WEATHER AND BOATING
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary has significantly reduced the number 
of Search and Rescue missions required to be performed by the men and women 
of the Coast Guard in response to Boaters in trouble on the water due to 
inclement weather through educating our fellow citizens about the hazards 
weather brings to safe boating.  Many lives have been saved by boaters 
practicing the principles they have learned in the Boating Skills and 
Seamanship course.

The following excerpts on several weather conditions are taken from the Boating 
Skills and Seamanship course materials presented by the Coast Guard Auxiliary 
Division 10 (5SR) Flotillas here in the Greater Wilmington area.  For more 
information on course offerings please contact Donna Sauer, the Division 10 
Public Education Staff Officer at (910) 270-9830. donnaacga@ail.com

Boaters have a special need to know about WEATHER.  On land, the effects 
of storms can be devastating.  At sea, they can be even worse.  High winds, 
lightning, rough seas, and poor visibility are some of the things that 
accompany storms.  Your recreational outing can end in disaster.  But it need 
not.

The first step in avoiding weather problems is, “Know before you go.”  If bad 
weather is in the offing don’t go.  This means that you need to know where to 
get good weather information before you go out on the water.

At least as important as knowing what weather to expect on your trip is knowing 
how to tell when the weather is changing.  Is the weather what you expected?  
Are there signs that it is changing?

WEATHER INFORMATION

Television, from both national and local stations, has weather reporting and 
forecasting programs throughout the day and night.  Likewise, radio, both FM 
and AM, broadcast almost continuous local weather information.  In the case of 
both TV and radio, stations near the coasts and large inland waterways often 
have local marine weather broadcasts.  The National Weather Service continuously 
broadcasts weather information over its network of FM weather stations.  Its 
forecasts focus on specific locales and give marine weather conditions where 
applicable.  NWS updates its forecasts as soon as new information is available.  
If severe weather develops, NWS immediately broadcasts the information.

You can receive NWS broadcasts on inexpensive, narrow-band FM receiving sets.  
These sets use either household electrical current or batteries.  The broadcasts 
are also available on the weather channels of your VHF-FM marine radio.  You 
should be able to receive NWS broadcasts on one or more of their broadcasting 
frequencies.   If you have a VHF-FM radio or a narrow-band receiving set aboard 
your vessel, you can receive the latest information while you cruise.

WIND

Fog, heavy rain, sleet, and snow create problems for boaters by reducing their 
visibility.  In reduced visibility, you may become disoriented and unable to 
return to port.  You become more vulnerable to collisions and to grounding.  
Although these problems are serious, they are mild in comparison with those 
created by wind.

Wind is a basic problem in thunderstorms, tornadoes, waterspouts, tropical storms, 
gales, hurricanes and other extreme weather conditions.  But wind does not have to 
be this strong to create dangerous boating problems.  Even fairly mild winds can 
create rough boating conditions by their effects on water.

Winds do not have to be of hurricane force to create a surge.  Most northeast 
storms along the north Atlantic coast create surges and cause severe property and 
ecological damage.  In strong winds, the water levels of bays and sound rise beyond 
those of normal tides.  Moored boats may rise as far as their mooring lines will 
permit and will sink if the water rises above the pilings to which they are tied 
and be impaled on them as the water level falls.  Boats in covered slips may be 
crushed against the roofs.

The most common wind related problem faced by boaters is rough water.  Large waves 
may overturn or swamp small boats.  Breaking waves can make small boats yaw and 
broach or pitchpole.

Most waves are caused by wind and continue to grow from it.  Up to a point, the 
longer the wind blows, the higher the waves become.  Too, the greater the 
interrupted expanse, the higher the waves.  Eventually, the waves reach a maximum 
height for the fetch, wind speed, and duration of the wind.

FRONTS

Cold fronts move at speeds of 10 to 30 knots depending on the time of year.  They 
are two to three times as fast in winter as in summer.  If a cold front is moving 
fast, the zone between it and the warm air mass in front of it will narrow and the 
changes will be abrupt.  Thus if a cold front is moving fast, there will probably 
be a line of strong winds in front of it called a SQUALL LINE.  Wind speeds in 
squall lines are often as high as 30 - 60 miles per hour.  Gusts may be as high as 
80 - 100 miles per hour.  Squall lines present dangerous boating conditions.  
Behind them is heavy rain, followed by clearing. WARNING….If a cold front is 
approaching, or has arrived, use extreme caution.  This includes not boating or 
returning to port.

FOG

Fog is a cloud in contact with the earth’s surface.  It consists of water droplets 
or ice crystals which form when air is cooled to the dew point.  Fog is the most 
frequent cause of limited visibility.  It is also the most common weather hazard.  
The speed with which fog can form makes it especially hazardous.  It is not unusual 
for visibility to drop to less than one mile in a few minutes.  Advection Fog occurs 
in coastal waters and is caused by warm, moist air from the land blowing over cold 
water.  It is a concern for boating since it moves rapidly in dense “banks” that can 
overtake and surprise unwary boaters.  WARNING……Advectation fog can reduce 
visibility to a few feet in a matter of minutes.  It occurs most frequently in cold 
seasons.  FOG PRECAUTIONS…..Mark your position prior to entering the fog area, 
reduce speed, assign lookouts to both look AND listen, consider anchoring if out of 
shipping channels, give appropriate (bell and/or whistle) sound signals.

THUNDERSTORMS

Thunderstorms may accompany cold fronts.  Thunderstorms can also occur in non-
frontal weather.  Summer thunderstorms are usually this type.  Regardless of its 
cause, a thunderstorm is probably the storm most feared by boaters.  The winds, heavy 
rains and lightning in thunderstorms are dangerous.  The National Weather Service 
calls a thunderstorm “severe” if its winds are 50 knots or greater.  It is also 
severe if it has hail that is three quarters of an inch or larger.  And if it has a 
tornado in it, it is severe.

On most summer days, after-noon cumulus clouds are capable of turning into 
thunderheads and thunderstorms if there is enough moisture in the air.  Keep an eye 
on them.  You may be able to run for safety before there’s any danger.  In hazy weather, 
you may not see the thunderheads forming since haze limits the visibility.

On such hot, muggy, hazy afternoons, you should be alert for static on your AM radio, 
the sound of distant thunder, or the flicker of lightning.  Stay close to port so you 
can run in if necessary.  If you are sailing and do not have auxiliary power, be 
especially alert.  The winds may die shortly before the storm begins.  This is no time 
to be becalmed.  If there is a threat of bad weather, have all hands don their life 
jackets, batten your hatches, and tie down all loose equipment.  Once the storm hits, 
try to take the first (and heaviest) gusts of wind on your bow, not abeam.  Heading 
into the wind is the most seaworthy position for most small boats.  Approach waves at 
a 45 degree angle, this will keep your propeller under water.  It also reduces 
pounding and provides a safer and more comfortable ride.

Stay low in the boat.  Don’t make yourself the tallest target.  Keep away from all metal 
objects.  Lightning does not have to strike a boat directly for strong electrical charges 
to be aboard.  If it strikes the water near your boat, it may affect the metal parts on 
the boat.

If you would like to know more about weather and many other aspects of Boating Safety, 
consider joining the Coast Guard Auxiliary.  We have excellent courses available to you 
that will help you become one of America’s Life Saving Volunteers.  For more information 
on joining, contact:  Division 10  Staff Officer Personnel Services Diane Chaney 
(910) 270-3538 or email here at gfchaney@bcinet.net

...Boat Smart; Boat Safe; Take Control...

$$