August 2011

Reading the waves

Handling your boat on the open ocean

When you can read the waves, you have a better chance of navigating them safely.

At the helm, your job is to pick a path between and around steeper waves to minimize their impact on your vessel. As seas build, use steering and throttle to work around them.

Head seas

Taking seas head on can be harmful to the boat and crew. Instead, take steep waves at a 30 to 45 degree angle off the bow. This minimizes the chances of burying the bow at the base of the next wave. By taking a path across the wave fronts, you spread out the peaks and flatten the slope the boat encounters.

If the seas are high enough, you may be forced to take them head on. When this happens, slow down as you meet the wave. Use throttle to meet and go over the top. As your bow clears the peak, throttle down so you don’t accelerate down the wave’s back side.

Beam waves

Beam waves come at the side of the boat and can lead to excessive rolling or yawing depending on their size. They can also cause you to lose control. The best method for handling a beam sea is to take the waves at a 45 degree angle, which means you may have to run a zigzag course to reach your destination.

Following seas

Waves coming from the stern are called following seas. This situation appears more benign than heading into the waves because you are moving with the wind and riding on the smooth side, rather than the steep side, of the waves; however, if the boat goes over the wave, a steep drop could cause the bow to dig in the trough and the following wave to push the stern sideways, in turn creating a broach.

In following seas, it’s best to ride on the back of a wave, moderating your speed to stay there. If you can’t maintain position, let the wave break behind you and flow under the boat. Be careful if your boat has a low transom; the following wave might overtake and swamp the boat.

Learn more about boat handling by taking the Seamanship course at a squadron near you.


Lime green insulated tote keeps food and drinks at the right temperature.

Mastering Marlinespike

Japanese success knot

This knot derives its name from its final configuration as a cross on one side and a rough square on the other, which form the Japanese word kanau, meaning “desire realized.”


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