you're into boating long enough, the time will come
when you get caught out in a vicious thunder storm.
When that time comes, you either know how to handle
the situation or you don't.
big problem is that for the most part, we don't know
where that will be when it happens, how long it lasts
and how intense the storm is. We all pretty much agree
that the weather experts are not very good at predicting
these things. That is not their fault, because thunderstorms
can develop very quickly. If it happens to develop
very close to where you are, then there's not much
chance for an advance warning.
The good news is that
very severe storms normally require certain favorable
conditions that ARE somewhat more predictable. Such
as frontal boundaries which create an unstable atmosphere.
Just because the local TV weather bimbo isn't very
good at predicting precisely what will happen (after
all, she's probably just reading the teleprompter
and doesn't know squat about the weather), we shouldn't
ignore the weather information that is available to
us. That is why sailors (who go around in boats that
are very slow and can't escape storms) learn to become
weather experts themselves.
If you're not willing
to take the time to learn to read weather maps, then
the least you should do is to learn to read the sky.
Being on the water means that you usually have a far
horizon available, so that you should be able to see
a storm coming and have opportunity to flee from it.
If you do get caught,
here are some tips to help you stay out of trouble.
One cannot always tell
how severe a thunderstorm is by looking at it. Sometimes
we see ominous squall lines that look like the apocalypse
coming. And then almost nothing happens. At other
times it may not look so bad and turn out to be the
end of the world in disguise. Or so it seems. One
of the problems we have with thunderstorms is that
they do not conform to any rules of behavior.
Though they may appear to be moving in a certain direction,
that is only from your perspective. From a larger
perspective, they can be moving in more than one direction
at once, as they always do along a frontal boundary.
You can observe this
phenomenon on weather radar loops. Individual cells
moving in one direction, but the whole system in another.
Understanding this will give you a better chance of
When storms pop up
along frontal boundaries, the overall front is moving
in one direction, while the storm is moving in another.
The front may be moving east to west, but the storm
cells are moving north to south along the front. My
point here is that the apparent direction of movement
may not be the true direction.
Miami skyline on a beautiful morning.
last long though, for within a couple of hours
it looked like this. This squall line is moving
on shore, but notice that the sky ahead of
it is also dark. On this day, the storms were
We especially want
to avoid storms associated with weather fronts because
both the strength and duration of thunderstorms is
likely to be the strongest and of longest duration.
Moral: Don't plan to
go out for the day without checking on a reliable
weather map or report. That doesn't mean those
childish graphics that pass for weather maps in newspapers.
The best and easiest available source is the Weather
Channel or any one of the official NWS or NOAA web
When you do get caught,
your most immediate problems are loss of visibility
and high winds. And depending on your location, rapidly
building seas. How you react and what you should do
depends greatly on the size of your boat and the type
of body of water you are on. No one can tell you
precisely what the correct response is because every
situation is different.
Obviously, if you're
in a very small boat you are in big trouble if high
seas becomes a threat along with the loss of visibility.
The most important thing is to avoid panic and rash
reactions. Break out the life jackets and tell passengers
to put them on "just to be safe." It is
important to keep the inexperienced people calm, lest
you end up with more problems.
Soon storms are unpredictably popping up all
over. Winds here were estimated at 45-50 knots.
Seas from zero to 5 foot in fifteen minutes.
Close to a bunch of islands is not a good place
for a big boat to be, so we get away, pronto.
Next, consider your
position. There are several things you want to avoid:
Dangerous shorelines, inlets and potential collisions
with other boats. How many other boats were around
you when you lost visibility? If there were quite
a few, and visibility is down to just a few yards,
reduce your speed to the minimum needed to control
the boat. Begin sounding your horn at regular intervals,
say 15 seconds, until visibility clears. Don't go
running blindly about at high speed as many boaters
do. Collisions are a very real risk, so you should
prepare for one.
If it looks like the
storm may only be of short duration and wind and waves
do become threatening, along with threats of collision
from loss of visibility, but you are close to a shoreline
and are in danger of going ashore, head your boat
into the wind and maintain a slow headway. This is
something that often happens in Florida with its frequent
storms. It turns into a kamikaze mission to be running
blind, so the thing to do is stop and hold position
and hope that all other boats do the same thing.
it's raining and conditions are the worst
is not hard to spot. This doesn't look so
is what it ultimately becomes with rainfall
rates that blot out all visibility. Those
are same islands in background as photo left.
Same day on the bay as top photos, different
In a big, fast Hatteras, we can afford to
fool around, but in a twenty footer, you'd
be in trouble.
Tossing out an anchor
probably isn't a good idea unless you are in a very
narrow body of water, have completely lost visibility,
and going ashore is an immediate threat. If you have
plenty of maneuver room, it's best to remain in control
of the boat and stand off.
In most thunderstorms,
the wind direction will soon change. Thunderstorm
winds are caused by down drafts created by the falling
rain. The rain pulls down air with it. The winds generally
blow outward from the center of the rainfall area.
As the storm approaches, winds are blasting straight
at you. As the rain cell passes over you, the winds
will slack off, then reverse directions (just like
a hurricane) and blow from the opposite direction,
usually with less intensity. Understanding this pattern
can give you a good idea of how long you'll be exposed
to those conditions.
Being able to judge
the forward speed and path of a thunderstorm is a
definite help toward making right decisions. ALL boaters
should learn to pay attention to weather and try to
learn as much as one can about its behavior.
