water over the bow during a storm at sea

Storms at sea in small boats – real life stories

Last week on our return to Cairns from holidays, we were caught unawares by an electrical storm at sea.

One minute it was just wind and rain, and we felt pretty safe in our Black Watch 40, Mood Swings.

Nek Minit – lightning flashed all around.

To make it worse, the clear zipper ripped and we were soaking wet and standing in 2 cm of sloshing water.

All of a sudden it was no laughing matter.

And when the wife asked me, “Do we have lightning protection on the boat?” I had no answer.

As a result of our rather harrowing experience, we decided to look into best practice when caught in lightning storm at sea.

Although the VERY best practice is not to get caught in the first place.

But we all know that weather forecasts are just that… Forecasts. And many variables come into play and they often get it WRONG.

 

Storms at sea

Storm front approaching. Time to get outta there. Photo credit: Aaron Falls

 

We also requested community members send us their stories so we could learn from any mistakes (a rising tide lifts all boats). A ton of members sent along their accounts of storms at sea. Some were actually fatal and our hearts go out to those affected.

In some cases, really simple mistakes caused big trouble during the storm. In others, even the best preparations were not enough.

Thanks to everyone who sent along an account. Your experiences are a valuable teaching tool for other readers.

These stories make for great reading are reprinted here;

► Big storm, big sea, little boat.

“Once again the weather forecast was a dud and these lads nearly ran out of fuel, getting home battered and bruised, but with a good feed of fish…”

Neil Young

► Swamped at sea

“She’ll be right” attitude to an approaching storm front was nearly fatal as these fishing friends were swamped at sea with non-operational bilge pumps…”

Aaron Falls

► My day at sea when the motor stopped.

“The snapper were on the bite on a beautiful New Zealand morning, but all was not well as the wind picked up and the motor failed to start…”

Malcolm Lochead

► Washed onto a breaking reef in the dead of night

“Failure of the anchor alarm meant a close brush with tragedy for these anglers, only their quick thinking skipper saved them…”

Ian Williams

► Saved by beginners luck from several close encounters

“Trying to impress a girl and trusting an “expert” (her Dad) was the first of several dramatic and comical mistakes made by this first time boat owner…”

Allan Darwen

► My passenger broke her nose

“A quiet holiday on the boat turned next level as the weather forecast got it so so wrong…”

Adam McLauchlan

► My brother David, lost at sea in 1984.

“An extra safety precaution turned out to be a fatal mistake leading to the loss of two young lives…”

Chris Jones

► My mate hid in the esky

“After trying to outrun the storm, they bunkered down, lost the motor and were rescued after setting off their second set of flares by passing commercial fishermen…”

Paul Szybiak

► The one third fuel rule – 1/3 out, 1/3 back, ⅓ contingency.

“In a pre-GPS white out, steering a few degrees off course left them dangerously low on fuel…”

Peter Eklund

► Going from good to bad in a millisecond.

“Turning to check on some smaller boats during a freak storm nearly ended in disaster as the anchor rope washed overboard and stalled the prop…”

Geoffrey Ryder

► Thank Goodness for self-draining decks.

“An innocent looking squall turned nasty as the wind started blowing the tops off the waves and dumping water into the boat…”

Jon Snell

► Maiden voyage becomes a nightmare

“With a terrified wife and two young daughters aboard, the boat started getting heavier as the bilge pump failed to cope…”

John Beasy

► Lighten the boat, toss the fish overboard.

“An inappropriate radio antenna and an incorrect weather forecast could have spelled disaster if not for extra fuel and a jiggler hose…”

Glen Stockdale

► Tsunami overturns boat and takes life

“A group of fishos hired a charter boat when a freak wave overturned their vessel and drowned one of the occupants…”

Keith Palmer

► When lightning strikes

“Luckily this couple were not on board when lightning struck their vessel resulting in a fireball and holes to the hull…”

Glenda and Mike Brooks

► Preparation prevents piss poor performance.

“If it wasn’t for this good samaritan, this family would have been swimming in croc country due to some really basic safety blunders…”

Troy Moore

► BOM predicted 5-10

“After whipping out the angle grinder (how’s that for preparation), catching the wife’s ankles as she goes overboard and wearing the skin off his fingers manually pumping diesel, Udo finally gets his family home safe…”

Udo Hennig

► Nearly killed by a peaceful whale.

