Small Craft Advisories and Boating Safety

47-FT. MOTOR LIFE BOAT IN THE SURF (FOR RELEASE)

Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat practicing surf drills in 25-foot waves. Search and rescue coxwains train in surf conditions to maintain proficiency in heavy weather. (USCG photo by BM1 Christopher Enoksen)

Recently, the Compass received a comment asking what a small craft advisory means and what size of boats are considered small crafts. This is an interesting question, but it doesn’t have a real straight forward answer.

For one thing, there isn’t an exact definition for a Small Craft Advisory (SCA). The advisory is based on the weather and sea conditions in a specific geographic area rather than on the size and type of boat. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service (NOAA NWS), “Any vessel that may be adversely affected by Small Craft Advisory criteria should be considered a small craft.” The NWS generally defines the criteria for SCA’s, which vary greatly across the nation, in six different geographic regions (click here for more information).

  • Eastern (ME to SC, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario) – Sustained winds or frequent gusts between 25-33 knots (with some exceptions for harbors/bays) and/or seas or waves 5 to 7 feet and greater, area dependent.
  • Central (MN to OH) – Sustained winds or frequent gusts between 22-33 knots inclusive, and/or seas or waves greater than 4 feet.
  • Southern (GA to TX and Caribbean) – Sustained winds of 20-33 knots, and/or forecast seas 7 feet or greater that are expected for more than 2 hours.
  • Western (WA to CA) – Sustained winds of 21-33 knots, and/or wave heights exceeding 10 feet.
  • Alaska (AK) – Sustained winds or frequent gusts of 23-33 knots. A small craft advisory for rough seas may be issued for sea/wave conditions deemed locally significant.
  • Pacific (HI, Guam, etc) – Sustained winds 25 knots or greater and seas 10 feet or greater; except in Guam and the northern Mariana Islands where it is sustained winds 22-33 knots and/or combined seas of 10 feet or greater.

Beyond following the SCA for your area, another great resource is the National Buoy Data Center. You can look up the weather conditions at thousands of navigational buoys all over the world. You can find out about winds, wave height, wave direction, wave duration, air temperature, and water temperature.

Petty Officer Kevinn Smith demonstrates to a class of students and their parents the importance of wearing the proper sized life jacket. (USCG photo by Petty Officer Gail Sinner)

Petty Officer Kevinn Smith demonstrates to a class of students and their parents the importance of wearing the proper sized life jacket. (USCG photo by Petty Officer Gail Sinner)

On another note, the sea is a dangerous and unforgiving place where people and boats are dwarfed by its power and immensity. The Coast Guard recommends that boaters take steps to be prepared for whatever the ocean throws at them, which isn’t limited to just weather conditions.

Several factors should be weighted before ever leaving the dock. The experience levels of the boat operator and crew; the condition, size and type of the boat; the navigational route; the distance off shore; time of day; endurance; and other factors all come into play when considering a vessel’s risk when boating.

In the Coast Guard, crews conduct a risk assessment to help them understand and prepare for operational risks before getting underway. Typically, they use the Green-Amber-Red (GAR) model to calculate a risk score. You should also use good judgment and follow your intuition. Don’t go into a situation that you are unsure of or uncomfortable with.

Guardians Chris Wrightson, Aaron Smith, Eli Stewart and Travis McMichael conduct a Green, Amber, Red (GAR) model prior to getting underway. (Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey Ranel)

Guardians Chris Wrightson, Aaron Smith, Eli Stewart and Travis McMichael conduct a Green, Amber, Red (GAR) model prior to getting underway. (Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey Ranel)

Hand-in-hand with a risk assessment, boaters must be self-equipped and able to help themselves until help arrives. They should carry a VHF radio, use navigational charts and equipment, file a float plan and, most importantly, ensure everyone onboard is wearing a lifejacket. Mariners must help rescuers help them in an emergency by being prepared for the worse-case scenario.

For more information on boating safety, regulations, boating courses, free vessel safety checks, and more, head over to the Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Resource Center.

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