On early Sunday morning, March 21, the Whitsunday Islands and the Queensland Coast were hit by the fury of Cyclone Ului. The category-three storm unleashed winds up to 200km/h; felling trees, tearing roofs off houses and flattening sugar cane crops.
The cyclone left damaged boats of all sizes in its wake. At Airlie Beach, about a dozen boats were driven onto the rocks. At Shute Harbour, more than 20 boats were washed ashore and at Cannonvale, four more boats were found ripped from their moorings. In total, nearly 70 yachts, catamarans and fishing boats were run aground. Seven vessels disappeared completely.
While the cyclone hit on Sunday morning, by noon the next day, Club Marine’s salvage operation had already begun and our claims department was already processing the paperwork.
As Club Marine analyses its response to Ului, it is finding that the key components to the success of the operation were early preparation prior to the storm and increased points of contact for all Club Marine members who were affected.
Greg Fisher, CEO of Club Marine Insurance, attributes the speed and efficiency of Club Marine’s response to its highly-qualified team of marine assessors, and the coordinated efforts between Club Marine’s National Claims Manager, Phil Johnson, and the company’s exclusive emergency assistance service, Club Marine Assist.
“I’d like to say that I am extremely proud of the efforts of the Club Marine team, who flew into the Whitsundays to process claims and salvage boats where they could,” Fisher said. “Led by Phil Johnson, and assisted by experienced assessors, John Messenger and John Webster, the team was able to assess the situation even before the cyclone had moved on, and had recovery efforts underway while waves were still crashing onto the shore.”
As soon as Cyclone Ului made its exit from the Whitsundays and Queensland Coast, calls from Club Marine members affected by the storm were prioritised by the Club Marine Assist operators. As reports of the damage came in, they were forwarded to Johnson at home. In this way, Club Marine was able to determine the real extent of the damage and shape an appropriate response. And, by 5:00pm, the decision was made to implement a major salvage operation.
In fact, Club Marine had established a presence prior to the storm. Knowing it would be difficult to get into the area after the storm hit, Club Marine assessor, John Webster was on the ground in Airlie Beach on the Friday before the storm.
Immediately after the storm passed, Webster began exploring the area to get an idea of how extensive the damage was ?– getting boat registrations, boat names and then contacting Johnson when he could by mobile phone.
Johnson says the early reports from Webster, combined with the calls from Club Marine members, were critical in establishing a response.
“After several calls were forwarded to me through Club Marine Assist, I talked to Club Marine CEO Greg Fisher and together we agreed to increase our presence there,” he said.
Johnson and assessor, John Messenger arrived at Airlie Beach just after midday on Monday. When they arrived, Webster was already in the process of getting one boat loaded on a truck. The salvage operation had begun.
“Most of the salvage teams knew Messenger, Webster and me from the last time we dealt with a storm up in this area,” Johnson continues. “So those people were already there, ready to go.”
Once the operation was underway, Johnson set up a remote office in the Airlie Beach Hotel. Throughout the week, he met Club Marine members, helping them complete their claim forms and, where necessary, directing salvage crews to their boats. “In total, I settled about six total loss claims before I left on the Sunday following the storm,” said Johnson.
He says that local on-ground support was another facet of Club Marine’s success. Rachael Honhke, an agent and broker for Club Marine at Abel Point Yacht Sales, became another point of contact for Club Marine members, and it was thanks to her hard work that so many claims were expedited.
Prior to the storm, Honhke made sure that her office had a process in place to make sure Johnson and the assessors would have everything they would need as soon as possible.
“We have a strong association with the sailing community here,” said Hohnke. “When something like this happens, you really need to be there for them.
“Sometimes, it was just a matter of directing the boat owner to the right person to speak to,” she continued. “At other times, clients would ring from interstate and ask: ‘Do you know what condition my boat is in?’ When that happened, we would go out and check on the boat for them and ring them back and tell them what to do next.”
Johnson was also in touch with Club Marine members while he was walking along the wharf. “One day, I was approached by a guy who asked me ‘are you from Club Marine? My boat’s over there’.”
The boat owner told Johnson that he hadn’t called his insurance broker, but he knew that Club Marine would have a presence there on the beach.
“So right away, I arranged for the two guys that are doing our salvage and assessing work to have a look, so we could start arranging the quote.”
Significantly, Club Marine’s response has drawn praise from local boat owners. In the aftermath of the storm, Club Marine member Trevor Burns found his beloved 43-foot Ketch, Southern Lights, some 500 metres from her mooring, lying among the mangroves in Shute Harbour. Because of Club Marine’s quick response, repair work had already begun on his boat.
“For me, Club Marine earns ten points out of ten,” said Burns. “I thought it would be two or three months before I could even get somebody to look at my boat. Now, I expect to be back on the water within the next six weeks.”
Just weeks after the storm blew through the area, the Whitsunday region had turned its attention back to the business of luring tourists to its beaches. By Easter, with the help of a state-funded $75,000 tourism ad campaign, Cyclone Ului had been further down-graded to a bad memory.
Whitsunday Mayor, Mike Brunker pointed to the early clean-up that helped attract visitors back to the region. Describing the storm as “made to order”, Brunker said that many tourists couldn’t even tell a cyclone had come through the area.
Indeed, fewer than 10 houses suffered major roof damage. Out on the water, of course, the story was a bit different. By the end of April, Club Marine received 90 damage reports totalling over 2.2 million dollars.
Soon, the cleanup of Phil Johnson’s desk will begin as well.
“The last time there was a storm in this area, we had a lot of damage and a lot of exposure. This time, the magnitude of the damage is diminished, but there are a lot of small repairs that will need to be completed,” he said. “Our quick response was the key – boats just aren’t made to be sitting on beaches.”
Although investigations have not yet begun, evidence is mounting that there are two areas where preventable damage occurred. “Headsails and mainsails,” Phil Johnson says decisively. “One of the things we’re finding is that, for sailboat owners, it’s enormously important to take the headsails and mainsails off the boats.” He explained that the evidence suggests that when headsails and mainsails aren’t lashed down well enough, they can unfurl and put extra strain on the moorings.
In any storm, of course, the issue of improper moorings becomes very important. As Peter Ryan, Club Marine’s National Underwriting Manager points out: “When you look after your moorings, you not only protect your boat from damage, you are ensuring that your boat doesn’t cause damage to the boats around you as well as protecting your policy excess and no-claims bonus.”
Most boat owners don’t think about the conditions of their moorings when the weather is fine, but Ryan suggests that all owners should schedule an annual inspection of their lines, mooring points and mooring attachments.
“Above all, make sure your mooring is adequate in size and condition for your boat,” says Ryan.
Even if you have missed your chance to prepare your boat properly, there are other precautions you can take when a storm is imminent.
“If you can, move your boat to a marina or a protected anchorage, such as a river or creek,” Ryan advises. “But no matter where you are when bad weather is forecast, remember to remove or lash down equipment, double your lines and attach them to separate bollards or cleats. Also, check your mooring line at both attachment points. These small steps can spare you ?– and many other boat owners – a lot of damage.”