Seasoned boaters know well that the weather cannot be taken for granted and has a great deal in common with its capricious homonym whether (or not). As a lifelong boater and angler, this writer learned about weather changes out on the water early on as a passenger aboard his father’s first boat while jigging for flounder on Jamaica Bay. Many times Dad and I would launch in bright autumn sunshine and in a couple of hours be racing back to the dock to beat the thunderstorm that suddenly sidled darkened the skies. I was a first-grader when I began to learn about weather foibles and the threats they posed, incidentally picking up some rather colorful language aimed in their direction. The lesson learned by most of us is not difficult to keep in mind. It is a brief pair of words. Don’t assume. On the water, you simply cannot.
Though no boater can control the weather that he or she may encounter, time spent on the water can be made considerably more comfortable by knowing what kind of weather you’re like to encounter. Boaters should always check available weather forecasts, particularly their VHF radio NOAA broadcasts, and supplement them with their own observations. No one wants to take family and friends or (Providence forbid) their boss out offshore into the teeth of a raging gale or a lightning storm, right?
Preparing this article, I reread some of my weather writings done a number of years ago and many facts remain unchanged. Polling my friends, many of whom are veteran boaters and fishermen, with the question “How do you check the weather?”, the response was usually along the lines of “Well, after I look around, up in the sky and across the water, I tune in the weather pros on my radio and get a forecast.” Of course, the weather pros, for all their learning, radar and other equipment will be the first to admit that they are hardly infallible. Frequently, they get it wrong, or at least only half-right. That said, before you take the boat out, tune in the weather pro for a forecast. In doing so, you’re giving yourself and your passengers a break.
A valuable asset, in addition to your radio and television, is the wealth of information available on your computer. For example, through a simple and rapid Google search you can harvest a variety of weather reports:
Weather Warnings – you receive free, real-time reports, pictures and radar by visiting website www.WeatherBug.com
Fishing Weather - get exclusive wind reports and forecasts…powerful weather tools for anglers at www.fishweather.com
USCG Navigation Center – Local Notice to Mariners is updated weekly and is available for download in PDF Format. You may download the free Adobe Reader. You’ll get the latest weather forecast for your boating area. When weather warnings are in effect, do not venture out unless you are confident that your boat can be navigated safely.
Thunderstorms are created when warm, moist air rises, cools and condenses. This air swells into mounds of thick, billowy cumulous clouds that quickly darken into the towering cumulonimbus clouds characteristic of thunderstorms.
Consider the formation of this thick, dark cloud, an unmistakable thunderstorm warning, and head immediately for a safe anchorage. The transition from a small cloud into a turbulent, electrified storm front can occur in as little as a matter of minutes. Strong gusty winds and heavy rains with thunder and lightning soon follow. Fortunately, few squalls last more than an hour.
The sharper, darker and lower the front edge of the cloud, the more severe the storm. The anvil-shaped top of the storm cloud points in the direction that the storm is traveling.
In summer, afternoon thunderstorms are likely to occur when the humidity and temperature ashore are high. Hot air radiates upward from large surfaces heated by the sun. Moisture from a nearby body of water is absorbed by the warm air, which rises to begin the formation of thunderheads. They usually appear as swift-moving black clouds, often approaching from the southwest, south or west at speeds of 25 to 35 knots.
You can determine the distance of an approaching thunderstorm by counting the number of seconds between the lightning flash and the thunderclap and dividing by five. That will give you the distance in miles you are from the storm. For example, if the time lapse between the flash and the clap is 10 seconds, then divide by five. The storm is about two miles away from you.
If You Are Caught in a Thunderstorm
• Make sure that everyone is wearing a life jacket.
• Secure all lose gear, hatches and ports.
• Determine your location and the best course back
• Keep a sharp lookout for other boats and
• Stay out of the shower. The electrical charge often
travels along and through plumbing. (My apologies
to readers; most wouldn’t dream of showering in
Once the Storm Hits
• Try to take the first and heaviest wind gusts on the
bow, not abeam. Heading into the wind is the most
seaworthy position for most small boats.
