Top 10 Tips for Handling Your Boat in Rough Seas
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  • Post last modified:April 16, 2021

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My Best 10 Ways to Boat in Rough Seas and Nasty Weather

When you’re out on the water, extreme weather and rough sea conditions can be a dangerous mix.

As alert, as you can be, you can still be caught by surprise by the weather and water.

Heatwaves bring high-pressure fronts in the summer boating season and can bring about storms quite suddenly.

And, particularly because you already know how to avoid and heal a wobbly stomach, there are worse things that can happen to you than getting seasick.

The good news is that you should take precautions to ensure that you don’t head right into a storm’s mouth where you’ll be boating in rough seas. And when you’re not in an optimal boating situation, there are steps you can take to remain healthy.

We will help you escape the more severe problems that rough seas pose here. You may also need to learn about safety considerations in addition to reading this article, such as basic boating navigation and having important safety items on board.

1 – Pay Attention to the Weather Forecast

I never go out on my boat without checking the weather. Even if I’m just planning to ski near the launch or marina. Wind knots are a tell-tale indicator of how big swells are going to get and whether you might experience whitecaps or not.

There are many free boating applications such as Windfinder and also desktop pages such as Wind Speed Convertors.

How to calculate wind knots from a wind speed converter.

  1. Capture wind speed, determined by an anemometer in kilometers.
  2. To get the mph of wind speed, divide the kilometers of wind speed by 1.61.

Ex: 100 kph ÷ 1.61 = 62 mph = 62 mph Ex:

  1. First, translate the wind speed from mph to feet per hour, then divide it by the number of feet per nautical mile.

Ex: 62 mph x 5280 ft = 327,360 hourly feet

327,360 hourly feet ÷ 6,076 feet = 53.8 knots

Note: a statute mile is 5,280 feet. A nautical mile is 6,076 feet.

And to note, the rough measurement of the distance of a thunderstorm in miles needs to be known:

(# seconds between thunder and flash) ÷ 5 = # miles away

2 – Wear your Personal Flotation Device

Be sure to put on lifejackets and USCG-approved PFDs if you encounter heavy seas. To send passengers flying overboard, all it will take is to strike a wave at the wrong angle. By having passengers sit in the middle and lowest section of the ships, this can be avoided.

And invest in some foul weather gear while on the subject. Cold rains and winds will also leave passengers soaked and chilled to the bone in poor weather conditions, resulting in hypothermia. Invest in hooded raincoats or ponchos, any moisture-wicking, and rapid-drying garments, and wear several layers or an additional set of clothing. The trick is to make sure your head, which releases the most heat, is protected.

3 – Fill Up Your Fuel Tank and Have an Emergency Kit

You should always have a boat emergency kit and some life-saving safety equipment, particularly if you’re on large or coastal bodies of water. That’s the time you can break those things out of lockers and get them close by while in rough seas. You have to do the following:

Have horns and instruments on hand for signaling.

  • Turn on your VHF marine radio (check price on Amazon) and set it to international distress channel 16.
  • Just in case you lose motor maneuverability near shallow water, rocks, or otherwise hazardous shores, prepare an anchor.
  • Take the bailer bucket out in the event of water breach and spillage.
  • Finally, pick up the Dramamine. I have a fairly good constitution and can withstand rough seas, but even strong stomachs can’t hack the choppiness of some monster swells.


4 -Reduce Your Speed and Turn on Navigational Lights for Visibility

Slow down and maintain the speed of your vessel! You will also need to tilt it at 45 degrees to minimize the effect of swells. It’s the best path, even if you’re not going straight to your destination.

Ask fellow travelers to have an additional pair of eyes when slowing down, alerting you of nearby boats and even debris. Even if you have 20/20 vision, nearby boaters can not! Torrential downpours and dense fogs will bring bad weather, so it is important to decrease speeds and maintain a lookout.

Also, you can switch your navigation lights on! These aren’t just for navigation at night, they’re there for foggy conditions too. This helps boaters to see the bow and stern of your vessel and from wading too close.

Riding too fast in rough seas and bad weather can make everyone seasick. Remember – your goal is to have fun, not win a race!

5 – Find Calmer Conditions – Change Course

If you have an app or a way to monitor the Doppler radar, you might be able to stay out of the path of the storm. Find shelter in other ways to find calmer situations if you can’t do so. In a pinch, bridges, coves and even the dock of a stranger will serve as large umbrellas and wind barriers.

Some boaters, if there is lightning, are afraid to go near bridges. But the logic behind this falls into another way of thinking: if lightning reaches the bridge you are under, it will fly back to the land in either direction along the bridge with already tiny chances. I’ll take those chances if it’s a severe enough storm!

6 – Disconnect Electrical Equipment

You need to disconnect all electrical devices if the storm has brought lightning with it. And don’t touch anything metal!

7 – Run With the Swells

If you find yourself caught riding the trough in the lower parts of the swells, take note! This will start to rock your boat and may probably cause it to roll. It may not target you in the direction you need to go, riding parallel with waves, and it may take you a lot longer to get home, but it is considered the safest way.

With a 45-degree angle within the trough, you might find more stability, too.

8 – Don’t Outrun the swells

You can outrun the waves occasionally by riding the crests, but it’s a fine line. Just remember: If it’s the wave or your vessel, it must come down to what goes up!

It is tricky to run ahead of the waves and can often lead to broaching, meaning you crash into the wave ahead, usually from too much momentum on your part, resulting instead in the wave behind moving the vessel sideways along the trough. And a sharp turnabout of broaching can lead to capsizing!

9 – Ride Out the Storm

If all else fails, the swells are high and your vessel is being thrown around so much you feel like you’re not going anywhere, don’t struggle against it. Just ride out that storm.

There’s only one technique you need for this: guiding the bow as much as you can into the swells and wind. You don’t want the swells to strike the hull any harder than they need to. The bow will break through the waves in this way and ease the effect (and your stomach).

You might even need to heave up if you’re low on petrol. You should deploy an anchor and use limited steering power while heaving to protect the fuel you have left to make it back to land when the storm lets up.

10 -Take a Boating Safety Course

Boating in rough seas depends on learning how to navigate your boat safely. Any of the above strategies are maneuvers that you can practice to become more prepared in calmer waters, but the best choice I can suggest is to sign up for a USCG Auxiliary Boating class (or two) such as Weather & Boating or a well-rounded course in Boating Skills and Seamanship.

The majority of water injuries are caused by human error. The more relaxed you feel handling your vessel, the easier it will be in rough seas to navigate boating.

Keep safe and relaxed and the sailing will be smooth!

John Allen

With more than a decade of experience cruising the lakes in my Crestliner Grand Cayman pontoon boat and my Boston Whaler, I now want to share everything I've learned with my community here at Boating Hub.

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