When the Weather Forecast Double Crosses You

dense-fogYears ago, we could count on the marine weather forecast and plan our trips accordingly. Today, however, it seems that the forecast is mostly wrong and you can end up in some nasty conditions.

This may not be an issue if you are on a small lake or river and you can keep an eye on the sky and get to safety if the weather suddenly changes. It is quite the opposite if you set out on a long trip on a bigger body of water like the Ocean or Great Lakes, and the weather suddenly double crosses you and delivers the opposite to the forecast. Maybe the wind turns and is hitting you from a different direction, or dense fog sets in (as shown in the picture), or a storm develops, or all of the above at the same time. Then what?

Because of the unpredictable weather today, we recommend preparing for “whatever weather” before you leave the dock. There are plenty of simple preparations you can make before heading out, so that you can handle whatever is thrown at you on a big body of water.

“Walkabout” Before Heading Out

An airplane pilot wouldn’t think of taking off without doing a “walkabout” to make sure everything is perfect. This is also a good practice for boaters before heading off on a long crossing—you never know what you might encounter. Better to be prepared.

  • Check the oil and motors.
  • Make sure your VHF, GPS, radar, horn and all other electronics are working.
  • Have all your waypoints entered (where you’re planning on going, plus a few escape alternatives along the way) in your GPS before heading out, so you don’t get caught in rough water trying to hold on and enter them at the same time.
  • Make sure your compass and your plotter agree. If they don’t, check your variance, so that you can navigate by compass if you have to.
  • Take paper charts as well as a plotter. In the event your electronics fail, and they sometimes do, you can still navigate with compass and paper charts.
  • Have all necessary charts on the bridge or near the helm, to eliminate a dangerous trip below in rough water to dig them out from under the mattress.
  • Remove fenders and lines, so that you don’t have to be concerned about losing one or having a line tangle in your prop.
  • Stow fenders and lines, so there is nothing rolling around on the deck. If a fender breaks loose, say goodbye. It might be too dangerous for your crew to go out on deck to secure it in rough seas. If a line falls overboard, you have a potentially dangerous situation to deal with like the line disabling you if caught in your prop.
  • Double check to make sure everything above and below decks is secure.
  • Put your coffee in a thermos and take it to the helm. Stow the coffee pot in the sink, or wash and put it away.
  • A sturdy cup holder at the helm to hold a coffee cup is much safer than a loose cup that could be knocked over and spill on you or the electronics.
  • Make sure objects like cameras are on the floor, instead of on the sofa or table. If you do hit a big surprise wave, they won’t fly onto the floor, since they are already there.
  • Tie loose deck furniture to the taff rails to keep them from sliding around.
  • If a stern line is difficult to reach from around the aft deck enclosure, run it forward to the side deck and tie securely on the rail to be ready for a windy docking later.
  • File a Float Plan with locations and check in times. Remember that you can sometimes communicate by texting on your “smart phone” when the cell phone and VHF are out of range or don’t work for some reason.

Stay Safe and Comfortable While Underway

  • Always have one hand to hang on when moving around the boat, and use the other hand for the job. This simple rule could prevent some broken bones
  • If you do get caught in rough seas and the spray is coming over the bridge, keep all the canvas closed and stuff zipper holes with small towels to help keep you dry.
  • Avoid trips down below.
  • If you must go below to get something from the cabin, be sure to let the Captain know, so that he can monitor how long you are gone.
  • In rough seas, the captain cannot leave the wheel—the crew must do everything else for him including VHF communication and electronics.
  • In heavy fog, use your radar and your horn.
  • On cold mornings, put a blanket over the verticals of the helm and companion seats to stop the cold back draft on your back and legs.
  • Close all side and aft panels of canvas and open just the front panel for visibility. The wind tunnel effect is decreased immensely with only the front open.
  • Monitor your gauges more often, just in case something breaks loose in the rough water.
  • In rough seas, put life jackets on and get flares out of storage just in case.
  • Apply your rough water handling skills to ride the waves at the right speed and angle.
  • All crew should assist the captain and keep eyes on everything – squinting into the fog (the more eyes the better), viewing and operating electronics especially the radar and GPS/Plotter.
  • Crew should keep the Captain informed of everything, yet avoid unnecessary chatter, so the Captain can concentrate on the waves and steering.
  • Sometimes, when the seas are really rough, it is easier for the Captain to steer by compass rather than the GPS. If so, take the GPS bearing and transfer it to the matching compass heading.
  • Head for the nearest safe port, if any trouble develops with the boat or crew, communicating with that port giving them your location, course and ETA.
  • If all is well, press on cautiously communicating your location at the agreed time intervals with Coast Guard.

Destination Tips

  • If you lack clear visibility from the helm to the swim platform, use voice activated headsets or have a second crew member relaying voice messages.
  • Pick a dock that is the best one available keeping in mind ease of approach in a new harbour, where wind and seas will have minimal effect on your boat during docking and for overnight.
  • Dock lines and fender positions vary at different docks, so tie the fenders appropriately during your approach through the harbour, so that when you are close to the dock, everything is right and ready.
  • In higher winds, dock with more attitude—push up the throttles and keep shifts in gear longer to improve your control.
  • If the dock is too short, use an Amidships FLIPP Line rather than a Stern FLIPP Line. If it is really windy the Amidships FLIPP Line will work really well. Once you have it tied short, fast and tight, the boat is secure allowing you to pull against it with the outside motor.

Being prepared for the worst is good insurance. You hope you don’t need it, but if you do, it’s there. If you believe in “Murphy’s Law”, being prepared is the only way to go.

It only takes a few minutes to do your “walkabout” and educate your crew before a long crossing. If the weather does double cross you, you’ll be prepared and get through it without incident—no scrambling, shouting or injuries.


Doug’s souvenir shirt from Kincardine says it all!

“Thank God It Floats!”

by Doug Dawson

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Would You Know What to Do?

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