I grew up in a legit weather-obsessed home.

Lightening? Floods? Clouds? We were on top of it. My father has a doctorate in meteorology and never stopped getting excited by all things weather. He is also a darn good forecaster, which can be extra handy. I remember as a kid in Boulder we would sometimes intentionally drive to specific locations so we could get a better look at, you guessed it, the weather.

As a child, I found this a bit dull, but I will tell you, I wish I had paid attention. Now that my husband and I sail as often as we can, I am frequently reminded how big a deal weather can be, and if you don’t pay attention, Mother Nature will punish you so that you are reminded who is in charge.

Our most recent trip to Lake Champlain was no exception and weather, specifically the need to really pay attention to and understand weather patterns in the area you are sailing, stands out as our biggest lesson-learned-takeaway-close-call from that trip.

Here’s a run-down of what went down and some tips to make sure you can learn from our mistakes.

First, The Incident

It isn’t like we didn’t see the storm clouds. We knew it was going to rain. That’s why we were working hard to anchor and be settled in a little earlier than we would have normally. But after four attempts to anchor, pulling up nothing but tons of grass in two different areas, we realized our Intel about good holding in that specific bay just wasn’t to be. Knowing it would start raining soon, we turned toward a Plan B: Stay at the nearby marina.

We approached the marina slowly and attempted to call to let them know we’d like to stay, and have them direct us to one of the empty slips. No one answered. The sky was getting darker, so we decided to tie up at the end of the dock temporarily, find someone in charge of the marina, and sort things out. And that is exactly what we did! A very nice man in the office up the hill identified the slip we should use and we headed back down the hill to move our boat. The wind had picked up a bit and we were pretty sure rain would be on its way soon. I hopped on the boat, turned the motor on, and held the stern line as my husband prepared to release the bow line and have us on our way.

And then it hit.

Hard.

Out of nowhere it seemed, the wind accelerated tenfold, and the starboard side of our boat was immediately pummeled by high waves, rain, and wind. We went from no rain to a seeming-hurricane in under 30 seconds.

My ever-calm husband quickly and wisely stated that we were staying put. I threw everything that was trying to blow off the boat into the cabin, turned off the engine, we tied back up and checked the fenders, then scurried below and secured ourselves inside.

It didn’t last long, but it was scary. Once it was over, we heard a coast guard pan-pan alert about a small monohull, like ours, that had been blown onto some rocks.

It wasn’t lost on us that we would have been at anchor if the holding hadn’t been so poor. We could have been that monohull.

Lesson Learned

Isn’t it obvious? Pay attention to the weather in a deliberate way and don’t assume anything unless you’ve been sailing in that area for years and understand the local weather patterns.

We had casually listened to the weather channel earlier in the morning which suggested it might rain, and we assumed it would just rain like it had the night before, no big deal. What we didn’t do was listen to the VHF as we saw the storm building. What we didn’t do was check the radar. What we didn’t do was better understand the specific weather patterns that can hit like a hammer on lakes, something all of the live-aboard sailors we met later fully understood.

Here are some tips to help you steer clear of scary, yet avoidable, weather incidents while chartering.

Listen early and often to the VHF weather channel

Turn the VHF to the weather channel and really listen if it looks like bad weather is forming. We typically listen in the mornings and so we knew it would rain, but the severity of the storm wasn’t reported until later in the day. In all sailing areas, there is a dedicated weather channel on the VHF, so make sure you know what it is before setting sail and use it often.

Check weather radar

If you have access to Internet, check the weather radar. If the weather looks like it may take a turn for the worse, weather radar will help you have a sense of the severity, speed, and direction the storm is traveling so that you can make appropriate choices about where to anchor, dock, or moor for the night.

Be prepared to reef in high winds

Using tools like windy.com or windguru.com can help you understand the anticipated direction and strength of the wind in the area you are sailing. That is helpful, but you also need to know what to do in cases of strong wind. You need to know how to reef your sails. Do not leave the marina without understanding the reefing system for the boat you have chartered, and if the winds are predicted to be 15 or more knots, be ready and able to reef well before you need to.

Gather local knowledge from your charter company

Ask your charter company what you might need to look out for from a weather perspective. Find out if there are patterns specific to the location you are in and find out if there are local channels or resources that they rely on. We learned from our new friends Bunny and George who have been sailing on Lake Champlain for 47 years, that this type of weather is typical and can be identified by the direction the storm is building.

Have a plan in place for unexpected, rough weather

You and your crew need to have a plan for what to do if you get caught in serious weather. We didn’t get caught, thank heavens, but our new friend George told us that it does occasionally happen. His advice? Try to gain distance from the Lee shore, take the sails down, then to the degree possible, motor into the wind. And for heaven’s sake, know where your personal flotation devices are and put them on.

Keep in mind, this advice is for charter sailors, sailing from spot to spot each day ending up safely near shore for the night. If you are planning any blue-water ocean sailing, my serious advice is to become a junior meteorologist. You are going to need a whole lot more weather predicting and management skills, so don’t take that part lightly.

And for all sailors, please don’t ever let predetermined destinations or plans get in the way of safety. If the situation is outside of your skill-set or control, stay put.

Back to my father for a minute. He has been a weather expert witness for more than 35 years, working mostly on airplane crashes. Number one reason planes crash? Inexperienced pilots find themselves outside their ability set in bad weather but don’t want to disappoint the people traveling with them, so they press on putting themselves and others at risk.

Bad decision making. Don’t do that. Be safe, be smart, and arm yourself with as much information as you can. If Mother Nature insists that you stay at your location a day or two extra, then by all means, accept her invitation.

After all. She is in charge.