Constant calm seas exist only in our dreams. Sometimes, we’re stuck out there in reality when the wind and seas really kick up. If you are on a day trip and able to make safe haven before the weather turns nasty, then by all means do so. But on a passage, we have to take what’s coming. As the weather deteriorates, it may no longer be possible to safely and comfortably maintain speed or steer the required course. Easing the motion of the boat by slowing down or altering course might be the best solution. Beyond that, suspending a voyage plan is not being chickenhearted; it’s prudent. Experienced mariners have learned the hard way to employ good common sense as conditions demand.
“Calm seas never made a good seaman.” I got a good dose of that saying’s meaning when I was a young watch-stander on a delivery. The captain drove the boat hard, insisting on steering the intended course in mean, steep head seas. The passage was bone-rattling, so the crew inquired about slowing down or altering course to ease the motion. Without a thought for crew, the captain scoffed, “She’s tough. The boat can take it.” Perhaps his ego got in the way, or maybe it was his desire to arrive on time. Either way, it was an awful trip. We finally got in and tied up in a cozy slip, beat up and exhausted. After we went to sleep, someone crawled out of his bunk, placed his feet on the cabin sole, and promptly got wet socks. We had sprung a plank.
So, how do you know if adjusting the course or speed to ease the motion is the best tactic? The clues your boat and crew send you will be evidence enough.
How is your boat riding? Excessive pounding, green water on deck, racing propeller(s) or dangerous rolling are a few obvious signals. Is your crew reasonably comfortable and safe? Don’t get me wrong: There are times when cruising is not comfortable at all, but it is always smart to ease your vessel’s motion before the interior gets trashed, someone gets thrown out of the head with his pants around his ankles, or an off-watch sleeper lands on the cabin sole. It’s remarkable how much of a difference just slowing down a tiny bit makes to ease the motion.
But sometimes, slowing down is not enough. Bearing slightly away from the direction of the wind and seas is a good alternative, especially when motor-sailing with reduced sail. Sacrificing a few points of the compass heading by steering carefully and picking your way between steep seas will more than pay off. You can zigzag up the required course by alternating the seas on either bow to maintain stability, being careful to time the seas when tacking through the wind and waves.
This next bit might seem obvious, but limit exposure to large beam seas when you can. Generally in this sea condition, beamier hard-chine boats with lower centers of gravity handle better than narrow round-bottom boats or ones with a lot of weight aloft. By adjusting your boat’s heading, seas can be placed either forward or abaft the beam, keeping the boat out of the extreme tipping forces of the troughs and wave peaks. A sail can provide a dampening effect to steady up. However, there are times when rolling can’t be avoided, such as arrival at a destination or for traffic avoidance.
Not too long ago, I brought a yacht from France to Genoa, Italy, to load onto a yacht transport ship. It was winter and the weather was far from ideal, but the wind and seas were abaft the beam, so we had no problems. A few miles from our destination, however, the seas grew and changed direction. Instead of coming from behind us, a larger swell suddenly came right toward us, reflecting off the landmass and high seawall ahead. This was daunting, since we had to turn hard to port to enter the opening in the wall, placing the swells on our starboard beam.
We arrived at the course change and stopped the boat to gauge and observe the seas at the entrance, counting waves in each set and the intervals between them. In a lull, we put the rudder hard over and gunned the throttles, praising our horsepower as we rocketed past the breakwater just as the next sea roared through and thundered over the wall behind us.
On passage, what’s the best way to handle steering with the seas abaft the beam? To run safely in the direction of the seas, place them nearly—but not squarely—astern. Depending on your vessel’s own characteristics, quartering the seas in this way may be the best heading. Every sailor loves the swift rush when surfing down across the side of a quartering sea, but it’s easy to get speed greedy. Be aware of changing conditions. Make gradual heading adjustments, and make sure an experienced person is minding the helm.
What about running directly before the seas? Steering straight down sea is okay in average seas, but as seas build—a description relative to your own boat—you might find that your vessel’s bow is arriving steeply at the bottom of a wave, just as the rest of the wave is lifting your stern. This is time to slow down and let the seas pass under you.
The shape of each vessel’s transom, bow and underbody affect its seakeeping abilities differently. In many modern yacht designs, pronounced beam is carried at the stern to provide big, roomy cockpits. This feature makes some boats just plain cranky heading directly before the seas. Why? Because when going before a big sea, a vessel pitches and rolls, too. This motion alternately submerges the bow, first on one side and then on the other, producing varying resistance. Add the power of a large sea against a wide transom, and the boat tends to yaw. The rudder has a hard time keeping up because each time the bow buries, the stern lifts, making the rudder less effective. It momentarily loses its power to steer, just when it is needed the most. Slow as necessary to let the swells pass under the boat. And know how your boat performs before you get in these situations.
Everything in yacht design is a trade-off. Each design performs better in certain conditions than in others. We can choose our designs, but we can’t always choose our weather. For those reasons, know your vessel. Building weather conditions create individual boat-handling challenges in varying sea conditions. Presenting your vessel differently to the direction of the seas and alternating your speed will determine where your boat rides best when the going gets tough.
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.