“This commerical fisho survived fires, collisions, two man overboards and a sinking during his career, but his closest call came via an encounter with a whale…”

Bruce Lake

 

20-second reads:

"Unleaded on the roof..." - Stuart Green +

I remember being on my old Trout boat in one of those storms. The only difference is I had 1500 litres of unleaded in aluminum tanks on the roof. Yes, I was pooping myself lol!

"Storms and a pacemaker don’t mix..." - Chris Abbott +
Last year I was out fishing with a friend in his boat when a lightning storm came from nowhere. All the rods in the rocket launcher had sparks from the reel handles to the aluminium. My mate said to me, “Just get the rods down and we head in”.
I said, “No you do it.”

He said “No. Why do you not wish to touch them?”

It was simple it will blow up my pacemaker

"Run the anchor chain around the mast..." - Russell Higgins | Mooloolaba +

Racing off Mooloolaba in my father’s  Yacht when a storm blew in and was a bad, very bad electrical storm. The skipper [Dad] got us to drop all sails and run the anchor chain around the mast a couple of times and make sure it fully reached the water at all times. It wasn’t long after a lightning bolt hit the mast and offloaded down the chain! He said if we hadn’t done the anchor chain thing we may have blown off the mast and damaged the hull.

"No GPS and lightning spins the compass..." - Vince Calleja +
In 1965, between Christmas and New year I went on an overnight trip to the reef. Fishing in 20 fathoms the reds were slow. About 10.30 a storm approached. My anchor came adrift when the wind blew and I began drifting away quickly. Then my lights went out. My mate put his lights on so I could have a bearing. My compass was useless for as the lightning flashed the compass would spin. I took a guess at what I hoped would take me to shallow water. The rain was cold and felt like ice bullets. It seemed to take forever to get there. When I dropped the anchor it was in 10 feet of water! After the water was bailed out I got the lights working to signal my mate all was well. I still think I had guidance from above.

P.S. Forgot to mention, boat 15 ft motor 40hp manual pull start, no sounder, GPS or 2 way

"Flying blind..." - Andrew Bryen | Buffalo Creek, Darwin +
Many years ago (in the late 1980’s) my wife and I were fishing off Lee Point, a close reef to Buffalo Creek in Darwin when a storm came thru. We were in a 4.5m Quintrex centre console. The anchor would not hold so we put a 2nd anchor out and the boat still would not hold so we started the motor and idled into the wind till the storm stopped. My wife was pretty scared and I was concerned but tried to appear non-concerned. We were only approx. one km offshore but could not see anything while the storm was on. This was before GPS technology was available to small craft so we were basically flying blind as we didn’t want to end up on the rocks.

"Trawler and Ferry lost in a storm..." - Andrew Bryen | Urangan Qld +

When I was a small boy we were fishing in the parents 15ft Pride Starfire runabout with canopy. We were just offshore from the Urangan boat harbour (which was much smaller in those days to what it is today). A storm came over and one of the trawlers in the harbour overturned and the ferry that took people to Fraser Island up anchored and drifted away. It was scary and very wet for the duration of the storm.

"Fighting winds in a kayak..." - Brenda Irwin | Burrum River Qld +
I haven't yet encountered storms as I am only a learner yakker on my 2019 outback hobie but I did encounter high winds the other day. Here I was quite happily fishing and dropping crab pots in a place called Ted's Creek in the Burrum River and it was calm as in there. When I tried to get out of the creek, high winds (for a yak) had started and it was quite a job to get out of the creek as the wind kept blowing me back into the creek. Peddling home was something like an old man and the sea with waves over the bow. I stuck close to the mangroves and limped home slowly but the feeling of the yak twisting under me was concerning although I kept the nose into the waves and eventually made it back to the new boat ramp.

