Clinging to his overturned 14-foot boat, the father desperately searched for his
family. Seeing his wife behind him, clinging to their seven-year-old daughter and
a loose seat cushion, he yelled, “Are you alright?” Then he scrambled around the
stern to find his sons. There they were, treading water 15 or 20 feet away. They
weren’t under the boat, thank God, but they weren’t wearing life jackets either
– none of them were. It happened so fast. The day on the lake was perfect until
a late afternoon squall popped up. With barely enough time to weigh anchor and make
a dash for the marina, he ran too fast across the deep swells, buried his bow and
flipped the boat, launching himself and his family overboard. In a vessel built
for flat calm, he found himself in his first rough-water situation and he clearly
wasn’t prepared for it.
Preparation and education
can keep you from enduring a life-threatening experience.
The following article has been reprinted with permission by Sea Tow.
By Mario Vittone
Without a doubt, the best place for boaters to be when heavy weather strikes is
back at the dock. But weather changes can happen fast, unexpected events can extend
your voyage, and your first bad patch of sea is not the time or place to learn how
to handle rough conditions.
Luckily for that family of five on Lake Maurepas, La., they were close enough to
shore to be seen, and a local game warden and the U.S. Coast Guard were only minutes
away. The family was in the water less than 10 minutes when the rescue boat arrived.
The skipper lost only his boat that day, and no one in his family was seriously
But what else could that boat owner have done to be ready? Knowing the storm was
coming is an obvious first step, but when I interviewed the experts it became clear:
Success in foul weather isn’t just about paying attention to the weather. Staying
calm and understanding your vessel’s limits as well as your own can make all the
There are some things you can, and should, do in all heavy-weather situations, no
matter what kind of boat you own. They can make the difference between a lesson
learned and one learned the hard way.
First, brief your passengers on the situation and have them stay low in the boat.
They can’t slip and fall if they are sitting down, and lowering the center of gravity
of your vessel in bigger seas will help its stability.
Next, make sure all loose gear is secure and all openings (hatches, ports and windows)
are closed. Then consider sending out a pan-pan radio call. A pan-pan alerts the
U.S. Coast Guard, Sea Tow and other local authorities that you are in an urgent
situation, but that there is no immediate danger to anyone’s life or the boat (in
which case a mayday call would be initiated). In 2007, there were over 800 accidents
involving capsizing, flooding/swamping, or ejection of persons from recreational
boats in U.S. waters.* Things can go wrong surprisingly fast out there; don’t wait
for an accident to call for help. Those standing watch will hear your pan-pan and
offer to help you get to a safe port.
Consider the possibility of heading to protected water nearby. If you have a small
boat, can you safely beach the vessel until the storm passes? Should you make a
move at all? If heading for the marina requires running in the trough or head on
into the seas, perhaps trying to get back to the dock isn’t the safest choice. Simply
“jogging in place,” by chugging ahead at a 45-degree angle to the swell – regardless
of the direction that points the bow – and waiting might very well be the best course
Proceed with Caution
“One of the biggest mistakes boaters make when caught out in bad weather is they
simply move too fast,” says Capt. Ethan Maass, owner of Sea Tow South Shore in Green
Harbor, Mass. Pulling back and moving at the minimum possible speed immediately
lowers the risk of capsizing and gives you time to assess your situation and take
Everyone aboard should already be wearing life jackets. Besides their obvious
benefits in the water, having some padding around the ribcage while being tossed
around can also help prevent injuries.
“The next thing is to evaluate the situation and stay oriented,” Maass suggests.
Rushing back to the dock can lead to other mistakes like missing (or hitting) channel
markers, running aground, or simply putting your boat in a situation it (or you)
can’t handle. “Slow down and consider your options,” he says.
Be Your Own Weatherman
It also pays to know what causes rough-water conditions in the first place. In addition
to keeping an ear tuned to the radio for weather advisories, Steve Dashew, veteran
cruiser and co-author (with his wife, Linda) of Surviving the Storm: Coastal &
Offshore Tactics, recommends, “Spend some time learning about weather and
how to make your own onboard forecasts.” Being able to forecast hostile weather
and maneuver around them is always the best plan.
