Boating Safety

Avoiding The Perfect Storm – How To Read Marine Weather

In the weatherman, we do not trust.

Reading Marine Weather

It’s important to get a feel for understanding marine weather forecasts, but being able to read between the weatherman’s lines isn’t good enough – you also need to be able to do a bit of predicting on your own marine weather. Yes, trying to predict the weather is like trying to predict when and where the fish will bite. You might be right some of the time, maybe even a lot of the time, but there’s no way on Earth you’ll be right all the time. And that means that sooner or later, you’ll get caught in the rough stuff. Minimize those events, by using these tips.

marine weather anvil cumulonimbus cloud
Beware of the anvil-shaped cumulonimbus cloud; this rather dramatic example was photographed from the International Space Station.
  1. A growing anvil-top shaped cloud is a thunderstorm in the making, and the direction the top leans in is the direction the storm is taking. (High altitude winds push the top of the “anvil” in the direction of travel). If you see these clouds building, take those marine weather forecasts you heard of minimal chances of thunderstorms and throw them right out the window.
Bad marine weather coming
Photo Credit: Capt. Scott Goodwin
  1. Old marine weather rhymes may seem cliché, but they work as well today as they did hundreds of years ago. When boat horns sound hollow, rain will surely follow. (Low cloud cover changes tonal quality). Sharp horns on the moon threaten high winds. (High speed winds aloft sweep away cloud forms, so the ends of the moon appear sharp). Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. (The sun is illuminating cirrus clouds which are followed by low frontal clouds).
  1. Beware of the hissing antennae. This usually happens with VHF antennae, but you’ll also see it occur with fishing rods, outriggers, and gaffs up-ended in rocket launchers. When the air is charged with static electricity, it’s collected and channeled through these tall, thin, electric-gathering objects. Maybe some of you scientific types out there understand exactly why this happens, but for some reason, the item will emit a hissing, crackling sound, more or less like static on a radio. Sometimes it’s barely audible, and other times it’s loud enough to be heard over an idling diesel. Within about 10 minutes of hearing the hiss you’re likely to be lashed by fierce lightning storms, so the hissing is your final indication to batten down the hatches as bad marine weather is coming.
marine weather is read by radar electronics
Photo Credit: Capt. Scott Goodwin
  1. Radar is your best friend when trying to avoid a marine weather storm. However, many people make the mistake of looking at the screen and simply setting a course going away from the blob. Don’t forget, that blob is moving and if you’re moving at the same time, it becomes difficult to ascertain the exact direction the storm is tracking. Instead of hitting the throttles, first force yourself to sit still for a few minutes and get a solid read on the storm’s direction. Then and only then can you choose the best course.
Running without first carefully considering what the radar screen is telling you isn’t the best move when storms are approaching. Photo Credit: Capt. Scott Goodwin
  1. Naturally, the best way to beat the perfect marine weather storm is to avoid it entirely. But even the most cautious captain will eventually miss-read the signs, miss them entirely, or for one reason or another, find themselves in a storm or squall. What to do? There are several tactics that should be applied to come through safely.
  • When the storm is strong enough to threaten the boat, always put the bow to a slight angle off the seas, and give the engine just enough throttle to maintain your position.
  • If you lose power, deploy an anchor and let out every inch of scope you’ve got. If it’s too deep to anchor you may be able to use a sea anchor tied to a bow cleat to keep the bow into the seas (on a small boat a five-gallon bucket tied off to a rope may do the trick).
  • In heavy lightning keep everyone belowdecks if possible, and after recording your position, turn off and unplug any electronics you don’t need at the moment. Most lightning strikes fry the electronics on a boat, and unplugged units have a better chance for survival.
  • If you ever feel the boat is seriously threatened by marine weather, have everyone on board put on life jackets, and hail the coast guard. Make them aware of your position, the number, and age of the people on board, and your current situation.
us coast guard rescue in horrible weather
Ultimately, this is a sight none of us want to see. Learning how to predict – and react to – changes in the weather will help avoid it. Photo courtesy of the USCG.
Photo Credit: Capt. Scott Goodwin

You can have all the marine weather reports, electronics, and knowledge in the world, but in the long run, avoiding the perfect storm will all come down to you and the choices you make as the captain. Bottom line: when the weather has you worried, just don’t leave the dock in the first place.

Get more great boating information and tips from Lenny Rudow on BD.

Lenny Rudow
Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chie...