How to Read the Weather (and Why You Should) Before Boating

bad forecast view

Boating is a fun, relaxing hobby. But we also need to acknowledge that it can be dangerous – especially if you’re not adequately prepared for the risks. One of the most important variables in the realm of boating safety is the weather; with sufficiently bad weather, even the most seasoned, steadiest boat captains can have trouble navigating the seas. And in bad enough conditions, launching a rescue mission is next to impossible.

Accordingly, one of your best safety strategies is to learn how to read the weather before boating – and while you’re on the water as well.

Knowing the Forecast

The obvious first step here is to review the weather forecast before heading out on the boat. Listen to television or radio forecasters, or use a weather app on your phone to learn more. It’s also a good idea to review two or more sources to check for any discrepancies. What’s the temperature going to be? Are there any chances for precipitation or a storm? What about wind speeds? What kinds of waves are predicted?

You’ll also want to review more detailed, marine-centric forecasts, such as the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Radio (USA) or the Met Office (UK) marine forecasts. These can provide you with a better understanding of meteorological terms and the meaning behind each weather forecast. You’ll also be able to review time-lapse imaging, satellite imaging, and more.

Understand that weather forecasting is a science, but it’s not perfect – and we can only predict the weather reliably a few days in advance. Be sure to check the weather several days leading up to your voyage, and immediately before launching to verify that your understanding of the situation is still correct.

Knowing Yourself

Weather forecasts must be considered in context. Think about your current situation when evaluating the weather, such as:

  • Your boat. How much power does your boat have? Does it handle especially well in bad weather, or is it something that you struggle with?
  • Your area. Different areas and different climates struggle with different types of weather phenomena. Is this a particularly unpredictable or volatile area that requires an extra degree of caution?
  • Your position. Where are you planning on boating? Are you heading out far or staying close to home?
  • Your skill. How much skill and experience do you have on the water? Do you have the expertise and abilities necessary to get out of a bad situation?

Watching for Signs

Remember, forecasts aren’t perfect. There’s always a chance that the forecast is wrong and that the weather will turn in an unexpected direction. Accordingly, you need to be prepared to look for signs of weather changing for the worse, such as:

  • Cloud changes. What do the clouds look like when you’re leaving and how do they change over time? If you see dark, thick clouds on the horizon, it might be time to cut your boating excursion short. If the clouds begin to get lower, or if fluffy clouds begin to rise, it could be a sign of something big on the horizon – especially if seen in combination with these other signs.
  • Temperature drops. A sudden temperature drop is rarely good news for a boat captain. It’s often a signal that a storm is coming.
  • A “halo” around the sun or moon. If you see a subtle halo effect around the sun or the moon, it could be a sign of bad weather coming soon.
  • Changes in wind direction or intensity. Does the wind suddenly seem to change direction? Or does it become strong suddenly, without warning? These are usually indications of a storm about to approach.
  • Lighting flashes. One obvious sign of a storm approaching is the flash of lightning on the horizon. If you see flashes of light and dark clouds in the distance, it’s time to dock the boat and call it a day.
  • Waves. You’ll also want to pay attention to the development of the waves around you. Do you notice them increasing in frequency or intensity? Are they getting higher and crashing into your boat with more force? You may want to leave before they get any worse.

What to Do If You’re Caught in Bad Weather

If you end up caught in a storm, there are a few important steps you’ll need to take to ensure the safety of everyone on board:

  • Head for shore. Your new priority is getting to an approachable shore. Find the nearest dock and start traveling there.
  • Minimize speed. It’s tempting to go fast to get to dock faster, but it’s usually better to slow down for greater manoeuvrability and stability.
  • Check safety equipment. This is a good opportunity to ensure you’re following all basic safety procedures. Is everyone on board equipped with a lifejacket? Is your emergency radio functioning properly? Are your passengers seated and as close to the centre of the boat as possible? Direct your passengers if necessary.
  • Keep your lights on. Keep your lights on to improve visibility for yourself and for others on the water.
  • Meet waves at 45 degrees. It’s a best practice to hit strong waves at a 45-degree angle. If you go entirely with them, you could be at the wave’s mercy. If you hit them head-on, it could damage the boat or worse. Instead, it’s better to hit them at a gentle angle – and at a reasonable speed.
  • Keep the bilges clear. Pay attention to the bilges and keep them clear of water to avoid disaster.
  • Anchor if necessary. In some extreme circumstances, you’re best off anchoring and waiting for the bad weather to pass.

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