All boats are built for a specific range of conditions. It is important that every boat owner know the range of conditions for which his boat was designed, and the capabilities of his boat and its limitations. Secondly, all boat owners should know how to manage their boats and their crew when conditions turn challenging. Obviously, small open boats are the most vulnerable to capsize, but it can happen under certain circumstances to virtually any boat no matter how large or capable. This week we are “re-printing” an article that originally appeared in Sea Tow’s quarterly magazine, Lifelines. It is full of sage heavy-weather boat handling advice for owners of Jon boats to large motoryachts.

Foul Weather
People usually get caught in heavy weather when they are not expecting it. Do you know what to do if you find yourself in it?

By Mario Vittone

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.

A Stitch in Time…

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 injured.

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 difference.

First Steps

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 (CG) of your vessel in bigger seas will help its stability. That means in Jon boats and small boats, the occupants should be sitting in the bottom of the boat, not up on the thwarts. Yes, everyone will get a wet butt, but that is preferable to the boat capsizing because the CG was too high for the conditions.

Second, make sure everyone is wearing a PFD. Besides their obvious benefits in the water, having some padding around the ribcage while being tossed around can also help prevent injuries.

Next, make sure all loose gear is secure and all openings (hatches, ports and windows) are closed. Assess where you are in relation to the direction of the wind and seas and the coastline. Are you on a lee shore, reef, or rocks? (The one to which the wind is blowing.)

Pan-Pan on the VHF

Then consider sending out a pan-pan radio call on channel 16 of your VHF. A pan-pan alerts the U.S. Coast Guard, local towing services 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 most years 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.

Other Considerations

Consider the possibility of heading to protected water nearby. 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 of action.

Proceed Slowly

“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 appropriate action.

“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.

Summer squalls usually come with warning. Low, dark clouds moving your way almost always have fresh winds blowing underneath them. These winds can quickly whip up a short, steep chop that may be dangerous for a small boat. But also remember, that summer squalls are usually short in duration, perhaps lasting only 30 minutes or so.

Today it is possible to get in the Internet and get fully briefed on expected conditions and even the wind speed and sea state of buoys near where you will be boating. Check this information out carefully before venturing far from shore.

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 sailboat 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.”

Jon boats, open outboards and even small center consoles have relatively low freeboard and can easily ship water in short, steep chop, beam seas and breaking following seas that can be found at inlets, for example. Simply stated, you must avoid challenging conditions in small boats. That is why NOAA, National Weather Service and the USCG post small craft warnings, advising that conditions at sea will not be suitable for the safe operation of small boats.

Once small boats are swamped they will capsize fairly quickly because of the free surface effect of the water inside moving from one side to the other. Once a boat has been capsized, it is virtually impossible to right it without outside assistance.

The USCG requires that all boats powered by a 2-hp engine or greater (except sailboats) float level if swamped. However, it cannot require them to float upright, and they usually won’t. For boats over 20’ there is no requirement that they be unsinkable. Many builders do put foam flotation in their boats over 20’ and their sales brochures may say that they are unsinkable, but in most cases remember that does not mean that they will float level. It all likelihood it means that part of the bow my still be above the surface when swamped and the boat has capsized.

Know Your Limits

Personal skill sets are far more important than the hardware on the boat. The author of the must-read book Deep Survival, 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.

The skipper who flipped his 14’ 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. There are too many variables, and the sea-keeping abilities of different boats vary too much 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.

The advice given by the Pardeys to the capabilities of one’s boat will also provide good experience for the boat’s operator. With experience comes knowledge and confidence.

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