Monitoring the Weather
Fishing in the ocean can be a very enjoyable experience, whether on a boat over cobalt blue water far out at sea or wading in a crystal-clear shallow flat near shore. But like all outdoor activities, fishing in a saltwater environment can leave its participants vulnerable to the multitude of potentially dangerous weather events that Mother Nature can employ. Every year, people die from weather-related events such as lightning strikes or submersion in cold water (hypothermia) while saltwater fishing. Anglers planning saltwater fishing excursions need to be aware of the dangers these weather events, including hurricanes or tropical storms, can entail, as well as the precautions they should take to avoid becoming a victim of bad weather.
Monitoring the Weather
It is important for a saltwater angler to stay abreast of the local weather forecast. Many dangerous weather conditions move quickly, and a day that starts out bright and sunny can suddenly be blackened with dark clouds, shifting winds, torrential downpours and lightning. The key is to plan ahead. The National Weather Service broadcasts a 5-day outlook on NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Radio, AM/FM radio and TV. An angler should listen to these broadcasts several days before a fishing expedition, and continue monitoring them in the time leading up to the trip. Other sources for weather information are the United States Coast Guard and hundreds of web sites, such as The Weather Channel.
Fishermen who plan on going out in a boat should particularly listen for small boat cautionary statements, small craft advisories, and gale or storm warnings, which will focus on high wind or wave forecasts. The National Weather Service recommends that all boaters possess a radio that has both a battery backup and a tone-alert feature that automatically indicates when a watch or warning has been issued. If the VHF radio is not equipped with weather channels, it is recommended that the angler purchase a VHF weather radio. Because the VHF radio covers a range of only 20 to 40 miles, fishermen venturing greater distances should invest in a single sideband transceiver (SSB) that can pick up signals for hundreds of miles.
A weather event that can be extremely dangerous for saltwater fishermen is a hurricane. A hurricane is defined as a type of tropical cyclone that generates winds of 74 mph (64 knots) or higher. They are formed when a pre-existing weather disturbance combines with certain oceanic and atmospheric conditions (warm water, moisture, light winds high in the air): If these conditions persist long enough a hurricane results. Hurricanes not only generate intense wind conditions and violent seas, but when they move ashore they spawn tornadoes, torrential rains and flooding. They can also cause extensive damage; for example, Hurricane Andrew caused an estimated $25 billion dollars worth of damage in the U. S. in 1992, as well as killing over 60 people.
All Atlantic and Gulf coastal areas of the U.S. are potential victims of hurricanes. They can also affect weather along the Pacific coast, where remnants of hurricanes spawned off of Mexico generally create heavy rains and flooding.
Fortunately, the National Hurricane Center in Florida has developed methods to aid in forecasting the path, speed and strength of hurricanes. The National Weather Service continuously broadcasts hurricane advisories that can be received by NOAA radio, with the following breakdown:
A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible in the specified area within 36 hours.
A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are possible within 24 hours.
Since hurricanes are a deadly weather event, all fishing plans should be cancelled in areas in its path. If caught at sea when these conditions appear, return to the nearest port immediately.
In addition to hurricanes, the angler should be alert to other tropical weather events.
A tropical depression is an organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with winds of 38 mph or less.
A tropical storm is an organized system of strong thunderstorms with winds of 39 to 73 mph.
Storms will increase and decrease in power as they move over land and water, with a tropical depression growing into a hurricane and vice versa; for that reason, constant monitoring of these weather systems is recommended. Again, the National Weather Service closely monitors the development and movement of these tropical systems and issues appropriate advisories and warnings.
However, even with the best weather reports, boaters should be taking other precautions to insure that they are not caught in open waters in a thunderstorm. Because weather changes generally come from the west, an angler should often scan the westward sky. Other characteristics of a sudden weather change include rapidly rising cloud formations, a sudden drop in temperature, a noticeable change in wind direction or speed and a falling barometer.
The greatest risk posed to the angler from a typical thunderstorm is lightning. When lightning strikes, it will most often hit the highest object in the immediate area, and on a body of water that highest object is commonly an angler on a boat. Thus, an angler should immediately head to shore when a storm approaches. But when caught in a lightning storm an angler should:
Discontinue fishing. The first lightning strike can be a mile or more ahead of an approaching thunderstorm, and a fishing rod makes an excellent target.
Stay in the center of the cabin. If no enclosure is available, stay low in the boat.
Keep arms and legs in the boat. Do not dangle them in the water.
Disconnect and do not use major electronic equipment, including the radio, throughout the duration of the storm.
Lower, remove or tie down the radio antenna and other protruding devices.
While there is no such thing as a lightning-proof boat, there are some protection devices available. The major components of a lightning protection system for a boat are an air terminal, main conductor and a ground plate. Ideally, an effective ground plate should be installed on the outside of all boats when the hulls are constructed.
Here are the procedures an angler should consider when heading back to shore in a storm:
Close and secure all hatches, windows and ports. If there is a ventilation opening on the deck, it should also be closed to prevent water from getting in.
Reduce speed to a point where there is just enough power to maintain headway.
Put on personal flotation devices.
If the waves are so large they may endanger the boat, head the bow of the boat into the waves at a 40 to 45 degree angle.
Keep bilges free of water.
If the engine fails, trail a sea anchor on a line from the bow to keep the boat headed into the waves. Anchor the boat if necessary.
The main danger of fog is that it reduces visibility. Fog does not pose much of a danger for someone fishing from shore or wading, but it can be potentially dangerous for anglers on boats. There are some places where fog will appear on a regular schedule, such as San Francisco Bay or around Nantucket, Massachusetts, but in most areas fog is unpredictable and can occur at anytime. For that reason, anglers should monitor NOAA weather reports before boarding the boat. And remember that waiting for the fog to lift is a time-honored tradition for mariners.
If foggy conditions occur when already out to sea, the boater is advised to turn on all lights and monitor NOAA radio. They should immediately reduce their speed and begin signaling with the horn, giving one prolonged blast every two minutes if the boat is moving, and giving two prolonged blasts every two minutes if the boat is stopped (in extreme conditions, it is recommended to halt movement and anchor). They should also listen for other vessel’s fog signals. If there are other people aboard, they should be used as lookouts at both ends of the boat.