In the event that you’re enjoying a beautiful day on the water but within a few minutes the skies turn and stormy weather is inevitable, you must be able to evaluate the urgency of your situation to avoid a boating accident. How far are you from shore? Do you have all your safety gear on board? Do you have the skills necessary to operate your boat in stormy weather?

At moments like this, it’s best to stay calm and remember what you’ve learned. It’s easy to mitigate the risks of boating and stay safe during a storm with these 6 tips. So, stay low, put on your rain jacket, and let’s begin.

1) Check Local Weather & Water Conditions

Before you even leave the dock, you should be checking the local weather & water conditions in your area. This is an easy way to prevent yourself and your crew members from becoming stranded or from getting into a boating accident because of the storm. Unexpected weather like thunderstorms and lightning can roll in quickly, so the best practice is to be prepared.

Illustration of boaters caught in bad weather, avoiding a boat accident.

You can find the latest weather reports by turning on your T.V., tuning into your VHF radio, or simply going outside and taking a good look at the sky and the water. Official weather reports for boaters are also provided through the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). If the skies look clear, you’re probably good to go on that boating trip! However, that’s not an invitation to skip the step of checking the weather forecast! You should always be looking a few hours ahead and planning for the day. If you don’t want to get stuck in a storm, check the weather BEFORE you leave the dock. And remember, as the Captain, it’s YOUR responsibility to decide whether you should make adjustments to your trip plan, or decide to stay on shore.

You require a certain level of skill to operate your boat safely. However if you do get caught in bad weather, you’ll need advanced operating skills to return to the dock safely. Particularly if your boat is difficult to operate in bad weather, like boats that are flat on the bottom. Flat-bottom boats are great for activities like fishing in smaller lakes and rivers but are bumpy in choppy waters.

flat bottom boats

Don’t take the risk of operating your boat in bad weather. Always return to shore if you come across any dangerous weather conditions, such as:

  1. Fog, dark clouds, and lightning
  2. A falling barometer (this means rain is coming)
  3. Drops in temperature (this means a storm is coming)
  4. Puffy, vertically rising clouds

Safe Boating Tip: Know your boat’s range and plan your trip accordingly to stay within it.

2) Display the Appropriate Navigation Lighting Equipment

Whether it be a foggy day, a late night return from the cottage across the lake, or an early morning fishing trip, you’re required to display the proper navigation light equipment when your boat is underway or when it’s at anchor.

Safe Boating Tip: Boaters are required to display navigation lights whenever operating a boat between sunset and sunrise and when operating a boat when the visibility is reduced while on the water, like during foggy weather, heavy rain, or darkness.

Be careful out there – the facts say it all: The available boat accident statistics in Canada tell us that boat accidents account for a significant portion of the total fatal and non-fatal boating accidents that happen every year in Canada.

A little fuzzy on your navigation lights? No worries, check the image below to refresh your memory. Hint: you can download this chart to your phone or print it for easy reference.

navigation lights for boats

Of course, there are different navigation light requirements for different types of boats. To learn more about navigation lights, and to determine which navigation lights are required for your boat, sign up to take your BOATsmart! Online Course & Test today.

3) Keep Marine Charts on Your Boat at All Times

Once you’re out on the water, technology can be your friend. Depth finders, GPS technology, radio systems, smartphones and other electronic equipment can help you avoid hidden obstacles and navigate back to shore. However, technology is not 100% reliable and there may be other times that it shouldn’t be on (like during a lightning storm). Marine charts are an amazing go-to resource and they won’t let you down (or lose battery power!). These are extremely handy charts that you should always consult before you enter a new waterway. They’ll help you identify local hazards such as trees, rocks, and sandbars that could put a dent in your trip (and your boat)! Using marine charts to help you navigate your boat is one of the best ways to prevent being involved in a boating accident.

4) Use a Trip Plan

If we told you that there was a boating safety resource that was FREE, easy to use, could be filled out in under 5 minutes, and could save your life, would you use it? This document is called a ‘Trip Plan’, and it can make the difference between a great day on the water, and the day ending with a search party. Leaving a trip plan on shore with someone you trust is like leaving a trail that can be followed by anyone who may be searching for you. Always leave your trip plan with a responsible person on shore, or with the local marina. If you don’t return, the person with your trip plan will use the info to help rescue teams locate you.

These plans are fun to build out with friends/family and help involve everyone in the process. You can use Google My Maps to plan out a full day trip in under 10 minutes!

Leave tracks! After all, it’s not much work to send a text, an email, to make a phone call or to leave a note. You can even leave a status update on Facebook with the following information that will help point your friends to your whereabouts:

  • What are you doing?
  • Where are you going?
  • When will you return?
  • Who are you going with?

5) Know How to Operate Your Boat in Stormy Weather

Should you get caught out in a storm, your Captain’s skills will be tested. A lot of factors come into play, like your passenger’s location on the boat, your speed of travel, your use of navigation lights, and more. If you get caught in a storm, take the following actions to prevent a boating accident:

1) Make sure every passenger is wearing a lifejacket

2) Reduce your speed and maintain your movement forward

3) Turn on your required navigation lights

4) Seat all passengers on the bottom of the boat, along the centre line

5) Stow away any loose gear

6) Cut through large waves at a 45-degree angle to reduce the chance of being swamped

7) Keep the bilges free of water in order to stay well above water level

8) If it’s safe to do so, head towards shore

If you get caught in a storm and are unable to return to shore safely, you should anchor your boat. Here’s how:

Step 1
: Angle the boat as though you were still moving at a 45-degree angle headed into the waves. This will help prevent your boat from drifting or being swamped by waves

Step 2: Drop the anchor from the bow of the boat (If you find yourself without an anchor, the Coast Guard recommends using a bucket and rope as an emergency anchor)

Step 3: Stay low in the boat and turn off the electrical equipment while you wait for the storm to pass

Step 4: Use your sound signalling device to indicate to other boaters that you’re at anchor (sound a signal rapidly for about 5 seconds, in intervals of not more than 1 minute)

Step 5: If you find yourself in need of rescue, use the appropriate visual distress signal equipment (like a flare)

NOTE: If you cannot reach your destination safely, you should seek shelter for the duration of the storm

6) Wear Your Life Jacket

Lastly, and most importantly, ensure everyone is wearing a life jacket. We know, you’ve heard this a thousand times. They’re uncomfortable, bulky, and get in the way of the perfect boating selfies. BUT to be fair, they CAN and DO save lives every year. It’s a small, but important ask. Please do the responsible thing and encourage everyone to wear a lifejacket.

Alright Captain, it’s your time to shine. With a little bit of planning, you and your family can stay safe while having a ton of fun on the water this summer.

Have a great boating photo? Tag @boatsmart on Instagram for a chance to be featured.

Happy boating!