#QuickTips – Navigating Bad Weather

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Do you know what to do if you get caught in bad weather?

As a boater, we can be reasonably assured that at least once in our boating lifetime we will find ourselves in nasty weather with a possible risk to our well being. While it may not be life threatening, you will recognize it as a situation that makes you and/or your passengers uncomfortable. When this happens, do you know the basic procedures to follow to ensure safe passage? Now is the time to review difficult water protocol, rather than waiting until it happens. Deteriorating water conditions are something you must recognize when it first happens. Clues include windy conditions that you judge to be blowing at over 25 mph. There are whitecaps running on the surface of the water. Your ride is bumpy with some pounding. Running through the waves creates a spray, with some of it entering the boat. You need to ask yourself honestly if it is remotely possible for the water conditions you are experiencing could become worse?


Not all lumpy water is dangerous. Small boaters will often encounter a bumpy ride that, while of no real concern, is less than ideal. A procedure that I often apply for such conditions is to look for a larger boat going in my direction. When that larger boat shows up, slow down your boat down and wait for it to pass. As it passes, turn in behind the bigger boat that passed, cutting through his wake on a shallow angle, and positioning yourself three or four boat lengths behind it. Then throttle up to stay with the other boat. The larger the boat, the larger the flat water spot it leaves behind. If you haven’t done this before, it may be a little intimidating, but once you tuck yourself into the flat water behind the larger boat, you will appreciate the smoother ride. It also helps to make sure you understand waves and wakes. You must remain extra vigilant and keep one hand on the throttle and the other on the wheel in preparation for any quick stop or turn that may be required.


The first precaution you should take is to have everyone onboard put on a life vest or life jacket. You should make this move well before it becomes necessary and more difficult to implement. It also identifies you as being in control of the situation. This is also a good time to locate and make ready your bail bucket, docking lines, and communication devices such as cell phones, VHF radio, and flares. Water splashing over the gunnels is a sure sign of ugly water, but it is no cause to panic. Turn on your bilge pump. Consider your destination and heading. Is there a safe docking location that is closer and easier to reach than continuing to your original destination? If so, don’t wait too long before setting that as your new destination. You should also consider the possibility of finding flatter water by running in the lee of a nearby land mass. If you see a protected shoreline and if you have time, boat towards the land that will provide flatter water.

Once you have considered all your options and you find yourself rocking and rolling with the weather trying to take control of your boat, you need to take serious defensive action. Choose a heading that is either upwind or downwind, depending upon which course will take you closer to your destination. If you choose to travel downwind, trim your motor up slightly and set a speed that is equal to, or slightly faster than, the waves coming at you from behind. Be careful with your steering to hold a heading that is the same as the waves trying to overtake you. If you let them overtake you, they could cause your boat to “broach,” which means scoot your boat around sideways and try to roll you over. Broaching is a classic concern that has taken down many boats. Once you are boating like this, you should be safe to continue for quite some time. Don’t get excited, just continue until you get close to your destination.

If you chose to run into the wind (upwind) because that is closer to the direction you want to travel, steer directly into the wind and trim to neutral or slightly down. It is important to run perpendicular to each wave as you pass through it. By travelling at a slow and steady speed with your trim down, you will be less likely to go ‘airborne’ as you boat over the crest of each oncoming wave. Even the smallest of boats can usually operate over large waves for extended periods of time by following this system. If the waves are very large, you may be able to alter your direction slightly between each wave to help keep you heading more closely to the direction you desire. Just remember that it is better to arrive safely at a wrong destination than to get into trouble trying to get to your desired destination. If you reach a stress level where you are finding it very difficult to continue, put out a “Pan” on channel 16 to notify the authorities of your predicament and location. Also, be sure to inform them of your intentions. Of course if sinking appears imminent, broadcast a “Mayday”. Be prepared to provide your co-ordinates, boat type, length and color, plus the number of souls onboard.


So you made some mistakes and now your boat is full of water. Stay with the boat. Grab one of those mooring lines you pulled out earlier and while you shouldn’t tie it to your boat, have everyone hold onto it. A larger boat may come to your rescue before the authorities get there. Do not scramble to get into their boat, but rather let them direct the individual attention they will offer. While the definition of ‘bad weather’ is subjective, based on the skill level of the individual boater, all boaters at least once in their boating days will encounter water that is difficult and unpleasant for them to navigate.

Follow the above suggestions and don’t let that day be a bad memory…. or worse!