"When two trawlers become a ship..." - Ross Pedley | Turkey Beach +

About 40 years ago I was invited to go on an overnight reef trip from Turkey Beach. It was in June. We were in an 18-foot half cab.  Everything was fine until about 8 o'clock at night when we were hit by a severe electrical storm. The waves were so big that they were crashing into the windscreen, running along the canopy and dumping water onto the outboard. Arthur (the skipper) went onto the front deck and pulled up the anchor. He then started to head in towards the coast. We saw what looked like 2 trawlers and steered to go between them. Suddenly I realized it was a ship and Arthur changed course! We spent a wet, very uncomfortable night sheltering in a creek ( the rum helped) before going back out for more fishing the next morning.

"Safe in our 5.8m Kingston..." - Greg Evans | Townsville +
 We used to go to the Reef & Palms every opportunity that arose in a 5.8m. Kingston (Displacement max speed 6 knots) & our worst 2 storm events were...

  1. We were diving Loadstone reef for the weekend when Saturday afternoon it was like a sheet of glass but looking back to Townsville we could see a storm building. What we should have done was we should have moved to the sheltered side of the reef & anchored, but we decided to run for home, Big mistake, you don't run from anything at 6 knots & we were heading straight to the storm. We were only about 1 hour from the reef when the wind picked up to about 25 knots. At that stage, it was no worries and kept steering to Townsville. Then the storm hit! Try watching a compass & steer when you cannot see 10m. in front. The wind was screaming & the thunder & lightning was terrifying. The boat would roll right over to one side & then get pushed sideways down the waves. Thank goodness it was a great sea boat although we thought it would tip over dozens of times. This went on for about 3 hours, then when it cleared it calmed down pretty quick. These were the days before epirbs & GPS, so if we sank we would not be missed until Sunday night, scary thought.
     
  2. We were on our way home from the reef & hit a big storm in the Kingston, I was driving & my mate was asleep in the bunks. I was beside the Island in the shipping channel when it hit, the wind was screaming & it blew up so rough & as the water was shallow all I could do is turn into the waves & hold it to about 3 knots. The waves were very close together & breaking over the top of the boat. My mate was freaking as he saw lights ahead & thought it was Horseshoe Bay but I was adamant I was beside the island in the shipping channel. When the storm settled we were 10m. from a channel marker pole. If we had hit that we would have sunk I reckon. These were terrifying storms that came so fast and blew so hard I would not wish them on anyone, I am so glad I was in a displacement boat & had years experience in rough seas in small boats. 
"The lightning went right through me..." - Neil Young | Dundee +
Fishing the run-off for 4 days down the Daly River, Top End. We were sitting out the front of a creek flicking away when a massive storm brewed up and headed at us. We headed up into the creek, tied off to the bank, put bimini up and tarp over the top in preparation. The rain started bucketing down with lightning everywhere. 


Due to being low on water, I decided to refill our water containers from the water running off the tarp. I was holding onto the Bimini pole and hanging the container over the back to catch the water. All of a sudden a lightning bolt has hit the other side of the narrow creek (20m wide) and has come up through the water and though my whole body. Scared the living daylights outta me. This was the end of catching water. Sat on the esky and waited it out.

"Never trust the weather forecast..." - Dale Mackay | QLD +
It wouldn't be boating without being caught out with changing conditions so for that reason I only take my family in our small boat out when the weather is mint. Unfortunately, I don’t get out that often but it's better to be safe than sorry I guess.

I do however get out on the water with my local marine rescue to help some of those unfortunate or ill-prepared boaters on the water. As you can imagine many of our activations for our small brave team are when the weather is not pleasant and being caught out in changing weather conditions and storms are slowly becoming the norm😂😂😂

I had a trip recently though that was quite similar to yours where we went to assist on the water. The weather this time was great, glassed out and I probably should have shot out for a fish in my own boat. We were on the water for about 2 hrs and heading for home and got activated again so we made a detour and assisted once more. The tide was about to change and the wind picked up slightly but no big deal we had been on the water about 4 hours by this stage and headed home for the second try. 

We were cruising quite well for about 1/2hr and then the storm closed in as we came back into open water, the wind picked up to 25-30kn which wasn’t supposed to happen ( BOM you really needs to get it together) and the tide was against the wind which stood the waves up to 2m as we passed through a long stretch of shoals. To say our trip back was slow would be an understatement with a number of waves crashing over the bow. No one was sick or injured but all were grateful to be back inside the harbour.  Our trip was meant to be about 3hrs. Turned out to be 8hrs. It just goes to show how quickly it can change. 

