Heed Small Craft Advisories

Daniel Fannon

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When the weather’s in doubt, stay in port

How many times have we carefully planned a day’s cruise only to find ourselves tied to the dock, searching the skies and weather reports to decide if it’s wise (and safe) to depart? Everything in our boater’s heart wants to head out on the water, but everything in our boater’s brain tells us to stay put and stay safe.

From experience, I can tell you that when the weather is in doubt, you have no real choice but to remain in port. It’s too easy to glance at a darkening sky, observe the relative calm of the water’s surface, and then ignore reports of coming wind and waves. Whenever I hear myself say those fatal words, “Oh, I’m sure it will be OK,” I know that I’m headed for big trouble.

In early November a few years ago, I spent the night at the municipal marina in Norwalk, Connecticut, on the last leg of my trip to Branford, Connecticut, where Melodic would spend the winter—an hour-and-a-half journey at most. Before nestling into the trunk cabin for the night, I checked the National Weather Service website and came across a Small Craft Advisory. Starting around 6 p.m. the following evening, Long Island Sound would experience significant wind and wave action.

A Small Craft Advisory goes into effect 12 hours before the onset of winds anticipated to reach dangerous speeds. In this case, 22 to 33 knots or between force 6 and 7 on the Beaufort scale. What constitutes a small craft is left to the captain’s discretion, but at 32 feet in length with a 9.5-foot beam, Melodic is certainly a small craft, and I take these warnings seriously.

Although I really wanted to get to Branford and was prepared to delay my departure, I decided to reassess the situation in the morning. At 6 a.m., I awoke to a gray sky with light rain and no wind. Over coffee, I ran the weather analysis top to bottom, and NOAA (both on the web and VHF weather channel) confirmed that its advisory conditions would not begin on the sound until 6 or 7 p.m. So, I left Norwalk at 6:30 a.m., anticipating arrival at the Branford River by 9 a.m. at the latest.

After a harrowing nearly eight hours battling high waves and treacherous winds on Long Island Sound, I docked in Branford at 2 p.m. Yes, the forecast was dead wrong, but the real fault was mine. I decided to outrun a coming storm that, although I didn’t know it, had already started to blow.

As soon as I reached the sound, I knew I had chosen foolishly, but trying to come about and return to Norwalk seemed more dangerous than proceeding ahead. A freighter was the only other vessel stupid enough to be on the sound that afternoon. You can watch the short video I took as I careened east past the New Haven Harbor Lighthouse in the throes of a following sea and wind gusts pushing at the stern while simultaneously plowing through opposing waves at the bow from an incoming tide. It was quite a ride.

Although I was alone on a menacing sea with only myself to blame, grace and the training I had received from United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, saw me through, allowing me to write this warning: If there’s any doubt about hard weather ahead, stay in your slip and enjoy a day on your boat at the dock.

Daniel Fannon

Past Commander Dan Fannon joined the Bayside Power Squadron/3 in 2003 and has been its awarding-winning Safety Officer since 2011. His boat, Melodic, is a fully restored 32-foot wood Elco cruiser built in 1936. Dan regularly sails Melodic from its homeport on the Hudson River in New Hamburg, New York, to the Long Island Sound, New York Harbor, and the New Jersey coast.

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