What do you see when you close your eyes and imagine the perfect boating experience? Chances are you’re dreaming about sunny, cloudless skies, calm, clear waters, and not a breath of wind in the air. While we get plenty of these days in our boating careers, every captain eventually faces a situation involving bad weather.
When the skies turn dark and stormy, you need to know how to handle the situation. For instance, if you don’t know anything about Great White shark behavior, you’ll probably panic if you spot one while swimming in the water.
As a result, you start swimming hurriedly to shore, and your movement attracts the shark. As you thrash in the water, you spark the curiosity of the shark, and it takes a bite out of you to see what it’s missing. The reality is that if you remained calm and collected with your thoughts, the shark would probably not take much interest in you and swim out to sea.
It’s the same thing with facing stormy weather at sea. Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. Those who have the necessary preparation to handle the situation will fare better than those who have no idea how to handle the problem.
We put together this brief guide on boating in rough waters to help you reach the shore safe and sound through the chop and wind.
- Top Tips for Boating in Rough Waters
- Review the Weather Report
- Take Your VHF Marine Radio
- Check the Marine Radio Battery
- Know Your Distress Channels
- Check Your Fuel
- Stay Calm and Avoid Panic
- Wear Your Lifejacket
- Pull Back on Your Speed
- Approach the Waves at an Angle
- Strap Down Belongings
- Attach a Kill Switch to Your Lifejacket
- Stay In Communication with Crew
Top Tips for Boating in Rough Waters
If you want to increase your knowledge base on boating, follow these tips for handling rough waters.
Review the Weather Report
The best way to avoid boating in rough waters is to check the weather report before going out. If you know bad weather is coming, then you are less likely to launch and more likely to reschedule the boating trip for another date when conditions are better.
Unfortunately, local weather forecasts don’t include ocean conditions in most states. So, you’ll need to get specialized weather reports catering to the boating community.
The NOAA weather report system is the most accurate weather system in the world and the global standard accepted by mariners in all countries. You can rely on NOAA for accurate and up-to-date weather reports in any part of the world.
NOAA releases its weather reports in real-time, allowing you to get an accurate reading on ocean conditions and the wind. While you’re out on the water, keep one ear tuned to the weather report.
Conditions out on the ocean can change fast, with little warning. However, if you have NOAA giving you the all-clear, then you can trust that you have nothing to worry about on your trip.
Take Your VHF Marine Radio
A good-quality VHF marine radio is essential equipment for any boating captain. VHF radios feature up to 25 channels allowing for effective communications at sea.
The VHF marine radio could end up saving your life in an emergency. It’s the only way to reach the coast guard to arrange a rescue. Most models also come with DSC (Digital Selective Calling) and GPS positioning, allowing the coast guard to find you fast for a quick recovery.
The marine radio also helps with moving in and out of the harbor or marina, allowing you to keep in contact with the harbormaster and their instructions. Most VHF marine radios also come with NOAA weather channels preprogrammed into the unit.
The radio may also have other features like AM/FM radio function, mp3 players, or emergency lights. These radios come in two different styles: handheld and console-mounted styles.
Check the Marine Radio Battery
A marine radio can save your life if things go wrong out on the water. However, they won’t be able to help if you forget to charge the batteries before you launch.
We recommend putting off your boating trip if you don’t have enough charge in the batteries. Being out at sea with no radio contact is a recipe for the sequel to “Castaway,” and you don’t need to be the next Tom Hanks.
Most VHF marine radios come with lithium-ion battery packs. These batteries have plenty of life and last for 10 to 20-hours before going flat.
Look for models that come with charging docks included with your purchase. With a charging dock linked to your boat’s electrical system, you never have to worry about the radio going dead on you in an emergency.
Know Your Distress Channels
If things go wrong out on the water, you need to know who to call. When the situation turns bad and people start panicking, the adrenaline will rush through your veins, and you might experience challenges in your decision-making.
So, knowing the right channels to call in an emergency is paramount to launching your boat and enjoying a day at sea.
The United States Coast Guard services operate an emergency communication channel on channel 16.
It’s important that you don’t tie up channel 16 with regular chatter, or the coast guard is likely to give you a warning. Channel 16 is only for emergencies, and using it for regular conversation could be putting someone’s life at risk.
It’s also important to note-issuing false alarms to the USCG will land you in a lot of trouble. If the USCG determines you were wasting their time as part of a prank, you could end up facing a $5,000-fine or up to 6-months in prison.
Parents should explain this to their kids, as kids will often play this type of prank if they get bored at sea, landing the parent in hot water with the coast guard.
Check Your Fuel
If a storm suddenly appears out of nowhere, the first thing you need to do is check your fuel gauge. Navigating the boat through stormy water requires more engine power. More engine power means that the motor drinks more fuel to push it through the rough swell.
