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Boating in Storms: Winter Safety Tips

A responsible mariner will take all measures necessary to avoid being caught out in a storm. However, even with all of today’s high-tech equipment, it is not always possible to avoid being out on the water in rough conditions. Having a plan and being prepared for rough weather is the key to returning safely to port without damage to the vessel or harm to the crew.

Lightning Strike On The Water On A Boat
Lightning Strike On The Water. Photo: C. Ryan McVinney

How To Avoid Getting Caught In A Storm

Spend enough time boating and you’re likely to have a few tales of bad weather out on the high seas. However, these days it is easier than ever to avoid being caught out. Weather forecasting has improved dramatically over the last decade. Daily forecasts are updated sometimes hourly, and long-range forecasts are much more accurate. This means that the average mariner has access to the most up-to-date information at all times. So, the best way to avoid getting caught in a storm is simply to keep a sharp eye on the weather and not to head out in bad conditions, or when the weather is predicted to deteriorate.

Keep in mind that there can be dramatic differences between the conditions on land and at sea. Be sure to check weather forecasts for your specific maritime area, not just the local weather predictions. A great way to stay informed is via a marine weather app or weather service.

It can be difficult to navigate your way through all the weather forecasting options that are available these days. Here are a few of the most popular weather apps and services used by mariners.

Best Boat Radar, Weather Apps and Equipment

1. NOAA Weather Radar – This easy-to-use weather radar app is based on information from NOAA- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With colour graphics and real-time animated weather radar based on your device’s GPS location you can keep up-to-date with weather conditions. You can track everything from hurricanes to snow storms, humidity to wave height as well as get information on visibility, wind speed and direction and atmospheric pressure.

2. Windy – This weather app is one of my personal favourites. Also known as Windyty, this app uses simple but powerful colour graphics to convey all the weather information you need at a glance. Windy uses all the leading weather models; ECMWF (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) GFS (Global Forecasting System) ICON (for Europe) and NAM (for the USA). It is fully customizable and allows you to compare 40 weather maps including wind, rain, temperature, wave, swell and atmospheric pressure forecasts worldwide. This app is trusted not only by mariners but by pilots, surfers, paragliders and kite surfers.

3. PredictWind – PredictWind is a very popular weather app amongst sailors and racers, both on and offshore. It uses proprietary PWG and PWE marine weather forecasting models, as well as the ECWMF and NOAA models, to give you accurate, high resolution weather predictions. You can view wind, swell, rain, cloud, air and sea temperatures in a table, graph or map format, depending on which graphic you best understand. With live weather observations from 20,000 stations across the globe you can stay up-to-date wherever you are. As well, this app also offers weather routing, giving you the best route and conditions, and a departure planner feature for an additional in app fee.

4. Buoyweather – Buoy weather is an information gathering service that has been around long before the app was available. Using real-time information about marine weather conditions gathered by floating weather buoys offshore, boaters can view a location-based forecasts simply by clicking on a weather buoy icon. You can view either 2-day or 7-day forecasts for marine weather, as well as wind strength, wave height and direction and tide forecasts.

5. Passage Weather – Passage Weather is a marine weather service website that uses US-based weather models – NOAA, NWS, NCEO, NRL – to provide accurate, reliable and easy to use weather information for any location on the globe. You can view wind, wave and weather forecasting for up to 7 days on their website. They also provide customized passage planning and weather routing services for an additional fee. When close to shore you can view the website normally, but they also have a low-bandwidth version available for offshore boaters who have limited connectivity, allowing you to stay informed anywhere you can log on.

6. NOAA Weather Radio – Even if you do not have mobile data connectivity you can still check weather conditions if you are within VHF range. NOAA Weather Radio is a free service from the US Coast Guard that usually broadcasts VHF channel 22, after an initial announcement on VHF channel 16. The automated forecast includes local or regional weather forecasts, synopsis, climate summaries and lake/coastal waters forecasts. Is broadcast on regular schedule throughout the day. This service will also give more detailed weather information during severe weather conditions as well as occasionally broadcast national or local emergency information.

