Anyone who spends much time fishing in salt water will eventually have to deal with bad weather of one sort or another. We all know that conditions can change rapidly on the ocean, and sooner or later we all get caught in weather that we would just as soon avoid. When that happens, we must figure out a way to get home safely.
Weather changes can run the gamut from simple rain showers to sudden increases in wind speed and/or wind direction to massive thunderstorms with lots of lightning (my personal favorite) and even hail. If you live around cold water, fog is always a possibility, one that can completely disorient you if you're not used to dealing with it.
The worst-case scenario, of course, was played out in Sebastian Junger's best-selling book The Perfect Storm, and the movie version that followed. For those of us who love to fish far from shore, the story of a doomed longline crew caught in a storm of epic proportions is a true nightmare.
Most of us will never be caught in such a terrible situation, but things can still get hairy for those of us in smaller boats. Several years ago, my family and I were aboard our 35 Bertram returning to Palm Beach, Florida, from Nassau in the Bahamas, a distance of about 175 nautical miles. The run from Nassau to Great Isaac Light, at the northwest tip of the Great Bahama Bank, was flat calm and totally uneventful. Heading out into the ocean, the final 65 miles seemed like a milk run. Everyone but me was alseep.
About 15 miles into the Gulf Stream, I noticed a thin line of gray clouds just above the horizon. The clouds grew quickly as we approached, and soon a dark squall line stretched from left to right as far as I could see in either direction-and it was closing fast. It suddenly dawned on me
to check the NOAA weather radio in Palm Beach, which informed me that a huge line of thunderstorms packing some of the worst lightning recorded in years had just moved through the area and was heading toward the Bahamas. Great!
I roused my family and we lashed down all of the loose gear. The rolling black clouds approached, and I half expected to see the bearded face of Charlton Heston glaring down at me from above. As the front passed over us, the winds increased and were soon blowing northwest at around 30 knots, and we made the last 38 miles of our trip in a seven- to nine-foot, nearly vertical headsea. The conditions went from flat calm to downright scary in less than 30 minutes.
You should always pay attention to the weather, no matter how nice it seems on the surface. In our case, we had been lulled into a false sense of complacency by the beautiful conditions. Your first line of weather defense is always NOAA weather radio. NOAA stations operate on frequencies around 162 MHz and blanket the coastal United States pretty effectively. VHF radios must have these weather channels built into them by law, and some newer sets are equipped with a NOAA Weather Alert feature, which automatically notifies you of sudden changes in weather in your area.
There are numerous other sources for weather forecasts too. The Internet has become a major tool for predicting sea conditions (see sidebar), with quite a few sites to help you plan your trip. If you are cruising beyond the range of the coastal VHF weather radio system, you can also obtain weather forecasts over a single-sideband receiver, or by installing a Navtex data receiver, which are now being made in smaller, less-expensive versions for smaller boats. Sideband weather frequencies and broadcast times are published in most of the major cruising guides. If you're bound for exotic ports, these can come in handy.
You can also look up the National Weather Service (NWS) telephone number in the phone book of a major metropolitan area close to where you'll be fishing, if there is one. The NWS issues pre-recorded forecasts that are available 24/7 at these numbers. It's a good idea to take these numbers with you and call if radio forecasts are unavailable for some reason. The NWS phone numbers are listed under "U.S. Government, Department of Commerce" in the phone book.
So there are lots of ways to get forecasts, but that won't ensure that you can avoid bad weather. Sometimes sudden weather changes catch the forecasters off-guard too. We've all seen predictions go terribly wrong. (I have a friend who swears that the term "three feet or less" means "three feet less than Mount Everest.") What do you do when the forecast says fair, but it's really fierce-to-frightening?
All you can do is learn a little bit about weather patterns so you can more accurately predict what's coming, then hone your rough-water boat-handling skills so you can get home when all else fails. Thunderstorms are probably the biggest threat to salt water fishermen, with their high winds, lightning and other fun things. Most thunderstorms are based on cumulonimbus clouds that grow to great heights as
hot air rises within them. These anvil-shaped clouds can reach as high as 50,000 feet, and feature spectacular downdrafts at their edges.
The best way to deal with thunderstorms is to avoid them. Watch out for rapidly growing cumulous clouds, the detached, low clouds that grow into cumulonimbus clouds and then thunderstorms. Pay attention to what's on the horizon, and always have an exit strategy. Also, don't wait too long to leave, a common mistake. Two separate thunderstorms often link up to form a massive one that may be hard to avoid.
Lightning, of course, is the thing to avoid most of all, as it can kill you. Lightning strikes on boats are relatively rare, but they do happen, sometimes with disastrous results. Lightning most often strikes around the leading edge of a thunderstorm and often quite a ways from the actual storm itself. There has been a lot written about how to deal with lightning when you're caught in it, and there's no single accepted strategy.
Many old-timers will tell you that if you can't avoid the edge of the storm by running around it, you are better off running straight into the darkest part of the rain. The wisdom goes that lightning rarely strikes there, and by running into it, you are limiting your time at the edge of the storm, the "danger zone," if you will.
There is no hard-and-fast rule regarding lightning because it's so unpredictable, but many experts believe that lowering antennas and outriggers-long before the lightning is close, of course-will reduce your chances of being hit. You want to create a low, horizontal profile, and it's a good idea to turn off the boat's electrical devices too.
All passengers should get as low as possible and try not to hold onto anything metal. Usually, the danger will pass relatively quickly, as will the winds. If the seas build to a dangerous height, you may have to head straight into them until the storm passes. As long as you maintain power and steerage and are not taking water over the bow, you can ride out some amazingly rough water this way. A sea anchor comes in handy for keeping your bow into the wind if you've lost power.
By methodically checking the weather forecast and using some rudimentary weather-observation skills, you can avoid the bad stuff most ofthe time. Too often we push our luck by going fishing anyway, even when there's a marginal forecast, and that can get us in trouble. Common sense and self-restraint will go a long way towards keeping us, our fishing companions and our boat safe. Just remember that there are no guarantees out there, and if all else fails, it's up to you to get everyone home, no matter what the conditions may be. Plan accordingly.
Internet Weather Sites
The Internet has become increasingly valuable as a source of weather information for the fisherman. Forecasts, satellite maps, and real-time information from weather buoys all make the job of tracking weather that much easier. Here are four excellent sites:
www.ndbc.noaa.gov. NOAA's data-buoy site gives real-time information about what's going on at numerous marine buoys, with forecasts and past trends, as well.
www.marineweather.com. Still being developed, this site promises to be the most comprehensive source of web-based marine weather.
www.weather.com. The old standby, the website of The Weather Channel. This site is pretty general, but does have great satellite imagery available.
www.wunderground.com. The Weather Underground provides regular radar images for the entire country, as well as updated NOAA marine weather forecasts.