Boaters never plan to hit bad weather, but even the most diligent forecast watchers can find themselves in an unexpected squall from time to time. So, while all boat owners should aim to avoid leaving the dock on stormy days, it never hurts to prepare your boat for less than ideal weather conditions—just in case.
Here’s what you can do to make sure your vessel is rough weather ready.
Inventory your supplies
Make sure you have all the necessary emergency supplies onboard before you ever leave the dock. You’ll find a comprehensive list of boating safety equipment here, but at minimum, you should have the following onboard:
- A compass and maps of the area you plan to navigate
- A fully charged and operational VHF radio
- At least one life jacket per person onboard
- Extra lines to tie down loose items and equipment in windy conditions
- Flares and an air horn for signaling your location in case you get stuck
- A fully stocked first aid kit
- Fresh drinking water (the rule of thumb is at least one liter per person for every two hours you plan to be away)
Practice emergency drills
Chances are, you’ll never actually need to navigate through severe weather, but you should always have a plan just in case. Even the most experienced boaters can panic in an emergency—especially if they haven’t practiced what to do.
Make a habit of running through a bad weather drill with your family or regular guests once or twice a year. You can practice slowing to a steady pace, distributing life jackets, tying down loose equipment, instructing guests where to sit, unplugging electrical equipment, approaching waves at a 45-degree angle, and navigating to the nearest safe harbor. Running drills like this can create a sort of muscle memory and help you to be a more effective captain if you ever encounter the real thing.
Monitor weather forecasts and heed safety warnings
This is probably the easiest preventative measure you can take. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website is a great place to start, but local reporting can be just as (if not more!) helpful, too.
Perform safety and equipment checks before you leave the dock
In addition to staying on top of your maintenance schedule, you should get into the habit of running through a predeparture checklist before you leave the dock. The systems and equipment onboard will vary from boat to boat, but this list should serve as a good general starting point.
- Visually examine the engine(s)
- Check coolant and engine oil
- Test steering equipment
- Visually examine bilges
- Test bilge pumps
- Visually examine the hull, railings, hatches, etc.
- Test the radio and ensure it’s fully charged
Make a float plan
The U.S. Coast Guard recommends filling out a detailed float plan form and leaving it with a reliable person who will notify a rescue agency if you don’t return as scheduled. It may not be feasible to complete a detailed form before every cruise, but, you should at least tell someone you trust where you’re going, when you plan to get back, and what to do if they don’t hear from you by a predetermined time. All of this can be accomplished with a simple text message if you’re tight on time. Yay, technology!
Educate your passengers
As the captain of a boat—no matter how big or small—safety should be your first priority. And while you may have every boating safety precaution memorized, it’s important to keep in mind that your guests probably aren’t as well-versed in the best practices of boating as you are. So, it’s important that you set aside time to educate them on how to enjoy your boat safely.
You can read up on how to give a stellar boating safety talk here, but at minimum, you’ll want to be sure that your guests know where everything is stored (e.g., life jackets, life rings, fenders, and boat hooks), how to move about your boat when it’s underway, what to do if someone goes overboard, and what to do if you hit rough water.
If you get caught in a storm …
Stay calm. Steering your boat through less than ideal weather can be stressful, but you can absolutely do it. Remember, you already invested time preparing for this very contingency!
Once you’ve taken a moment to gather yourself and assess the situation, it’s time to act. Here’s what you need to do:
- Slow down to a steady speed while maintaining forward momentum
- Flip on your navigation lights to make your vessel more visible
- Instruct everyone onboard to put on a life jacket (this includes you!)
- Ask guests to sit toward the center of the boat in a straight line (they can even move below deck if conditions are really rough) to ensure that weight is evenly distributed
- Stow or tie-down loose equipment to avoid stray items from becoming airborne projectiles
- Close all hatches and portholes to avoid flooding
- Unplug electrical equipment (if there’s lightning)
- Turn on bilge pumps to keep your hull as buoyant as possible
- Use your maps, GPS, or navigational equipment to identify and navigate to the nearest safe harbor
- Remember to approach large waves at a 45-degree angle to maximize stability
If you need help or can’t get to shore …
There may be times when riding out the storm on anchor might be your safest option due to factors beyond your control, like poor visibility or engine trouble. This can be understandably stressful, but there are things you can do to ensure everyone’s safety.
- Find a safe, protected place to drop anchor (if possible); you can drop an anchor from the bow of your boat (never the stern) and turn off the engines once you have a good hold
- Radio for assistance using either channel 9 or 16; let the coast guard or your local marine rescue organization know where you are (as best you can) and that you aren’t able to navigate due to current weather or equipment conditions
- Move your guests to the center of the boat and below deck if possible
- Keep signaling and communication devices nearby
Steering your boat through unexpectedly rough weather can be a harrowing experience, but with a little preparation and a few safety precautions, you’ll get through it just fine. The key is to prepare as much as possible in advance—just in case.