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Cyclone awareness: What boat owners need to be aware of ahead of a tropical cyclone

By Jesse Thompson, Thursday November 2, 2017 - 14:30 EDT
ABC licensed image
Tropical cyclones can wreak havoc on boats of all sizes. - ABC licensed

It is one of the most common images in the aftermath of a severe tropical cyclone — a pile of damaged boats, maybe washed ashore, with their hulls cracked, their masts and rigging resembling limp spiderwebs.

The wide, open bays of Darwin make them a sailor's delight during the dry season.

But this same environment turns boats into sitting ducks when a severe storm or cyclone rolls over the harbour in the wet.

Captain Ian Niblock, who handled a number of cyclone events in his seven years managing operations for the Darwin Port, said preparation was key for vessels big and small wanting to get out of harm's way.

"We're all in the same patch of water, so we've really got to make sure everyone does the right thing," he said.

If you are keeping a vessel on the water in cyclone-prone area, here are a few things you should be aware of.

Boats have cyclone refuges too

As a cyclone approaches land, it would not be unusual to see boats making a beeline for one of the many creeks that branch away from the harbour.

Much like our own shelters, these are called cyclone refuges.

The difference is they are more of a best bet rather than an absolute guarantee of safety.

"Cyclone refuges tend to be a little bit more sheltered," Captain Niblock said.

"You've got mangrove fringe on either side and relatively deep water that's not too exposed, so they offer the best protection we can get in the harbour."

The nine refuges around the harbour in Darwin have a first in, best dressed principle.

That means owners of recreational boats may want to have a back-up plan handy, especially if they are keeping their craft on water.

"If they're in a marina, they need to make sure that they're well tied up and that their mooring lines have been checked for UV deterioration or chafing," Captain Niblock said.

The risk is that the mooring line will snap, or that an unmoored but anchored ship will move, dragging its anchor behind it.

"Then they're effectively a little wrecking ball moving through the harbour."

Outpacing the storm

Captain Niblock stands by the 12-hour rule: if a cyclone is less than 12 hours from making landfall, it is too late to move your vessel.

With enough notice, the port can issue a direction for larger vessels in the path of cyclones to move away and effectively outpace the cyclone.

"But remember if we push a ship out of the port, we're pushing them into a cyclone, so we've got to make sure we can get them out in plenty of time," Captain Niblock said.

Weather mapping technology is today so advanced that unexpected changes in cyclone direction can be spotted before they upend this plan.

"In 2017 we have got so much more information than was available when Tracey decided to hit Darwin all those years ago," Captain Niblock said.

But the risks remain the same, and as Captain Niblock heads into this season he is wary of worst-case scenarios.

"If we had a ship sink and we have to block the channel, it means we've effectively closed our port," he said.

"Then we've got pollution and environmental damage to our harbour, and we've got to raise the ship."


© ABC 2017

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