Staying Safe In Heavy Weather

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Hard-won advice from a search-and-rescue expert on staying safe when the weather kicks up.

Taking waves at about a 45-degree angle to the bow, as this boat is doing, is the safest and most comfortable way to navigate large waves. (Photo: Albert Bartkus)

A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it’s not always the fastest, safest, or most comfortable route. One cold, windy day as I patrolled Lake Meredith in the Texas Panhandle, I received a report of a small boat drifting about eight miles away. Lake Meredith is a long lake and the wind was blowing hard at a slight angle across the water and toward me.

Battling the fierce head sea, it would take me almost an hour to reach the disabled craft, and the ranger who reported the problem doubted a rescue could be made before the boat crashed into the leeward shore. After evaluating the situation, I turned beam to the sea and crossed the lake. Once in the shelter of the windward shoreline, I cruised in nearly calm water to a point above the disabled vessel. Running with the waves, I swooped in and made the rescue. Although I had traveled farther than if I had taken a direct route, I completed the rescue in less than 30 minutes.

Handling heavy weather in small boats means paying attention to conditions and using whatever advantages you have to protect the boat from the waves. It’s safest to take the waves on the bow, operate near the windward shore, and stay away from the leeward shore.

But the skipper must be prepared to manage the boat in all three basic sea conditions — head seas, beam seas, and following seas. Each has its own characteristics and dangers. Each requires different operational maneuvers and techniques.

Head Seas

When you’re taking the waves on your bow, you’re running into a head sea. This usually poses little danger to the average powerboat. However, open-bow boats (referred to by lake-patrol rangers as “water scoops”) are at greater risk than closed-bow boats. Most small, open-bow or low-freeboard boats should not be operated in heavy weather on large bodies of water at all. Larger vessels have a bow designed to meet waves. With an experienced skipper, they can safely handle moderate to severe conditions so long as the boat is trimmed (leveled) properly and operated at an appropriate speed. When trimming the boat, pay attention to the center of gravity, at the bow, the stern, the trim, and list. Here’s how:

Trim the boat so it’s flat:

A bow trimmed too low will cause the boat to plow through the water and plunge into and under oncoming waves, giving everyone a wet ride while taking on dangerous amounts of water. A bow trimmed too high may provide a drier ride, but the boat will pound and be very uncomfortable. The stern, already a vulnerable area, will be even lower in the water than normal. Engine trim should be adjusted so the props don’t cavitate as the boat pitches, rolls, or makes sharp maneuvers through breaking waves. Generally, this means the outboard or outdrives should be in the full down position. Prevent list: Canting from side to side, or listing, reduces stability and is very dangerous. Vessels equipped with adjustable trim tabs or planes and engine trim provide the operator with options for improving the boat’s ride and performance in heavy seas. As a general rule, trim tabs should be set so the vessel rides as level as possible.


Lower center of gravity:

Passengers and heavy objects should be moved to the center of the vessel to lower the center of gravity and increase stability. Gas cans, ice chests, and heavy gear need to be secured to prevent loose items from tumbling about and causing injury. In heavy weather, there’s enough to worry about without dodging flying gas cans. Even a well-trimmed boat can get into trouble if it isn’t operated at a proper speed for the conditions. Almost everyone tries to go too fast. Pounding is hard on the vessel and crew and should be avoided. One boat I saw that had been operated on a choppy day for only a few hours by an inexperienced Park Service employee looked as if it had been in combat. Pounding through waves had stripped screws and loosened the cabin bulkhead; the dash was held in place only by the instrument wiring. Heavy-weather boating is displacement boating. Don’t even think about getting up on plane. Never go fast enough to fly through the wave crests or cause the props to clear the water. Too much speed can result in the bow plunging under waves as the vessel pitches over the crest into a trough. I’ve seen good, seaworthy boats flooded or sunk because the operator didn’t slow down and let the bow rise with each wave. The bigger the chop, the slower the speed. Operating in head seas requires constant tending of the helm and throttle to allow the boat to ride up and down with each wave. Slow down and angle into and through each crest, then resume course and speed up. If your prop comes out of the water as you pitch over a crest, throttle back to avoid racing the engine. In choppy seas over four feet, you will just barely make headway when meeting the seas on your bow.

One of my worst experiences with a head sea occurred one winter day when I was dispatched to rescue a sinking vessel in the main body of the lake. I headed out of a protected cove into the largest combers I’d ever seen (a comber is a large wave that has reached its peak and broken into foam). As each successive wave struck, it buried the forward half of the boat in swirling, foaming water. In those conditions, I could not continue meeting the waves head on. Instead, I began tacking into the seas, zigzagging to take the waves on the bow quarters. Taking the waves at an angle converts some of the severe pitching motion to rolling motion, giving a more comfortable ride at a slightly faster speed. To tack in a head sea, select a course that meets the seas at an angle of about 45 degrees. After traveling in one direction for a while, change direction 90 degrees to take the seas at roughly 45 degrees from the other side. How long you stay on one course before changing direction to the other angle is a judgment call. Because turning in high seas presents some risk and requires an alert, skillful operator, travel as far as you can in one direction before changing course.

The Art Of “Heave To”

There can come a point when the seas grow so large that it’s no longer safe to try to make headway. When this happens, you can “heave to.” Head into the waves, reduce speed while maintaining steerageway, and hold your position. Heaving to under power allows you to wait for the storm to pass while taking the seas from a relatively safe direction. This survival technique will reduce pitching and reduce or eliminate rolling, the motion that frequently causes seasickness. As one wit put it, “Heave to or your crew will heave, too!”

