Boat Handling: Riders on the Storm

Will you know what to do when you’re caught in a serious squall?

By Capt. Stuart Reininger

I had heard about white squalls but I never encountered one, and the last place I expected to run into a storm of this type was near New York’s Montauk Point. Yet that’s where it happened. The white squall, a sudden and violent windstorm phenomenon often unaccompanied by the black clouds characteristic of a conventional squall, came through in the afternoon of what had begun as a delightful Sunday morning.

I was operating a 65-foot head boat at the time. Earlier in the day, NOAA weather broadcast the possibility of thunderstorms with high winds, lightning and hail, so I was watchful. Then, land became obscured by haze and began to appear as just a dim line to the north. The sea was spotted with other boats fishing nearby as well as numerous whitecaps that appeared when a southwest wind strengthened to 17 knots. The conditions were far from alarming, but the boat’s motion was becoming uncomfortable, so I decided to call it a day.

I had been under way at 12 knots for about 10 minutes in following seas when the stern began fishtailing as the wind and seas rose. I immediately throttled back. While the motion improved, I was surprised by the size of the seas, which didn’t seem consistent with the thunderstorm I thought was about to strike.

The fact that I didn’t see the squall coming is not unusual.  I knew an anvil-shaped cloud is a sure sign of this type of squall, but I didn’t realize the haze could hide its formation. The encounter off Montauk also taught me to pay more careful attention to changing conditions, as they warn of, and indicate the strength of, an approaching storm. For instance, I now know that haze will suddenly darken, especially in the western quadrant where most thunderstorms originate. In addition, the temperature often will drop as much as 5 or 6 degrees just before a storm hits./lib/img/gallery/img086515817.jpg

More unusual, though, are the seas. Because of the speed and intensity of this type of squall, the seas it produces are often short, steep and close together. When the storm moves on, the seas will diminish. That’s why it’s a fool’s errand to try to outrun a storm once it arrives. The speed of the boat combined with the speed of the storm and the steepness and intensity of the seas can add up to disaster. Sure, on a clear day — when the approaching storm is visible from far off, the seas have yet to rise and a safe harbor isn’t far away — a moderately fast boat can outrun or flank the weather, although that’s a call for the prudent skipper to make.

That day off Montauk, the seas began building before the actual storm struck — and when it did, it was extremely intense. As I discovered later, a number of storm cells joined to form a massive front. The storm was heralded by a fast-moving line of wind-driven white water at the base of what appeared to be a massive gun-metal gray cloud at sea level (a signature white squall). By then, I had the boat at idle speed and turned the bow into the seas. The boat was hit by a flurry of hailstones followed by a 40-knot gust. For a few moments there was no visibility, just the shrieking of the wind. But, surprisingly, the intensity of the wind appeared to flatten the seas, and while the water around us was a white-frothed cauldron, we rode comfortably, taking the wind and seas a few degrees abaft the bow.

The wind quickly decreased but continued blowing at better than 20 knots for another three hours, and visibility remained near nil. During that time, I utilized radar and loran (this was 1982, before GPS). I was always aware of my position and was able to maneuver around Montauk Point and into calm water. Eventually, we made it safely into the inlet, which opens to the north and is thus protected from a southwest blow.

While that particular storm was unusual, the tactics I followed would be appropriate for more conventional storms. First, I made it my business to know my exact position. Then, I carefully weighed the pros and cons of trying to outrun the storm to get to a safer place. The desire to get home at any cost has, over the years, been responsible for the loss of life and equipment.

A skipper must consider a number of things when making a decision to ride out a storm or run for home. Many boat owners ask me about lightning. Yes, boats are occasionally hit by lightning, but running from a storm does not reduce the possibility of a strike. And the chance of being hit by lightning, while not a pleasing thought, is relatively remote. The dangers inherent in running from a storm far exceed the chance of a lightning strike.

Handling a boat in a gale is a concern of many skippers too. My advice is to determine how your boat rides most comfortably in storm conditions. If there is a lee shore and you’re concerned about being set too close, place the bow into the weather (usually, a degree or two to port or starboard) so it takes the seas with the least uncomfortable motion. If there is adequate sea room downwind, you can run ahead of the seas — always slow enough for the seas to outrun the boat — to ensure a comfortable ride. The most dangerous course of action is to let the boat exceed the speed of the seas. This can result in loss of control or broaching.

One boat did capsize off Montauk the day that white squall hit, and two other boats were run ashore, although, fortunately, with no serious injuries. There were also a number of Mayday calls on Channel 16, and the majority were from skippers who were unable to transmit their exact position. Back then, determining position wasn’t the GPS-fueled science it is now, which means skippers today have no reason not to be prepared to transmit their exact position at all times.

Shared with permission by MotorBoating