Safe Boating: When the Water Gets Rough

I just returned from a remarkable pike fishing adventure on Lake Athabasca in northern Saskatchewan. If your dream fishing trip involves big (I mean 40 inches or longer) northern pike, this is a great place to consider.

Being so far north (above 58˚ N Latitude), on a wide open lake (over 175 miles long, and over 30 miles wide in places), we had to pay close attention to volatile weather conditions as we sought out fish in sheltered back channels and bays. Sudden winds could whip the waves into whitecap conditions. Fortunately, we were with seasoned guides, who had top-notch aluminum fishing boats. They taught me a few good tips to keep in mind when boating in waters that can change abruptly.

1. Always know the weather forecast. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. If it looks like it will be a rough day, remember that prudence trumps valor… play it smart and stay ashore if you have doubts.

2. Always wear a Personal Floatation Device.

3. If you’re running an outboard motor, make sure it has a kill switch, and you wear the tether cord around your wrist. Getting knocked out of your boat by an unexpected bump is bad… watching your boat cruise away after that happens is worse.

4. Have spare clothes, food, fresh water, matches, a flashlight, and a radio secured in a dry box, or dry bag.

5. Tell people where you are going, and when you expect to be back at the dock. If you are overdue, you’ll want others to know where to look for you.

6. Wear rain gear, even if it’s sunny outside. Getting soaked by a rogue wave will leave you uncomfortable. And once something (or someone) gets wet, they almost never dry out on the boat.

7. Control your speed. Slow down in bigger waves; it makes no sense to jar your body running through bumpy water at high speed.

8. Watch the wave action as you drive. Ideally, you point the bow into the waves or “surf” the downwind swells… but you want to control your throttle so you don’t jump the waves (going against them), or plow the bow into another downwind wave with the predominant swell at your back.

9. Be very careful of angles… you want to avoid waves hitting your boat broadside, and never want to be perpendicular to the swell.

10. If your passengers are feeling a bumpy ride, have them face backward in the boat. It’s much less jarring when you are not facing the chop.

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Kirk Deeter

Kirk Deeter

Kirk Deeter is an editor-at-large with Field & Stream, and he co-wrote The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing with the late Charlie Meyers.