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Beyond a certain age, nothing stops fun on the water better than unexpected soakings, suddenly violent waves, or any activity that can lead to a serious risk of falling out of the boat. And few events can end a good time on the water as precipitously as being hit by lightning.
These are all summertime risks, but they can vary greatly in degree of probability depending on your knowledge of – and respect for – the weather.
There may have been a time, way back before Odysseus, when ignorance of the elements was an excuse for mishap or disaster. But incredible modern-day refinements in satellite-based forecasting and communications technology have removed the last traces of an alibi for being caught on the water unawares. These days, if you didn’t know what to expect it was because you didn’t ask – or you just didn’t take the time to learn.
The Weather Channel is a good place to start. Along with its local forecasts, it provides good radar tracking, notification of small craft advisories, and other pertinent information that boater’s can use. In most coastal areas, VHF broadcasts provide accurate, timely, local marine data on wind direction and speed, temperature, wave height, tides, and special advisories of both long-term and sudden changes. In the summertime, this service includes notification of current thunderstorm activity along with estimates of its future probability. In addition, with direct downloads from weather-mapping satellites, along with your VHF radio, CBs, ship-to-shore, portable AM-FM radios and cellular telephones, you’re only a moment away from everything you should ever need to know.
And that’s not all. For the technology-deficient, toy-deprived or electronically unprepared, there is another reliable resource in the form of accumulated lore and common sense. Since thunderstorms usually travel from west to east, boaters should keep an eye on the western sky. Calm usually does precede a storm, so can a mackerel sky. And yes, red skies at morning are a sailor’s warning.
If you don’t have a phone, can’t hear the crackling on the AM radio and there is haze in the path of the roiling clouds, one of the best indicators of increased electrical activity in the area is still the hair on your forearms or on the back of your neck: when it starts to rise, it’s well past time to get moving.
You say you shave your arms and there isn’t enough hair left on your head to throw a shadow? Well, when caught in foul weather, you should immediately put on your life jacket, reduce the speed of the boat and head for the nearest lee shore or safe harbor. Point the bow at a slight angle into the waves, keeping your passengers low and near the midship point to reduce the risk of battering from the seesaw motion of the boat.
If the engine fails, anchor by the bow or, in deep water, deploy a sea anchor (anything that will slow your drift with underwater drag, such as a bucket or an empty bait box) from the stern.