“Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” Gordon Lightfoot wrote those words about Lake Superior, but they could easily describe the waves of the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean. Anyone who claims not to be scared half silly when confronted by a sudden storm at sea is either lying or nuts.
My first experience with a thunderstorm on the water came at the tender age of 16. Two of us were in a small wooden rowboat with a Mercury Hurricane 10-hp motor out on the Bohemia River, and we barely made it back to the dock. We were both scared to death, but at 16 you must maintain your macho demeanor.
The first thing you need to do in order to keep away from bad weather is don’t go out in bad weather or when the threat of bad weather is all but certain. In the summer, leave early and be back into a safe port or anchorage by 2 p.m. Most thunderstorms come up in the late afternoon, so staying off the water during that time of day is the best way to avoid confronting one of these wind machines.
Afternoons are the prime time for thunderstorms, but they can also occur in the morning. I recall a September day when my brother-in-law Paul Coffin and I were heading out of Ocean City for the Poorman’s Canyon on his 22-foot Mako. The marine forecast did not mention thunderstorms. They lied. As we were crossing the Jack’s Spot, another boater to our north issued a weather warning; he was inside a major thunderstorm and said it was the worst he had ever experienced.
I once read a book about weather for fishermen that stated there were three types of clouds: cirrus, cumulus, and ‘those big black bastards.’ As we looked back to the west, one of those big, black bastards was closing fast. I can still see the bright white gulls and the red buoy lit by the sun to the east against that black cloud bank.
The first thing that hit us was sand on a hot wind. Then came the rain and a hard northwest blow. The seas quickly built, and we could not hold a course toward Ocean City, so we headed to Assateague Island where we hoped the land would cut down a bit of the wind. Three hours later we saw the island and were able to hug the shoreline as we headed north to Ocean City.
Over the years I have encountered some pretty nasty weather in a small boat. Somehow I managed to survive and pick up a few useful ideas as to how you too can survive a bad weather experience.
Surviving a thunderstorm at sea is a frightening thing, but while you may be shaking in your deck shoes, you must not hit the Panic Button. Your first instinct will be to head for your home port, but that may not be possible. Choose a course that puts the boat in the least amount of danger, and thereby puts your crew in as safe a position as possible.
To that end, everyone on board must wear their PFDs. I also suggest unplugging all of your electronics and, if possible, lower all the antennas. The boat is already a sitting duck for a lightning strike; no sense in presenting an even better target.
As a general rule, you have to head into the seas at a slight angle. Adjust your speed so the boat climbs the seas and lands in the trough with the least amount of impact. As soon as the boat is over one wave you will have to give it more speed to climb over the next one. A constant adjustment of the speed will be required to prevent the boat from pitch poling into the next wave, or being broached by the wave behind.
While a head sea is no fun, a following sea is even scarier. The boat will surf on the wave until it breaks under the boat. At this point you must regain the same speed as the next wave and allow it to also break under the boat. The one rule in running a following sea is never look back. The sight of all that water just inches from your stern can be a bit frightening.
Visibility will be another problem. In addition to the heavy rain, the wind will blow lots of spray on your windshield. Wipers will help, but not much. Have someone ride next to you and help keep a lookout. Grab as much information as possible during the short time the windshield is clear and hope nothing substantial pops up in your path.
It is also important to keep everyone on the boat in the same place. This is not as critical on a large displacement hull boat, but it is absolutely essential on a deep-vee boat such as a 24-foot Albemarle. A deep-vee has a tender bottom, and any shift in the load will result in the boat listing to the now heavier side. This can be very disconcerting to the captain, who already has more than enough to worry about. In the same vein, large, heavy items like a big cooler must be securely tied down.
If there is anything good about thunderstorms, it is they don’t last very long. While it may seem like a lifetime to those on the water, the worst part of the blow will be over in 10 to 15 minutes.
At this point, everyone onboard has had just about all the fun they can stand for one day. Take inventory of all personal and any important items like antennas, fishing tackle, or pets. If all is well, head for home, and once at the dock or on the trailer, begin putting back all the stuff that fell off during the storm.
by Eric Burnley
Gain More Safety Skills
BoatU.S. Online: Click to boatus.org on the “education” tab to find reasonably priced online courses (about $30 each).
Coast Guard Auxiliary: The CGA offers reasonably priced boating safety courses (about $20 each). Find your region by zip code at cgaux.org/boatinged.
U.S. Power Squadrons: Local USPS chapters offer a wide variety of courses for boaters of all levels. Find courses near you at usps.org.
Three Marine Acronyms Worth Knowing
PFD: We boaters call them Personal Floatation Devices, but it might be easier on first-time boating guests if you call them lifejackets. All who cannot swim should wear one always. Kids under 13 must wear lifejackets by law in Maryland, Virginia, and DC. In foul weather, always wear one.
EPIRB: An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon alerts search and rescue squads of your position (and who you are) by satellite in emergencies. It can be installed on your boat and go off automatically or manually. It costs $400 to $500.
PLB: A Personal Locator Beacon is a sort of pocket EPIRB to relay your position via satellite to search and rescue squads in emergency situations. It usually comes with a strobe light. Ideal for bluewater anglers to put into their PFD pockets. Two recommended brands: GME Accusat and ResQLink by ACR. They run between $250 and $350.