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David Pascoe
Many times when we receive a number of emails on a particular subject we will respond with an article like this one. In this case, the subject is boat handing in rough water.

Battleship New Jersey in typhoon. The waves don't look like much until you compare them to the size of the ship. Look closely and you will see that there are waves on top of waves so that there is no uniform wave size.

A number of emails addressed the issue of losing control of the boat while running with the seas. Comments ranged anywhere from concluding that their boat had a dangerous defect, to whether they should have bought a catamaran, to whether they shouldn't be considering some other type of boat that will handle better.

Questions such as this point a problem that we've been long familiar with. That problem is a matter of the lack of fundamental boating skills among far too many boat owners. We resist the urge to chuckle at the question because ultimately this is a serious issue. Taking a boat out into open water is serious business, one that requires a comparable degree of knowledge and skill.

Very often novice boaters head out on nice, calm sunny days only to find that conditions suddenly change.

One of our emails spoke of running down wind in up to six foot seas in a 30 foot cruiser and encountering the problem that the boat "for no overt reason would turn violently into the trough." Clearly what the writer is describing is what is known as "broaching," a condition in which a boat runs down the crest of wave, gathering speed, and as it meets the backside of the next wave ahead, buries its bow in that wave. The resistance of the bow hitting the back side of the wave causes the bow to slew around, and the boat to veer sharply off course. There's nothing unusual about that.

We saw it coming but did not run . . .

Our sturdy Hatteras was built to take it, But I wouldn't want to test this storm out In a Silverton. . . . .

Know your own and your boat's limitations. Smashing into steep four footers in 50 kt winds at 26 kts. is no problem for this 39' boat.

Whereas this 50 foot Motor Yacht has trouble with severe rolling in only three foot following seas.

Typically, the pilot loses control of the boat, passengers are thrown around, and this can even result in capsizing. The problem is not always the design of the boat, but is often a matter of operator error. That the writer did not use term "broaching" was also an indication of his lack of understanding. Instead, the term "tip over" was used, indicating the operator's rather appalling lack of experience. The pilot here was completely unaware that he was operating the boat at too high a speed for the conditions.

Yet, it's not merely a matter of speed, but one of the lack of general seamanship skills. He was unaware that running with high seas can be just as dangerous as heading into them. In fact, he seems to be unaware that taking a 30 foot boat out in 6 foot seas is, itself, a dangerous proposition.

Many people come to believe that just because they've been out in rough water a few times, that they're now "experienced." Not true. Understanding the effects of wind, waves and currents is not an easy subject to master. Waves behave differently under a large variety of different conditions, so that unless one is familiar with all, or at least most of these conditions, then one is not experienced. That's why to get an ocean operator's license from the USCG requires that an applicant prove that they have had a large number of hours under such conditions.

Hull design has a lot to do with how different boats will handle under different conditions. The simple fact is that the vast majority of boats sold today are designed for creature comforts, not rough water performance. The number of boats around that have good rough water capabilities are few and far between. One reason for this is that people are not willing to give up luxury and convenience for good handling characteristics. And so the vast majority of boats are best suited for protected, not open water operation.

This issue points up the reason why many people often express displeasure that this web site doesn't focus more on "family cruisers" and runabouts, the sort of boats more suitable use on inland lakes and rivers. We live and work in an oceanic environment, so that becomes the focal point for our literature. We are not inland boaters and know little about inland boating.

Even the best of boats won't overcome the lack of knowledge and seamanship skills. One could easily take a 29' Blackfin sport fish out in the Gulf Stream and sink it as a result of inadequate piloting skills. Boats that are designed for rough water operation will perform better, but they do not negate the demand for skillful operation.

Broaching is a dangerous condition. There are times when wave conditions will affect any vessel to the point where running downhill presents the danger of broaching. The only way to avoid this is to alter course to a new course where broaching is not a threat.

Once waves reach a certain height, it becomes necessary for the operator to match the speed of the vessel with the speed of the waves, whether he wants to or not. That means slowing down a lot. One cannot stuff the bow into the backside of the wave ahead, without risking the possibility of broaching and loosing control. If you permit the boat to go zooming off the front side of the wave, you have to consider the consequences of what happens when you quickly meet the back side of the wave ahead.

Would you drive your car 50 MPH down a road full of foot deep potholes? The analogy is an appropriate one here. You'd end up tearing the wheels off the car, losing control and crashing. When the wind blows, the water becomes full of potholes. And worse.

David Pascoe

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