Rough weather on the water
How to handle your boat in a storm
Recreational boaters can avoid boating in bad weather by checking the marine forecast before heading out and postponing their cruise until the weather improves. But once on the water, sudden severe thunderstorms are still a hazard and can materialize out of nowhere. That’s when seamanship—the ability to pilot a vessel effectively under adverse conditions—comes into play.
Heavy weather seamanship requires knowledge of wind, water and geography. You and your boat should be prepared at all times. Anchors and rodes should be kept at the ready along with life jackets and all other safety equipment.
Many small boats aren’t designed to take a heavy pounding, and the resulting structural damage could cause the boat to break apart. Strong breaking waves can cause flooding and capsizing. In beam seas (waves perpendicular to the side of the boat), an excessive roll can shift your boat’s load, creating a dangerous list. In following seas (waves coming from behind the boat), your vessel could lose stability on a wave crest, and if your speed is excessive, broaching may occur—a situation where the vessel runs down the crest of a wave, gathering speed, and buries its bow into the backside of the next wave. This could cause the operator to lose control and the vessel to veer off course. In quartering seas, beam and following seas combine to create one of the most serious conditions a boater can encounter.
In a sudden storm, your immediate problems are limited visibility, high winds and rapidly building seas. Try to remain calm. Have everyone dress warmly, put on life jackets and, if possible, go below. Close all hatches, doors, watertight compartments and windows to reduce the amount of water taken on. In an open boat, passengers should sit low in the bottom of the boat along the center line.
Although you should get your boat to the dock as quickly as possible, once waves reach a certain height, safety dictates that you match your vessel’s speed to the speed of the waves. That means slowing down a lot. The more you reduce speed, the less strain you put on the hull and superstructure. Keep your vessel at a 45-degree angle to the wind and make slow but steady progress to the nearest port.
Stay away from rocky shorelines. If you’re far from port but have shelter available, such as islands and peninsulas, sheltering may be a good idea depending on the water’s depth and shoreline conditions. In smaller boats, putting up on a sandy beach may be a good idea.
If you perceive the situation as life-threatening, it’s better to sacrifice the boat to save yourself and your family or friends.