Know Your Boat
All boats aren’t created equally. Knowing the limits and handling characteristics
of your particular vessel is best learned through experience. Husband-and-wife team
Lin and Larry Pardey are experts at cruising in extremely heavy weather. Authors
of the Storm Tactics Handbook, the couple believes that knowing your boat
and how it behaves in rough seas is the number one way to keep your cool when surprised
by bad weather.
Lin Pardey advises gradually increasing your comfort level in progressively harsher
conditions before attempting any offshore voyage where rough seas are more
likely to occur. “You need to get your sea legs first,” she says. “What Larry and
I suggest to people is that you find 15 knots of sustained breeze and practice running
your boat slowly, crosswise to the seas. Then do the same thing in 25 knots of wind,
and more, depending on your vessel. That way, you’ll have an idea of how to move
around in heavy weather.”
Additional Survival Tools
Offshore boaters can dramatically increase their confidence and peace of mind while
motoring offshore with a comparatively modest investment in training and equipment.
Speed limiting drogues are sea anchors that when tied to the stern, maintain
your vessel’s alignment with the sea in a following sea.. Should you need to take
unexpected heavy weather on the stern, they limit the chances of your stern being
pushed around by the swells and help prevent a broach.
Para-anchors, when effectively deployed, can be very useful in maintaining alignment
to the sea should you lose power or just need a break until the weather passes.
These rugged parachutes – rigged at an angle off the bow – can also help stabilize
your boat in heavy weather.
The Pardeys set hove-to with a para-anchor off South Africa in 85-knot winds and
65-foot seas in a sailboat. “The boat rode beautifully,” Lin Pardey said. “It was
just beautiful out there.” In the kind of seas and winds I have only heard about,
they managed to be relaxed enough to enjoy the view – while getting much-needed
rest and even a hot meal.
Buying a small para-anchor for your open-hulled 21-foot boat -- or even a large
cruiser -- may seem unnecessary, but if your next heavy-weather moment is accompanied
by an engine failure, having one and knowing how to use it will change your mind
completely. And, while there are too many variables at sea to call any one tactic
“the best,” these devices can only help you if you have them and know how to use
Know Your Limits
Dashew also says, “Personal skill sets are far more important than the hardware
on the boat.”
The author of the must-read book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales, agrees.
He writes, “The word ‘experienced’ often refers to someone who has gotten away with
doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have.” Getting on a boat and taking
it offshore without being physically and emotionally ready for heavy weather is
definitely a wrong thing that boaters often get away with – but not always.
Seven years ago, the skipper who flipped his small boat in Lake Maurepas learned
the hard way that he wasn’t ready to be out in a storm. His family survived but
it would have been much better for everyone if he had been better prepared for his
first exposure to rough conditions.
The point isn’t about knowing “the best thing” to do when caught out in heavy weather.
Again, there are too many variables for absolutes. Just remember that bad weather
happens. With a minimal investment in equipment and some practice in less-than-perfect
conditions, you’ll be ready when the rough stuff rolls in, and you will make landfall
the way you intended – in your own boat, not someone else’s.
Small Craft Advisories
If you only think about the weather when the National Weather Service sends a warning,
you may be thinking about it too late. Small craft advisories are issued for different
conditions depending on your location. In Louisiana, for example, small craft advisories
are issued when winds are expected to exceed 20 to 33 knots and/or seas are expected
to be above seven feet for more than two hours. So, the late afternoon squall that
churned up the lake that day didn’t trigger such a warning; that doesn’t mean that
the storm came out of nowhere.
A quick look at the Weather Channel can be all it takes to stay informed of impending
bad weather, but checking NOAA’s Weather Radio broadcast for your area is a must
before any trip on the water. With detailed information on winds, sea states, currents
and water temperatures, these continually updated weather broadcasts provide detailed
information that boaters should be aware of before heading out. Stay informed about
the conditions you might face and balance them against the limits of your boat and
your crew. For more information on marine broadcasts, coastal weather and hazardous
weather outlooks, visit noaa.gov.
* Source: 2007 U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics
This article has been brought to you by Sea Tow, a BoatTEST.com sponsor.