Dark Skies Ahead

Regardless of your target species or game plan when headed out for a day of fishing, safety should take priority over everything. However, no matter how many safety precautions you take (and there are many you should take), there are countless unforeseen safety hazards that may present themselves. One of these “curveballs” that boaters face, particularly in Florida where the weather is relatively volatile and unpredictable, is foul weather. A little unexpected rain shower is one thing, but how should seafarers handle serious inclement weather that could pose real danger?

Things may seem calm, but dark summer storm clouds can quickly cause trouble
Things may seem calm, but dark summer storm clouds can quickly cause trouble. PHOTOGRAPHY: Adobe stock – emeravideo

The long-awaited summer season will undoubtedly be welcomed by widespread boaters in the coming months, and for good reason. School’s out, temps are warming and the winds largely die down for the coming months. However, while the forecast might call for calm weather on a hot summer day, many of us know just how quickly things can turn ugly.

From early summer to the first cool fronts of fall, it seems that every afternoon in Florida, severe thunderstorms pass through in the blink of an eye. While many Floridians joke about these abrupt and short-lived spurts of nasty weather, they can pose serious threats to unprepared and unaware boaters. Believe us, watching a passing summer storm wreak havoc on your surroundings through the window of your home or office is very different from suffering through it out on the water.

On that note, the first safety tip we’ll give you in this regard is to simply avoid severe weather altogether. We know, this seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of boaters this time of year who push their luck and end up in the middle of ominous, dark skies wondering how they’ll return home safely.

If you’re loading up the boat or preparing for a day on the water and notice that the meteorologist was wrong again and the bright, sunny day predicted is instead a stormy situation, just stay home. In fact, consider yourself lucky that you can quit while you’re ahead instead of risking your safety and that of your passengers. Sure, missing out on a day of fishing hurts, but when you’re bobbing around in a thunderstorm scared and in danger, you’ll wish an empty fishbox was your biggest problem.

Unfortunately, the warning signs of severe weather aren’t always obvious and a day that appears to be perfect one second can rapidly get ugly. Those who have been boating in Florida long enough, particularly this time of year, know the feeling well. Sweltering heat and little wind turn into a stiff breeze and dark gray skies. If you’re out on the water and you’re close enough to the bad weather to feel that “outdoor air conditioning,” as they say, you’re too late. It’s no time to panic, but it is time to break out the foul weather gear, put away the fishing rods and set a course for safety. With lightning around, the last thing you want in your hand is a fishing rod or a gaff.

For boaters fortunate enough to have functioning radar systems on their vessels, getting away from the nasty weather can be as simple as checking your radar returns and heading away from the storm. Otherwise, you’ll be left relying on the weather radar app on your phone. But, keep in mind that if you’re out of range of your wireless provider, that app will be useless and you’ll be left guessing where to point the bow.

Whether you’ve got radar or not, there are a few things every boater should keep in mind. First, make sure your vessel is equipped with all necessary safety gear. One life vest per passenger is an obvious requirement on any boat trip, but rough weather makes this widespread rule even more important. In addition to life vests, boaters should ensure they are equipped with various communication devices and that they’re all in working order. Most boaters have their mobile phones on them at all times, but they won’t do you much good offshore. Satellite phones can be pricey, but they provide reliable communication in a pinch. Above all, every vessel should be equipped with a functioning VHF radio. Furthermore, it’s important that captains know how to operate their radios, understanding which messages to convey in an emergency and what channels to convey them on.

If things really get dicey, you’ll want to have an EPIRB or personal locator beacon (PLB) on board. Though EPIRBS and PLBs are not required on recreational vessels, we recommend you never leave without them. Another tip to consider is in rough seas when visibility is limited, slow down and pay close attention to your throttles. Large waves can pose serious threats and helmsmen should remain alert as adjusting speeds constantly to adjust for oncoming waves can make for a more comfortable and safer journey out of harm’s way. Additionally, in most situations, captains should not position themselves perpendicular or parallel to large waves. Instead, approach them at a 45-degree angle.

It can be daunting when an enjoyable day of fishing turns into a scramble to reach safety. However, if you prepare your vessel with the proper safety equipment and keep calm, you’re far more likely to make it out unscathed. Finally, if there is severe weather in the area and you’re not sure of what to do, remember: When in doubt, don’t go out!