Rain can be a little inconvenient while you’re boating, but relatively harmless. Rain that brings thunder and lightning, however, is a different story. Although most storms will generally dissipate in under half an hour, that length of time can feel like an eternity if you get caught in one out on the water.
This guide will take you through storm preparedness, safety measures, and how to handle emergency situations while boating in a storm.
The best way to stay safe in a storm is to reduce the risk of being in one, but if you do get caught in one unsuspectingly, then knowing what to do before you find yourself boating in a thunderstorm is key.
Storm Warning Systems
First, when making your boating plans, always check the weather. If there’s a chance of storms, we strongly recommend reconsidering when you go out. Then, make a habit of checking the weather forecast before your departure.
Because weather can change in an instant, a sunny forecast doesn’t mean there’s no chance of getting caught in a storm. Bring a marine weather station to monitor barometric pressure, wind speed, and lightning strikes, and ensure that you have access to a weather radar to regularly check for any storms that may pop up in the area. Most modern radars don’t require expertise to be used effectively, but you should still practice reading and interpreting the radar before boating or it only provides a false sense of security. You can also turn to VHF radio channels 1-9 for NOAA weather alerts to stay ahead of any storms.
Another way to monitor the weather is by checking the sky, clouds, and temperature. Here are signs of an approaching storm to watch out for:
- Clouds that get lower, thicker, or darker
- Clouds that are puffy and vertically rising
- Winds that pick up or change direction
- Temperature that drops suddenly
- Flashes on the horizon
Prepare before Setting Sail
If you do get stuck boating in a storm, you want to feel confident that your boat and safety equipment are in good, usable condition. Semi-annual boat maintenance will help keep your boat performing at its best, which is crucial when navigating rough waters. Our maintenance guide will walk you through inspecting and cleaning your boat and safety gear.
You should also have an emergency plan with clear instructions on what you and any passengers should do in an emergency. Keep a waterproof, printed copy in an obvious location. This plan should include information on how to use the VHF to radio for help.
Here's a quick safety preparedness checklist for every boating trip:
- Go through and properly secure all loose items
- Inspect your safety gear, including personal flotation devices, life rafts, medical kits, and flares
- Keep all personal safety equipment readily available in an easily accessible location
- Locate accessible safety destinations you can navigate to, should you need shelter
How to Stay Safe in a Storm While Boating
Since you will be monitoring weather conditions throughout your boating trip, you should have at least some advanced warning of most incoming storms. As soon as you become aware, you need to act quickly and find safety.
If you can, navigate to shore using the safest possible route clear of the storm and dock your boat to find shelter in a building. Remember to turn on your safety lights if they are not on already. If you do not have time to get away, then you may need to take temporary shelter on your boat in a secure, protected location out of the wind. Try to avoid open water, isolated areas, and tall structures.
As the waters respond to the storm, they may become rough, choppy, or produce larger waves. Slow down or stop your boat to maintain stability and ensure that every passenger is wearing their life jacket.
To minimize the risk of lightning strikes, remove all metal jewelry and keep clear of metal objects, electrical outlets, and appliances. Stash your fishing rods and lower your outriggers. If your boat has a cabin, go inside while you wait for the storm to pass. If not, go to the center of your boat and stay as low as possible.
Remember to keep your radio on and tuned into channels 1-9 for storm updates. You should also use your radio to call for help if you need assistance or find yourself in an emergency.
How to Handle Emergency Situations While Boating
Being caught in a storm is dangerous, even when you take every possible safety precaution and have a plan in place. If you find yourself in a situation that puts you in imminent danger and staying on the boat is no longer safe, it’s time to call for help. Here’s how to send a Mayday distress call to the Coast Guard:
- Using your marine VHF-FM radio, call for help on channel 16
- Say the name of your boat three times
- State “MAYDAY” and repeat your boat’s name
- Report your location (check your navigation system)
- Report the nature of your emergency
If your boat capsizes, you should first do a head count and check everyone on board for injury. Keep everyone close together and near the boat. If possible, try to climb on top of the boat to make yourself more visible to other boaters. If you see anyone, use display signals to show that you are in distress and need assistance. If you are more than 100m from shore, do not try to swim to shore. Instead, float with your arms crossed over your chest and knees pulled up to your chest to conserve energy and body heat. Trying to swim or treading water will waste energy and put you at greater risk of hypothermia.
If your boat is swamped, or upright but filled with water, try to bail the water out. Do a head count and check yourself and all passengers for injury. If you’re unable to keep the boat from sinking, stay close and follow the same guidelines as you would with a capsized boat.
What to Do After Boating in a Storm
Getting caught in a storm can be a scary experience, so it’s important to take care of yourself and your passengers. If you need it, get help to ensure your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. When you are ready, report any incidents or damage to appropriate authorities. Then, you will need to assess your boat for damage and get any necessary repairs.
Remember, the best way to keep yourself safe while boating is to be prepared. Always check the weather before you go out, and make sure you and all your passengers understand the safety plan.