Boat Handling in Rough Weather

Coast Guard Cutter battles heavy seas heading out to rescue a sailboat caught in a severe storm with three people on board. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo)

The Sea Tow Foundation and the U.S. Coast Guard would like to share the following tips on how to safely operate a boat if you are unexpectedly caught in rough weather:

  • Be prepared at all times. Anchors and rodes should be kept in a state of readiness, along with life jackets and all other safety equipment.
  • No 2 storm situations are alike. Many small boats are not designed or constructed to take a heavy pounding and the result can be structural damage that
    Coast Guard Cutter's rigid hull inflatable rescue boat crew approaches a sailing vessel to deliver exposure suits and attempt to rescue those on board. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo)

    can cause the boat to break apart. In strong breaking waves, flooding and capsizing may occur. In beam seas (waves perpendicular to the side of the boat), excessive roll can cause your load to shift, creating a dangerous list. In following seas (waves coming from behind the boat), your vessel may lose stability on a wave crest; plus, if your speed is excessive, broaching may occur—a situation where the vessel runs down the crest of a wave, gathering speed, and buries its bow into the backside of the next wave. This frequently causes the boat operator to lose control and the vessel to veer sharply off course. In quartering seas, beam and following seas combine to create one of the most serious conditions a boater may encounter.

  • In a sudden storm, your most immediate problems are limited visibility, high winds and—depending on your location—rapidly building seas. Try to remain calm. Have everyone dress as warmly as possible, put on life jackets and, if possible, go below. Close all hatches, doors, watertight compartments and windows to reduce the amount of water taken on board. In an open boat, passengers should sit low in the bottom of the boat along the centerline.
  • Although you need to get your boat to the dock as quickly as possible, once waves reach a certain height, safety dictates that you match the speed of the vessel to the speed of the waves. That means slowing down, a lot. The more you reduce speed, the less strain will be put on the hull and superstructure and less risk that portholes and windows will pop out or break. Keep your vessel at a 45-degree angle to the wind and make slow but steady progress to the nearest port.
  • Stay away from rocky shorelines. If you’re far from port but have shelter available, such as islands and peninsulas, sheltering may be a good idea depending on the depth of the water and the condition of the shoreline. Just bear in mind that in most thunderstorms the wind direction will probably change. In a thunderstorm, winds generally blow outward from the area of heaviest rain. As the storm approaches, winds come straight at you. As it passes overhead, the winds ease off, then reverse direction. Understanding this pattern can give you a reasonable idea of how long you’ll be fighting the storm. In smaller boats, putting up on a sandy beach may be a good idea. If you perceive the situation as life threatening, it’s better to sacrifice the boat to save yourself and your family or friends.


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