Always Be Prepared for All Weather Conditions

No matter how nice a day it is, or how well informed you are about weather, it is possible to get caught out. When this happens the best way to arrive back in port safely is by making sure both the vessel and the crew are well prepared.

Keeping your vessel properly maintained is essential for safe navigation in any conditions but having a well running boat will certainly ensure that things go a little more smoothly onboard when things get rough. Before leaving the dock take a few minutes for a pre-departure check and address any issues before putting to sea. Also take a few minutes to stock up on essential supplies and replace any missing or expired items.

Top 10 Pre-departure Checks

1. Check the engine, fluid levels and fuel system, battery, bilge pumps (if you have a deep bilge), navigation equipment and VHF radio. Make sure all systems are functioning efficiently and properly.

2. Check that you are carrying the required safety equipment for your vessel, including a well-fitting lifejacket for each person on the boat.

3. Top up the fuel tanks. Running in rough conditions will increase your normal fuel consumption. Even if you are only planning a short trip it is always better to have more fuel than needed than to run low.

4. Make sure you have enough food and water for the voyage. Even for short inshore trips, stock a day or two worth of drinking water and non-perishable snacks.

5. Carry a small medical kit in case of accidents or emergency.

6. Check your up-to-date charts and make a “Plan B” for alternative safe ports to shelter at in case the weather deteriorates.

7. Keep a cheat sheet outlining the proper radio protocol used in an emergency situation close to the VHF so anyone can call for help.

8. Safely stow all loose equipment until needed.

9. Inform someone ashore what your intended route or sail plan is, and when you are expecting to return.

10. Make sure the crew know where lifejackets, fire extinguishers and other safety equipment is kept, and that they understand how to correctly use them.

Boating In Big Waves and Rough Water

If you do find yourself out on the water in deteriorating conditions the best thing you can do is to stay calm. Panicking about the situation is likely to cause you to make bad decisions, which could lead to equipment breakages and injury. Keeping a cool head, making informed, strategic decisions and being mindful of the conditions are the best ways to avoid an accident when at sea.

Every boat handles differently, so it is difficult to give specific advice about boat handling in rough conditions, however there are a few basic rules when navigating big waves.

Boat Handling Tips In Bad Weather

1. Secure the vessel – As conditions deteriorate it is important to stow loose items and secure any equipment that isn’t being used so it does not roll under foot and get in the way or end up broken. Tie down fishing rods, lock cupboards and put away anything not essential to safe navigation.

2. Check the bilge pumps – Hopefully you’ve already done this before leaving the docks, but it is always a good idea to check that your bilge pumps are functioning properly so that the bilge can be kept empty, and excess water and weight will not affect stability or hinder the performance of the vessel.

3. Slow down – Driving a boat at full speed into heavy seas is not only jarring to the crew it is the number one way to break equipment or damage the vessel. Reducing your speed slightly will make for a much smoother ride.

4. Trim to suit conditions – Adjusting the trim of your motor will affect how the boat rides and pierces through the waves. Every hull and motor combination will have a different ideal trim in rough conditions, so you may need to experiment to find the trim that suits your vessel during rough weather.

5. Hit waves at a 45° angle – Bashing into a big wave head on or sliding directly down the backside of a wave is perhaps the most dangerous way to approach heavy seas. Instead, angle the vessel between 35-45° to the wave and run across the swell. You should find that you not only have better steerage but there will be less banging, less noise and a whole lot less breakages.

Run for Cover

Sometimes the best thing to do when unexpected bad weather sets in is to run for cover. Seeking the protection of a nearby harbor or bay does not mean that you’re not manly enough to face the storm. It means that you are a responsible boater who is concerned about the safety of his vessel and his crew.

Anchoring In Rough Water

Unexpected weather systems will often pass quickly, so finding a calm and secure anchorage to hunker down in for a few hours could mean the difference between everyone turning green while being tossed around in rough weather and enjoying a hot cup of coffee undercover before returning to your home port.

A well protected, and comfortable anchorage will provide protection from the wind and the swell. When entering an unfamiliar harbour, especially when the sea is agitated, it is a good idea to look at all charts and guides you have available, checking for any discrepancies between them. When approaching the anchorage stand off and assess the conditions, breaking waves often indicate shoals or shallow areas that should be avoided. Try to enter the harbor at the deepest point possible, as this is where the seas will be calmest.

