How To Boat Safely In Any Weather
Whether you’re an avid angler, a salty sailor, or a recreational boater, you might want to know how to boat safely in any weather. Of course, many boaters enjoy the thrill of adventure when it comes to the water, but let’s keep the adventure fun and safe. While there is some appeal to the challenge of facing nature and testing your sailor skills, it’s best to avoid hazardous storms whenever possible. Luckily, there are several resources, tips, and tricks all boaters can use to know how to boat safely in any weather.
Before Going Out On The Water
1. Check the Marine Forecast… Twice!
As a boater, you might be familiar with the old saying, “A red sky at night is a sailor’s delight; but a red sky in the morning, sailors better take warning.” Basically, a red sky at night means calm seas and excellent weather tomorrow, but a red sky in the morning means nasty weather is heading your way. Luckily, there are now more sophisticated ways to predict the weather for your boating adventure. So let’s briefly discuss a few things you should do before planning your outing on the water!
Yes, the marine forecast is different from a typical weather forecast. Marine forecasts work to predict things like wind speed and direction, wave heights and periods, the roughness of near shore waters, and significant weather. In addition, they cover large areas, and the forecast elements are often given in ranges.
Are Marine Forecasts Accurate?
While it is a great idea to check the marine forecast, they are not 100% accurate 100% of the time. Our technology is advancing, but the mood swings of the ocean are still difficult to predict. Due to reporting inconsistencies and the challenge of collecting accurate data in remote areas, predicting the weather of the sea is challenging.
In addition, small-scale typhoons and hurricanes are highly unpredictable. The best forecasts are usually correct only 70-80% of the time. Marine forecast experts estimate the forecast is only accurate for the upcoming 2-4 days. So the further in advance you want to plan your trip, the less accurate the forecast will be.
Keep in mind that small changes in wind speed, wind gusts, and wave height might not look like a big deal when on shore, but out on the water, these small changes can make a significant difference to a small boat.
Measuring Wave Heights
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_height
The marine weather forecast often includes predictions of the wave’s heights. You can measure a wave’s height by the distance between the lowest point of its trough to the top of its crest. Typically, a weather forecast gives wave height predictions in ranges. For example, 1-3 footers – however, there is a big difference between a one-foot and a three-foot wave. So always hope for the smaller but prepare for the larger.
Keep in mind that during a storm, waves quickly grow! While a weather forecast will attempt to predict the wave’s height, they often don’t report the steepness of the weaves. The steepness is the ratio between the wave height and the distance between crests (AKA how long before another wave hits). The steeper the waves are, the more challenging it is to boat.
2. Do We Know Where You Are?
NOAA is the 911 of the sea. NOAA handles and operates the Search And Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) System. The system finds local boaters in trouble almost anywhere in the world, at any time, and in nearly every condition.
Before heading out on the water, ensure your boat has a beacon or carry your personal locator beacon. This makes it easier for someone to know exactly where you are to help in an emergency, including storms.
3. Do You Know Where You Are?
Always keep nautical charts and maps on the boat – especially ones of the area you are currently boating in. These tools are essential to help you navigate out of the water. In addition, awareness of underwater features, tidal range, and navigational beacons helps keep you safe and better navigate during stormy weather.
4. Know Your Limits
Know your skill as a sailor and your passengers. You do not want to risk putting your safety or their safety at risk in the hope that “it will all work out.” If you show up at the launch and the weather looks like more than you feel you or your vessel can comfortably handle, it is best to call it a day and try again another time. Keep in mind that many small boats are not designed or constructed to take a heavy pounding, resulting in structural damage that can cause the boat to break apart.
Pay Attention To The Sky
The sea is coy, and the weather is often unpredictable. A storm can easily and quickly appear out of nowhere. So always keep a weathered eye on the sky and pay attention to these signs that bad weather is approaching.
- Dark, threatening clouds, especially ones in the west/southwest
- Flat clouds that continually get lower and thicker
- Puffy, vertically rising clouds that continually get higher
- A halo around the moon or sun
- A quick drop in temperature
- Flashes on the horizon
- Increase in the wind or quick change in the wind’s direction
- Heavy AM radio static, as that usually indicates a nearby thunderstorm
- Never boat during a thunderstorm – lightning will strike the tallest thing on a flat plane, and out on the water, that tallest thing is you. If you hear thunder, you’re close enough to the storm for lightning to strike.
