Smart strategies for handling weather on the water

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Pre-Planning + Weather Wisdom = Better Boat Rentals

Casting off the lines for a boat trip gives you an entirely new perspective on the world. When you leave the dock, your daily routine melts away as you look forward to an enjoyable day of sailing, power-boating, or fishing. Although pleasantly warm, sunny weather would be the icing on the cake, the forecast doesn’t always cooperate. In fact, some weather conditions can present serious hazards.

However, here’s some good news: With a little advance planning, and an “eye on the sky” while you’re underway, you can manage unpredictable weather without breaking a sweat.

Look at the Long-Range Weather Forecast

Several days before your trip, begin monitoring your area’s extended weather forecast. Meteorologists from The Weather Channel or your local TV station will be good sources of information. For a marine weather perspective, listen to NOAA Weather Radio. Specifically, listen to the five-day outlook, which can project your region’s upcoming weather conditions reasonably well.

First, consider what’s normal for this time of year. In south Florida, for example, daily afternoon thunderstorms are par for the course, so that shouldn’t make you scrap your plans. However, if you see a tropical storm or hurricane bearing down soon, put those boat rentals on hold until conditions improve.

Heed the Departure-Day Marine Weather

On the morning of your boat trip, tune in to updated weather forecasts, watching for potential “red flags” that might cause you to rethink your plans. Pay special attention to watches and warnings, such as “Small Craft Advisories” or “Gale or Storm Warnings” occurring now or within 24 hours.

Although these technology-based reports are useful, human observations are worth their weight in gold. For example, weather reports might suggest a light sea breeze, but the marina’s Dockmaster reports wind-whipped whitecaps in the entry channel. In that case, consider your safety first, and make a go/no go decision.

Double-Check Your Boating Safety Preparations

Let’s say weather conditions are favorable, and your day or weekend boating plans are full steam ahead. Before you hop aboard and cast off the lines, address two important issues that can affect your safety during the trip.

Inventory Your Boating Safety Gear: Make sure your boat has the required U.S. Coast Guard boating safety gear on board: First, look for one Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person aboard. Equally important, the boat should have an approved marine fire extinguisher that you can grab in an emergency.

Check the boat’s lockers for required visual distress signals. Although most vessels carry USCG-approved red handheld or aerial flares, an orange smoke-releasing device or large orange distress flag are also approved options.

Finally, confirm that the boat has a working marine VHF radio, as you’ll need a reliable means of communication in an emergency (and for weather reports underway). Don’t depend on your mobile phone, as coverage can be spotty and even non-existent away from shore.

File That All-Important Float Plan: Before you leave the dock, file a float plan with the Coast Guard. Tell them your departure point, your destination, and when you plan to return.

If you intend to troll the offshore waters, follow the wind under sail, or anchor and snorkel in the Florida Keys, include those extra details. Although you (and the Coast Guard) hope your boat rentals go smoothly, they don’t want to waste valuable time trying to find you in an emergency.

Monitor the Marine Weather While Underway

Marine weather is notoriously difficult to predict, as multiple variables can affect weather conditions in any given spot. Also, on-water weather can change without warning.

Let’s say you’ve had several hours of smooth sailing, enjoying a steady breeze in a light chop, with just a few little whitecaps. You noshed on snacks and drinks, soaked up some sun, and mellowed out to your favorite iTunes playlist. Life just couldn’t get any better.

However, the afternoon brought cloudy weather, stronger winds, and choppier sea conditions. In other words, you were experiencing a rougher ride, and you wondered if bad weather was looming over the horizon. Fortunately, you knew how to find the answer.

Listen to Your Boat’s VHF Radio

Most likely, your boat’s VHF radio has one or more NOAA Weather Radio channels. By tuning in during your trip, you’ll receive updated forecasts and current warnings that can enhance your safety.

Remember, though, the VHF radio reception depends on the radio’s quality, along with the locations of your boat and the transmitter. Obstructions between your boat and the transmitter might also be a factor. As a guideline, many VHF transmissions can be heard from 20 to 40 miles from their source.

Watch for Changing Wind and Waves

If you’re boating in a region with strong tidal currents, watch for stronger winds that blow in the opposite direction to the tides. The combination of these two factors might generate steep waves that can get your boat in trouble.

Keep a Weather Eye for Thunderstorms

Watch for obvious signs of an approaching storm. Besides thunder and lightning, almost-constant static on an AM radio often means a thunderstorm isn’t far away. Steadily increasing winds and/or higher seas might also be an indicator of developing bad weather.

Use These Thunderstorm Management Tactics

If you see a storm approaching, ask everyone to don their life jacket, as wind and waves can generate choppy conditions. Turn on the boat’s running lights, as that will help other boats to see you in reduced visibility. If you can get to shore before the storm hits, that’s your best bet. If not, anchor the boat if you can do that safely, and go below.

If you must ride out the storm underway, decrease the boat’s speed while maintaining enough power to make headway. Drive into the waves at a 45-degree angle.

Finally, reduce your lightning risks by staying away from metal objects that aren’t grounded to the boat’s protection system. Avoid touching more than one grounded object at once.

Follow This Fog Contingency Plan

Boaters in some regions must contend with periodic foggy conditions. Sometimes fog arrives without warning, while on other occasions you’ll see it rolling across the water. Before thick fog surrounds you, pinpoint your location and grab a compass to help you navigate.
For your safety, reduce your speed and turn on the running lights. Listen for bells from nearby buoys and horn signals from other boats. By keeping a cool head and putting your other senses into play, you can meet this weather challenge and get yourself home safely.

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