Roughing it Out: Surviving Sudden Storms

Storm clouds like these are fair warning to seek a safe harbor.

The Sea Tow Foundation and the Coast Guard share the following safety tips for boaters who find themselves on the water in a sudden storm.

Being out on a boat in bad weather, even within sight of the shore, puts you farther from help than you might think. No one can tell you precisely what to do because every situation is different. Play it safe. When a storm threatens, head for the nearest dock or sheltered waters immediately. Do not attempt to return to your original marina if there’s a safe haven closer by. If you can’t make it to shore, follow the guidelines below:

  • Using our suggestions will help you ride out a storm if you can't get back to shore.

    If you have passengers aboard, get everyone into their life jackets and foul weather gear now.

  • Secure all hatches and close all doors, ports and windows to keep water out.
  • Secure gear above and below decks; stow small items and lash down bigger ones. The weight of gear and passengers is especially important in smaller craft. Keep your load low and balanced.
  • Ready any emergency equipment that you have on board: bailers, hand pumps, first-aid kit, signaling devices, etc.
  • Pump bilges dry and repeat as necessary to eliminate any sloshing of water as the boat rolls, which can affect stability.
  • Get a fix on your position and plot it on your chart. Note your heading and speed, and the time. Chart your course to the nearest shore or dock.
  • Monitor Channel 16 on your marine VHF radio for Coast Guard updates on the weather. Also, listen for distress calls from other boaters. You may be the closest one that can lend assistance.
  • Ready a sea anchor or drogue in case it should be needed, but do not anchor the boat unless you’re in a narrow body of water, you’ve lost visibility completely and are in danger of washing ashore. Under those conditions, anchor your boat from the bow to keep the boat headed into the waves.
  • Turn on navigation lights.
  • Reduce speed and head your boat into the wind at a 45-degree angle to reduce stress and maintain better control.
  • If there is lightning, keep everyone away from electrical and ungrounded components, and as low in the boat as possible.
  • Switch to a full fuel tank, if possible.
  • Maintain a lookout for floating debris, obstacles and other boats.
  • If your vessel has a flybridge, operate your vessel from below if that is an option.
  • If you’ve lost visibility temporarily, maintain a slow headway until visibility improves.
  • On larger craft, rig jack lines and/or lifelines and require anyone who must go on deck to wear a safety harness, if available.
  • If the incoming storm is extremely severe, review your procedures for abandoning ship, including sending a Mayday to Coast Guard Search and Rescue.
  • If you have a life raft, have it ready to be deployed and stocked with emergency food and water. Be sure you have a sharp knife to cut it free from the boat.
  • If you are in fear losing the boat, get everyone on deck and send a Mayday on your marine VHF-FM radio.

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