• Approach waves at a 45 degree angle to keep the
propeller underwater and to reduce pounding, and to
provide a safer and more comfortable ride.
• If there is lightning, unplug radios and all electrical
• Stay low. Don’t make yourself the tallest target.
• Stay away from metal objects that are not grounded
to the boat’s protection system. Contact with them
during a direct hit can mean electrocution.
Since the warmer seasons are approaching, boaters must take care because our various vessels are frequently the tallest objects in a vast open space. A direct lightning hit can damage or destroy vessels’ overloaded navigational and other electronic systems, and electrocute crew and passengers. Lightning is a threat whenever you see it or hear thunder, or hear loud static on your AM radio, or hear buzzing sounds on radio antennas, or your mastheads begin to glow. The glow on a masthead produced by an extreme buildup of electric charge is known as St. Elmo’s fire. Move to shelter right away should this phenomenon occur. Lightning may strike the mast within five minutes after it begins to glow. The best protection against lightning is avoidance.
The principal lightning safety guide is the 30-30 rule. The first 30 represents 30 seconds. If the time between when you see the flash and hear the thunder is 30 seconds or less, the lightning is close enough to hit you. The second 30 stands for 30 minutes. After the last lightning flash, wait 30 minutes before leaving your shelter. More than one half of all lightning deaths occur after a thunderstorm has passed.
Lightning is the result of the buildup and discharge of electrical energy. The air in a lightning strike is heated to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It is this rapid heating of the air that produces the shock wave that results in thunder. Keep a weather eye out for the coppery haze and building cumulonimbus clouds that signal thunderstorms, and head into shore well ahead of the turbulence. Lightning can lash out for miles in front of a storm, and remember, it can strike after a storm seems to have passed. For more information about lightning, call the Coast Guard Boating Safety Hotline at 1-800-368-5647.
Fronts form when air masses of different temperatures collide. When a cold air mass catches up with a warm one, the heavier cold air pushes under the warm air mass and lifts it, causing stormy weather. In a warm front, the warm air rides up and over the cold, generally producing less severe storms than does a cold front.
By knowing the normal sequence of weather as a front passes through, you can predict the weather conditions fairly accurately. Cold fronts move at speeds from 10 to 50 knots. In winter they are two or three times faster than in summer. A fast-moving cold front may be preceded by a squall line, a roll of black, threatening clouds with violent storms. Wind shifts suddenly along the front, and wind velocities increase dramatically. Any increase in wind velocity opposite in direction to a strong tidal current may create a dangerous rip condition that can form steep, perilous waves.
These devastating weather events are best experienced from the safety of one’s home. Boats are left double-moored or stored. If you have never experienced a hurricane, please read author/teacher/meteorologist/scholar/poet James Lincoln Turner’s description of the 1944 hurricane’s descent on New Jersey’s coastline.
“The blackness of the wild night was broken by the snow-white surf that swept in to explode in clouds of spray over the boardwalk as it scoured out gaping holes in Ocean Avenue. The distance between troughs and crests of the larger waves was unreal. Imagine wading in normal surf, then shrinking to one-quarter you stature. Far, far out, the high-rolling combers would rise to foam-capped peaks of 30 to 40 feet, then break into proud smiles as they came roaring in toward you, swallowing up the smaller waves in immense fields of seething, smoking foam that would then merge with the rain-flooded street, turning them into torrents.” Thanks, Mr. Turner.
This writer vividly recalls being taken from home in Far Rockaway across the original Atlantic Beach Bridge by his parents the day after the infamous 1938 hurricane. Though many homes in Far Rockaway were damaged by the hurricane, more than a dozen private beach clubs and their cabanas and bath houses were flattened. Only the tall, concrete Atlantic Beach Club Hotel and the Nautilus Hotel remained vertical. My Dad said that we should be glad we were at home instead of out on his boat. Mother whispered a prayer. I, seven years old, blessed myself.
So, dear readers, when you’re out there, keep eyes open and radio on. The weather will certainly just go about its business.