It’s a law of physics. As a boat displaces water underway, it naturally creates waves astern. That’s called a wake, and it’s your responsibility.
A well-mannered wake is good seamanship. Most of us are not surfers or wake boarders, so discourteous wakes are annoying. They can be dangerous to other boaters, damaging to property and destructive to a fragile environment. For that reason, you should always slow down in confined waters and look behind you. Be considerate when passing other boats, and when you encounter wakes from other vessels, be prepared to mitigate the effects to keep your crew from getting hurt.
Depending on hull design, boat speed, vessel weight and power, a wake can produce sharp repeating waves of significant size. For many boats under power, various speeds alter the way the hull displaces water. Generally, slow speed creates the least amount of wake. When you throttle up, the bow rises and pushes away more water, and the stern squats, creating the largest amount of wake. At higher speeds, powerboats level out, leaving less wake than transition speed. Smaller planing boats will barely kiss the water when they are going fast, displacing very little water. It’s important to know your boat’s characteristics, then be considerate of other boats and look astern. Give a wide berth when passing a vulnerable boater, too.
Harbors and marinas are especially vulnerable, so no-wake zones are established to prevent damage to docked vessels, marina structures and waterfront property. No-wake zones often protect fragile shoreline ecosystems, wildlife colonies and marine life, such as manatees. If you’re coming in off the open water and see a “No Wake” or “Slow Minimum Wake” sign or buoy, drop back to a speed that creates as little wake as possible. A “No Wake” zone means you need to transit the area at the slowest possible speed while still being able to steer. At this speed, your vessel shouldn’t produce any wake at all. A “Minimum Wake” zone means you need to proceed at a speed slow enough to be fully off-plane and settled in the water, creating only a very small or minimal wake.
Keep an eye on your depth sounder too, because shallow water increases the impact of your boat’s wake. Kayaks, canoes, stand-up-paddleboards, sailing regattas, small sailing and fishing boats, swimmers and divers, working vessels and those in distress or aground are all easily affected by wakes. By all means, if you are passing working watermen or a fisherman in a small skiff, slow down to prevent tossing them out of the boat. One of my top pet peeves is with those boaters who won’t slow down when they see a person standing on a work float or in a dinghy working alongside a boat. Be considerate as you pass them, if only to avoid salty shouts of exasperation.
You are accountable for your own wake. When in confined waters, such as in an inlet or a narrow bottleneck between bodies of water, there probably won’t be any signs or speed restriction buoys, but that doesn’t abrogate your responsibility to be courteous to others. When passing vulnerable vessels, this might mean altering course to give them some additional room.
I know an old, traditional couple who sail a big engine-less sloop. It’s slow and sluggish to maneuver at times, especially if the breeze drops out when they’re en route somewhere. It makes them very susceptible to passing wakes, so they carry a unique piece of equipment onboard: a baby doll. When the skipper of an approaching powerboat fails to take it off autopilot to create a courteous distance between the two boats and lessen his towering wake, my friends beg the operator by VHF radio to throttle back when passing. If that doesn’t work, they use the universal signal for slow down—a two-hand, palms-down pumping motion. If that fails, she brings the doll on deck and rocks it back and forth in her arms, while giving the skipper of the passing boat the stink-eye. The couple claims this works, but I’m not so sure.
Responsible seamanship dictates guidelines that apply to all vessels. Recreational vessels are legally required to manage their speed and operate in a prudent manner that does not endanger others. Rule 46 CFR Section 2302 states a civil penalty up to $5,000 for operating a recreational vessel in a negligent manner or interfering with the safe operation of a vessel so as to endanger life, limb or property.
A few years back, a pair of new boaters left a dock in their new center console. As they were merrily speeding along, enjoying the wind on their necks, a fast 100-foot motoryacht passed quite close in the fairway. The novice operators panicked when they saw a wall of water coming at them, throttling back without changing their heading. Left broadside to the steep wake and dead in the water, the boat rolled onto her beam-ends, creating a bloody mess–literally–breaking her nose and two of his ribs.
Who Is to Blame Here?
In my opinion, both boats. The couple called the Marine Police for much-needed assistance (an ambulance, as it turned out). They identified the motoryacht and reported it to the Coast Guard. And yet the center console operator could have avoided injury if he’d known what to do.
There are a few defensive strategies to mitigate the harmful effects of another vessel’s dangerous wake. If a big one is inevitable, first yell “wake” or notify your shipmates so they can hang on or sit down securely. Then, lower your speed and head into the oncoming waves, diagonally at a 30- to 45-degree angle to minimize impact. The alternative for larger boats is to maneuver around to ride out the wake on your quarter. If you are crossing a wake astern of another boat, do so before you get too close, where the wake will be larger. Remember to keep your boat trimmed correctly with weight equally distributed.
In a narrow waterway such as a river or canal, a potentially damaging wake can easily occur when one vessel tries to pass another. In order for the overtaking boat to pass without throwing a large wake, the overtaken vessel can assist by slowing to bare steerageway, allowing the other to maneuver by without speeding up. Communication here is prudent.
Be thoughtful of traffic patterns, especially on weekends or holidays. When anchoring, fishing or choosing your recreational spot for the day, note where most of the jet skis, water skiers and tubing boats are operating. Instinct will guide you to go elsewhere. Some places have high traffic patterns coming and going from port. A great strategy is to search for a spit of land or sandbar to anchor behind, shielding you from passing wakes.
The responsibility to avoid potential danger from one’s own wake lies with every operator. Both local and national maritime rules and regulations help govern good conduct. Remember, you can be held civilly responsible for damages caused by your wake. The best approach is to play it safe. Be courteous. Stay alert. Slow down. Give other boats some room when you can and keep an eye astern for the effects of your vessel. On the other hand, if you have to suffer the consequences of someone else’s wake, take proactive measures and maneuver to lessen the impact. It happens occasionally, but if an inconsiderate boater throws up a big, thoughtless wake when passing, try to refrain from giving him that other universal hand signal. He’s probably not looking your way anyway.
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue.