Heavy Salt and Soaked Charts

A wild ride reminds this captain how critical it is to be prepared for changing sea conditions
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When the going gets rough, the best skippers head out only when they know the boat and crew are up to the challenge. 

When the going gets rough, the best skippers head out only when they know the boat and crew are up to the challenge. 

After a few weeks of giant tuna fishing out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, aboard my 42-footer, I was looking forward to the two-day steam back to my homeport in Brielle, New Jersey. But the first leg to Montauk was one of those experiences I will never forget. What should have been a routine ride felt more like a relentless rinse cycle in a saltwater washing machine.

I knew we were in for sporty conditions when the southwest wind went from fresh to somewhat frightening as we exited the Cape Cod Canal and came abreast of the Cleveland East Ledge Light. Rhode Island Sound was a mess of tall green swells with big, dark holes behind each one. A convention of white caps reached for the sky and the windblown spray cascaded down from my boat’s tuna tower, drenching the open flybridge where I stood. A pair of five-gallon buckets in the cockpit did a strange dance, filling up with spray and then rolling off the teak covering boards, spilling over on one wave and then righting themselves on the next. My mate went below every 30 minutes to check for damage on the inside of the boat, making sure all of the salon windows, hatches, drawers, lockers, cabinets and doors were secure.

Suddenly, we dropped hard behind a big wave. There was a bang and rattling noise that overpowered the screeching winds. To my ear, it sounded like one of the folding seats in the tuna tower had broken free of its locking mechanism. I throttled back in the seaway and idled until I found a heading that offered a predictable motion. This would enable me to safely get to the tower. I gave the mate the wheel and began the climb, grabbing on to the wet tower rungs and timing each step based on the rolling motion of the boat. I was thankful for my good boat shoes. Once on the tower, I saw the chair lock had broken off and disappeared, so I extended the seat leg to eliminate the rattle and provide support. Then I made a quick descent back to the flybridge. Back at the wheel, I continued to idle until I could catch my breath. Powering up to 15 knots, I followed my compass course for Montauk.

When we pulled into a slip a few hours later, the dockmaster was surprised we had come from Gloucester considering the weather and sea conditions, even though I had made a slip reservation the day before. Then again, when we left it was merely cloudy and the wind wasn’t supposed to blow more than 10 to 15 knots. It certainly blew harder than that. Hosing off the topsides, I did find the metal parts from the tower seat in the cockpit and also noticed that the topcoat paint on the front of the deckhouse had worn off from the spray, exposing the undercoat primer.

If anything, that run reminded me that a mariner always has to be prepared for changing conditions, even before he leaves the dock. Had the wind only reached the forecasted 10 to 15 knots, I would not have this weather story to share with you. On the other hand, I knew a 15-knot forecast often means the wind might blow harder. Either way, I was confident my boat was ready for what Mother Nature might bring. Remember that the next time you are reviewing the forecast. If it calls for seas of 2 to 4 feet, you should be confident that you can safely handle the higher wave height. When you are a mile from shore or safe harbor, conditions are different from those encountered 20 or 30 miles offshore. And a half-hour ride in lousy conditions is a lot easier than eight hours in high seas and raining salt.

There might be times when you just have to confront rough conditions that have transpired to your surprise. In that situation, it is the captain’s responsibility to make sure his vessel is prepared and equipped to safely navigate whatever he encounters. When trouble finds you, the ball is in your court. Despite the conditions we endured during that run to Montauk, we made it safely to our destination. Why? For one reason: I made sure I had a competent mate aboard. In addition, I had filed a float plan so others would know where we were planning to go and when we would arrive.

Although I was aboard a large and capable sportfisherman, these housekeeping duties apply to owners of all boats, including those in small craft on New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay or motoryachts on Long Island Sound. You should always know your boat’s capabilities, as well as your own level of expertise. Some of the best days I’ve had on the water were not filled with sun, mild winds and loads of fish. Rather, I remember days of soaked charts and heavy salt.

The goal is to not feel unsettled about picking your weather days. The more you use your vessel, the more comfortable you will become in a variety of conditions. You will educate and teach yourself about weather and forecasts. You will understand what happens when an outgoing tide collides with onshore wind and how quickly conditions can deteriorate. You’ll learn how changing your course a few degrees will improve the ride through choppy seas, even if it means you add a few more miles to the route. And you’ll discover that slowing down minimizes the jarring and pounding when running into head seas. Your guests will respect your authority as you remind them to stay seated and hold on to something sturdy when moving about in rough water. And while they may not realize it at the time, these guests will be grateful when a rough day on the water remains uneventful because you remembered to change the fuel filters before the trip, so that dirt in the fuel tank couldn’t get riled by the slop and pose issues for the engines.

When you operate a boat in less than stellar conditions, you test your mettle as a skipper. Knowing when to go and when to stay back at the dock is your choice. But every day is different.

When we left Montauk at first light the morning after that wild ride there was a hint of fog, but it lifted when we came around the point. The run from there to Brielle was as easy as a day at the beach, and those five-gallon buckets in the cockpit stayed dry as a bone. 

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.

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