The U.S. Coast Guard recommends boaters wear a life jacket at all times they are on your dock and on a boat.
On Sunday, Sept. 15, a severe group of thunderstorms formed rapidly and unexpectedly, moving from east to west across Tampa Bay.
The storms developed so quickly that they caught many boaters off guard and unprepared. The U.S. Coast Guard Station in St. Petersburg referred to it as “Armageddon Weekend” because so many boaters requested emergency assistance from the Coast Guard as well as Tampa Police Marine Units, Tampa Fire Rescue, St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, Eckerd College Search and Rescue, Florida Wildlife Enforcement Unit, and Tampa Police Department’s Aviation Unit. Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously injured, but that is often not the case.
Rapid changes in weather conditions are potentially dangerous for any boating trip, so you should always “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” even if the weather appears perfect for boating. Following are some things every boater should keep in mind, especially with our frequent thunderstorms here in Florida.
1. Know before you go – Always check the weather before leaving the dock and continue to monitor it throughout the day.
To be a safe boater, you must understand the terminology and what it means. If, for example, a weather report says that the average waves are 2- to 4-feet, what that really means is that 65-70 percent of the waves are that high and other ones may be significantly larger. On average, about 15 percent of waves will equal or exceed the predicted wave height. The highest 10 percent of waves could be 25-30 percent higher than the predicted wave height. And on occasion (about one per hour) one can expect to see a wave nearly twice the predicted wave height. In addition there are the often feared “rogue waves” that exceed twice the highest predicted wave. Before you depart for your day on the water, be aware of what the boat you will be on can handle. If the boat can handle 4 feet waves, but have trouble with 8 footers, then 4 to 6 foot waves will mean you will face some 8-foot waves and you need to plan your journey accordingly.
2. Take a few minutes to prepare and file a “float plan.”
• Put your life preservers on. The U.S. Coast Guard recommends you wear a life jacket at all times you are on your dock and on a boat. Don’t be macho – the sea contains plenty of bodies of people who failed to respect its awesome force.
• Prepare your emergency gear. Have your flares, two way radio charged, turned on, and set to Channel 16 for emergency hailing, and emergency beacons, PLB, ELT or EPIRB, (tracking transmitters that aid in the detection and location of boats and people in distress via international satellite systems). No vessel traveling offshore should ever be without an emergency beacon of some type – it simply isn’t worth the risk. Close any topside openings and make sure bilges are on, or can be on and operational.
• See and be seen; Listen and be heard (lights on, sound signals operational and ready)
• Secure loose gear on the deck, including loose lines that can cause life-threatening entanglements.
• Update position. Are you off of Egmont or Sarasota or Tarpon Springs? Write it down if you can in case your electronics fail.
• Look for shelter and attempt to get to a safe harbor immediately but not at the expense of safety. In rough seas, you should cross the waves at a 45-degree angle, and don’t race over waves – surf them.
• Adjust your speed as necessary. Find the right balance between being bounced around and maintaining control. Use speed cautiously but maintain control and forward motion.
• Do not panic.
3. Arrive alive. Don’t go out in weather that you think may be close to your limits or those of your crew and boat. Make sure your boat has all its safety equipment and it is working properly. Your local Coast Guard Auxiliary can arrange a free vessel safety check, so you know you have the right gear. Get in the habit of filing a float plan with a relative, a neighbor, or another responsible individual. Stick to your float plan and call the person ashore if there are changes.
4. Take a boating safety course. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offers boating safety courses that will assist you in learning how to deal with emergencies on the water, and boating safety in general. For more information or to register for the course nearest you please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 727-898-1324 and you will be advised of the nearest Boating Skills and Seamanship Course in your area.
Loren D. Reuter is the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Public Affairs Staff Officer for Flotilla 7-2, St. Petersburg.