Take On Head Seas More Smoothly

Beat the abuse of head seas with these helpful tips.
Boat on rough seas
You can beat head seas by decelerating in advance. Boating Magazine

Remember when your brother jumped off the low side of a teeter-totter, and you were still up in the air? Wham, right? Down you came with a thud.

That’s what it can feel like in head sea, as your boat falls off one wave and into the next, with a series of bone-thumping decelerations—over and over again. Just thinking about it will make your back ache and stomach queasy. Head seas can quickly turn a pleasant cruise into an interminable ordeal, but a few boat handling tips can minimize the pounding and help you navigate these challenging conditions safely, says Boating magazine editor Kevin Falvey.

Falvey has bucked enough head seas to know that deft boat handling is the key to managing these challenging conditions safely. Take those teeth-rattling decelerations, for example. Paradoxically, you can minimize the impact by decelerating in advance—easing back on the throttle just before your bow slams into the next wave.

After all, Falvey says, “The faster you come off the previous wave the faster your boat will slow down when it hits the next one, and the harder you will pound.” In other words, a slower boat keeps your brother on the metaphorical seesaw. Falvey’s colleague Randy Vance says 5 to 10 mph may be your max in big seas.

There are other ways to beat the abuse of head seas, and the best strategy often depends on your boat’s design, Falvey says. Just as swimmers can enter the pool with a knifelike dive or belly-seering flop, different hull shapes handle head seas with varying degrees of grace. Knifelike is the deep-V hull, which slices into a wave before decelerating; boats with shallower deadrise are the belly-floppers.

Low Deadrise? Ride the Chine.

When it comes to hull design, flat means splat. The low-deadrise design offers advantages such as quick planing and great load bearing—but wave taming is not one of them. You can, however, reduce the abuse of head seas by riding on your chine—in effect, creating something of a wave-slicing keel by canting the boat, heeling it over by using trim tabs, or shifting weight or crew. Like a sharp hull, the chine now slices the water and slows deceleration when meeting the next wave. It looks and feels a bit ungainly, and it may throw extra spray, but it won’t loosen fillings.

V-Hull? Do Your Level Best!

The opposite is true for boats with deeper-V bottoms. High-deadrise hulls often lean into the wind, riding now on the flatter surface between keel and chine. The solution is to reverse the shallow-deadrise trick: Shift weight or use tabs, not to lean the boat, but to stand it straight for the softest ride.

A Tack Attack

In large swells, where your boat falls off the crests, take the seas at a slight angle instead of head-on. That keeps more of your hull supported as you go over the crest, so your boat rides, rather than falls, down the back side. Zigzagging—what sailors call “tacking”—may take a little more time, maybe a little more gas, but it can pay off in the form of a lot more boating comfort.

Edits by Jeff Moag/Water Sports Foundation

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons®, or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.