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Heavy-weather sailing requires preparation


The weather was ugly. Wind southerly at 15 to 25 knots, with occasional stronger gusts. Heavy overcast. Scattered showers. Waves two to three feet in open water and higher where the current piled tons of water against the uptide edges of points and bars, only to have the wind send it rolling back toward where it came from.

Small craft advisory in effect -- and the fishing was great, once one got the feel of the wind and waves.

On the outer end of the long point, a half-dozen charterboats had made the trip uptide and downwind from Deale, and the boats rolled heavily while anglers braced along the gunwales and steadily caught big croaker, spot and white perch.

Farther toward shore, where the bottom dropped away from six to 22 feet in the length of a half-dozen heavy swells, gulls whirled and dove through wind and showers, feeding on scraps of baitfish rising from the feeding frenzy just below the surface.

With the help of the ebbing tide, rockfish and small bluefish were herding bay anchovies toward the edge of the point, crowding them toward the shallows. And over an area 200 yards long and 100 yards wide, in the troughs of the waves, the surface was pocked by swirls and splashes of feeding fish.

The catching was easy. On almost every cast a three-quarter ounce, silver-colored spoon took a fish, and with the barbs crimped down, releasing them was a quick and simple task.

Keeping the 20-foot open boat in position among the closely spaced, heavy swells rolled over the bar by the wind was a more difficult matter. Keeping dry was impossible.

Even at an idle, after the boat mounted one swell and the bow sections dropped gently, the wind carried sheets of spray down the length of the boat before the next swell lifted the bow and started the process anew.

With a small craft advisory in effect, boaters need to exercise caution. Such an advisory alone does not distinguish between a day-long blow and the possibility of sporadic bad weather, such as when severe thunderstorms are forecast for late afternoon.

The business of going out to fish or cruise becomes a judgment call, a decision in which prudence should carry more weight than bravado.

Keep track of the weather. Know the area in which you will be fishing or traveling. Know your boat. Know your own capabilities -- and don't exceed them.

For example, while the charterboats and a handful of smaller boats stayed out at the end of the point the other day, where the water was a little less riotous, with a little advance preparation, the 20-footer was able to move inshore and dance wetly but safely within the heavier swells.

* The anchor, chain and rode had been moved from a bow locker to a midship locker to lighten the bows and allow the boat to rise more quickly and to fall away more slowly.

* The hand pump had been moved to the top of a deck locker, where it would be readily available.

* The electric bilge pump and its float switch had been rechecked before leaving the dock and the bilge emptied to ensure there was no water aboard that might change the trim of the boat at an inopportune time.

* Loose gear -- a tackle box that generally rides loose in the after end of the cockpit, rods that generally ride unsecured in rod holder rings, a small cooler with sandwiches and cold drinks -- was stored in lockers or strapped down.

* A quick check was made of the hose connections on the sea strainer and the wet exhaust connections. The transom drain plug was tightened. While moving the ground tackle to an aft locker, the straps holding the battery boxes in place also were checked and snugged up.

* The bimini was taken down and booted. No sense in having to deal with a fitting that could break or contending with extra windage.

* A life jacket was pulled from its locker and put on.

Perhaps an extra 20 minutes had been spent before leaving the dock, but when the small boat came from behind the lee of the last point and into rough water, there was a sense of confidence that all was ready.

Such was not the case for two men in a sport cruiser who passed shortly afterward, heading toward open water across the shallowest point of the bar at a fast pace.

The cruiser, with its crew nestled on the bridge deck within a casing of canvas and clear plastic, took the first swell hard beneath the bows, rose out of the water almost to its props and crashed down. Rose again and fell hard off another wave. The canvas of the enclosure tore, the starboard side of the enclosure framing bent.

The cruiser spun around on top of a wave and headed home, canvas and plastic flapping in the wind.

Most modern boats and equipment can take more rough weather than their skippers are willing to venture into so long as the boats are handled properly.

And while how much weather one is willing to handle is a judgment call, there are a few rules that should be followed when running smaller boats in rough water:

* When encountering heavy headseas, slow down if you start to pound. Slowing will allow the boat to rise over seas rather than trying to run through them.

* In severe conditions, bear off and run slowly at a 45-degree angle to the oncoming swells. Bearing off will lessen the strain on the boat.

* Avoid allowing the props to come clear of the water. Slow down until they are continually engaged and providing steerage as well as propulsion.

* Keep the boat in trim by moving people or equipment. A boat heavy forward will plunge into oncoming seas. Too much weight aft will make it hard to hold the bows toward wind and seas.

* Steer wave to wave if necessary, avoiding head-on encounters with the largest swells.

* Avoid prolonged runs in troughs, the depressions between waves, because there is danger of rolling, taking on water or even capsize in extreme conditions. It is better to work back and forth across the troughs than to run in them.

* When running downwind in adverse conditions, again, a proper speed must be found. Too slow and the waves behind can catch up and throw the stern to either side, causing the boat to broach and present itself broadside to wind and wave. Too fast and the bows may dig into the backside of the wave ahead. Find a comfort zone, where the boat and the waves are in concert.

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