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When the going gets rough

Safely operating a boat in difficult conditions is a matter of your mind-set, your skills and your boat

Chris Fertig and his two-man crew were nearly halfway through a 780-mile passage from New York to Bermuda when confused 8- to 10-foot seas forced them to call off their attempt to break the Bermuda Challenge powerboat record.

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“It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make on the water,” says Fertig, who in 2011 was trying to break the record of 22 hours, 23 minutes in a 37-foot center console. “I tried for four hours to punch through the slop, knowing it was calm closer to Bermuda, but it became too dangerous.”

With more than 300 miles behind him, he reversed course. “I ended up running 26-1/2 hours straight, covering a distance of almost 700 miles, and didn’t get the record,” says Fertig, 34, a former Coast Guardsman who was part of a unit that chased drug runners in high-speed boats.

The difficult decision Fertig made is one of the key elements of safe boat operation: the ability to put aside your pride and take action based on safety first. Fertig went on to break the Bermuda Challenge record in August 2012 — his second attempt — besting the mark by 43 minutes.

Running offshore in rough water is serious business that requires preparation, common sense, knowledge of various conditions and sharp boat-handling skills, Fertig and other expert small-boat operators say. In a head sea, put your trim tabs down, tuck in the drives and keep weight forward to more safely and comfortably push through the seas, he says. Be careful not to drop the bow too much. Gauge the position of the boat and make the appropriate speed, trim tab, drive and weight-distribution adjustments to avoid stuffing the bow.

Try meeting waves at a 15- to 20-degree angle instead of head-on, says Tom Guthlein, 52, a retired 18-year Coast Guard surfman. (Surfmen are coxswains who are qualified to operate rescue boats in breaking surf conditions.) “This may lessen the pounding and give you a better ride,” he says.

A following sea entails an entirely different tactic, especially if you’re running an inlet with standing waves, says Fertig. Trim tabs should be up and the drives tucked in, with no excessive weight forward, especially in an open boat that’s susceptible to flooding. “Part of the danger is you surf down the wave behind you and into the wave in front of you, and stuff the bow,” he says. “That slows the motion of the boat, and the following sea picks up the stern, and the boat pitchpoles.”

Steering control decreases in following seas, says Guthlein. “A lot of time operators make too much helm correction, and this causes the boat to broach,” he says.

The guidelines for navigating in quartering seas vary depending on the boat type, says Fertig. “One of the more challenging types of boats in a quartering sea is a displacement catamaran because the tendency is the quartering sea will pick up the quarter and potentially cause a snap roll, where the boat will violently roll from side to side,” says Fertig. “It’s best to alter your course so you are not quartering the sea. This may add length to your trip, but you may be able to go faster.”

The period and steepness of the waves determine a monohull’s speed in a quartering sea, says Fertig. “Make sure a wave doesn’t sneak up behind you if you are going less than planing speed,” he says.

In confused seas or seas with no wave pattern, the rule is to reduce speed and avoid getting complacent. “Often you have a short wave period and steep wave faces, and you can get waves building quickly, so you have a monster of a wave in front of you and behind that a large hole,” says Fertig.

The operator and crew must be ready for that situation, says Guthlein, who was also an instructor at the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat School. “Watching the direction of the swells is very important,” he says. “You want to look three to four waves or swells ahead. You hear about rogue, breaking or unexpected waves. If you don’t have the boat in the correct position to meet them, that’s when the problems happen because the sea will push the boat wherever it wants to go and set you up for another wave that may cause you to flood, swamp and tip over.”

Inexperience, fatigue and seasickness often result in poor judgment on the water, says Guthlein, a recipient of the Coast Guard’s Joshua James Ancient Keeper Award in recognition of longevity as a commanding officer or officer in charge of a boat unit and outstanding performance in boat operations. Boaters should brush up on their knowledge of tides, currents and wind, and know the basics, such as what happens when a strong wind works against a tide, he says. When an ebb tide in shallow water or an inlet meets ocean waves, the waves become larger and stand up. As they hit the bottom, they will break with more force, says Guthlein.

“Plan out your courses before you leave the dock, tie down all your gear and make sure your crew is well-informed of their duties in an emergency situation,” he says. “Who is going to drive the boat if you get seasick?” It’s also prudent to wear a life jacket in rough conditions and to always leave a float plan, he adds.

Also, keep in mind that every boat has its strengths and weaknesses in rough seas or any sea state, says Fertig. “A displacement power catamaran will perform well in a head sea with the boat making progress fairly smoothly, where you might be pounding in a planing vee-bottom monohull,” he says. “A high-performance catamaran can go fast and efficiently into the wind and slight chop, but if the waves get over a certain size, in many cases you’ll end up going slower than a comparable vee-bottom boat.”

See related articles:

- Into the breakers

- 4 rough-water tips

February 2013 issue




There are two types of boaters: Those who’ve been caught in rough weather, and those who will. Three professional captains share boathandling tips.