Serious boaters know all about storm behavior, can
accurately predict severity and conditions, and take
appropriate actions before it's too late. That doesn't
necessarily mean avoidance, but it does mean the ability
to place themselves and their boats in less threatening
positions before the storm strikes.
A typical example of
what I mean is the ability to predict timing so that
one knows not to rush toward a dangerous inlet just
as a storm hits and visibility is lost. How do you
learn things like this? Well, by taking the time to
observe storms when they are about. When there is
a storm on the horizon, is it going to hit you or
not? Does it look serious enough that you should NOT
take the chance? Size, direction of movement and speed
help answer this question. So does knowing whether
there is a front approaching, or whether the atmosphere
In the later cases,
what appears as one storm can soon become two
or three, and rapidly grow in size and engulf you,
not by storm movement, but by expanding cell development.
The experienced boater keeps one eye on the sky at
all times and learns to spot this development before
it's too late.
My Bad Day at Black
There was one occasion
when I got trapped far out in the Gulf Stream. Thunderstorms
built in the west over the Everglades as they always
do in the summer, and then proceed to move eastward.
I was not paying attention to the fact that storms
were also starting to build to the south. Soon we
had storms moving from the west and south, and of
course, they converged in the southwest, making for
some of the worst thunderstorms I have ever witnessed,
threatening to even a fifty foot sport fisherman.
Except for night-time
storms, this was the only time I had ever been frightened
by thunderstorms. They were severe and lasted most
of the day and into early evening. The results were
that we lost a Bimini top, an outrigger and two windows.
The interior of the boat was a shambles: the sofa
broke loose and smashed part of the salon interior;
the reefer door tore off and dumped its contents.
A battery box broke loose and shifted into an engine
alternator, knocking out the DC system on one side.
Why did all this happen?
I'll tell you this: we ignored warnings of unstable
weather (a tropical low was developing over us) and
we weren't paying attention to what was happening
weather-wise around us. We should have seen it coming
(developing) and cut our fishing short. As it was,
we stayed 15 miles offshore and got our butts kicked
but good, learning a valuable lesson in the process:
Mother Nature holds all the cards.
are situations where you can find yourself smack along
the path of a line of storms, in which case you'll
be hit by one cell after another. This is the worst
possible scenario, and one that usually could have
been avoided had you done your job as skipper and
checked the weather before you headed out. Storms
of this type are in association with fronts and atmospheric
instability, and such information is available in
Getting caught in this
stuff is a baptism by fire. And wind and rain and
waves, as I described above. Here the storms do not
let up, but hit you one after the other, and can go
on for hours, even days. This is serious, life-threatening
When caught in this
kind of weather, the best strategy that I know of
is to bide your time and wait for a break between
storm cells when you can make a mad dash for port,
if you are close enough. The one thing you do not
want to do is to try to negotiate an inlet on a lee
shore with no visibility. (a lee shore is one toward
which the wind is blowing). If you're far offshore,
you may want to try work your way closer to shore
(visibility permitting) and then stand off at a safe
If you have shelter
available (but are far from port), such as islands
and peninsulas. whether sheltering is a good idea
depends much on depth of water and shorelines. In
smaller boats, if there are sandy shores, putting
up on one may be a good idea. Just bear in mind that
with thunderstorms, wind directions will probably
change, so that seeking shelter in the lee of a landmass
could mean getting caught on an exposed shore. If
you perceive the situation as life threatening, it's
better to sacrifice the boat and save yourself and
family or friends.
Rocky shores are very
dangerous to both boats and people. You want to stay
clear of them at all costs. Use an anchor if necessary.
This brings up the
issue of preparedness. You and your boat should be
prepared at ALL times. Trouble comes in its own time,
not yours. Anchors and rodes should be kept in a state
of readiness, along with PFD's and all other safety
equipment. At sea, Murphy's law can reign supreme.
Thunderstorms are called
that because they come with lightning which generates
thunder. Lightning deaths and injuries to boaters
are on the rise, mainly because there are more boaters
that make good targets. Indeed, out on the water you
are a good target.
In larger boats where
you have any kind of structure around you, be it a
cabin or just a Bimini top, you have a fair degree
of safety. Fortunately, injuries to people IN
boats are very few as you have a cone of protection
People in open boats
are most at risk. The potential for injury increases
if you have wet, bare feet. So, wearing rubbery tennis
shoes is one help.
We hear on TV not to
touch metals. That's good advice in a house, but impractical
and not necessarily true in a boat.
If you have hydraulic
steering in your boat, and most boats do these days,
you needn't fear holding the metal steering wheel.
There is an exception however, and that is if your
boat has copper hydraulic lines. In that case, holding
the wheel puts your body directly in a ground path.
Mostly, only larger and older, and especially Oriental
built boats will have copper lines, so it's best to
check on the material.
Things to avoid holding
onto are Bimini top frames, ladders, towers and large
railings. Isolated pieces of metal such as small grab
rails and the like are not a threat.
Particularly keep your
distance from radio antennas which are real lightning
rods. Lower then as a storm approaches. Keep passengers
off the bridge and into the cabin. By all means, keep
your hands off the radio mike; holding it is like
strapping a lightning rod to your body.
In an open boat one
is very vulnerable and there is not much you can do
to avoid being a target except to avoid standing up.