Keep in mind that a heavy swell will often wrap around narrow points of land, so you may need to maneuver the vessel far into an inlet before the sea calms completely. Also remember that waves will appear larger when there is a heavy wind/swell is running against the direction of a large tide. It is a smart idea reduce your speed, stay calm and keep control of your vessel. When in doubt, and if the vessel is not in danger, hold station and reassess the conditions.

When anchoring, consult your chart to find good holding in mud or sand. Avoid throwing the pick in coral or rocks, which cannot only damage delicate marine life but foul your anchor. Always practice safe anchoring techniques; pay out the correct ratio of anchor chain or rode for the depth and conditions. A good rule of thumb is a 3:1 scope for calm conditions, a 5:1 scoop for moderate conditions and a 7:1 or 10:1 for rough conditions. And ALWAYS remember to account for swing room when there are other vessels in the anchorage. When in doubt, don’t go out.

Is It Safe To Be On A Boat In A Thunderstorm?

In US costal waters it is estimated that your chances of being struck by lightning while out boating in a storm is about 1 in 1000, with boaters in Florida and on the Chesapeake being at a slightly elevated risk. Although it is true that the risk of being struck is slightly greater when out on the water, there are ways that you can reduce your odds of sustaining damage or getting struck at all if you happen to get caught in a lightning storm.

How Do You Protect A Boat From Lightning?

1. Lower tall equipment – Lightning is a charge of electricity that is traveling toward the earth, looking for an isolated, tall object to travel through to reach ground. Rods, outriggers and antenna are prime targets, so lower any unnecessary tall equipment that is not part of a designed lightning safety system.

2. Install a proper bonding system –When installed a proper bonding system or grounding plate is designed to divert the lightning through the vessel and dissipate it into the water without damage to vessel or equipment. If you live in a high-risk area this is your first line of defense.

3. Disconnect any unnecessary electronics – If you do get caught in a lightning storm unplugging any unnecessary equipment is the easiest way to prevent delicate electronics from getting damaged. Even if not turned on a device that is plugged in can still sustain damage if the vessel is struck by lightning.

4. Put small electronic devices in the microwave or oven – Your onboard microwave or oven will act as a Faraday cage during a lightning storm, protecting your small electronic devices in case of a lightning strike.

5. Keep your eyes on the skies – Keeping a close watch of the weather is the best way to reduce your risk of being struck by lightning. If you see a storm brewing in the area check the latest weather forecast and alter course to avoid the bad weather. Under no circumstances should you leave the dock if a thunder and lightening storm is predicted.

Keeping this simple rule in mind will keep you out of trouble 99% of the time. No one wants to miss a day out on the water, but sometimes the best way to avoid a storm is to stay home. Avoid going out in unfavorable conditions or when conditions are predicted to deteriorate. No matter how good the conditions look at the time, it is just not worth risking your vessel or your life.

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Space Saving Solutions for Living Aboard A Boat Space Saving Solutions for Living Aboard A Boat. Photo: C. Ryan McVinney[/caption]

Soft Storage Sacks

Boat design is all about the carefully conceived curves, so rarely will you find nice, neat square storage space. Using a container that has hard, angular edges can further reduce the volume of an already tight storage area. Opting for a soft sided bin or basket means the container can conform to the odd shape of the hold. In dry compartments, try a soft canvas or mesh bag. For potentially wet storage areas a sturdy roll-top, waterproof gear sack will keep goodies safe.

Collapsible Containers

With the advent of silicon there are now a variety of collapsible storage bins on the market. These pieces are a handy addition, allowing the convenience of having many luxury items onboard without cluttering up cupboards. Full-sized bowls, measuring cups, salad spinners and washtubs all accordion down flat and can be stacked and stowed in small spaces when not in use.

