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9 tips for operating in rough conditions

9 tips for operating in rough conditions

When the going gets rough you may wonder why you didn’t opt for gardening or golf. One of the interesting things about boating, both power and sail, is that it can test us. We often find that we’re better skippers than we thought we were, and that’s a good thing.

Sooner or later, in the normal course of boating, you’re bound to find yourself in rough conditions, especially if you venture offshore. What constitutes rough often depends on your boat and your level of experience. The more time you spend on the water, the more confidence you develop for operating in less-than-ideal conditions. Because of space constraints, these tips are limited to general principles that apply to both power- and sailboats.

1. Try to keep things from failing. On sailboats this includes sails, rudders, and standing and running rigging. On powerboats this includes engines, and the connections and fittings that make them work, transmissions, steering gear and fuel delivery systems. On both types of boats it translates to reducing the shock effect of slamming into or falling off waves.

2. Reduce speed. Speed usually equates to control, and there’s a fine line between maintaining effective control and going too fast or too slow.

3. A planing powerboat operated at displacement speed is a sad thing. The motion is unpleasant because the boat is designed to derive stability when on plane. Steering is compromised because the small rudders need a fairly strong current flowing past them to be effective. Most planing hulls can maintain a plane at around 10 to 12 knots.

4. Sailboats also need speed to maintain control, but their rudders are larger and more efficient at slower speeds. Some sailboats have the advantage of being able to adapt more passive methods, such as heaving-to and lying a-hull. Both power- and sailboats can lie to a properly sized sea anchor, provided there is adequate area on the water for this tactic.

5. Change your heading to reduce the frequency and force of the seas. Proceeding head-on into a short, steep chop makes the boat pound. By heading off at a slight angle you’ll increase the time between encounters with waves.

6. Orient the boat toward wind and sea. Boats usually do better with the bow into the seas and wind, since the bow is the strongest part of the hull and is designed to cut through water. When stern-to, rudders become less effective on wave crests because the current flow against them is reduced by the movement of water flowing in the same direction as the boat. When entering the trough, the bow encounters a current flow against the movement of the boat and, less buoyant than the stern, tends to dig in as the stern is lifted. This can cause the boat to yaw (rotate on a vertical axis). The reduced effectiveness of the rudder makes control more difficult, if not impossible in some conditions. This can put the boat’s beam to the sea. The same can happen by going too fast and burying the bow. In the relatively sheltered waters of Cape Cod Bay, Long Island Sound and Chesapeake Bay the boat might not capsize, but even a knockdown can damage the engine, tear sails, break rigging or damage steering gear. The over-revving of screws lifted clear out of the water also can damage the engine or transmission.

7. The lee shore. The tendency when the going gets rough is to head for the nearest shelter. This makes sense, provided the shelter isn’t on a lee shore. Wind and seas from aft will reduce your control and your options should anything go wrong.

8. Inlets can become extremely dangerous on a lee shore. You can’t recognize conditions in the inlet from seaward until you’re committed, then it’s often too late.

9. Seek shelter in the lee of a substantial body of land to windward. Wind and sea conditions will be reduced, and with proper gear you should be able to anchor safely. Remember to set a watch, show proper lights, and sound proper signals if not in an authorized anchorage.