Pay attention to marine weather advisories

Some people say that predicting the weather is voodoo science at best.

I disagree.

There is one surefire way to guarantee wind, rain and unseasonably cold temperatures: Ask me to go fishing.

I'm not saying I'm jinxed, cursed or simply unlucky, but when it comes to bad weather, lately I've been batting 1.000.

Twenty years ago, when I first started on the outdoors beat, rainouts drove me crazy. It seemed like every time I planned an adventure, be it a long-distance grouper trip or a simple paddle down a local river, things got ugly.

Once, heading offshore to dive a blue-water spring, my companions and I found ourselves in the path of a slow-moving waterspout.

For 20 minutes we did our best to avoid the swirling cone of destruction. Then, when we finally appeared to be clear, the waterspout split in two.

Fearing the end was near, I revealed my status as a Jonah, a person whose presence onboard is thought to bring bad luck. My "friends" (and I use that term loosely) talked about tossing me overboard to lighten the load and, hopefully, appease Poseidon.

Then, as quickly as they had appeared, the twin tornadoes joined again and then vanished into the gray winter sky.

The incident, though it happened more than a decade ago, still lives fresh in my mind, for it taught me two lessons.

First, choose your friends wisely. And second, when it comes to winter weather, hedge your bets. I've learned that it is better to be safe than sorry.

If I hear the phrase "small craft advisory," I leave boating for another day and instead put on my wetsuit, grab my surfboard and head to the beach to catch some waves.

It is definitely frustrating trying to plan anything outdoors during these winter months.

Few people are affected more by weather than boaters and fishermen. An unexpected change in winds, seas or visibility can threaten the safety of a vessel and its crew.

The National Weather Service, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, does a great job of providing marine weather warnings and forecasts to mariners.

In general, local weather patterns are fairly predictable. In the fall, winter and spring, cold fronts roll in from the north anywhere from several days to more than a week apart. The problem is these forecasts can be off by hours, sometimes even days, which can wreak havoc on even the most experienced boaters and anglers.

So I've learned that you have to be flexible. To steal a line from Elvis Costello, when it comes to winter weather … I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.

So here are a few weather-related tools to use and tips to keep in mind:

Check the advisories

A couple of familiar advisories we get here in Florida:

Small craft advisory: Forecast of sustained winds 20 to 33 knots and/or seas over 7 feet.

Gale warning: Forecast of sustained winds of 34 to 47 knots.

Storm warning: Forecast of sustained winds of 48 to 63 knots, not associated with a tropical cyclone.

Buy a weather radio

Tap into the nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information direct from the National Weather Service to keep yourself informed. You can get warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day. National Weather Radio is an "all hazards" radio network, making it a single source for comprehensive weather and emergency information. Weather radios come in various forms (powered by the sun, batteries or by winding them up). Many people have more than one — one for the house or tackle box, another for the boat. The cost can be as low as $10. Whenever you're out on the water, check it periodically.

Check the buoys

Buoys and land sites provide measurements of wind temperature, pressure and, at some locations, wave height. This information gives you a good idea about what the conditions are offshore and how they might change. A buoy a 100 miles out can let you know what's on the way. The National Data Buoy Center information is at ndbc.noaa.gov/rmd.shtml.

Eye out for lightning

Peak season in Florida runs May through September, but it's not uncommon for lighting to be associated with winter cold fronts. According to the National Weather Service, we average about 50 lightning strikes per square mile, making the Tampa Bay area the lightning capital of the United States.

More than 60 people are killed each year by lightning in the United States (roughly eight to 10 of those are in Florida), according weather service data. That's more than are killed by tornadoes or hurricanes.

Most lightning occurs in the afternoon, so the best advice for boaters is to get off the water when those large, anvil-shaped cumulus clouds form on the horizon.

If you hear thunder, you are probably too close for comfort so head in. If you are caught in a storm, stay low in the boat. Stop fishing, and keep your hands and legs out of the water. Disconnect electronics if possible and lower your antenna until the storm passes.

Pay attention to marine weather advisories 02/10/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 12:08am]

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