Surviving a storm is a challenge many boaters will have to face. If you’re a dedicated mariner, the question isn’t if you’ll get caught in a storm, it’s when. So: when horizontal rain and gale-force gusts start pounding your boat, will you know how to keep on an even keel? Here are three tips to boost your odds.
1. Keep the bow into the seas at all cost, preferably by idling into the waves at a 45-degree angle just fast enough to maintain steerage. This may seem so basic it’s too obvious to point out, but keeping the bow into the waves can become problematic—particularly if you lose power. When this occurs, you’ll need to deploy either your anchor or a sea anchor off of a bow cleat. In the case of an anchor, you’ll need at least a seven-to-one scope to reliably hold bottom in heavy wind and seas, and more is better. The bottom line: let out all of the rode you can. What if there’s no anchor aboard? A sea anchor is the next best thing, but unfortunately, few boats carry them. In a pinch, on relatively small boats you can tie a rope to the handle of a five-gallon bucket (or buckets) and use it as a sea anchor.
2. Take care of your top. Bimini tops and/or curtains may need to be lowered, in extreme winds. Yes, you’re going to get wet. But when the rain is moving parallel to the horizon a bimini won’t keep you dry anyway. Lowering tops and removing curtains will greatly reduce windage, allowing for more control of the boat. And if you leave up a relatively flimsy top which rests on thin aluminum supports, it may rip out of a mount or the mount’s screws may rip out of the fiberglass. Now, you not only have to battle the storm, you also have to dodge swinging poles and flapping canvas.
An even worse mistake is putting up a full-enclosure on a stern-drive or inboard boat. As well as the aforementioned factors, when you cover the entire boat, you may trap exhaust fumes that can lead to asphyxiation.
3. Prepare for lightning strikes. There isn’t much you can do to prevent being struck (though lowering antennas, fishing rods, outriggers and the like may help). But if your boat does get zapped, you’ll fare much better if you’ve done some prep work. First off, if you have a house or back-up battery which you don’t need at the moment, disconnect it from the system. That way, if everything gets fried you’ll still have an untouched power source. Secondly, record your GPS coordinates on paper, so you have a last-known position to relay if your GPS gets cooked but your radio or hand-held back-up radio is still functional. And finally, after they’ve donned life jackets, send your passengers into the cabin. The safest place to be on a boat that gets hit by lightning is in the cabin, and there’s no reason to expose them to any additional danger.
Chances are you’ll get through that next storm just fine, especially if you keep these three tips in mind. But what happens if that storm does disable your boat? We’ve got tips for surviving at sea, too; check ‘em out, and you’ll be prepared for every eventuality.