Entering Into A Storm
While the above tips can prevent you from running into most storms on the water, sudden and intense thunderstorms can appear out of nowhere. If you spend enough time out on the water, you’ll eventually be in an unexpected storm. It isn’t really a matter of “if”— it’s a matter of “when.” So when the weather starts to turn foul, it’s essential to know how to begin preparing.
1. Don’t Panic
If you find yourself stuck in the middle of stormy weather, try not to panic. When we panic, the logic part of our brain shuts down, and pure fight or flight kicks in. Thinking emotionally often results in making bad decisions. Take a deep breath; panic will get you nowhere. Instead, keep in mind these key tips for navigating the storm, staying calm, and assessing the situation.
2. Knowledge is Power
The ability to pilot your boat effectively under hazardous boating conditions takes time. However, it helps to have a strong knowledge of your boat and how it handles in different situations and how it handles carrying different loads. It also helps to understand how the wind, water, and geography all work together to create the perfect storm. Always keep life jackets, anchors, a first aid kit, and extra fuel should always have a staple place on your boat.
3. Life Vests
Put on your life vest at the very first sign of trouble. If you notice any of the above signs of bad weather approaching, have each of your passengers put on their life jackets immediately. We can’t overstate how quickly weather conditions change out on the water, leaving you no time to get and put on your life jacket.
4. Stay Warm
It is a good idea always to keep rain gear and insulating layers on your boat. While the weather might be a balmy 80 degrees when you head out, a storm can quickly turn the conditions cold. So if bad weather is approaching, have everyone layer and life-jacket up!
5. Head For Shore
When you see the beginning signs of a storm, head for shore immediately. However, even when you are in sight of the shore, boating in bad weather puts you farther from help than you might think. Try your best to get to shore before the bad weather fully hits. Don’t opt to return to your original marina if there’s a safer haven closer by.
Riding Out The Storm
No two nautical storms are the same. No one can tell you the perfect response for every situation because every situation is different. However, we can share general tips for helping you safely make it to the other side.
- If everyone is not in their life jackets already, have everyone put them and the cold weather layers on now.
- If possible, have everyone go below. If in an open boat, have passengers sit low at the bottom of the boat along the centerline.
- Close all points where water could enter, i.e., doors, ports, and windows, to reduce the amount of water your boat takes on.
- Secure gear above and below decks. Stash small items below and tie bigger items down. Pay attention to keeping your load low and balanced.
- Prepare your emergency equipment: hand pumps, bailers, first-aid kit, signaling devices, etc.
- Note your position on your nautical map and mark it down. Note your speed and the predicted time to the nearest shore or dock.
- Remove excess water to help stabilize your boat. Excess water causes the boat to rock harder when rolling with the waves.
- Turn on your navigation lights.
- Ready your anchor but do not anchor the boat unless you are in a narrow body of water, you have no visibility, or are in danger of washing ashore. If you need to anchor, anchor from the bow to keep the boat facing the waves.
- Reduce your speed. While it is tempting to press full throttle towards the shore, as waves grow, you will need to match the speed of the waves.
- Head your boat into the wind and waves at a 45-degree angle to reduce stress and maintain better control. Think like a sailboat; zigzag with the waves instead of heading in a straight line.
- If there is lightning, keep everyone away from ungrounded and electrical components. Keep everyone as low as possible in the boat.
- Keep in mind the direction of the wind. During most thunderstorms, the wind direction will change. During a typical nautical thunderstorm, winds generally blow outward from the area of heaviest rain. As the storm approaches, the winds come straight at you. As it passes overhead, the winds ease off, then reverse direction. Knowing the pattern of a typical thunderstorm can give you an idea of how much longer you’ll be fighting the storm.
- If you have a larger boat, rig jack lines, and lifelines. Make sure anyone on deck is wearing a safety harness, if available.
- Keep a lookout for any floating debris, obstacles, or other boats.
- If you fear the storm is too much and you are losing the boat, get everyone on deck and send a Mayday on your marine VHF-FM radio.
We hope you never encounter a dangerous, threatening storm out on the water. However, we hope these tips on what to know about boating in any weather have given you more confidence. Here at Rocket Marine, we believe in helping you reach the water safely with our top-quality boat trailers and helping you stay safe with our boating expertise. So here’s to clear skies, warm memories, and plenty of safe adventures ahead!