Taking your sailboat or powerboat into the open sea can be an exhilarating experience. But what happens when your peaceful journey is threatened by large waves? Waves behave in unpredictable ways due to varying water depths, opposing currents and weather conditions. When boating alone or with friends, it is the skipper's responsibility to safely navigate his boat through any kind of weather and sea condition. Be prepared for the possibility of large waves before you head out to sea.
Understand the difference between large, rolling swells and choppy breaker waves. Swells are waves independent of the wind. Swells last way beyond a windy climate because they have moved away from where they originated. A choppy, breaking wave happens at sea when two waves combine forces. The base cannot support the top of the wave and it collapses. These are considered dangerous waves and can capsize a boat. When a wave with a height equal to or greater than 60 percent of the length of your boat hits, you will quickly need to call upon your boating expertise.
Plan for your excursion up to a week before going out to sea. Follow weather reports, such as The National Boating Weather Report, online. Pay attention to all the conditions -- wind speed, temperature of the water, visibility and more. Notice if there are any sudden shifts in wind patterns, which can foster large waves and makes boating more difficult.
Avoid shallow water and going upwind in large waves. Plan on going upwind before the winds escalate and then sail downward as larger waves form. Try creating smaller waves by using the land to your benefit. The natural shelter of land will shield your boat from harsher waves. However, be mindful of narrow entrances to a harbor. You need to be sure you can safely clear the entrance while navigating the weather and your boat. The risks of boating in shallow water include a wild ride for your passengers and the creation of unnecessary breaker waves. Not only can your boat scrape the ground in shallow waters, breakers can be more destructive to your boat than if you were further out at sea.
Pay attention to the broad area of sea and eliminate any distractions. Refrain from concentrating on one area, just as you would while driving a vehicle. To accurately predict what the waves will do, a skipper must be able to navigate the whole picture -- waves, weather and boat -- simultaneously.
Turn into the waves if you feel the boat being pushed sideways or backward. Hit the top of the wave at a right angle with the boat and head off again just as the top reaches the bow. This minimizes the area where the waves are pushing. Navigate your boat at an angle to prevent it from slamming into the waves.
Help keep a sailboat stable by increasing the drag of the water toward the back of the boat. According to Andrew Claughton, author of Heavy Weather Sailing, boaters can create a small drag by "running warps, or loops of lines secured on the port primary winch, into the water off the stern, then looping back and securing it to the starboard winch." If this does not work, use the drogue, a cone-shaped device attached to the rode. Next, attach the rode to a bridle, which is the line from one port winch, into the water, and attached to the starboard cleat. This will help steer the boat and reduce the wave load.
Add a sail, on a two-mast boat, to the aft mass. This second sail acts as a weather vane and will keep the sail pointed into the wind.
Tips & Warnings
- Determine the height of the waves. Stand where the steering takes place and figure out how many inches your eye is above the water. This gives you an idea of how big the waves are.
- Never go out in water that is already deemed dangerous.
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