Avoiding Disaster When Surf’s Up on Big Texas Reservoirs
TEXAS WEATHER PATTERNS have a history of instability. Just because a day on the lake starts off nice is no guarantee it will stay that way. Calm water can turn into a nasty froth of rollers and whitecaps in a matter of minutes. I’ve seen it happen more than once.
The best way for boaters to avoid getting into trouble is to stay off the water whenever foul weather is a possibility. Watch or listen to the weather forecast before you go and plan your trips accordingly.
If the forecast calls for 15 to 20 mph winds with gusts to 30 mph, it’s a safe bet it will be ripping across unprotected water. Legitimate four- to six-footers are a distinct possibility on major reservoirs like Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, Texoma, Livingston and Amistad when big winds are howling.
It’s worst when the wind blows in a single direction that maximizes the distance over water. This is sometimes referred to as “fetch length.”
It might be smart to boat another day when big wind is in the picture. Otherwise, adjust your launching and fishing locations to wind-protected areas so you can avoid the possibility of getting into a bind.
Operating a boat safely in rough water is almost an art form. You need calm nerves and precision touch when it comes to throttle and steering control. One wrong move and you could wind up getting all wet, or worse.
Veteran Texas bass pro Tommy Martin of Hemphill knows a thing or two about navigating a boat in rough water. Martin, 78, has navigated big waters all over North America during a professional fishing career spanning half a century.
He offered the following tips to help boaters get around better in rough water and ultimately get back to the bank safely:
• Wear Your Lifejacket/Kill Switch: It’s always a good idea to wear your lifejacket with a kill switch attached any time the boat is underway. A lifejacket
will keep you afloat, while the kill switch causes the combustion engine to die and eliminates the risk of getting struck by the propeller should you fall overboard.
• Think it Through: Weather can change in an instant. If you’re uncomfortable with the forecast, don’t go.
• The Right Boat: Never attempt to navigate rough water in a boat that is too small for the task. A 14-foot flatbottom is much better suited for a lazy river than a big reservoir, especially when big winds are in the picture. Never exceed a boat’s carrying capacity.
• Rigged Right: Make sure all external components of the boat are snugged down tight before attempting to navigate rough water. This includes trolling motors, electronics, jackplates and outboard mounting bolts.
• The Right Prop: Make sure your outboard is equipped with a propeller that provides plenty of bite. A propeller that blows out when climbing waves can get you into big trouble.
• Play the Waves: It is never a good idea to run straight into or with large waves. Drive at an angle and zigzag back and forth. This reduces the chances of spearing or “stuffing” waves with the bow while resulting in a smoother ride.
• Trim It Down: Hydraulic jackplates should be placed on the lowest setting with the motor trimmed most of the way down. This gives the prop the most bite and helps prevent it from blowing out. Use the trim switch to keep the bow elevated high enough that the boat will run fairly flat as it tops a wave, but not so flat it causes you to spear the next one.
• Know Your Boat: No two-boat brands are the same. Performance can vary from one to the next.
• Making Turns: When making a turn, approach the wave at an angle and begin the turn before you reach the top so you can surf down the opposite side at the same angle. Be sure to keep the bow up as you throttle into the turn. Follow through with every turn once you commit to it.
• Bank It: If you get caught on the water in nasty weather, it’s best to take shelter in a wind-protected pocket or cove and wait it out. Don’t try to navigate several miles of rough water to get back to the ramp. You might have to spend a night without food, but at least you’ll be alive.
• Stay Cool: Probably the most important bit of advice for navigating rough water is to slow down, take your time and use your head. By all means, don’t panic if you get into trouble.
Know Your Weather Signs
Checking the weather before you leave for a day of boating is important but it will not prevent weather problems. At many times of the year and in different areas of the country, the weather can change rapidly, and even professionals have trouble predicting these changes.
Weather changes generally come from the west. While underway, you should continue to check the weather. If you have a marine radio you can get weather reports on 162.55 MHz or 162.40 MHz, or from local Coast Guard radio stations. If you have a portable radio, tune to a station that gives frequent weather updates.
Flat clouds (or stratus—little vertical development) are normally associated with stable air. Puffy clouds (or cumulus – considerable vertical development) indicate unstable air. The greater the vertical development of the cloud, the greater the instability. Thunderstorm clouds have the greatest vertical development and the associated weather is quite violent.
If you are caught in foul weather:
- Reduce speed. Proceed with caution. Put on PFD.
- Head for nearest shore that is safe to approach.
- Head bow into waves at about a 40 degree angle.
- Secure loose items. Have emergency gear ready.
- Keep bilges free of water.
- Seat passengers on bottom of boat near center line.
- If your engine fails anchor the boat.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS