and this enabled us to clear all of the bridges as far as Fort Lauderdale without worry. It’s possible for the clearance to be less than 64’ through abnormally high tides or wind-driven high water. It always looks tight but most bridges have height markers next to them to reassure you. Measure your mast exactly before you arrive. We couldn’t go any further than Fort Lauderdale as there is a 55’ fixed bridge just before Miami.

There is one essential guide to the ICW: Active Captain. It would have been virtually impossible for us to do it without this resource. Because we had internet from the boat we were able to access AC all the time while underway although we could have done that too with a download version.

The worst shoaling was in the section just north of the Ben Sawyer Bridge in Charleston, SC. We needed high water to get through and managed it with only a few inches under the boat. The other very bad section was around the Ponce de Leon inlet in Florida. Shoaling is severe in Georgia too but the tidal range is much higher there and we planned our day around high and low water. We managed to make between 25 - 40 miles a day. You would need about 6 weeks to get close to Miami from Norfolk, but this would mean being on the go most of the time. We permitted ourselves a few days off in Charleston, Savannah, St Augustine, Vero Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The whole process of planning and navigating the route is tiring and time-consuming, but we thought it was well worth it.

The time limiting factor for a foreign boat doing the ICW is the number of weeks left on your visas. With a seven month stay we were able to do the whole ICW to South Florida by mid January, having left Norfolk in the middle of November. If you only had six months on your visa you’d run out of time if you had entered the US in June. Many of our friends went ‘outside’ for many or all of the route.

With the benefit of hindsight, we’d have gone to Nova Scotia as well as Maine in the summer so that we could clear out of the USA and then back in again with, hopefully, another six months (no guarantee though) so that we could take much more time over the ICW. It’s been a rush and we’re pretty exhausted. Friends of ours decided to clear into the USA in Maine after sailing direct from Antigua. They arrived in July and this gave them plenty of extra time after the end of hurricane season to go south. Incidentally they have a  6’6” draft boat and managed the Charleston SC to St Augustine, FL section with no problems.

It is possible to extend your visa but there are precise rules on how and when you should do this and the fee is comparable to the cost of clearing into the Bahamas.

Another useful source of information for the ICW : Tom & Mel Neale <tomneale@boatus.com>. You can sign up for emails which give you information about bridge closures / repairs etc. It might be a long way around or back if you can’t get through.

Cruising Organisations:

Being a member of the Ocean Cruising Club or the Seven Seas Cruising Association has advantages in the USA. You can join the SSCA at the Annapolis Boat show, which we did, and then you’ll have access to all their Cruising Stations down the east coast. These are volunteers who have been cruisers themselves and are willing to devote time and energy to helping others. We had hoped to find people able to take in parcels for us so that we could order spare parts etc., but what we didn’t expect was the generosity and friendship that came too. Some will go to huge lengths to help in any way they can (Bob of Mile Marker ‘0’ and Ann in Vero Beach come instantly to mind).

Boat shows:

The Annapolis Boat Show is held in early October. This is very convenient timing for the ‘Snow Birds’ and foreign cruisers who are hanging out in the Chesapeake area around this time anyway. There is loads of anchoring space in the various creeks of Annapolis, so no need to pay for mooring the boat. We found the show excellent for getting advice and solutions to boat problems, but not so good for buying cheap chandlery etc.

Festivals:

Summer is the time for festivals. It would be hard to miss going to at least one of them, but if you plan it right, you can get to several...Lobster festivals, Music festivals, Windjammer festivals. A little research on the internet will give you all the info you need.

Boat repairs:

There are several major centres for yachting repairs: Fort Lauderdale in Florida, Deltaville and Annapolis in the Chesapeake and Newport RI in Long Island Sound, but there are boaters everywhere and you should be able to access services in most places. Many of our friends used yards in Deltaville as it was cheaper than elsewhere and convenient. When planning to haul out and work on the boat you need to check that the yard will allow you to work on your own boat; many do not.

Provisioning:

The USA is not as cheap as it used to be. We were shocked at the price of some food items (plain sliced bread for $3 a loaf!). If you get access to a car or a cheaper supermarket within walking distance then make full use of it. Maine at the coast is expensive. We provisioned the boat for 6 weeks before we left Portsmouth. Bob at Mile Marker ‘0’ will drive you to the supermarket as many times as you want to go and you can load the boat up straight on the dock. Not many places are as convenient as that.

A word about sales tax...each state has different rules on this, some charge more than others and the price displayed usually doesn’t include it. If you have large purchases to make, it’s worth doing a bit of research and maybe go ‘out of state’ like the locals do. Supermarket chains tend to be regional unless they are of the massive Walmart variety. If you like your food organic and top quality and don’t mind the cost then Wholefoods is the one for you. Otherwise it’s spotting bargains at the regular chains. We liked the employee-owned Publix chain in Florida for their great bakeries.

What we liked best about the USA:

The incredible friendliness of the people we met; the amazing customer service in shops; spotlessly clean public toilets; drinking fountains everywhere; top quality public libraries; the museums; summer festivals; the wildlife; pristine wilderness scenery; thousands of safe anchorages; great communications and the many new friends we made.

What we didn’t like so much...

The haphazard approach to recycling and always being served drinks in disposable cups (even when we sat inside); the fact that cheap food is unhealthy food, full of sugar, salt and chemicals; because we were on the wealthy east cost, we didn’t get to see a cross section of the nations’ population; and the laxity of credit card security (hardly anyone was interested in checking signatures or identity except when we wanted to order something online and then a foreign card wouldn’t be accepted!).

Susan Bright
SY Yindee Plus
SY Yindee Plus have contributed a number of reports to noonsite - just search under "Yindee Plus".

http://www.yindeeplus.net/Yindee_Plus/Welcome.html
The Bright family on their cutter-rigged sloop Yindee Plus are in Indonesia at the time of posting, having begun their extended cruising from the UK in 2008. Their blog has lots of interesting reports and twin sons Sid and Wilf have their own blogs also.
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