With the summer season about to unfold, boating activity is beginning to increase around the country, and staying cognizant of the weather is a key component of having a safe, enjoyable time on the water.
Monitoring the forecast, as well as the marine weather forecast, is crucial to boating safely because the weather can often change quickly, leaving boaters in a precarious position if unprepared.
Just last month, on April 25, severe thunderstorms swept through Dauphin Island, Alabama, while the annual Dauphin Island Regatta was taking place. Five people were confirmed dead and more than 40 individuals were rescued, according to AL.com.
In a recently released report by the U.S. Coast Guard, boating fatalities in 2014 totaled 610. When the number of fatalities rose from 560 in 2013, 2014 was still the second-lowest number of yearly boating fatalities on record. Of the 10 known contributing factors of accidents, weather was ranked ninth, causing 45 deaths and 78 injuries.
The National Safe Boating Council (NSBC) is one of the leading organizations for promoting a safer recreational boating experience. Rachel Johnson, NSBC Executive Director, said working together with other boating safety agencies, including the Coast Guard, to promote safe boating campaigns has been a significant factor in raising awareness.
"I think it's really getting out to boaters and making them more aware of how to boat more safely each and every year," Johnson said.
Although National Safe Boating Week recently concluded, instituting safe boating practices must be done year round.
Here are several ways to stay alert and prepared for harmful weather.
Be Prepared Before Leaving the Dock
Take a Boating Safety Course
When learning how to properly operate a boat, a key aspect is getting a firm grip on understanding how to read the weather. The number-three cause of boating incidents in 2014, according to the Coast Guard, was operator inexperience.
The NSBC trains professionals who then, using the curriculum installed by the organization, instruct recreational boaters throughout the country.
While weather preparation isn't a primary focus, it still plays a key role in the NSBC's training efforts, according to Johnson.
Johnson gave the example of learning how to dock a boat and perform a close-quarters maneuver near the shore, which can be very tricky if the wind is blowing.
"Weather is a very important part of boating and it's a very important part of safe boating," Johnson said. "We always encourage boaters to make sure they are always keeping an eye on the weather because it can change quickly, it can change drastically and it can really affect your day."
More information on boating safety classes can be found here.
Ensure That You Have the Proper Equipment
The U.S. Coast Guard requires that all recreational vehicles must carry one Coast Guard-approved life jacket per person on board. The most important safety measure the NSBC recommends to boaters, regardless of weather, is to wear a life jacket. According to AL.com, an Alabama state trooper said he "did not believe" that any of the Dauphin Island Regatta victims had worn life jackets.
Having the proper communication equipment is important too. A VH-FM radio is key, especially since cell phones can become unreliable if you head further off shore. If heading out more than 25 nautical miles from shore, satellite phones are recommended.
Earlier this month, the Coast Guard released its new mobile app for boating safety. The app comes with a detailed checklist of the latest safety regulations, the ability to find the nearest NOAA buoy, as well as a way to request emergency assistance.
It also lets you send a float plan to friends and family faster than ever before. From kayakers to deep-sea fishermen, filing a float plan with the Coast Guard is recommended for anyone heading out on the water. A float plan consists of detailed information about where you departed from, the time and place you're expected to return and any other pertinent details about your trip.
Coast Guard-approved, marine-style fire extinguishers and visual distress signals (flares) must also be kept on board.
How to Manage and Prepare for Adverse Weather While on the Water
From rapidly changing winds and waterspouts to severe thunderstorms and fog, there are plenty of weather threats to boaters.
Thunderstorms are one of the more common dangers to mariners because they can develop quickly.
According to both the Coast Guard and National Weather Service, boaters should never venture out if thunderstorms are a possibility. If out in the water and you notice approaching storms, return to land or shelter as soon as possible.
If unable to return to land, it's best to "stay inside the cabin and avoid touching metal or electrical devices." If your boat doesn't have a cabin, stay as low as possible in the boat, the NWS states.
Fog is another danger that can disorient a boater and disrupt their navigation and like thunderstorms it can form quickly. According to the NWS, fog is typically considered dense when it reduces visibility to below a mile.
When on a vessel, the Coast Guard suggests to keep a close eye out for these signs that may indicate a change in weather:
Key Indicators of Changing Weather
1. A sudden drop in temperature.
2. Increasing wind or sudden change in wind direction.
3. Flashes on the horizon.
4. Flat clouds getting lower and thicker.
5. Heavy static on your AM radio, which can be a sign of nearby thunderstorms.
What to do When Caught in a Storm
1. Reduce your speed, but keep enough power to make headway.
2. Head the boat at a 45-degree angle into the waves.
3. Make sure everyone on board is wearing a life jacket.
4. Keep the bilges free of water.
5. Turn on your running lights.
6. Anchor the boat, if necessary.
Fog Safety Tips From the NWS
1. Turn on your running lights, even if in daytime.
2. Reduce your speed.
3. Be alert for bells from nearby buoys or fog horns from other vessels.
4. Have a compass ready to help determine the direction you are navigating.