Folding Tables and Chairs

Often times common areas on a boat are multi-use. The cockpit, for instance, needs to be a functional space while underway but it is a favorite hangout spot when on anchor. Having a folding table, whether it is a built in or completely removable, allows you to enjoy a meal under the stars as well as make room for crew to work while the boat is moving. Folding chairs stow easily but accommodate extra guests around the table. The salty, marine environment is harsh, quickly corroding items that may last years on dry land. When buying folding tables and chairs check that the hinges are durable, and the item is made out of high quality stainless, aluminum or plastic.

Hooks

There is always a spot on the wall, a strange-shaped nook or a cupboard door that could be utilized for storage simply by adding a hook. Hang keys, bags, hats and other everyday items on a hook for quick access. Adding a few hooks in the head makes for a spot to hang a dry towel, and a hook by each bunk is a great spot for an in case of emergency, easy to reach flashlight. If permanently affixing a hook with screws is undesirable, look for heavy duty 3M removable hooks that don’t require tools and won’t damage surfaces.

Hammocks

Popular on boats since boats started floating, small hammocks are a terrific way to store items such as clothing and blankets when not in use. Usually made out of netting these hammocks make the most out of empty spaces. Taking up very little room when not in use they expand and accommodate any shaped items, stowing them safely in a conveniently reached spot. Many people also use net hammocks in the galley to store fresh fruit and vegetables instead of taking up precious fridge space. Net hammocks do allow for more airflow around your produce but softer fruit such as peaches, pears and summer squash may be cut or damaged by the thin net strings.

Hanging Organizers

Usually partitioned and designed for use in a closet to store items such as shoes these handy organizers are great on a boat. Pretty enough to be hung within sight they make a great spot to store towels in the head, a place to stow soft toys in a kid’s cabin or hung in a closet to keep clothing tidy. Hanging organizers are also a neat way to keep the crew items corralled while underway. Simply colour cod or number each nook and every crew person can have a place to put small items when not in use.

Overhead Bags

Trying to maximize storage space means making use of every available nook and cranny, including the ones directly overhead. There are purpose-made bags on the market like the “T-Bag” that are designed to attach to the underside of a t-top or bimini. Large enough to store items like life jackets and safety equipment that are needed in the cockpit, they provide a spot to stow gear out of the weather but within easy reach. If there is head room down below utilizing overhead nets or bags is also a cleaver way to stow light weight items like bed linens or clothing.

Hanging Pockets

Whether it’s on a rail, the wall or over a door, a hanging pocket is a handy way to keep things tidy. Used to keep lines in the cockpit from being dangerously underfoot, the anchor rode from becoming tangled on the bow or a pair of binoculars within reach of the helmsman. Made out of canvas or a weatherized mesh, hanging pockets come in a variety of colors and sizes. Turn the back of a sliding door into a wall of pockets to store shoes, sunscreen, gloves, even fishing lures. Placed in the head, pockets can instantly organize crew toiletries and be a spot to hold precious jewelry items while showering or swimming. Use a hanging pocket in the galley to make frequently reached for condiments, snacks or coffee mugs easily accessible. There are never too many hanging pockets on a boat.

Pillows

At first glance a pillow doesn’t seem like it belongs in this list, after all pillows can take up a lot of space. However, making a pillow do double duty turns it into a super space saver. Stuff pillow cases with extra or unused bedding, clothes or towels to keep the cabin tidy and give people a soft spot to lean. Choosing pillow cases that accent the décor of the boat will ensure that even the most discerning guest won’t guess your secret storage solution.

Velcro

Heavy duty or industrial Velcro is an easy way to keep small items from sliding around while underway. Self-adhesive and customizable to any shape Velcro pads can be stuck by the helm to keep small gadgets within sight of the captain or used to secure delicate items down below. Velcro can also be used on vertical surfaces, keeping décor items like photos firmly in place. Strong enough to keep overhead panels stuck in place or chair backs in proper position Velcro is a heavy hitter when it comes to storage solutions onboard.

