Know-How - Handling Squalls

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Squalls typically are of short duration, and are associated with cold fronts and other phenomena.


Squalls typically are of short duration, and are associated with cold fronts and other phenomena. For this, I’ll cover those that involve fronts and thunderstorms. With squalls, seas usually won’t have much time to build. The main concerns are wind and visibility.

1. Squalls develop fast but, except at night, should never be unexpected. Exercise situational awareness and watch the conditions in your environs. The key is to be alert.

2. Squalls develop as a line of dark clouds, maybe dark-bottomed cumulus, moving toward you. Overhead it may be clear, but under that ominous cloud, there’s rain. The cloud continues to approach, hard-edged, rolling, threatening. The wind, which may have been southerly, dies. About the time the cloud is almost over you, the wind comes from the northwest (up to hurricane force), accompanied by a downpour and poor visibility.

3. When you see a squall coming:

• Get away from a lee shore if you are off one.

• Turn the boat to face the wind (probably northwest).

• If you are on a sailboat, take the sails down ASAP and start the engine.

• Under power, move slowly ahead into the anticipated wind.

• If you have time, good anchors and rode, and are over good holding ground, drop the anchor. If not in an authorized anchorage you must set an anchor watch.

• Get into foulies. Squalls are usually cold.

4. In the case of thunderstorms, overcast skies may hide signs of the squall. However:
• The breeze may reverse its direction as air gets sucked into the low pressure created by the storm cell.
• An AM radio tuned to a low channel can pick up lightning as bursts of static.


The problem with wakes are the waves they create. We obviously know what causes them, but keep in mind that sometimes it’s no one’s fault. For example, large planing hulls in displacement mode, restricted by speed limits, seem to drag the bottom up and cause horrendous wakes.

Never take a large wake on the beam when not making way, even in open waters. Wakes are worst in narrow waters, but if you have situational awareness you should be able to see or anticipate them.

1. Under power, slow down. Maneuver to take the wake between two and three points on the bow (the shoulder). Bows are less buoyant, so taking the wave on the shoulder presents a more buoyant portion of the boat. If the wake seems more powerful than expected, apply a little additional power and turn into the wave a bit more, reducing the tendency of the wake to push you out of the channel and into potential danger.

2. If you’re sailing in a river or estuary you may not have reliable wind or enough of it to provide the power you’ll need. Restricted waters may cause winds to funnel straight up or down the channel.

• If sailing against the wind, fall off when heading into the wake. With proper sail trim it should provide additional power to negotiate the wave.

• If sailing downwind, head up and into the wake. By going to more of a reach, with properly retrimmed sails, you gain power and take the wave on the shoulder.

• Don’t take the wake on the beam. You’ll roll, and the wind will spill out of your sails.

• Sailboats shouldn’t impede the progress of other boats in a narrow channel. Legalities notwithstanding, it’s discourteous and dangerous. If you have an engine, use it.


To paraphrase a Supreme Court justice on a case involving pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. Chop is an area of confused water with short, steep, tumbling waves showing no particular pattern. However, something is causing it: interference in the set or drift of a current, a stream entering a larger body of water, wind over current, opposing currents, bottom configuration. If you see the disturbance, avoid it if possible.

Most chop is annoying but relatively harmless. Since the waves have no discernable pattern there is no strategy to maneuvering through chop. Unless you are in a very small boat it typically can be handled with sensibly applied power by means of sail or engine.