Boating in Foul Weather

Boating in Foul Weather

Boating in foul weather and rough seas can be a dangerous combination when out on the water.

As careful as you might be, bad weather can still take you by surprise.

In the summer boating season, heat waves bring high-pressure fronts and can bring on storms unexpectedly. These conditions can mean the difference between

Boating in Foul Weather

Boating in calm waters

Boating in calm waters


There are worse things that can happen to you than getting seasick—especially since you already know how to prevent and cure a wobbly stomach.

The good news is there are steps you can take to make sure you’re not heading straight into the mouth of a storm. And there are steps you can take to stay safe when you’re not in an ideal boating situation.

We’ll help you prevent serious problems posed by rough seas here. In addition to reading this post, you’ll also need to learn about safety considerations such as basic boating navigation and keeping essential safety items on board.

Tips for Boating in Rough Seas

Pay Attention

Check the forecast before venturing out (and use common sense)

A good boater knows to always check the weather forecast before leaving the dock. Cloud formations and wind conditions will tell you a lot (if you know how to read them).

Back in the old days, there was nothing but the local radio. If you weren’t listening to the local radio broadcast continuously, you might have found yourself in trouble. Nowadays, we have smartphones that chime a push notification for severe weather alerts.

But let’s say your phone dies or you lose a cell signal. It’s a good idea to have a backup cell battery or battery charger, but even that’s not enough. Our cell phones aren’t invincible. They die from overheating, and they die from playing our music all day and, heck, we even drop them in the water and lose them from time to time. Don’t rely on only a smartphone!

Instead, take a hand crank transmitter radio to listen for weather conditions. You’ll never need to worry about dead batteries or battery corrosion.

Wear foul weather gear and PFDs

If you’re experiencing heavy seas, be sure to put on lifejackets and USCG-approved PFDs. All it would take is to hit a wave at the wrong angle to send passengers flying overboard. Having an overboard passenger can be avoided by having passengers sit in the center and the lowest part of the boat.

And while I’m on the subject, invest in some foul weather gear. In bad weather conditions, cold rains and winds can frequently leave passengers soaking wet and chilled to the bone, resulting in hypothermia. Invest in hooded raincoats or ponchos, any clothing that’s moisture-wicking and quick-drying. Wear multiple layers or an extra set of clothes. The key is making sure to cover your head, which releases the most heat.

Slow down and turn on navigational lights for visibility

Slow and maintain your vessel’s speed! To lessen the impact of swells, you may also need to angle it at 45 degrees. Even if you’re not headed directly toward your destination, it’s the safest route.

When slowing down, ask passengers to provide an extra pair of eyes, alerting you of nearby boats and even debris. Debris is common today with the high waters.  Even if you have 20/20 vision yourself, nearby boaters may not! Bad weather can bring torrential downpours and thick fogs, so it’s important to reduce speeds and keep a lookout.

Turn on your navigation lights! 

These aren’t only for nighttime navigation. They’re also there for foggy conditions and foul weather. It allows boaters to see your vessel’s bow and stern and the direction you are moving in.

Disconnect electrical equipment

If the storm has brought lightning with it, you need to disconnect all-electric equipment. And obviously, don’t touch anything metal!

Wear Proper PFD’s and Have Enough Fuel

You should have a boat emergency kit and specific life-saving safety equipment at all times. When in rough seas, that’s the time you should be breaking certain items out of lockers or bags to have them close by. It would be best if you did the following:

  • Have horns and signaling devices on hand.
  • Turn on your VHF marine radio and set it to international distress channel 16.
  • Prepare an anchor if you lose motor maneuverability near shallow water, rocks, or otherwise dangerous shores.
  • Take out the bailer bucket in case you have water breaching and spillage.

Lastly, grab the Dramamine. If you have a pretty strong constitution and can handle rough seas, that’s great! Remember, even strong stomachs can’t hack some monster swells’ or choppiness. How about your passengers? Which is better – Dramamine or having a sick passenger in your boat?

Change course to find calmer conditions.

If you have an app or a way to check a Doppler radar, you could keep out of the storm’s path. If you can’t do so, seek shelter in other ways to find calmer conditions. Coves or even a stranger’s dock can act as shields or a wind barrier in a pinch.

Some boaters are afraid to go near bridges if there’s lightning. But the reasoning behind this fails into another way of thinking: If lightning strikes the bridge you’re under—with already small odds—it will travel in each direction along the bridge back to land. If it’s a severe enough storm—I’ll take those odds!

Run With the Swells

Take care in the trough of the waves.

If you find yourself caught in the lower parts of the swells, riding the trough—take caution! Riding in the trough will begin rocking your boat and could potentially cause it to roll. Riding parallel with waves may not aim you in the direction you need to go, and it will take you a lot longer to get home, but it’s considered the safest path.

You might find more stability with a 45-degree angle inside the trough, too.

Be careful when outrunning the swells.

Sometimes you can outrun the waves by riding the crests, but it’s a fine line. Just remember: Whether it’s the wave or your vessel—what goes up, must come down!

Running ahead of the waves is tricky and can often result in broaching, which means you crash into the wave ahead—usually from too much speed on your part—resulting in the wave behind pushing the vessel sideways along the trough instead. And a sharp turnabout of broaching can lead to capsizing!

When heaving-to is your only option.

If all else fails, the swells are high, and your vessel is being tossed around so much you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, don’t fight against it. Just ride the storm out.

For this, there’s only one technique you need: Aim the bow into the swells and wind as much as you can. You don’t want the waves hitting the hull any harder than necessary. This way, the bow will cut through the waves and ease the impact (and your stomach).

You also might need to heave to if you’re short on fuel. When heaving-to, you can deploy an anchor and use minimal power for steering to conserve the fuel you have left to make it back to land when the storm lets up.

Take a Boating Class and Get Practice

Boating in rough seas relies on knowing how to operate your boat safely. Some of the techniques listed above are maneuvers you can practice on calmer waters to become more prepared. Still, the best option I can recommend is to sign up for a USCG Auxiliary Boating class (or two). Suggested courses are Weather & Boating or a well-rounded Boating Skills and Seamanship course.

Human error causes most accidents on the water. The more comfortable you feel handling your vessel, the easier it will be to maneuver in rough seas.

Stay safe and calm, and it’ll be smooth boating – no matter the weather!


Lightning & Boating Don’t Mix

Lightning & Boating don’t mix.

Lightning and Boating don’t mix. Spring and Fall bring the strongest storms of the year.

Do you have the proper PFD (personal floatation device)? How about boaters’ insurance? In the middle of a storm is NOT the time to think about these things.

Boat safety should be an ingrained part of any boating excursion, long or short. 

Before you head out for a cruise, check the current weather and the predictions. Most smartphones allow you to see the weather at a moment’s notice. Be sure to check it frequently.


Suppose you are caught by surprise while on the water, head back home immediately. If the storm is between you and your home or a marina, head for another protected area onshore. You do know where they are because you studied a map before you left – Right!!

What Lightning Does to Boats and Boaters

You’re floating on a body of water in a boat. You notice the dark clouds approaching. What do you do?  

First, get PFD (life preservers) on everyone.  

Next, Remember, lightning strikes the tallest point on a boat (the lighting rod). As you stand in your boat – where is that lightning going to hit? 

Most boats contain large amounts of metal and other conductive materials, making them an excellent target for lightning.

With a sailboat, the tallest point would be the mast. But with a bass boat, this could be the fishing chair or YOU sitting in it! No boat is immune. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that water, wiring, and lightning do not mix well!

Smaller boats are subject to extensive damage because there are fewer places for the lightning to go. They’re also more dangerous for the passengers during an electrical storm.

Lightning can completely wipe out a boat’s electrical system and destroy the engine. It can blow holes in the hull, which causes the boat to take on water. Sinking is not out of the realm of possibilities.

Isn’t a boat Lightning-Proof?

Unlike a car, a boat does not have four rubber wheels insulating it from “ground.” Boats are potential targets whenever they are on the water. 

Lightning always takes the shortest path to “ground.” On the water, “ground” is the water’s surface. The tallest object on a boat that contains metal or any conductive materials (like your body) will serve as a lightning rod.

There’s no way to predict where it will go. On larger boats, a bonding system can send the strike via a conductor to an underwater metal plate, usually constructed of copper or some other non-corrosive metal.

A bonding system uses arrestors to protect electronic equipment while providing a safe path for the lightning strike. 

Caught in a Thunderstorm – what now?

If you’re in a thunderstorm out on the water, seek shelter in your boat’s cabin, if it has one. Remember, you might be the highest, conductive point that lightning sees. 

If the vessel doesn’t have any shelter, remain as low as possible. Find the lowest part of the boat and try to get into the center of the boat. Don’t touch ANY metal or electronic components. Don’t be the lightning rod. 

Make sure everyone on board puts on a life jacket. Here’s an excellent article to read about PFD written for kayakers, but it applies to all boating situations.

Next, decrease the speed of the boat. Don’t forget to unplug any electrical appliances or devices.

Remember, you can’t have thunder without lighting, even if you don’t see it.

Remember, boats can also be struck by lightning while docked. Leave the boat and take shelter (Not under a tree).

Will MY Boat Insurance Cover Lightning Damage?

Boat insurance should cover a boat damaged by lightning. Insurance usually covers damages done by fire, theft, lightning, wind, vandalism, and other events. 

Call your licensed agent and go over your list of options and the cost of each. It’s better to be slightly “over-insured” than not to have enough coverage. A few extra dollars a month in insurance premiums could make a big difference in your coverage.

The most expensive boat insurance on the market might not necessarily be the best. 

In Conclusion

In the event of a storm, get off the water, and stay as low as you can.

Tell Your Friends & Family

Have friends or neighbors you believe should see this article? Email them a link to this article – and Thank you!

You can visit Pier & Waterfront Solutions on Facebook also.

Don’t Forget –  PWS is the expert when you have a waterfront problem!

Where is Pier & Waterfront Solutions?

Located at 7325 St. Hwy 57, we are about 3 miles south of Sturgeon Bay, and 1 mile past the intersection of Cty MM (heading north). Look for the intersection of Idlewild Road and Hwy 57.


Pier & Waterfront Solutions has remained “open.” We have implemented measures to ensure the safety of our employees and visitors. As of Aug 1st, Wisconsin mandates the use of face masks. It’s the only known method to control the spread at this time.

While all this is going on, we are working to maintain the trusted service you expect.  That’s important to us.

We are conducting as much business as possible by email, text, or phone. Site visits will continue as usual. When in-person contacts are necessary, we follow “social distancing” guidelines as closely as possible.

Call, message, or use this simple request form to get answers and quotes.

Thank you for allowing us to work with you – safely.

Let’s all stay safe!