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How to get home if you're caught out

Getting home if you’re caught out

Sooner or later, it happens to all of us.

In the parlance of old salts, you get “caught out” in conditions much rougher than anticipated. The reasons for this typically are a combination of Mother Nature and human error.

Consider the following: A radio report of a hot tuna bite a few miles seaward over the horizon will have most anglers putting the throttles down and heading farther offshore. However, in their tuna tachycardia, the excited anglers may not notice the building seas and the strengthening winds shifting around to their stern. When they get there, it’s too rough to fish. The ride out was relatively easy with the wind and waves at their back. The ride home will build character — a long, bumpy, slow steam that will consume more fuel than the trip out.

This very scenario happened to me several years ago, and I learned a valuable lesson, albeit the hard way. (Is there any other?) It was late September, and there were reports of tuna at a spot known as the Mud Hole near Block Island, R.I. I was pumped to bag a few more pelagics before the end of the season without having to make the long run to the canyons in the decreasing daylight of autumn.

I headed out at dawn, and the trip south down Narragansett Bay was uneventful. Then things got interesting. I rounded Castle Hill and pointed my trusted Blackfin 29, SeaSaw, southerly into the open ocean for the 20-nautical-mile trip to the fishing grounds. Normally, the prevailing thermal winds in this area are from the southwest, but in the fall dry, cool winds begin to blow from the north. So instead of heading out into a head sea, I had wind and waves from astern. The diesels were humming, and I could keep an honest 29 knots skipping over the steep, close chop.

Since I was steaming with the wind — and having so much fun — I failed to notice how breezy it really was. By the time I reached the Mud Hole 40 minutes later it was a very different story. The wind had piped up to a solid 25 knots over the deck, with a 4- to 6-foot chop building. I slowed to trolling speed and attempted to set the spread, but I could barely stand in the cockpit. One angler fell and almost crowned himself on the tower.

I decided to head in, and turned north toward Newport, hoping to make planing speed. No dice. While I could do 15 knots, the props kept coming out of the water and over-revving the engines. Not a pretty sight, and bad on the machinery, too. The best speed I could make with the wheels in the water was 9 knots, and at that speed the sea under the starboard bow flare made for a very uncomfortable ride. SeaSaw was behaving more like a seesaw in hyperdrive, and for the next two hours I had ample time to reflect on my mistake. By the time I finally rounded Castle Hill, my brain hurt from being bashed around inside my skull.

The obvious way to handle rough water is to avoid it altogether. Of course, this isn’t always possible, so let’s look at some ways you can stack the deck in your favor.

Weather: Listen to the weather report on VHF before your trip and when leaving the harbor. Listen to the WX channel on every outing, not just when you think it might get nasty. Conditions can change quickly. If possible, visit the NOAA Web site,, and check the sea state for your waters. These maps will show you wind velocity and direction, and wave height and periods for the present time, as well as 24-, 48-, and 72-hour predictions. Study these charts as a learning exercise, and see how increasing wind speed will affect wave height. Pay particular attention to wave period, or the time it takes two successive wave crests to pass a fixed object. For example, a 10-foot wave with a 60-second period is a gentle swell, perhaps a remnant of a distant storm. This water is generally more navigable than a 5-foot wave with a 5-second period, which is a steep, nasty, brain-battering chop.

Be prepared: Your vessel should always be ready for rough water. This means not only keeping her in tip-top shape mechanically, but also paying attention to everything on board that isn’t securely fastened. Understand that anything not tied down will end up on the sole, and typically aft in rough water. Envision your saloon or engine room at 45 degrees fore and aft as well as beam to beam, and think of the consequences. Even on a calm day, one big wake from a passing vessel can put you on your ear. Secure everything, and don’t forget to inspect lockers, lazarettes and galley cabinets. I have found industrial-grade hook-and-loop strips and marine-grade bungee cord very helpful. To protect items against breakage, rubberized, perforated drawer liners work wonders with dinnerware and glass food containers. For smaller items, consider investing in various plastic storage boxes.

Pay attention: Be aware of the sea state around you. If it is flat calm at 10 a.m. and then dotted with whitecaps at noon, the wind and seas are building. The longer and harder it blows, the bigger the waves will get. Remember my sojourn to the Mud Hole: my headache could have been avoided by paying closer attention to surroundings. Now when I head offshore, I sometimes slow the boat to idle speed, stand in the cockpit, and get a sense of the real wind and sea conditions. I also get a chance to assess the fishability of the cockpit for my guests, taking into account the least fit among them as the lowest common denominator. Should there be any question that conditions are getting nasty, I simply head my boat at cruise speed in the direction home — at regular intervals — to see how she feels.

Practice, especially if you have a new vessel: After 10 years with SeaSaw, I pretty much know what she can do and, more importantly, what she can’t. However, when I acquired Oasis, a Topaz 44 flybridge, it was back to school again. I took three experienced boaters out on Block Island Sound on a day when conditions were hostile enough that ferry service to the island was interrupted. This was a joy ride with no place special to go, a perfect venue to understand the handling characteristics of my new vessel. I learned what speeds I could carry at different wave angles, and how to drive a boat of her size through the crests and troughs. I also learned that it was surprisingly easy to launch 20 tons of boat when one 8-foot growler seemed to have nothing underneath it. The amount of spray that was thrown athwartships was positively sobering, as was the thought of 8,000 pounds of Detroit iron in the bilge free-falling to an abrupt stop. From that point on, I vowed to be more careful.

While rough-water seamanship is an acquired skill honed by experience and time at the helm, there are a number of tactics that can help improve your safety and performance:

• PFDs: This should go without saying, but if you and your crew aren’t already wearing them, please do so now. Period.

• Decrease speed: One of the most important things a skipper can do to enhance safety in rough water is slow down. It is essential to remain in control of your vessel, and at reduced speed, there is more time to maneuver and react to seas. Also, the boat may fall into displacement mode so that more of it is in the water, improving stability. The propellers are turning slower and are less likely to cavitate. There will be drastically less slamming and pounding on the vessel and crew, which again is favorable for the performance of both. Keep in mind, however, that there is a point where too little speed can hamper maneuverability.

• Trim tabs: For most vessels, activating the trim tabs to fully “bow down” will help keep the wheels in the water and minimize cavitation. In addition, it will place more of your hull in the water. Generally, this will translate into smoother power transfer to the propellers, and better steerage and stability.

• Steer the waves: Learn how to best snake your way through the wave pattern. A little well-timed helm input can make for a much smoother ride. Each boat and sea state are different, so again practice is important. If you are unsure of your ability, have an experienced skipper help. Typically, hulls with less beam and more deadrise will handle the rough stuff better than designs with wider, flatter bottoms. In general, head seas are best approached straight on, and following seas from dead astern, but this depends in large part on the boat’s characteristics. You might want to consider a zigzag course, “powerboat tacking” if you will. It may take a bit longer to reach your waypoint, but your boat and passengers will appreciate the more comfortable ride. Remember to change course near the top of the waves and not in the trough. Under no circumstances should you allow the boat to sit beam to the seas in the trough, where a breaking wave might swamp your vessel.

• Get low: Instruct your passengers to stay seated, using good hand holds. In some instances the best position may be the sole of the cockpit or saloon.

Sooner or later most of us will get caught out. With a little preparation and practice, these passages can be made safely and under control, their memory not a harrowing tale of white-knuckle misadventure, but just another entry in the captain’s log.

Capt. Larry Dario holds a Coast Guard captain’s license and has more than 40 years on the water. He owns a Topaz 44 Flybridge, a Blackfin 29 Combi, and a Boston Whaler 17 Montauk.