How to Handle Boating in Rough Seas and Nasty Weather

Heavy weather and rough sea conditions can be a dangerous combination when you’re out on the water.

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

In the summer boating season, heat waves bring high-pressure fronts and can bring on storms pretty unexpectedly.

And 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 where you’ll be boating in rough seas. And there are steps you can take to stay safe when you’re not in an ideal boating situation.

We’ll help you prevent more 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.

10 Smooth Tips for Boating in Rough Seas

Pay Attention

1. 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, we had nothing but the local radio. If you weren’t listening to the local radio constantly, you might have found yourself in trouble. Nowadays we have smartphones which chime a push notification for severe weather alerts.

But let’s say your phone dies or you lose 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, 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 (check price on Amazon) to listen for weather conditions. I still take one camping all the time—just in case. Never need to worry about dead batteries or battery corrosion.

2. Calculate wind knots

Wind knots are a tell-tale sign of how large swells will get and whether or not you might encounter whitecaps.

There are several boating apps like Windfinder to download and even desktop sites like Wind Speed Convertors.

However, it’s also important to know how to calculate wind knots:

1. Capture wind speed, measured in kilometers by an anemometer (check price on Amazon).

2. Divide the kilometers of wind speed by 1.61 to get the mph of wind speed.

Ex: 100 kph ÷ 1.61 = 62 mph

3. Next, convert mph wind speed to feet per hour, then divide by the number of feet in a nautical mile.

Ex: 62 mph x 5280 ft = 327,360 feet per hour

327,360 feet per hour ÷ 6,076 feet = 53.8 knots

Note: 5,280 feet is a statute mile. 6,076 feet is a nautical mile.

And to add, you need to know the rough calculation of a thunderstorm’s distance in miles:

(# seconds between flash and thunder) ÷ 5 = # miles away

Take Safety Steps

3. Wear foul weather gear and PFDs

If you’re experiencing heavy seas, be certain 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. This can be avoided by having passengers sit in the center and lowest part of the boat.

And while on the subject, invest in some foul weather gear. In bad weather conditions, cold rains and winds can oftentimes 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, and wear multiple layers or an extra set of clothes. The key is making sure to cover your head, which releases the most heat.

4. 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 fellow passengers to provide an extra pair of eyes, alerting you of nearby boats and even debris. 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.

You should also turn on your navigation lights! These aren’t only for nighttime navigation, they’re also there for foggy conditions. It allows boaters to see your vessel’s bow and stern and from wading too close.

5. 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!

6. Carry an emergency kit and enough fuel

You should have a boat emergency kit and certain life-saving safety equipment at all times, especially if you’re on coastal or large bodies of water. When in rough seas, that’s the time you should be breaking certain items out of lockers to have them close by. You should do the following:

  • Have horns and signaling devices on hand.
  • Prepare an anchor just in case you lose motor maneuverability near shallow water, rocks or otherwise dangerous shores.
  • Lastly, grab the Dramamine (check price on Amazon). I have a pretty strong constitution and can handle rough seas, but even strong stomachs can’t hack the choppiness of some monster swells.

7. Change course to find calmer conditions

If you have an app or 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. Bridges, coves and even a stranger’s dock can act as large umbrellas and wind barriers in a pinch.

Some boaters are afraid to go near bridges if there’s lightning. But the reasoning behind this falls 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

8. Take care in the swells trough

If you find yourself caught in the lower parts of the swells, riding the trough—take caution! This 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.

9. 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 oftentimes 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!

10. 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 swells knocking into 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 in order 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 safely operate your boat. Some of the techniques listed above are maneuvers you can practice on calmer waters to become more prepared, but the best option I can recommend is to sign up for a USCG Auxiliary Boating class (or two) such as on Weather & Boating or a well-rounded Boating Skills and Seamanship course.

Most accidents on the water are caused by human error. The more comfortable you feel handling your vessel, the easier it will be to handle boating in rough seas.

Stay safe and calm and it’ll be smooth sailing!