Safe Boating: Handling Big Seas on a Small Boat

 boating tips for rough seas

I’ve been an inshore fishing guide in the Islamorada area for the last 15 years. One thing I’ve enjoyed most is having the versatility of a slightly larger vessel, like my former classic Seacraft and my current Contender Bay, that can go both offshore and in the backcountry. Many of today’s bay-style boats and hybrids offer these capabilities as they’ve had decades of research to implement the proper hull designs and use of modern materials and production methods to build hulls that can go shallower while still riding comfortably in choppy waters offshore.

Still, no boat can do it all great, especially on days when you get caught in unpredictable weather or you just get in over your head. That’s when it definitely pays off to have some experience under your belt or at least know a few tips on operating your vessel when conditions get extreme.

First and foremost, it’s important to know how fast to run your boat depending on the height and frequency of the seas you are riding in. Often in the bay with a larger bay boat, you can run fast and stay on top of a small chop (1-2 feet) and the boat usually rides more comfortably than trying to go slower over them, where you are pounding and feeling every wave. It also usually helps to trim the bow down in that scenario to keep the impact in a more solid part of the boat’s hull.

Now, when you get offshore in larger swells, this isn’t always possible, especially if you are going into the sea when waves are much larger. In that case, you may want to just chug slowly, going up and down easily with each swell, keeping your hand on the throttle to speed up or slow down when necessary. You must pay attention and take your time, as hitting a wave wrong can throw a lot of spray and cause unnecessary pounding on your passengers. Always keep an eye on your motor as well and try to trim it properly and avoid swamping it with saltwater, if you can. Most outboards can handle getting dunked a fair bit, but I always feel like the less saltwater you can drive up under the cowling, the better.

 rough water boat handling

Now, going down sea in that same scenario may be a different ball game. You must be familiar with how your boat handles and try what you think might work best. If you are unsure, always play it safe. A good idea is to get your passengers in the back of the boat as that will always be a more comfortable ride if you hit a wave hard.

Another strategy I often use in rougher swells is going sideways across the waves. Sometimes you can keep the ride a little dryer and softer, zigging and zagging (almost like surfing) the waves, though it may take a little longer and be a less-direct route to get where you want to go. Using your trim tabs can be effective here as well. One other tip when you come off plane in rough conditions and you want to avoid getting sprayed, you can turn straight into the wind/swells and bring the boat down gently and, hopefully, have all the spray go off the sides of the boat as opposed to getting carried inside and soaking your crew.

I’ve always had trim tabs on my boats, which come in handy in a number of situations. They are a great tool to have when trying to jump on plane quickly with a stern loaded with the weight of passengers, livewells, coolers, etc. They are also very helpful when operating your boat in rough conditions. You can trim one side of your bow down, usually the opposite side of where the wind is coming from whichever way you are running, and this will make the hull pounding a lot more comfortable for those on board. It will also often help with spray that is annoying to deal with if you are a passenger. That can help in the scenario described above, but also if you are in shallow water running at high speed it can make the ride much more pleasurable for all.

However, you decide to operate your boat, always make safety your No. 1 priority. This may mean taking a longer route to get to where you are going, but, in the long run, it’s usually a better bet. Not only is it going to be more comfortable for the people in the boat, but also your boat itself will thank you. The less pounding and salt spray your vessel and equipment must endure, the better it is going to be for it in the long run.