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Wicked Weather

When it comes to violent thunderstorms, boaters need to play it safe.

By RICK FRAZIER
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 9, 2002


With 49 divers in the water 9 miles off Pensacola, Capt. Ed Thompson was nervous watching a thunderstorm build above his 65-foot charter boat. Thompson scurried to get all of his divers out of the water and safely aboard in anticipation of either outrunning or riding out the small but severe storm.

The freak storm built quickly, and lightning began striking all around his boat. It was obvious he could not outrun the storm. So, with everyone safely below deck, Thompson went back to the bridge to secure his instruments. He saw a lightning bolt and simultaneously heard a violent crack of thunder.

The next thing Thompson remembers was someone slapping his face as he regained consciousness. Lightning had struck his vessel.

There were no severe or lasting effects from the jolt, other than extremely sore muscles for days afterward. The lightning struck the ship's antenna, blowing it apart like an exploding cigar.

Getting caught on the water during a violent thunderstorm can rattle even the most experienced boater.

"All boaters should learn to keep an eye to the sky," said Capt. Richard Moore, boating law administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They should watch for cloud formations, waterspouts or weather changes to help them determine when and if they should head back to port."

Frank Alsheimer, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Ruskin, said boaters should check weather forecasts on TV a day or two before going out -- and especially the morning of departure. The National Weather Service will post special marine warnings or advisories on all area stations.

Alsheimer suggests boaters carry a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio, which offers current data. These radios are inexpensive and available at most electronic stores. Alsheimer also recommends boaters with computers go to the National Weather Service Web page (www.nws.noaa.gov/tbn) to get marine forecasts, radar screens and weather buoy reports.

Brian Dorsey, rescue coordinator for the United States Coast Guard group in St. Petersburg, recommends leaving a float plan with a relative or friend. Float plans should include the boat's name, the names of occupants and crew, the departure port, the destination (with Global Position Satellite numbers) and time of return. Dorsey stressed the importance of boaters sticking to their float plan. In case of an emergency, the Coast Guard will know where to begin the search.

Capt. Dave Zalewski spends more than 250 days a year on the water, and he keeps his ears attuned to the weather. "Thunder that is muffled is a ways away," he said. "When it's crisp and loud, that's the time to go."

If you find yourself having to ride out a severe thunderstorm, Dorsey recommends these life saving procedures:

"First, put on your PFD (personal flotation device) in case you do get knocked unconscious and thrown overboard. Gather your survival gear so it is close by, and put it in a waterproof bag. Turn on the navigational lights so other boaters will be able to see you. Get everyone below deck or as low in the boat as possible. And it's a good idea to lower fishing rods, antennas or anything else that is high in the air."

Water depth, boat operator's seamanship skills and the vessel's make and size will determine whether to ride out the storm or motor slowly through it. Sailboats without power should lower sails, set the anchor and ride it out.

"Staying away from the mast or anything metal goes without saying," Dorsey said. "If lightning does hit the mast, generally the lightning will travel through whatever electronics that are on board."

A hand-held VHF radio is a good piece of equipment. The Coast Guard monitors VHF Channel 16. If there is a need, you can request to be put on a communication schedule, during which the Coast Guard will contact you every 15 minutes to check on your situation.

"Powerboats should slowly motor out of the storm, (steer) into head-on seas and not get caught in a trough," Dorsey said. "Even if that requires going to a port other than the boat's home port. Boaters should be familiar with the waterways and ports just for these reasons."

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