It’s every captain’s intention for each trip to be smooth sailing, but occasionally Mother Nature has other plans. The main objective is to avoid severe weather whenever possible, but bad weather happens...even in spite of the best planning.
It's best to go over safety procedures with the crew and guests before leaving the dock because once you're in a sticky situation, there may be no time to explain. Every person on board should have and know how to use a personal flotation device (PFD) in case of any emergency.
Before leaving the dock, and while underway, continuously check for government-issued advisories for your offshore area of travel. These will give you advance notice of any unsettled weather on the horizon. Educate yourself ahead of time as to the definition of each advisory, watch and warning. For example, if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issues a Small Craft Advisory, there are either observed or forecasted winds of 18 to 33 knots and/or hazardous sea conditions.
Always be aware of the possibility of thunderstorms and squalls. Keep abreast of conditions by checking real-time data (local radar/satellite) in order to avoid these occurrences, especially when larger squall areas require routing or course changes for better avoidance. Further, keeping a constant “eye to the sky” is important for noting changes to avoid being caught with your guard down when thunderstorms approach.
If thunderstorms or squalls are imminent, prepare for rough seas and carefully head towards a protected bay or in the lee of an island to minimize conditions, if possible.
All thunderstorms pose the threat of lightning. A lightning strike to the vessel could result in damage to all navigational equipment plus the potential electrocution of passengers. Even if a storm is off in the distance and there are blue skies above your vessel, lightning is still a threat. The best option is to head towards shore, if traveling along the coast, and not to wait until the storm gets closer.
If traveling across a large body of water and unable to head to a protected location, there are a few tips to help improve your safety: stay out of the water and head below deck while wearing your PFD; do not touch anything metal and do not use any electrical equipment; allow the storm to pass for at least 15 minutes before coming back up on deck.
Although typically weaker than tornadoes, waterspouts can still cause a good amount of damage to boat and crew. If there are thunderstorms in the vicinity, be sure to closely monitor the clouds. Look for possible waterspouts underneath a line of cumulus clouds with dark, flat bases. NOAA advises: if you do spot one, try to determine its apparent motion and head at a 90-degree angle away from the waterspout.
As long as the captain, crew and guests are all educated on the procedures for dealing with certain weather emergencies, everyone is more likely to stay calm and be safe while aboard the vessel. Departing in a good-weather window will minimize the chances of getting into heavy weather. Be sure to stay tuned to all weather information and advisories you can get a hold of and, as always, keep an eye to the sky.
Sarah Finnerty is a Meteorologist at Weather Routing Inc. (WRI Ltd.), which has provided meteorological consultation, including route planning and weather forecasts to private yachts since 1961. For further information on services provided, please contact WRI at http://www.wriwx.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, (518) 798-1110.