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Heavy weather: Out of your boating comfort zone

The race had lasted four days, and the weather had for the most part been kind. Crossing the Gulf Stream had been without incident and now, with less than 50 miles to go to the finish line in Newport, Rhode Island, we were looking forward to hot showers and cold beers.

When a front approaches, get your boat and crew prepared. You don’t want to focus on anything but the helm once seas turn rough.

Enterprise, our close rival, was off to starboard and visible maybe less than a half-mile away. We’d been neck and neck since we left Bermuda — this was going to be a close finish. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a line of squalls marching rapidly in our direction. The crew jumped into action, and in double-quick time they had the sails down. An instant later the squall hit, and the anemometer jumped to 45 knots. Seas boiled, and visibility went down to zero. Thirty minutes later, the storm had passed. As the air cleared and visibility improved, we could see that Enterprise had not been as sprightly about getting her sails stowed. Her mast was still standing, but through binoculars we could see her sails hanging in useless tatters.

Every aspect of boating is predicated on the weather. At a superficial level we want to have fine weather — sunny days and pleasant breezes are the stuff of memories. On the other hand, we remember the days when it was rough, too, and these may be etched into our memory for completely different reasons. At some time we will all run into conditions that are outside our comfort zone.

More often than not, conditions deteriorate slowly, and there is time to prepare. If you are certain that you can make safe haven before the weather turns nasty, do so, but sometimes — for instance, on an offshore trip — you have to take what’s coming. Here are some tips on heavy weather prep to keep in mind. In the April issue I’ll look at storm strategies, such as heaving-to and drogue deployment.

• Don’t sit around waiting for the weather to get bad before you start preparing for the worst — it could be too late by then. It pays to prepare early, and it keeps the crew’s minds off conditions to come.

• Get a fix on your position as soon as possible. If the weather closes in and it gets rough, you may not want to be sitting at the chart table when you could be handling the boat. This is especially true when the navigator is also the skipper. Don’t rely on electronics alone — plot your course on a paper chart. If you are struck by lightning and lose your electronics, you will have something to refer to and have a firm position from which to estimate your dead reckoning.

• Prepare a ditch bag or, better yet, have one packed in advance. I like to have one aboard that’s ready to go. You may think that you don’t need one if you only go coastal cruising, but emergencies can happen even in fine weather, forcing you off the boat quickly. At a minimum, your kit should include identification of some sort, granola or energy bars, water, a handheld VHF, a portable GPS, a cellphone and flashlight, as well as extra flares.

This is a sight you never want to see from the helm, but if you can’t outrun it, be prepared.

• Prepare food and snacks for your voyage in advance. No one wants to be in the galley when the weather gets snotty; sandwiches and soup in a thermos will be a welcome relief.

• Make sure everything is shipshape. Bring the dinghy on deck and lash it down or deflate it; never tow a dinghy in rough weather. If you have a sailboat, reef early. One thing I have learned the hard way is that it is much harder to reduce sail when the wind picks up and the boat is overpowered. Have the crew don life jackets and harnesses if they are not wearing them already. Start a watch system, especially if the rough weather is expected to last — it’s important to make sure that everyone gets adequate rest.

• Ensure that the bilge pumps work, and close all hatches and ports. Secure companionways, doors and port lights. Take precautions to prevent water from getting below.

• Take seasickness medications on the early side if you tend to get green around the gills in harsh conditions.

The wind and waves likely will have increased by the time you’re fully prepared, and you’ll be as ready as you can be to focus on handling your boat and using the storm strategies I’ll discuss in Part II.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.