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September 08, 2011

Rough Water Boating Tips

When you find yourself in big seas offshore, follow these tips to get home safely

Unless you’ve got 50-plus feet of fiberglass underneath you, you’re not immune. Run offshore this time of year and sooner or later you’re going to get caught in high winds, big seas or both. Large sport-fishing convertibles have the length and beam to handle the slop. But small to mid-size vessels are at greater mercy. If you slow down and drive accordingly, potentially hazardous situations can be avoided.

“In the summertime, sooner or later you’re going to have a big line of thunderstorms, 40-knot winds and 6- to 8-foot seas between you and the dock,” explains Marcus Kennedy, a tournament regular on the Yamaha professional tour. “Novice boaters don’t realize that and they panic and don’t know what to do. But all it takes is common sense in those situations. If you tack like a sailboat with quartering waves off the bow or stern, you’ll have a better ride and make better time. Safety is always paramount.”

Kennedy, who fishes a Yellowfin 36 center console from Dauphin Island, Alabama, often makes long runs to find fish in adverse seas. During a recent out-of-town king mackerel event, he ran 100 miles down Florida’s Gulf Coast to take advantage of calmer nearshore water before angling out to the Dry Tortugas. The final southwest track let him run in a favorable trough.

“You want to plan your route to optimize the boat’s running angle with the sea conditions,” Kennedy says. “Avoid a dead-head or beam sea whenever you can because it’s nearly impossible to make any headway. During tournaments we partner with another boat and stay in sight or radio contact in case of emergencies. And you should always carry twice as much fuel as you think you’ll need. Rough water gulps the gas.”

Capt. Frank Crescitelli, a New York charter captain and tournament contestant, faces similar conditions off the Atlantic seaboard during the summer months. A run from New Jersey’s Long Beach Island to the Hudson Canyon is 96 miles. Heading south to the Baltimore Canyon is a 92-mile leg, and Crescitelli often targets bluefin tuna out to 40 miles.

“I never head out if I know I’ll have two rough rides,” he says. “Our prevailing summer wind is southwest and I can deal with that one way. But I always plan on the possibility of deviating from my course if necessary. I’d rather zigzag or return to a different port if it means a smoother, safer ride.” Crescitelli runs a Regulator 32 center-console for his offshore charters, and radar is an essential part of its onboard equipment.

“I check the forecast beforehand and constantly monitor the radar and Sirius weather during the day,” he says. “I avoid storms whenever possible. My radar has a 50-mile range, so that gives me plenty of time to react. But I always know the compass heading home in case we lose electronics or have electrical interference.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is running directly for the dock whenever a storm blows up,” Crescitelli adds. “But sometimes it’s better just to ride it out. Most of these summer storms are fast moving, so if you make slow forward headway keeping the bow into the wind, it’ll often blow right by. Otherwise, it could follow you the whole way home and make for a long, miserable ride.”

Knowing your boat’s performance characteristics is also important, says Capt. Dan Stauffer, who runs charters out of Ocean City, Maryland, aboard a classic 31-foot Bertram with twin diesel engines. Stauffer says his hull handles predictably in rough seas yet is also relatively light for its size. He added 1,000 pounds of lead ballast to help keep the bow from porpoising.

“Two years ago we got caught in honest 10-footers,” he said. “I was standing on the bridge looking eye level at the waves. I’ve also been sandwiched between two storms when the straight-line winds were so strong it stalled the radar. But that doesn’t happen often, maybe only a dozen times a year out of 120 trips. If I can’t get around something, my first reaction is turn into the wind, slow down and idle until it moves on by.

“Some guys never even touch the trim tabs and that always makes me scratch my head,” he added. “It’s all about the tabs. If you tab down in a following sea with certain hulls, you can turn it into a submarine. With my boat, however, I add a little to get that bow down in a head sea so it’s chewing the waves. You have to know how your boat performs under different conditions, and tabs are the great equalizer.”

When Crescitelli encounters rough seas, he has his crew stay nestled in beanbags in the cockpit. He also carries a Winslow life raft aboard, and the emergency ditch bag is tied within reach at the leaning post.

“Don’t ever get into panic mode,” he says. “If you do, you’ll make bad decisions. Things have to be really bad to get out of a 32-footer and into an 8-foot life raft. So I’d rather slow down and safely surf the waves home in the boat, even if it takes more time.”

Safety First

•    Slow down. Slower speeds allow better reaction time. Adjust the throttle to ascend/descend waves to avoid taking on water.
•    Use the trim tabs carefully. Too much down tab can force the bow into oncoming waves, while no tabs allow the hull to plane as designed.
•    Keep an eye on the radar or satellite weather. It’s always easier to go around a storm than through one.
•    Tack into the waves rather than take them head-on, if possible.
•    Alter your course to take advantage of more favorable sea conditions.
•    Carry plenty of fuel.
•    Know the tides and locations of shoals before running an inlet.
•    Wear a life jacket.
•    File a float plan.