What had been a relatively small bank of dark clouds well off to my south was suddenly looking ominous. In the span of 15 minutes or so, it had nearly doubled in size to consume most of the blue bird skies that had been the backdrop for a productive morning of clamming on Long Island, NY’s Great South Bay. Now dark, heavy and stretching upward at an alarming rate, the entire mass seemed to be rolling in my direction - a clear indication that it’s time to beat it back to port.
Too late. Although the cloud bank, now shaped like an anvil, was still several miles away, a huge bolt of lightning, followed by a deafening clap of thunder, shocked the fleet of baymen in the area into immediate action. Pulling up clam rakes and drag anchors in unison, each hurried to their stern hoping their pull-start outboard would turn over on the first try. By the time I managed to crank my engine, a chill draft was blowing across the back of my neck and the flat calm bay was beginning to kick up. Less than five minutes later we would all be battling four-foot waves in 30-knot winds while praying the numerous lightning strikes would somehow miss our vessels.
There was no time to head for home at this point and most of the fleet of small garvies and sharpies gunned their bows toward nearby Fire Island, less than mile away. So fierce was the lightning and wind that we all simply ran our boats aground on the soft beach and sprinted for the protection of gullies between sand dunes as windblown sand and cool rain pelted us with amazing force. The squall lasted only about 15 minutes before passing our position and, thankfully, we would all survive to tell our tells. Yet we would all also learn a valuable lesson: Get out of Dodge at the first sign of weather trouble.
When I first think back to that hot August afternoon back in the late 1970s, I’m inclined to believe there wasn’t much any of us could have done to escape that wrath. There was no rain or storms predicted in the weather forecast repeated every hour or so on our transistor radios, and that particular storm had exploded on the scene faster than any I’d encountered before or have seen since.
Still, there was a moment when I thought I had noticed a shift in the direction of the clouds immediately followed by a cool, freshening breeze and what I clearly perceived as a dropping barometer. Further, the sea gulls that hung around the fleet had already beat a retreat to the shore, as did several terns that had been diving on small baitfish for most of the tide. A couple of veteran clammers had also quietly slipped away as the cloud bank initially began to expand, departing on the 20-minute trek back to their mainland ports. In retrospect, it turns out, there had been several warning signs or “tells” that the weather was about to change. Individually, they were easy to miss or simply dismiss, but collectively they made a good case for getting off the water sooner rather than later.
These days, accurate weather forecasts are easy to come by. You can follow the weather on your phone with various apps, check in daily on local television, here an updated weather forecast every 15 minutes on some radio stations or visit https://www.weather.gov/marine to check the latest NOAA forecast. On the water, you can also use your VHF-FM weather radio or VHF transceiver with built-in NOAA weather channels. Any of these, or better still, a combination of options, should ensure you catch the most recent forecast.
Easy access to updated weather projections is a big plus, but it still doesn’t ensure you’ll stay warm, dry and comfortable. As illustrated before, local conditions have a way of changing suddenly so it’s vital you keep your eyes, ears and other sensors searching for any clues that might foretell changes in atmospheric conditions.
Cloud cover can tell you a lot, for example. Most thunderstorm and squall activity approaches from the west or southwest. On hot, humid, summer days, especially, check out the western and southern horizons at regular intervals just to see what might be brewing in the distance. Low, flat, dense clouds can signal an approaching storm front with steady rain while tall clouds that develop quickly and rise to towering heights or form an anvil shape often indicate thunderstorms or a squall on the way. Expect them to move in the direction the anvil is pointing.
Lightning – even in the distance – is a sure signal to find safe harbor. Be aware that it has the ability to reach out several miles both ahead and behind the actual storm and, thus, can put you and your crew at risk even if there are blue skies overhead.
Larger vessels often carry a barometer aboard so skippers they can instantly see changes in pressure. A dropping barometer signals inclement weather on the approach while a rising barometer foretells of high pressure and clearing skies (which can also bring brisk winds). While there’s nothing better than instrumentation, most seasoned boaters can sense rapidly falling barometric pressure. At the point you can feel it, it’s time to decide where you’ll head should conditions on the water deteriorate.
As hot air rises on hot and humid summer day, cooler air rushes in to fill the void. A sudden cool or freshening breeze accompanying expanding or rising cloud cover on a hot afternoon is a sure sign that foul weather is approaching or developing. In fact, I find this one of the surest tips-offs that things are soon to change, so heed this warning, make ready and ensure you are within a reasonable distance of safe harbor.
Lastly, look to local wildlife to provide weather clues. Fish often feed ferociously on the dropping barometer that proceeds a storm so be sure not to overstay your welcome no matter how productive the blitz. As already noted, sea gulls and terns will often head ashore to hunker down before bad weather arrives, and mammals like seals, manatees and sea turtles will likely make themselves somewhat scarce as well. If the clouds are approaching and you suddenly find yourself feeling very alone on the water, that’s your cue to clear the deck and get to safety. No cruise, fish or fun is worth risking your life when the weather turns rotten.
Tom Schlichter is a full-time outdoors writer, editor and marketeer living on Long Island, NY. Follow him on Facebook at @outdoortomcorp or visit his website at www.outdoortom.com.