I didn’t get any pics as I got a face that would be better suited to radio and I was too busy holding on. Remember it's very unforgiving out there. Stay safe👍

"Massive wave came from no-where..." - Jeremy Snowden +
I own a 20ft Seafarer boat. In March last year, I was out off Edithburgh in South Australia near the Marion reef beacon.  I was with two friends fishing for whiting and snapper.

The weather was average with about 0.5 to 1m seas.  I decided as skipper to travel to a snapper spot and thought I would take a shortcut between the Marion reef beacon and the reef.  There was plenty of water and no real swells. My mate whilst travelling made us a bowl out of a bag of salt and vinegar chips to share with us as we were moving to the drop.

Out of nowhere a swell formed, which was about 20 feet high, I was able to navigate up and down the swell relatively easily but right behind it was an even bigger swell that looked like it was going to break right on us.  I remember looking to the right and left to see if I could turn away from it but decided that was too dangerous so up we went, I put a bit of throttle into it as I thought that it would break on top of us and as we reached and moved through the top of the swell/wave there was nothing on the other side so down we went with a massive crash.

I smashed my face on the metal screen putting my tooth through my lip and being concussed, my mate who had made the bowl of chips was on his back on the deck with salt and vinegar chips all over him and the floor, my other friend had fallen off the seat and was on the floor.

We were all stunned at what had happened.  None of us was wearing life jackets and the situation could have been a lot different if I had made the wrong decision to turn away from the swell/wave.

Massive lesson learnt.  Our wives could see the worry on our faces when we got home.  We laugh about it now but it definitely was a what-if moment.

 

Obviously the best advice we can give you is not to get caught in these situations. But as we all know, weather forecasts are just that…

Forecasts. And they don’t always get it right (as our storms at sea stories show).

So we have come up with some tips to consider and additional reading resources to keep you as safe as possible.

Stay safe during storms at sea with these tips.

  • If the weather forecast suggests thunderstorms consider rescheduling your trip because safety must be the priority;
  • When you see a storm front in the distance, head to shelter (a protected area out of the wind such as the lee of an island or reef). Or preferably back to shore. Because many of the incidents cited above could have been avoided had they returned immediately;
  • Always notify a responsible family member, coastguard or marine rescue of your destination and estimated time of arrival. You can now do this with the Coast Guard App. Because if the worst does happen, you’ll want someone looking for you.
  • Drive to the conditions. This may vary depending on the boat. Avoid turning side on to the sea in large waves because you may get swamped. Sometimes the long way home can be safer.
  • Keep a floating flashlight and batteries aboard your vessel.

Lightning strikes

  • Although the odds of being struck by lightning are low, if worried you can have your vessel assessed and lightning protection installed.
  • When inside an open boat, avoid touching metal objects and appliances as this can prevent electric shock. Stow all rods and aerials, stay low and keep your arms and legs inside the vessel and try and keep everyone in the centre of the boat;
  • Ensure the VHF radio is not used during an electrical storm unless it is an absolute emergency to avoid injury in the event of a lightning strike;
  • Store small communication valuables such as phones, inside a microwave or even a foil twisties packet to protect them in the event of a strike. These act as a Faraday’s cage, hence protecting devices stored inside.

 

Please don’t take any chances and stay safe on the water. We recommend you use the links above to conduct some further reading to keep you as safe as you can be.

We hope you enjoyed the stories and if you didn’t get a chance to submit a storm at sea story, we would love to hear from you in the comments.

For some great fishing tips, check out our blog.

 


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About The Author

Ryan Moody

Ryan Moody started his fishing career on the reef boats before catching bucket list marlin for the likes of champion heavy tackle angler Johnno Johnson, INXS and the King of Sweden. Branching out in the late 80's to guided barramundi fishing, Ryan has made a name for himself as a Big Barramundi specialist and to date has put clients onto over 2000 metre plus barra. That is over 2 kilometres of metre plus barra! With attitudes changing from 'keep all you can' towards catch and release, Ryan has decided to share his extensive knowledge and hopefully inspire people of all ages to get out from behind the computer screen/TV and into the fishing outdoors lifestyle he has spent his life perfecting.

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