I have to define small boater. I’m talking about semi-v bottom boats less than 18 feet long. I’m also talking about bay boats, and some of them are twenty-four feet long. Both of these classes of boaters lack one important item – a bow big enough to take heavy seas.
I downsized and took a seventeen-foot Key West almost twenty miles offshore this last week. The seas were flat, and we watched the weather closely. Even then, there was a bit of apprehension. I had my 23 foot bay boat twenty-seven miles out on one occasion in three to four foot seas. That’s another story, but it was a long ugly trip back in, and we were soaked.
Flat seas can fool even the most experienced boater. The farther you go, the more confidence you gain. The more confidence you gain, the farther you go. All at once you realize that you lost the ability to see over the horizon, and that the storm you see brewing is between you and the shore. That’s not a good position to be in, in a small boat. Be that as it may, small boaters are venturing offshore this month in huge numbers. And they will continue to do that until they get caught. Hopefully it will just be a scary ride with no ill consequences.
So for those of you who do plan to venture offshore on those calm days, here are some tips to help you stay safe.
- Obviously, check the weather forecast to make sure that winds are not supposed to increase during the day. Wind direction is important as well. It is much easier to come in on a following sea than buck four-foot waves.
- Never venture offshore without a VHF radio, preferably a good twenty-five watt model with an eight-foot antenna. Hand held VHFs and small antennas work close to shore; offshore, you need a radio that can reach the horizon eighteen miles away.
- Watch the cloud formations through the day. On hot summer days, convection forms some awfully big thunderheads. Where I am, clouds will form over the warmer Gulfstream water and along the beaches. Watching that line of small clouds along the beach can help you. Thunderheads behind that line need to be watched. If they begin to merge with or encroach that line, head for the ramp. Gulfstream clouds and thunderheads need watching as well. Seas can go from flat to extremely rough in just a few minutes when the winds change direction and begin to blow strong. It is a scary ride at best to be in driving rain and five foot seas.
- Make frequent radio checks during the day to make sure you can reach another boat or marina. They are happy to oblige a radio check transmission.
- Use common sense. If that storm looks bad – it is bad. Rationalizing a small rain shower will get you into trouble every time.
- If you have been foolish enough to wait until you have a problem with lightening on the water, keep everything as low in the boat as possible, including yourself. Lay the rods in the bottom of the boat; lower the radio antenna; and, get as low as possible in the boat.
- Probably more important than anything – this catches more people off guard than you would think – be aware of boat wakes. On the ocean boat wakes can travel long distances, creating some big steep swells. Satellite images track ship wakes hundreds of miles from the ship that created the wake. You can be running along wide open without another craft in sight and come upon a big wake. Trust me, they are deceptively big and will flip your boat.
Above all, I think common sense has to be the rule. If you think it will be dangerous, it probably will. If you think that cloud looks bad, it probably is. Take the safe route and head in. You can always come back next week. Small boaters who do dumb things will get caught. It’s only a matter of time.