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Try taking a balanced approach to your time on the water

Although I have a lot of admiration for Noah, I don’t think he’d make the same dramatic rescue today, even if he wanted to. That capacity plate on the ark would stop him cold.

Noah may have overloaded his boat, but it was better than the alternative.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we have capacity plates. And yes, I know that larger boats and some types of vessels aren’t required to have them. But whether there’s a plate or not, regulations and boatbuilders often give guidance about capacity. And as with many issues that are well regulated by the government, we still need to use common sense.

I heard of a 20-foot boat that the builder said could hold 10 people as long as they didn’t exceed 1,600 pounds (total load, not per person, please). I have a 20-foot boat, and it’s a tough old 1985 Mako. They don’t make them any better, in my opinion. I wouldn’t load that boat with 10 people if I were Noah and they were my best friends, it was starting to rain and they were all very rich.

Not only would I not be able to stand the crowd (I’m a shy guy), I’d also be a little worried about what would happen if someone yelled, “The cold beer’s in that cooler in the bow.” In the interest of fair play it should be noted that Noah didn’t have to worry about that cooler of beer, and he could put his animals in cages (common sense). But you and I can’t do that with our friends, even though we may wish we could from time to time.

As I said, this gets down to common sense, and from some of the disasters we’ve seen lately, common sense seems to be on the wane. I started out on a light note, but the reality is that an overloaded boat can have dire consequences. There’s nothing funny about someone drowning. We’re obligated to use some common sense even if we do have capacity plates and regulatory guidance.

I know the Coasties and other authorities are trying to employ common sense. For example, they are now assuming that the average human weighs more than he or she did many years ago. They’re also looking at other relevant factors. When you and I go out in our boats, we are dealing with the very real world, not just theory. We need to include awareness not only of load weight, but also of balance. It’s not just pounds; it’s also how you store them.

It’s characteristic of the human species that seldom are X number of people going to remain evenly distributed about the boat, standing “in the middle.” And whatever place they start out in when you leave the dock, it’s seldom that they stay there. I mentioned one catalyst for passenger movement above. There are plenty more.

For example, if you’re backing down on a billfish and there are lots of passengers aboard, odds are that they’re going to be flocking astern to see the action. And that’s the last thing your boat needs at the time, especially if it’s a center console with a transom cutout for the outboard.

Overloading a boat is unsafe, and it also can bring the Coast Guard for a boarding.

I’ve been on the water all my life and haven’t capsized yet. (I’m sure I will tomorrow, now that I’ve put my mouth on it.) Here are a few things I’ve picked up that can help keep the bottom of the boat where it belongs.


There are many nuances to balancing your load. We all know, for example, that if you carry spare fuel tanks, you should place them so their weight is well positioned. And they should be tied down so they won’t go sliding to one side or another when you least need it. But the term “well positioned,” with regard to spare fuel tanks and just about everything else, doesn’t just mean that they’re evenly placed spatially. When thinking about weight placement, consider all of your boat’s balance issues. Some of these aren’t variable, and some are. Examples of those that aren’t variable include where the built-in fuel tank is located; the height of your transom, bow and hull sides; the buoyancy or weight of your boat (for example, solid glass or cored); and potential top-heaviness, as with that ultra T-top on a center console or a flybridge. Another non-variable is simply how the hull takes seas. Semivariable components would include where other heavy items, such as a storm anchor and chain, are stored. These you can move, but perhaps not while you’re running.

Load and balance become trickier when we consider some of the characteristics affecting weight distribution that are variable. Examples include the behavior of your boat in wind. If you’ve got a tall bow that can get blown off to the side by a strong gust, you may want a little extra weight up there if it’s very gusty, though not enough to push the bow under the seas. Or if your bow is particularly fine and not very high off the water, you may want to avoid any loading forward.

If your boat has trouble climbing out of the hole and getting up on plane, you may want to move a little extra load just forward of amidships to bring the bow down when you’re trying to get over the hump because this can counter the fact that the stern is digging in. Sometimes you may ask a passenger to move forward (safely) to help get ’er up.

