Know When To Get Off The Lake
By Lenny Rudow
For her 12th birthday, my daughter asked me for a present I was ecstatic to give: a daddy-daughter fishing trip at St. Mary's Lake. But our enthusiasm took a hit when checking the weather forecast the night before, which foretold of a 50-percent chance of rain showers throughout the day. Undeterred at five o'clock in the morning, we hitched our 14-foot reservoir runner and made the two-hour trek down the road. And although it wasn't raining when we arrived at the boat ramp, we sat in the truck and waited. Ten minutes later, the downpour began — but armed with modern technology, I knew we could wait out this bad weather.
After a few minutes, the clouds broke, we launched our boat, and had one of the most pleasant mornings afloat that either of us could remember. Until, that is, the rain returned. Fortunately, by the time that liquid sunshine was dropping again, we were back in the truck, warm and dry, snacking on chips and pretzels while we had a friendly argument over who'd caught the most crappie, bass, and pickerel. But we didn't call it a day. Once again, I knew the rain would be short-lived so we stayed and waited. And within half an hour, we were back out on the lake, trying to out-cast and out-catch one another.
The secret to my weather-predicting prowess? It's no secret at all — in fact, chances are, the main ingredient is in your pocket or hanging on your belt at this very moment. Thanks to modern smartphones, all it takes is a good weather app to become an accurate on-the-spot forecaster. Choose the right one, and you'll never again stand at the boat ramp and wonder if you really should launch; you'll never again stare at those dark clouds from the middle of the lake and wonder if you need to run for shelter. You'll know the answer, for sure.
There are countless weather forecasting apps out there, and all are not created equal. When choosing one, there are several key factors to bear in mind. First off, make sure the one you're looking at covers the area(s) you trailer to regularly. Some apps only cover specific regions, and some others cover a specific region or area for free, but you have to pay to get complete coverage.
Another key feature is access to current Doppler radar images. Many simple apps (or simple versions of apps that can be upgraded for a fee) merely give you text-based predictions with pretty graphics. Usually that's going to be based on the same data you got at home, hours ago, watching the weatherman on TV — and that doesn't cut it for on-the-spot decision making. In fact, static Doppler alone still isn't good enough. In order to make decisions on the water and at the ramp, you really need to watch animated Doppler images that show the track and speed of rain and storms, with a history of at least half an hour and updates every five to 15 minutes.
As we all know, one of the biggest dangers to boaters who are out in iffy weather is lightning — when a billion volts of electricity blast through the atmosphere at 60,000 miles per second, you and your boat should be long gone. Some of the better weather apps will show lightning strikes on-screen, and some can also be set to "push" alerts to dangerous conditions, watches, and warnings, via an audible alarm, even when the app isn't activated. On those days when lightning is a factor, remember that it can reach out quite a distance from a storm and you'll need to plan to get off the water well in advance. In fact, as an electrical charge searches for a path through the sky, it commonly travels as much as eight to 10 miles, and 30 percent of the people who have been struck by lightning report that it happened before the clouds moved over them. So obviously, you'll want an app that gives you a heads-up when the atmosphere heats up.
Wind speed is another piece of information that can come in quite handy. The passing of a front can turn a light breeze into vicious gusts, and if an approaching cloud line is going to cause that kind of change, you'll certainly want to know about it. Some apps include frequently updated wind data, some include wind forecasts that may be out of date by the time you see them, and some don't include wind at all.
So choose carefully — that's information you'll surely want to have when you're sitting at the boat ramp in your truck, with your daughter by your side, waiting for the return of calm weather.
5 Top Picks
Peruse the App Store or Android Marketplace and you'll find plenty to choose from, but here are some of our top picks, which you can download onto your phone with a swipe of your finger:
The Weather Channel
One of the most common weather apps around — this summer, it surpassed 10 million downloads — which shouldn't be surprising because we're all used to watching The Weather Channel on TV. It is available on iPhones, Androids, Blackberries, and also Kindle Fire. The Weather Channel places a bit more focus on the interface than most other apps, with nice backgrounds, graphics, and icons. But it's not all for appearance's sake; using the app is very intuitive, and the use of Google mobile maps makes navigating on-screen easy. And of course we love the fact that the basic (and free) version includes animated weather maps. Lightning strikes aren't indicated by location on the map, but are identified as "in your area" on the screen. The app also includes ads. Hey, they have to pay for it somehow.
