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Boating in Rough Seas


While we all prefer to be on the water when the seas are nice and calm, we sometimes find ourselves traveling in rough waters. Conditions can change quickly while you’re out on the water, but these handy tips will help you get back to the dock more easily.


Most importantly, always be weather aware, file a float plan, and review this safety check list 
before you leave the dock, no matter the weather conditions. If the water is already unfavorable, or there is a high chance a storm system will roll in before you return, consider staying at port that day. Remember, safety should always be your top priority.


In all conditions take into consideration the size of your boat, which will affect the way it handles the waves. Also, keep your hands on both the wheel and the throttle so you can constantly adjust your direction and the speed of the boat with the waves.


If you’re traveling in rough water, you’ll also want to remember that going against the waves or quartering the seas (zig zagging) can increase your fuel consumption, so be sure you have enough fuel to get where you are going and then back to the dock.


Traveling Down Sea (you are moving in the same direction as the waves which are coming at the stern of the boat)
If you have the luxury of taking your time, don’t push the boat too fast. Keep it close to idle and let the waves move the boat forward. If you need to travel faster, for example to get back before dark or before a storm arrives, use your trim tabs to bring the bow of the boat up and ride the back of the waves (do not get on the front of a wave). Ride the wave on the back end until it dies, then pick up the back end of the next wave.


Traveling Up Sea (you are driving into the waves that are coming at your bow)
If the waves are close together or tight, get your boat on plane and ride on top of the waves. Here is where the size of your boat will come into play. Smaller boats would need tighter waves and larger boats perform better when the waves are spread farther apart because of the boat’s added length. In tight waves, if you’re on plane and still getting wet, adjust your bow down just a little with your trim tabs. If the waves are more spread out, manage the throttle so that when you go down the front of the wave, you slow down enough before crashing into the next. If you “catch air,” you need to reduce your speed.


Side Seas (when the waves are coming at the port or starboard side of the boat) These are the most difficult to traverse. If you are caught in a side sea, work to stay down in the trough of the waves vs. the tops. This is a situation where taking a quartering sea approach may be best.


Quartering the Seas (waves are coming toward the side of the boat at an angle of about 45 degrees)
If the waves are too rough in any of the situations listed above, you may want to consider altering your course where the waves are in a quartering sea position. You can still reach your destination by taking the quartering sea approach and zig zagging back and forth. This prevents the waves from coming directly at or behind the boat and allows you to travel faster without the worry of stuffing the bow into a wave or having a wave come over the transom.


Another option that should be mentioned is to alter your course around a storm or go to another port that’s in a better direction for the way the seas are rolling versus going back to your previous location.


For more information, review this article about how to travel safely in rough water.


*Boating tips on the Grady-White website are intended to help you recall techniques you have used or been instructed on previously. If you are new to boating, we strongly suggest you take a boating course. You can find boating course information here.


Sign up for boating courses through the United States Power Squadron. 


Sign up for a boating course in your state.