Hurricane Holes: Fact or Fantasy?

15 July 2010 By Louisa Beckett

If the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters ever decided to do a show on hurricane holes in The Bahamas and the Caribbean, they would find dozens of candidates – bays and harbors protected from wind and surge by natural breakwaters and fringed by mangroves whose sheltering limbs make sturdy tie-down posts. It’s important to remember, however, that many of these so-called hurricane holes earned their reputation two or 300 years ago, before modern civilization moved in to bulldoze the mangroves, erect homes and buildings and change the natural contours of the banks or shore.

The direction the storm is coming from and its wind strength also are major variables when it comes to deciding whether or not a hurricane hole can truly offer an shelter. Culebra, an island off Puerto Rico, was considered one of the best hurricane holes in the eastern Caribbean until Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm, struck in September 1989. Of the more than 200 boats that took shelter in Culebra Harbor, at least 136 were sunk or badly damaged, according to eyewitness reports.

A few hurricane holes have stood the tests of time and tide, however. Although Paradise Island in The Bahamas has seen its share of development, it still offers vessels a relatively safe place to ride out a storm. The Marina at Atlantis and the aptly named Hurricane Hole Marina on Paradise Island are protected from the open sea by Nassau Harbor, and both are popular refuges when a hurricane threatens.

“Every storm, we’re full, and so is Atlantis,” says Hurricane Hole Marina Dockmaster Peter Maury. When asked if he had seen any boats get damaged there, he says, “I haven’t had any yet.”

In the Caribbean, a number of harbors, including Simpson Bay in St. Maarten, Gustavia Harbor in St. Barths and Antigua’s Falmouth and English Harbours are historic hurricane holes, although today, some experts feel they may be too crowded for safety. Marigot Bay in St. Lucia, however, has maintained its status as a safe haven over the years.

“Marigot is the only place in the Caribbean that’s naturally protected from wind and surge,” says Bob Hathaway, dockmaster of the Marina at Marigot Bay. “The shape of the hills seems to work even the wind the wind is gusting [with hurricane force] — the wind is just lifted away from the hills.” When Hurricane Omar hit the area in 2008, Hathaway says, “There were enormous swells on the ocean, but there was just no movement on the inner bay. It was nothing more than a very windy day.” He adds, “Whoever was behind Marigot Bay was a very clever God.”

However, he cautions, “If a Category Five came through here with the eyewall…there is no hurricane shelter in the world that could make a boat safe in those conditions.”

When a major hurricane is approaching, the best course of action for captains of yachts in the area depends on the quality and timing of the weather forecasts. “If you have enough notice that you can guarantee that you can go to Trinidad with 24 hours to spare, then you should go there,” Hathaway says.

For most captains, there is another, silent party involved with making the decision whether to run or to hide from a hurricane: the boat’s insurance company. Most insurers prefer a yacht to be hauled before the onset of a storm, if possible, says Donald Spink, owner of Blue Water Insurance. “Many [U.S.] domestic insurance companies will give credits for a haul out,” he adds.

In the case of an impending hurricane, Spink says, the best choice is, “Either get out of the way or haul the boat.” Only if neither of those choices is viable should a captain seek the shelter of a hurricane hole.