Vacuum Bags

Need to compress large items like bedding or store seasonal clothes? Vacuum bags to the rescue. Buying provisions in bulk but want to preserve the freshness of half your order? Vacuum bags to the rescue. Need to ensure that items like flares and the emergency medical kit in the ditch bag are waterproof? Vacuum bags to the rescue. Available in sizes ranging from 8” x 10” to suitcase-sized, vacuum bags are an amazing, and extremely versatile, storage solution. Vacuum bags not only compress items by removing air but also seals them in a heavy-duty air-tight, and waterproof, bag. When opened the items like clothes and bedding are dryer-fresh. Foodstuffs that are vacuum packed are not only free of bugs and moisture but removing air prevents spoilage and extends potential shelf time. For the avid fishermen a vacuum packer is the quickest and easiest way to portion and preserve the days catch. Items frozen in vacuum packed bags are less prone to freezer burn.

Magnetic Strips

Perhaps one of the best storage solutions for the galley a magnetic strip is both handy and unobtrusive. Mounted on a bulkhead a magnetic strip is the best way to keep knives out of harms way. Strong enough to keep items secure in a rough seaway magnetic strips are also a convenient place to stow a pair of scissors or a bottle opener. Mount one in the cockpit and keep fishing lures from becoming tangled or falling underfoot, not to mention keep the fileting knife ready for action. Some magnetics strips are sold with a selection of metal canisters which provide a convenient way to sort spices in the galley or keep small items like nuts and bolts tidy in the tool kit.

Bungee Cords

Used to gather and hang lines in a storage hold, tie down odd shaped equipment or keep canvas from flapping in a breeze bungee cords, or shock cords, are indispensable on a boat. One stretched around a storage bin or long a wall makes a spot to tuck flip flops. Use a bungee to hang a roll of paper towel or create a spot to hang sunglasses so they won’t get scratched. Stretch a bungee cord overhead to make an instant clothes line to dry a wet towel after a swim. Fasten a length of shock cord along a wall at regular intervals to create a custom storage solution for hand tools like screwdrivers or a spatula in the galley. A bungee cord never stays idle on a boat.

Hanging Glass Racks & Cup Hooks

Once only found in your favorite local pub, hanging racks are now common place on boats. Used to store drinking glasses these simple metal racks install under cabinets or overheads and add a touch of class to any boat. Hanging stemware not only frees up precious cupboard space but delicate glassware is stored safely in an easy to reach spot. Cup hooks are traditionally mounted on the underside of a shelf or cupboard and are a way to store more durable items like coffee mugs.

Nesting Pots and Dishes

Cupboard space in the galley can quickly get taken over by dishes and cookware. One easy way to maximize galley storage is to invest in dishes that neatly stack and pots that nest inside one another. No need to break the bank at the chandlery, although there are lots of thoughtful products available there. Simply keep storage in mind when you are choosing pots and pans - make sure they stack together neatly, avoid long handles on pans and lids, look for a pot and pan that are the same diameter so one lid can be used on two items. For dishes choose low profile plates and make sure they are small enough to fit inside the cupboard, many galley storage areas are narrower than a typical dinner plate.

Charging Stations

It seems impossible to live without handheld gadgets these days, and it doesn’t take long before there is a tangle of cords clogging up the counter next to the nearest outlet. To avoid an unsightly mess, and to charge as many devices as possible at once consider installing a dedicated charging station. Designed to hold multiple devices while tastefully hiding all those USB cords, charging stations are a cleaver way to stay charged up and clutter free. For an even more boat friendly solution, turn a drawer into a charging station. The stack of devices will be out of sight and won’t fall off the counter while the boat is in motion.

Custom Built Options

Sometimes the best option is one that is tailored to your specific needs, especially when it comes to getting the most out of storage space on a boat. Tables that fold against a bulkhead walls, a sofa that conceals a built-in fridge, a lift away counter top that hides the onboard bar. If you are in the market for a new boat, then exploring what custom storage options each design offer could buy you a few more square feet of usable space. And, for those who are already boat owners, custom modifications can mean the difference between boating in chaos or living clutter-free.

Think Outside the Boat

There has been a trend in recent years to downsize and declutter, to live with less and do more. With an increasing number of people choosing to live in small spaces there are more products and storage ideas for those spaces. Yes, there are a few more obstacles on a boat- items have to be secured for sea and often need to be waterproof – but don’t get stuck at the local marine store. Many of the storage ideas used by RV-ers and Tiny Home owners are perfect fits for boat storage as well, you just have to think outside the boat./>
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