When it comes to safe boating and weather, we seek balance. Enjoying the ever-changing environment is among boating’s lures. But keeping a “weather eye”—watching for storms, waves, winds, cold, and heat—helps keep the fun safe. And so, we balance our thirst for adventure with a healthy dollop of caution.
We consider both official weather and safety information, and our own observations and experiences. We know that no two boats are exactly alike, no two captains equally skilled, no two hours afloat spent in precisely the same weather setting. We blend an honest assessment of those factors with information and our experience, and, if the mix is in our favor, launch or cast off. Don’t worry if you don’t know everything about the weather. You’ll learn as you go, and can even take a class in person or online. Meanwhile, count on the experts, play it conservatively and enjoy boating.
The U.S. Coast Guard, in its “A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats,” offers these clues to an approaching weather change, which usually brings the most challenging conditions.
Signs of bad weather approaching for boaters:
If caught in severe weather, the Coast Guard advises:
Begin with professional forecasts—television or radio predictions, or detailed broadcasts such as NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Radio marine forecasts. The National Weather Service website weather.gov will connect you with the NOAA forecasts and other weather information, including a glossary of weather terms. Online weather apps, such as Weather Underground, offer detailed forecasts as well as real-time and time-lapse radar and satellite imagery.
Weather forecasts often include predictions of wave heights. How are waves measured?
A wave’s height is the distance between the bottom of its trough and the top of its crest. Boaters quickly learn that when a wave height range is forecast—say, 2- to 4-footers—there’s a very practical difference between the two extremes: hope for the smaller but be prepared for the larger! And remember that waves can quickly grow larger in storms. Less often reported is steepness: the ratio between the wave height and the distance (or time) between crests. The closer together, the steeper waves are—and often the more troublesome to boaters.
Weather over a long period helps determine climate. Whether it’s weather or climate that renders your favorite waters lower or higher than normal, don’t neglect its impact on your safety.
Think of your charts—paper or electronic—as a snapshot taken at one moment of features such as depths and obstacles. All that can change. High water might render launches difficult, or cover obstacles that would normally be high, dry, and visible. Conversely, low water could make hazardous some areas through which you’d normally travel worry-free.
On moving water such as rivers and flowages, research the flow rate. Too much or too little can make boating a hassle, if not a hazard. Recent weather may have loosed logs and other potentially dangerous items too.
Rip currents, tides, and other water movements can affect your outing. Canvas local experts for insights.
And if there’s a hurricane or tropical storm on the weather horizon, turn your attention to updated weather reports (NOAA’s National Hurricane Center is at nhc.noaa.gov), and storm-prep advice from knowledgeable sources.
While the boat should be prepared for bad weather, so should its occupants. Hot weather can be dangerous; take and use plenty of waterproof sunscreen, SPF clothing, and lots of water. Boating can turn cold and wet too, so make sure there’s rain gear and insulating layers available for those who can’t duck inside if the weather turns foul.
At the first sign of trouble, get that life jacket on. Better yet, wear it before there’s a sign of danger because weather and other conditions can change so rapidly, leaving no time to retrieve and don a personal flotation device.