Your fuel tank, if built in, is hopefully a non-variable, but its capacity is another matter. Sure, it may hold X gallons, but if your boat performs substantially differently with a tank of fuel that’s running low, compared with her performance when you’ve topped off, you should keep this in mind when placing load. Some boats show little performance difference because of fuel levels, some a lot. If the tanks are relatively high above water level, as are some built into the sides of boats, differing fuel levels are more likely to be important.

There are also factors to consider that aren’t necessarily particular to any one boat but are just as important. One that’s often overlooked until it’s too late is the effect of water inside your boat. We all know that if there’s too much water inside, the boat will sink (absent positive buoyancy). But water in the boat can have what many consider to be a far more insidious effect.

We’re familiar with what water does outside the boat. We watch and deal with the waves, current and other water motion. Water moves. Water is heavy. The rule of thumb is that it weighs about 8 pounds per gallon. Think of just 25 gallons as equaling a big friend. But perhaps unlike that friend, water moves suddenly, unexpectedly and often uncontrollably.

When you get a certain amount of water inside the boat, it can quickly start moving from side to side or fore and aft or both, the motion building on itself exponentially and causing the boat to become unstable. If the seas are rough, this can quickly get out of control. But even in smooth seas, persons aboard moving about, as they usually do when they find the bilge rising, can start the inside water sloshing back and forth.

Heavy items such as batteries should be carefully placed and secured so they stay put, especially on small boats.

The type of boat has much to do with the amount of water it takes to cause this instability, but it can happen in any boat. Also, structure can be important. For example, an open bilge between the “floor” and the hull of a center cockpit can allow water to rush back and forth unseen, with potentially extreme results. If there is supporting structure down there that acts as baffles, the motion of the water is more contained.

Water can come aboard quickly with a boarding sea, a severe squall, imprudent backing down and many other causes. We often put it aboard on some boats when we fill our water tanks or open our fish and bait wells. But these (at least our water tanks) are usually well baffled if it’s needed. And when a boarding sea starts doing what it does naturally, rushing back and forth, it can capsize your boat before you even know what’s happening.

Another critical factor is center of gravity. Generally, the lower we store load the better. An exceptionally heavy storm anchor may be better stored in the bilge than up in a higher place on the boat; same goes for the extra chain for storm anchoring. Water tanks should be as low as practical.

I’ve seen boats that, in my view, had a center of gravity much too high in the basic design. Others are built solid as a rock, but then we start adding flybridges. This adds windage, but that’s just the beginning. On the flybridge, we sometimes add stoves, bars and sinks, and lounges that invite owners to store heavy stuff in the spaces under the lifting seats. This raises the center of gravity and makes the boat less stable. And then the whole party moves up to the flybridge to sit on those lounges and see things better in the “cool” spot. Disaster in the making.

Signs of a poorly balanced boat

It’s easy to determine that you have a balance or loading issue when your boat is turning over, but thankfully there are more subtle clues that can alert you before that.

Any time your boat seems to be handling sluggishly, assume there’s a problem. It may be from too much water in the bilge, whether from a leak or waves and a faulty bilge pump. It may be from overloading or poor loading. Whatever the reason, it’s probably dangerous. Sluggish handling can manifest in a bow-down ride, difficulty steering, unexpected responses to the helm, longer time than usual to get up on plane and, of course, unusual tipping.

It’s often dangerous to try to correct this by adjusting the trim tabs. For that reason, they’re not installed on good boats. It’s better to find the cause and fix it. This may simply mean telling people to move to different places in the boat or shifting a heavy cooler.

Although there’s much more that could be said on this subject, we’ll stop with this thought. Don’t assume that the number of seats available indicates the number of people you should take aboard. Look instead to the capacity plate and common sense. And just because you can theoretically seat 10 people in a 20-foot boat doesn’t mean you should.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.