A waterspout is a funnel that forms over the water. Waterspouts are much weaker than twisters over the land. When the funnel stretches from the thunderstorm into the ocean or lake, water is the debris that flies in every direction. However, if something like a ship is on the surface of the water then there could be a real threat to the boat. Waterspouts occasionally move inland where their power and danger level increase to that of its viciously twisted sister, the tornado.
What’s happening over the water? Left is one of the better images yet recorded of a waterspout, a type of tornado that occurs over water. Waterspouts are spinning columns of rising moist air that typically form over warm water. Waterspouts can be as dangerous as tornadoes and can feature wind speeds over 200 kilometers per hour. Many waterspouts form away from thunderstorms and even during relatively fair weather. Waterspouts may be relatively transparent and initially visible only by the unusual pattern they create on the water. The above image was taken in 1969 from an aircraft off the Florida Keys, a location arguably the hottest spot for waterspouts in the world with hundreds forming each year. Some people speculate that these waterspouts are responsible for many of the losses recorded in the Bermuda Triangle region of the Atlantic Ocean. Nasa.gov photo credit: Joseph Golden, NOAA
Like folks spellbound by a tornado, people on beaches stand and stare as opposed to dashing for safety. The same awestruck curiosity occurs to some sailors on boats or ships. Once a waterspout forms, it could easily work like a supercell over the land where multiple twisters are spawned. If a waterspout were about to collide with your boat, your best bet might be diving underwater but even that is not guaranteed to save your life. Although you would manage to avoid the debris in the air, not enough is known about the vortex in the water. If could be safe or it could be like diving into the vortex of a maelstrom . . . a death sentence.
A person would need to be far above the water level, such as in a plane or on a mountain, to see the first sign of a waterspout. It starts as a dark spot forming on the ocean. The second phase still could not be seen from a ship, but could perhaps could be felt as the wind shifts and speeds up. If a person on a boat happened to look up at the cloud above when sensing the change in the wind, that person might notice a funnel forming in the clouds even though the vortex on the water’s surface is not clearly visible. As the winds increases, the spray is visible from the vortex on the ocean surface. When a waterspout is fully matured, anyone with eyes to see can watch the funnel reach from the cloud to dip and twist into the water. They also hiss and suck at the water instead of the rumbling growl of a twister on land.
*Waterspouts can also form over lakes or rivers, but are most commonly seen over the ocean. They suck up the water in their path, billowing a water spray like a mushroom cloud against the water surface. Waterspouts can range in size from several feet to more than a mile high, and their width can vary from a few feet to hundreds of feet. It is not uncommon to see more than one water-twister at a time. Some ships have reported seeing as many as 30 waterspouts in a single day.
*Many have been spotted over the Great Lakes.