To get more advanced info, you'll need the $3.99 upgrade to the MAX version. This adds some detailed localized forecasting for the immediate weather headed your way in the next six hours, breaking it down into 15-minute increments. It also adds an extensive list of broad-based mapping features, ranging from snow forecasts to coastal marine forecasts.
A top choice for many trailer boaters; it's available for both iPhone and Android platforms, it covers the entire continental U.S., has both GPS-based and point-and-touch location options, can be set to alert you to severe weather even when the app isn't activated, includes radar, and includes National Weather Service data. Unlike most other apps, however, Weatherbug also provides data from thousands of additional weather stations, which they call the Weatherbug Network. Just how helpful this will be to you in particular depends on where you usually do your boating.
Though the basic Weatherbug app is helpful (and free), if you're going to depend on the service to make on-the-water decisions, you'll really need to upgrade to their better version: Weatherbug Elite ($1.99). This version enables radar animation — a must-have — and adds a few other key features including lightning tracking (which includes distance to strikes in miles based on GPS positioning), humidity information, barometric pressure data, and wind speeds. Oh, and it also does away with the pesky ads that can show up on the lesser version.
Weather Undergroundis another extremely popular app for both iPhone and Android, and with good reason: Even the free version ($1.99, if you want to skip the ads) includes perks like animated radar (on their "Wundermap"), severe weather alerts, and forecasts out to seven days. Current wind speed is displayed as well; however, its data comes from the "nearest local station," which may be far enough away that the information isn't 100-percent on-target. That said, we've found in the past that Weather Underground's predictions often seem to be a step ahead of many of the other weather services around.
This app doesn't give you the full capabilities of these other weather apps, but it's a good addition to other weather apps because it displays near-real-time strikes in high resolution on iPhones, iPads, and the iPod Touch. It also animates Doppler radar. While it doesn't guarantee a time frame for lightning strike updates, the system is based on the North American Precision Lightning Network sensors, so it should be pretty darn quick. Cost is $5.99.
BluefinA free app for coastal and Great Lakes area boaters who carry either Androids or i-thingies, though it won't be of much use for those who do their boating farther inland. It includes animated Doppler, wave heights, wind speeds, and tide data, but no lightning data. Two things it offers that are hard to find among other apps are the live buoy data reports and SST (sea surface water temperature) data. As usual, pony up ($2.99) to get rid of the ads.
Award-winning writer Lenny Rudow is BoatUS Magazine's electronics editor, senior editor for www.Boats.com, and the author of several popular books on fishing.
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Other Options for Instant Weather Data
You say you don't have a smartphone? It's really time to move out of that cave, and join the rest of the real world. Until then, the lack of a pocket communicator can be partially filled with these other instant weather data options.
- Satellite Weather — Sirius/XM satellite radio also broadcasts weather data, and if you have a modern chartplotter at the helm, getting it on-screen is as easy as mounting a receiver ($100 to $500 depending on brand) and paying the monthly activation fee (which ranges from about $13/month to $50/month, depending on what level of service you choose). This will get you all of the info the best apps provide, and overlay the animations right on your chartplotter's screen. If you don't have a chartplotter on your boat but you do have a Sirius/XM-capable radio, you can tune in to one of the dozen weather stations, and receive weather warnings and alerts.
- Lightning Detectors — There are several handheld, portable lightning detectors on the market, and although these won't keep you dry or out of the wind, they could prevent tragedy. An inexpensive option is the $80 StrikeAlert (www.strikealert.com), which lights up an LED whenever lightning strikes within 40 miles. The blinking light tells you if the strike was 20 to 40, 12 to 24, six to 12, or within six miles.lerts.
- Another choice is the $175 SkyScan (www.skyscanusa.com), which displays a rising column of light to tell you the distance of a strike. It breaks down the distance into smaller increments, detects out to 40 miles, and the manufacturer claims it's accurate 97 percent of the time to within one to two miles.