Clinging to his overturned 14 foot Monarch, the father desperately searched for his family.  Seeing his wife behind him, holding their seven year-old daughter and a loose seat cushion he yelled, “are you alright?” and scrambled around the stern to find his sons.  There they were, treading water just fifteen or twenty feet away. They weren’t under the boat, thank God, but they weren’t wearing life jackets either – none of them were.  It had all happened too fast.  The day was perfect on the lake until that late afternoon squall. With barely enough time to weigh anchor and make a run for the marina; he ran too fast across deep swells, buried his bow, and launched his family overboard. In a boat built for the flat calm, he found himself in his first patch of rough; he clearly wasn’t ready for it.

The best place for boaters to be when heavy weather strikes is back at the marina – but weather changes can happen fast, the unexpected can extend your voyage, and in the middle of your first bad patch of sea is not the time or place to learn how to handle things in rough water. Luckily, for that family of five on Lake Maurepas, a local game warden and a Coast Guard helicopter were only minutes away, and they were close enough to shore to be seen.  None of them were seriously injured, and the skipper lost only his boat that day. But what else could he have done to be ready?  Knowing that the storm was coming and that the hazard was there is an obvious first step, but when I interviewed the experts it became clear: Success in foul weather isn’t just about paying attention to the weather; staying calm and understanding  your vessels limits and your own can make all the difference.

“One of the biggest mistakes boaters make when caught out in bad weather is they simply move too fast,” says Captain Ethan Maass of Sea Tow South Shore in Green Harbor Massachusetts.  Pulling back and moving at the minimum possible speed, 45 degrees to the swell immediately lowers the risk and allows time to assess your situation and take appropriate action.  If they aren’t already wearing them, everyone aboard should put on lifejackets. Besides the obvious benefits, having some padding around the ribcage while being tossed around a wet vessel can help prevent other injuries.  “The next thing after the lifejackets is evaluate the situation and stay oriented,” Maass suggests.  Rushing back to the dock can lead to other mistakes like missing (or hitting) channel markers, or running aground, or simply putting your boat in a situation it (or you) can’t handle  “Slow down and consider your options.”

Is there some protected water nearby?  Is there a safe place to beach the vessel until the storm passes? Should I make a move at all?  If making for the marina requires running in the trough or head on into the seas, perhaps heading back in isn’t the safest choice.  Simply jogging in place, clutching ahead at an angle to the swell – regardless of the direction that points the bow – and waiting, might very well be the best course of action.  All boats aren’t created equally and handle quite differently, of course, but knowing the limits and characteristics of your particular vessel is best learned through experience.

Husband and wife team, Lin and Larry Pardey, are experts at cruising in extremely heavy weather. Authors of Storm Tactics Handbook, the Pardey’s believe that knowing your boat and how it behaves in rough seas is the number one way to keep your cool when surprised by bad weather.  Lin advises gradually increasing your comfort in progressively harsher conditions before attempting any offshore voyage where rough seas are more likely. “You need to get your sea legs first,” Lin says. “What Larry and I suggest to people is that they find 15 knots of sustained breeze, and practice running your boat slowly, crosswise to the seas. Then do the same thing in 25 knots of wind, and more depending on your vessel. Then you’ll have an idea how to move around in heavy weather.”  The idea is to safely practice handling your boat in gradually increasing sea states, increasing your skills in a real emergency.

There are some things you can and should do in all heavy weather situations, no matter what kind of vessel you own.  These things can make the difference between a lesson learned and one learned the very hard way:  First, brief your passengers on the situation and have them stay low in the boat.  They can’t slip and fall if they are sitting down, and lowering the weight in your vessel in increased seas will help. Then make sure all loose gear is secure and all openings (hatches, ports, and windows)  are closed.  Then consider (please) sending out a Pan-Pan. In 2007 there were over 800 accidents involving capsizing, flooding/swamping, or ejection of persons from recreational boats in U.S. waters.*  The only thing that I know for certain about each of those accidents is that they weren’t planned as part of the trip.  Things can go wrong surprisingly fast out there; and you don’t have to wait for the accident to call for help.

Now, I should probably admit to my bias here: I have more time searching for boats than being on them. Most of the boats I have been on were sinking, on fire, or upside down.  Though I’ve spent more time than I count in nasty weather—even hurricanes—hundreds of miles offshore, my purpose was always to get on and off a boat as quickly as possible. And I invariably had an expensive helicopter and extremely well-trained crew hovering nearby to help me. So I am in no position to argue about whether it’s better to run before the storm or work your way to windward. I’ve read a lot about it, but I’ve never had to decide to heave-to or lay a-hull. There are just too many variables out there to call any one storm tactic “the best.”  What I can tell you from experience is that I have never had to rescue someone that was hove-to with a Para-anchor, or pulling a drogue. Like my state trooper friend who often quips, “I’ve never unbuckled a dead man” I’m a big fan of what (apparently) works.

The comfort and peace of mind necessary to keep you on your boat can be dramatically increased for a comparatively modest investment in training and equipment. Sea drogues and Para-anchors have been successfully used by sailors, power-boaters, and commercial fisherman to ride out otherwise unmanageable heavy weather. Not long ago, the Pardeys set hove-to with a Para-anchor off of South Africa in 85-knot winds and 65- foot seas. “The boat rode beautifully,” Lin told me, “it was just beautiful out there.” In the kind of seas and winds I have only heard about, the Pardeys managed to be relaxed enough to enjoy the view – while getting much needed rest and a hot meal.  Buying a small Para-anchor for your open hulled 21 foot boat may seem unnecessary (it is) but your next heavy weather moment is accompanied by an engine failure, having one and knowing how to use it will change your mind completely.

Steve Dashew, veteran cruiser, yacht designer, and co-author (with his wife Linda) of Surviving the Storm: Coastal & Offshore Tactics says,  “Personal skill sets are far more important than the hardware on the boat.” Along with offshore practice with different storm tactics, boaters should learn more about the cause of their anxiety. “Spend some time learning about weather and how to make your own onboard forecasts,” Dashew says. Not being there when the weather turns hostile is always the best plan.

In his must-read book, Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales wrote, “The word ‘experienced’ often refers to someone who has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have.” Getting on a boat and taking it to sea without being physically and emotionally ready for heavy weather is definitely a wrong thing that people frequently get away with, but not always.

Eight years ago, the young skipper who flipped his vessel in Lake Maurepas learned the hard way that he wasn’t ready to be out there at all. His family got away with their lives, but it would have been much better for everyone if his first exposure to less than perfect conditions wasn’t so unexpected. The point isn’t about the “best” thing to do when caught out in bad weather. Again, there are too many variables for absolutes.  Just try and remember that you’re a boater, and boats go on the water, and that is where the bad weather happens.  With a minimal investment in equipment and some practice in less than perfect weather, you’ll be much better prepared when the heavy stuff rolls in, and you will make landfall the way you intended: in your boat, not in someone else’s.

* Source: 2007 US Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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