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Check Local Weather and Water Conditions

If you are going out on your boat to have a good time, the last thing you want is something like bad weather or engine failure to spoil your day. Although you can't control the weather or prevent all mechanical problems, you can increase the odds in your favor with good trip planning and preparation.

As the person in charge of your recreational boat, you should know the limits of your boat and how it handles in inclement weather. Well-honed boating skills can only be acquired through experience. Take your boat out in moderately bad weather and work your way up to handling it in more challenging situations. That's the best way to get the experience you need in all types of conditions.

Check Local Weather and Water Conditions

If you know how to use weather information to judge probable water conditions, you will be better able to decide whether or not to go out on the water or to postpone your trip to another day. Before leaving, you can check local radio or TV stations, the Weather Channel, or online internet sources. As the boat operator, your are responsible for deciding whether to continue or make adjustments to your trip.

Weather Buoy

Weather buoys are instruments that collect weather and ocean data within the world's oceans. This data for an entire series of moored buoys is available on the internet (details at NOAA National Data Buoy Center )

Moored buoys have been in use since 1951 and are connected to the ocean bottom using chains, nylon, or buoyant polypropylene. With the decline of the weather ship, they have taken a more primary role in measuring conditions over the open seas since the 1970s. Moored weather buoys range from 4.9 feet to 39 feet in diameter and typically supply wind and wave data over the last 24 hours.


NOAA Weather Buoy

Radio Weather Information

If you have a VHF or weather radio, you can monitor the weather on the following stations:

VHF-FM Stations Broadcasting
NOAA Weather Reports

WX-1

162.550 MHz

WX-2

162.400 MHz

WX-3

162.475 MHz

If possible, bring your VHF, portable AM/FM, or weather radio on board so you can continue monitoring the weather throughout the day.

Weather Signals

The U.S. Coast Guard has a Coastal Warning Display program that displays flags, pennants, and colored lights to warn you about small-craft advisories, gale warnings, storm warnings, and hurricane warnings.  These warnings are displayed at selected Coast Guard small-boat stations, as well as yacht clubs and marinas throughout the country, to warn the public of approaching storm conditions.

Small-Craft Advisory — issued when sustained winds, frequent gusts, or sea/wave conditions exceed the defined thresholds specific to a geographic area. Different bodies of water have different thresholds because of their different sizes, shapes, altitudes, and other features. For example, on Lake Erie, a small-craft advisory will be issued when sustained winds or frequent gusts range between 22 and 33 knots and/or seas or waves are 4 feet and greater. In the Caribbean, on the other hand, an advisory will be issued when sustained winds are 20 to 33 knots, and/or seas are 7 feet or greater and expected for more than two hours. A small-craft advisory can also be issued when sea or lake ice has formed that could be hazardous to small boats.

Gale Warning — issued when winds between 34 and 47 knots are forecast for the area.

Storm Warning — issued when winds 48 knots and above are forecast. However, if the winds are associated with a tropical cyclone (hurricane), the storm warning indicates that winds between 48 and 63 knots are forecast.

Hurricane Warning — issued only in connection with a tropical cyclone (hurricane) to indicate that winds 64 knots and above are forecast.

Special Marine Warning — issued whenever a severe local storm or strong wind of brief duration is imminent and is not covered by existing warnings or advisories. No visual displays are used in connection with the Special Marine Warning Bulletin. You will be able to receive these special warnings by keeping tuned to a NOAA Weather Radio station or to U.S. Coast Guard and commercial radio stations that transmit marine weather information.

Clearly, the weather will affect the water conditions. High winds can cause choppy water, high waves, shifting sandbars, and strong current, all of which spell trouble for boaters. Following the weather forecast is of paramount importance in planning for your trip.

Once you have decided to take your boat out, you need to continue monitoring the weather so you can decide whether to continue your day on the water or head back to the shore. Watch the horizons for changes in the weather and water. Look for dark clouds and water spouts. Even when the weather is sunny, monitor the weather forecast on your VHF or portable AM/FM radio every hour or so for advance warning of changing weather.

If you have a barometer on board, watch for changes. If the barometer is falling, foul weather could be approaching. Also pay attention to shifting wind patterns or sudden changes in air temperature. Obviously, lightning and thunder are signs to get off the water and head toward the nearest safe shore. Lightning can strike from as far as 25 miles away from the storm center.

If, despite all your efforts, bad weather catches you off guard and you are unable to get to shore before the storm hits, stay calm. First make sure everyone puts on their PFDs, and then take the following precautions:

  • Listen to your radio for weather updates.
  • Close all windows and hatches to avoid swamping.
  • Stay as low as you can in the middle of the boat if there's lightning.
  • Sound your horn if fog or other conditions are reducing visibility (one prolonged blast every 2 minutes).
  • Be sure your lights are on.
  • Head toward the shore, but if the waves are rough, do not attempt to dock.
  • Watch out for floating debris.
  • Head the bow of the boat into the waves at a 45 angle to avoid swamping or capsizing.
  • Be ready to bail the water if the bilge area or other parts of the boat start filling with water.
  • If your boat should capsize or become incapacitated in anyway, always stay with the boat, never attempt to leave the boat and swim to safety. The boat is a larger visual target and more easily spotted than an individual in a life vest. There are too many stories of boats being found with no crew on board.
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