Head Seas: If your destination is upwind, tack into the head sea by traveling at 45 degrees to the waves and then changing direction 90 degrees to take the seas at 45 degrees from the other side. Beam Seas: If your destination puts the wind and waves on the beam, tacking is still the safest approach, but in this case take the seas on your bow quarter and then change course approximately 90 degrees to take the seas on your stern quarter.

I have not often had to heave to. Once, however, when operating during a storm at night near a shoreline with reefs, I decided it was better to heave to than risk going aground. After the storm passed, I reestablished my position and again made headway. Gerry Spiess tells of a similar experience in the book Alone Against the Atlantic that he wrote with Marlin Bree. He was under power on White Bear Lake, Minnesota, testing his sailboat Yankee Girl in a lake storm before attempting a North Atlantic crossing. After some difficulty bringing down the sails in screaming wind and pouring rain, Spiess scrambled into the safety of the boat’s cabin and hove to. He says, “I needed power to maintain my position in the center of the lake. I headed Yankee Girl directly into the jaws of the wind. We seemed to be blowing backwards, so I turned the throttle up to three-quarters power. Even with the added boost, Yankee Girl made barely enough speed to give us steerageway. Still, she was holding her own.”

Beam Seas

In a beam sea, the vessel is broadside to oncoming waves. These waves strike the craft’s sides and cause it to roll from side to side. The effect of a beam sea depends on the vessel: its width, how top-heavy it is, its freeboard, and hull design. Beam seas cause two problems. First, the rolling motion is very uncomfortable for passengers and crew. Second, when wave height equals or exceeds boat width, there’s a very real danger of capsizing. In my 21-foot patrol boat, I avoid taking the sea on the beam any time the waves are higher than four to five feet.

Even though an experienced helmsman can operate a large boat in a moderate beam sea, successful maneuvering requires constant attention. The operator must watch for big waves and turn to meet them on the forward quarter. At this point it’s a good idea to get the seas off your beam by using the zigzag-tacking maneuver described in the last section. When you tack in a head sea, you angle into the wind, taking the sea first on one side of the bow and then the other. When you tack in a beam sea, you angle first into the wind and then angle away from the wind.

First take the seas on your bow quarter, then change course approximately 90 degrees to take the seas on your stern quarter, but beware, there are special risks and steps to take when the seas are on your quarter, as we’ll discuss below. In most cases you should make the tacks as long as possible and be extra vigilant when the seas are on the stern quarter. A combination of slowing and turning to meet the waves at an angle will reduce your risk of capsizing. Tacking is a slow way to get where you’re going, but it’s more comfortable and safer than being hammered on the beam.

Following Seas

In a following sea, both the vessel and waves move in the same direction. If the waves are moderate, a following sea presents only a small risk for larger powerdriven craft. But one Coast Guard manual warns boat operators that running before heavy seas is potentially their most dangerous option because it can easily lead to broaching or pitchpoling (see illustrations). Handling following seas requires careful attention by the helmsman and constant use of throttle and rudder. Should you find yourself in this dangerous position, try to stay on the backside of a wave through controlled use of power. Surfing down the front of a wave will cause the bow to bury into the trough and could lead to pitchpoling (see illustration). If you find yourself racing down the front of a wave, immediately throttle back. Should the stern start to yaw, counter this tendency by turning slightly to that side. Correct a sideslip as soon as it happens, or the boat could broach — turn sideways to the waves — and get rolled (see illustration). Most small planing boats are capable of going faster than the waves and can easily stay on the back of a wave.

In a following sea, the danger is that the boat will be pitchpoled or broached.

Displacement vessels, such as sailboats under power and houseboats, may not be able to outrun the waves. When the seas are going faster than you are, slow down as the following wave approaches and let the wave pass quickly under the boat, then increase power and chase it until the next wave approaches. And never, never stop in a following sea. When a boat stops, the wave following it hits the transom and splashes up and over into the boat. One big wave can swamp a small boat. The next wave can capsize or sink it. Many seamanship texts devote several pages to turning in heavy seas, but for most inland boaters it’s rarely that big a deal. For the majority of small power-driven boats in heavy weather, a smartly executed maneuver is all that’s required. In extreme conditions, however, it’s important to avoid being caught broadside to the seas, which can lead to a rollover. The critical factor is timing. As your vessel comes up on a crest, put the helm over hard and punctuate the turn with a burst of power. With most small boats, this will bring you about quickly enough to avoid a rollover.

Having issued these words of warning, I must stress that most boats are seaworthy. You’re safer than you think! In almost all cases, your vessel will be able to ride out even the worst of storms. There are many stories of disabled boats being found, while the passengers and crew that abandoned them during a storm were never seen again.

Final Safety Tips

  • Wear a properly fitted life jacket.
  • Avoid operating small boats with open bows, low freeboard, or shallow transoms in heavy weather.
  • Adjust trim and lower the center of gravity.
  • Place crew and heavy objects near the center of the boat and as low as possible.
  • Take the waves on the bow if you can.
  • Head for the nearest windward shore when caught by a storm. Remember: It is much better to spend the night in a protected cove or on a windward shore than to never make it home at all.

— Chris Landers

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