When the Going Gets Rough

Pro captains share advice on what to do when you’re unavoidably caught in rough conditions
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Ryan Higgins

Ryan Higgins

Capt. Todd Anderson was skippering a 55-foot Ocean from Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas across the Gulf Stream. He was heading for Hillsboro Inlet in South Florida when the squall line came his way. “It was slick calm—I mean it was bathtub calm,” he says. “We were probably about 60 or 70 miles off of Hillsboro Inlet, and we started to see the cloud tops off in the distance, and then I started hearing reports on the radio of severe weather coming. We went ahead and kept charging, trying to get to some protection.”

Anderson is no novice at the helm. He’s a professional captain who has worked for Hatteras Yachts, Jarrett Bay, HMY and Bluewater Yacht Sales, as well as for private boat owners. Even still, that storm caught him off guard. “It went from slick calm to about 12-foot right on the nose,” he says. “It was blowing 50 knots or more.” He tried tacking back and forth, so as not to go head-on into the steep seas. “This was an older boat, and there was some debris in the fuel tanks,” he says. “We lost an engine.”

About 30 minutes later, the squall line had passed and Anderson was safely in Hillsboro Inlet—with damage to be repaired and the type of story that many boaters share about unavoidably getting caught in rough conditions. Yes, it happens to the pros too, and they have tons of real-world experience behind their advice for battling those types of seas.

For starters, know what’s most likely to land you in rough seas in the first place. Trying to stick to a planned cruising itinerary, as Anderson did, or braving rough weather during a fishing tournament, are common practices among boaters who end up dealing with lousy conditions offshore.

“Many tournaments have an optional lay day you can use, but sometimes it can be rough all week,” says Ryan Higgins, Viking Yachts southeast sales manager and captain. “Our tournament boat will cruise at 38 to 40 knots on a calm day. It might take two hours to get to the fishing spot. If I know it’s going to be rough, I’m most likely going to be running at 20 knots, and it will take four times as long to get there.”

If Higgins needs to send a mate to secure something on the bow, or if a guest needs to use the head in those conditions, “I will pull the boat back and head it downsea,” he says. “That’s going to be the best situation, so you can secure whatever you need to.” In that scenario, however, maintaining the right speed is crucial, or the boat can bury its bow into the next wave. Experts suggest maintaining just enough speed to steer and slowly make progress.

“When you get into seas that are above normal operating conditions—anything above 8 to 10 feet is going to be above average—and if you’re in those conditions in [any boat] under 60 feet, your skill set is going to be challenged,” says Danny Ford, a captain for  Bertram in Florida. “Say you are offshore fishing and you are caught in it in the middle of the night. You don’t have the fuel, the range [to avoid the storm], or you look at the satellite weather and you know what you’ve gotten into is going to pass in a couple of hours. You can just do what we call “stem” the sea or “jog” into the sea conditions. Put your bow into the wind and seas, and just clutch-in-gear and slowly ride up and down the sea. The key is to maintain just enough speed to hold you against the wind and tide. At the top of a wave,  if you are comfortable turning—if the sea will allow you to do that—make a very quick and rapid turn and slowly jog downsea. Again, it all depends on the boat that you’re in. Some of these boats have big keels; some boats are inherently top-heavy, which means if you get caught in the sea conditions, you really can’t turn the boat because it could broach.” 

Danny Ford

Danny Ford

Anderson uses trim tabs to adjust a boat’s angle of attack to the waves. “If you are heading into the seas, you want to trim the nose down a little bit more,” he says. “In a following sea, you want the nose to be up. Most of the time, depending upon how bad the seas are, you just want to take the trim off in a following sea.”

Todd Anderson

Todd Anderson

When the boat he is driving has a fuel-management system with multiple tanks, he will use it to trim the vessel. “Depending on what kind of weather we are going to have that day, if we are going to be going into a head sea, I will try to keep as much fuel [as possible] up forward,” says Anderson. “As the day goes on, I will transfer fuel, keep topping off the back tank so it stays full in a following sea, or keep the front tank full in a head sea.” In a beam sea, which can be the most dangerous, “you can do half trim tabs or no trim tabs, depending on how steep the waves are,” he says. “It depends on the boat.”

On the U.S. East Coast, inlets leading from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean with strong tides and shallow waters can pose some of the most challenging situations boaters face. Plum Gut off Long Island, New York; Oregon Inlet in North Carolina’s Outer Banks; and St. Augustine and Jupiter inlets in Florida are mentioned time and time again as being dangerous and even deadly.

“Oregon Inlet is one of the worst on the East Coast,” Higgins says. “I am in constant contact with the locals down there. I talk to the charter fishing fleet that is in and out of there on a regular basis, on the radio. They don’t want anyone to have trouble in their inlet.”

Anderson also recommends asking Sea Tow or TowBoatU.S. captains for a report on a bad inlet before attempting to run it, as well as checking the tide tables. “If I’m going into an inlet when it is going to be a little tricky,” he says, “I like to do an incoming tide.”

Sometimes, patience is the key. A couple of months ago, when he was preparing to exit the inlet in St. Augustine, there were offshore winds of 15 to 20 knots and rough conditions. He and another boat waited for slack tide—but they didn’t wait long enough. “Well, there was a little bit of tide that was still running out, and I buried the bow about three times going out the inlet, and this was on an 80-foot boat,” he says. “If we had waited probably another 60 minutes, we wouldn’t have had any of those issues.”

In Jupiter Inlet, a vertical pressure wave can build up on the shallow sandbars just outside the mouth. “You might have a very mellow 4- to 6-foot ground sea, but when that hits the bar, it stands straight up in the air and breaks all the way across the inlet,” Ford says. He recalled a scene four months earlier when a 35-foot power catamaran entered in calm conditions, but with a hard outgoing tide. “his bow went in, and it stood the boat up almost vertically and spun the boat around. He was able to keep control of his boat and drive it back out the inlet.”

A boat’s speed and maneuverability determine how the skipper can best get it through an inlet, Ford adds. He recommends waiting outside the inlet and watching the sets of waves move through it, as opposed to just barreling in to keep on a schedule. “Use your stopwatch and time some of the sets, and watch how frequently the sets are coming, and if there is a lull, how much of a lull between sets,” he says. “If you get a two- to four-minute lull, you can strategically time the last wave of the set, get on the back of it, and then ride that last wave into the inlet.”

That advice holds true, he says, only for seasoned helmsmen. For novice boaters, he adds: “In conditions like that, you’ve got no business being there. There’s no reason for an inexperienced person to put their boat and passengers in rough sea conditions if you can avoid it.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.