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Storm Avoidance

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David Pascoe
If you're into boating long enough, the time will come when you get caught out in a vicious thunder storm. When that time comes, you either know how to handle the situation or you don't.

The big problem is that for the most part, we don't know where that will be when it happens, how long it lasts and how intense the storm is. We all pretty much agree that the weather experts are not very good at predicting these things. That is not their fault, because thunderstorms can develop very quickly. If it happens to develop very close to where you are, then there's not much chance for an advance warning.

Storm Avoidance

The good news is that very severe storms normally require certain favorable conditions that ARE somewhat more predictable. Such as frontal boundaries which create an unstable atmosphere. Just because the local TV weather bimbo isn't very good at predicting precisely what will happen (after all, she's probably just reading the teleprompter and doesn't know squat about the weather), we shouldn't ignore the weather information that is available to us. That is why sailors (who go around in boats that are very slow and can't escape storms) learn to become weather experts themselves.

If you're not willing to take the time to learn to read weather maps, then the least you should do is to learn to read the sky. Being on the water means that you usually have a far horizon available, so that you should be able to see a storm coming and have opportunity to flee from it.

If you do get caught, here are some tips to help you stay out of trouble.

One cannot always tell how severe a thunderstorm is by looking at it. Sometimes we see ominous squall lines that look like the apocalypse coming. And then almost nothing happens. At other times it may not look so bad and turn out to be the end of the world in disguise. Or so it seems. One of the problems we have with thunderstorms is that they do not conform to any rules of behavior. Though they may appear to be moving in a certain direction, that is only from your perspective. From a larger perspective, they can be moving in more than one direction at once, as they always do along a frontal boundary.

You can observe this phenomenon on weather radar loops. Individual cells moving in one direction, but the whole system in another. Understanding this will give you a better chance of predicting movement.

When storms pop up along frontal boundaries, the overall front is moving in one direction, while the storm is moving in another. The front may be moving east to west, but the storm cells are moving north to south along the front. My point here is that the apparent direction of movement may not be the true direction.

We especially want to avoid storms associated with weather fronts because both the strength and duration of thunderstorms is likely to be the strongest and of longest duration.

Moral: Don't plan to go out for the day without checking on a reliable weather map or report. That doesn't mean those childish graphics that pass for weather maps in newspapers. The best and easiest available source is the Weather Channel or any one of the official NWS or NOAA web sites.

When you do get caught, your most immediate problems are loss of visibility and high winds. And depending on your location, rapidly building seas. How you react and what you should do depends greatly on the size of your boat and the type of body of water you are on. No one can tell you precisely what the correct response is because every situation is different.

Obviously, if you're in a very small boat you are in big trouble if high seas becomes a threat along with the loss of visibility. The most important thing is to avoid panic and rash reactions. Break out the life jackets and tell passengers to put them on "just to be safe." It is important to keep the inexperienced people calm, lest you end up with more problems.

Tossing out an anchor probably isn't a good idea unless you are in a very narrow body of water, have completely lost visibility, and going ashore is an immediate threat. If you have plenty of maneuver room, it's best to remain in control of the boat and stand off.

In most thunderstorms, the wind direction will soon change. Thunderstorm winds are caused by down drafts created by the falling rain. The rain pulls down air with it. The winds generally blow outward from the center of the rainfall area. As the storm approaches, winds are blasting straight at you. As the rain cell passes over you, the winds will slack off, then reverse directions (just like a hurricane) and blow from the opposite direction, usually with less intensity. Understanding this pattern can give you a good idea of how long you'll be exposed to those conditions.

Being able to judge the forward speed and path of a thunderstorm is a definite help toward making right decisions. ALL boaters should learn to pay attention to weather and try to learn as much as one can about its behavior. Serious boaters know all about storm behavior, can accurately predict severity and conditions, and take appropriate actions before it's too late. That doesn't necessarily mean avoidance, but it does mean the ability to place themselves and their boats in less threatening positions before the storm strikes.

A typical example of what I mean is the ability to predict timing so that one knows not to rush toward a dangerous inlet just as a storm hits and visibility is lost. How do you learn things like this? Well, by taking the time to observe storms when they are about. When there is a storm on the horizon, is it going to hit you or not? Does it look serious enough that you should NOT take the chance? Size, direction of movement and speed help answer this question. So does knowing whether there is a front approaching, or whether the atmosphere is unstable.

In the later cases, what appears as one storm can soon become two or three, and rapidly grow in size and engulf you, not by storm movement, but by expanding cell development. The experienced boater keeps one eye on the sky at all times and learns to spot this development before it's too late.

David Pascoe

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