Therefore, the last thing you need is to end up running out of fuel halfway home. If your motor goes dead during the storm, you could end up drifting with the wind and the weather for hundreds of miles off course.
If you think there is a chance you might not make it back to land, it might be a better choice to drop anchor and wait out the bad weather.
Stay Calm and Avoid Panic
When the weather changes and the storm move in, the number one thing captains need to do is avoid panicking. Panicking provides no value to the situation, and it does nothing but drive fear into the hearts and minds of the crew.
It’s just some bad weather, and you’ll get through it because you have the right preparation. Even if things go wrong, and you end up running aground on a reef out to sea, stay calm and repeat your training. Giving in to panic and fear will only worsen the situation.
As the captain, the crew relies on you for confidence during the trip. If they see you panicking, they will likely do the same, and chaos will break out. Chaotic situations only increase the risk of a bad outcome, so stay calm and keep everyone together.
Wear Your Lifejacket
The life jacket is your last line of defense in a life-threatening situation at sea. Every vessel taking to the water is required by law to have a life jacket for everyone on board. When the passengers are on the boat, it’s up to the captain to enforce the wearing of the life jackets, not the USGC.
We recommend wearing your life jacket for the entire duration you are out on the water. However, we get that some people find them constrictive and prefer not to wear them in good weather conditions or when the boat is not in motion.
However, when the water gets rough, it’s absolutely critical for every passenger to wear their life jacket. The boat’s motion in choppy waters could result in a crew member being thrown from the vessel. If they aren’t wearing their life jacket, there is a massive reduction in the chances of surviving the ordeal.
Pull Back on Your Speed
When bad weather turns up, turn down the engine speed. Racing through calm waters is easy and fun. However, moving too fast in choppy waters could end up flipping your boat.
Take your hand off the throttle and pull back on your speed. Fighting the current won’t work. Despite the huge outboard motors on your vessel, the ocean current is stronger, and you’re doing nothing but burning more fuel than you need to.
Let the storm play out and conserve your fuel for the journey home. Reducing your speed also prevents the boat from dipping into wave troughs where it may pearl, swamping and sinking the boat.
Approach the Waves at an Angle
When the wind picks up, so does the swell. During a storm, the flat, calm ocean can suddenly turn into 20-foot monster waves that are ready to swamp and sink your boat. Waves are just a symbol of the energy moving through the water.
If you’re trying to force your boat through a four-foot wave, you’re going to find out that the ocean has a lot more power than your think. Trying to bust through a 15 or 20-footer is practically suicide for you and your passengers.
So, when you’re caught in stormy conditions and the swell gets big, reduce the risk of the waves capsizing your boat by approaching them at a 45-degree angle. This strategy reduces the angle of the line over the wave, limiting the chance of the wave flipping the boat.
You can see surfers take the same approach when taking off on a hollow, steep wave. They point the board at a 45-degree angle to the beach, or where the wave is breaking. If they were to take a straightforward approach, they would airdrop and miss the face of the wave.
Strap Down Belongings
When you’re out in rough waters, the swell can pick up suddenly. Waves run over the ocean in “sets” some sets are bigger than others, and you might encounter a “rogue wave” between these sets. Rogue waves are a horrendous sight, and they are common in rough waters.
A rogue wave can be anywhere up to 50% bigger than the biggest set of waves you encounter out on the ocean. When the wave hits, the captain has to take a careful approach to it to prevent the wave from flipping the boat.
The stormy weather also produces plenty of wind and rocking motion to the boat. Therefore, it’s important to ensure you have everything above deck strapped down and secure. Ensure that everything below the deck is secure and safely packed away.
Attach a Kill Switch to Your Lifejacket
If you’re piloting a personal watercraft (PWC), you’re in for a lot of fun. Jet skis are a great way to get out to fishing sites fast, and they are lightweight, maneuverable watercraft. It’s so much easier to launch a PWC compared to the struggle of launching a boat, and they cost almost nothing to run.
However, being caught in a storm on a PWC can be a nightmare if you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t have the right safety gear for the occasion. When you’re riding a jet ski in stormy waters, you’re going to experience plenty of bouncing around on the waves.
If one of the waves throws you from the jet ski, nothing stops it from running away from you, leaving you stranded in the stormy water. Attaching the engine kill switch to your lifejacket pulls it from the ignition if the waves throw you from the watercraft.
Stay In Communication with Crew
If you’re on a boat with passengers, keep everyone aware of what’s going on. If you don’t keep the lines of communication open with the people on board, they will likely start to talk among themselves and begin to panic.
Give the crew frequent updates and instructions to keep everyone engaged and aware of the situation and the threats you face.