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PA Boating Handbook
Dams / Weather

Low-head dam illustrationDams on our rivers aid navigation, produce power and prevent flooding. Keep away from dams! Dangerous currents above the structure can draw boats into water going over or through a dam. Areas below a dam are also extremely hazardous to boats because of strong recirculating currents and turbulent waters.

The most dangerous hazard on a river is a low-head dam. There are hundreds of such dams on rivers and streams throughout Pennsylvania, and they are true “drowning machines.”

Low-head damWater going over a dam creates a back current or undertow that can pull a boat into the turbulence and capsize it. This hydraulic can trap and hold a person or boat. Many dams are not marked and are almost impossible to see from upstream.

State law requires that many low-head dams in the Commonwealth be marked with signs and, when practical, buoys upstream and downstream from these dangerous structures. The signs detail restrictions for boating, swimming and wading, and hazards posed by the dam. Restrictions are enforced by PFBC Waterways Conservation Officers. Dams must be avoided and may be located by checking water trail guides, other maps and on PFBC’s website (water trailshazards on the water).


Weather can cause boaters problems. Having a mishap in cold water or in a remote area can result in hypothermia or other problems. Getting caught in a storm can have very serious consequences. Never underestimate the weather.

Factors that determine weather conditions can be observed and measured. They include temperature, barometric pressure and wind. Weather affects the condition of open water and can change suddenly. Check local forecasts the night before going boating and again in the morning. The National Weather Service typically issues a new marine forecast every six hours on designated VHF radio channels.

Signs that dangerous weather may be approaching include:

  • Clouds gathering, darkening and increasing in size.
  • A sudden temperature drop, a rapid wind shift or change in speed.
  • Static on the AM band of the radio may indicate an approaching thunderstorm.
  • A drop in the barometric pressure (check a barometer).


In a small boat, put on your life jacket and head for the nearest shore. Beach your boat and find shelter on the downwind (leeward) side of the land.

In a large boat, put on your life jacket, start your engine or secure your sails (whichever is applicable). Stow anything that is unnecessary. Secure your dinghy (if you have one) and turn on your running lights. Close up the boat and decide what to do. If land is near, head for it. If not, you may have to ride out the storm. Do so by keeping your bow (front) headed into the waves, wind and/or current. If your motor fails, a sea anchor on a line from the bow will keep the boat into the waves. A bucket will work as a sea anchor in an emergency.

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