Thursday, November 18, 2010

BOATING LESSON - for every sea there is a safer course and speed

“The NTSB final report on the capsizing of the small charter fishing 
vessel determined that the probable cause was the decision of the 
master to attempt to cross the bar at Garibaldi, Oregon in hazardous 
sea states that existed at the time.” “Boca Raton Inlet is dangerous 
and particularly hazardous to all boats not designed for open seas. 
Persons using this inlet should be experienced boatmen and should 
be extremely knowledgeable of the area.” “The Columbia River Bar 
is opened and closed to navigation at the discretion of the Columbia 
River Bar Pilots, based on existing or anticipated weather conditions.” 
So what are we mortal boaters to do? What do you do if weather has
turned nasty and there are breakers on the only inlet to home for 50
miles? If you chose to run that inlet, doing it right might be the difference
between a few heart flutters and disaster.
Let’s look, with Capt. Steve, at some lessons he learned and see what
we can do right, and wrong.
Inlet Running
Sometimes Mother Nature can turn ugly. Respect for Her ever changing attitudes 
is a necessity for all but the fair weather boaters that operate in only protected waters.
Capt. Steve’s Story…
Anyone who has been a boater long enough can tell you horror stories of crossing a rough
inlet, and I’m one of them. My lesson happened in the late 80’s as I was taking one of my
party fishing boats around Cape Cod for a seasonal haul out in the Cape Cod Canal. The
trip called for me to transit Woods Hole and enter Buzzards Bay to set up an approach to
the Canal. It was late October, roughly ½ mile vis. in dense fog, I was in command with a
crew of one. The Champion II was 42' (12.8 m) long, and top heavy as hell thanks to the
combination of the enclosed wheel house and the boat's narrow beam (the measure of
which escapes me).
Inlet Running
One of the few surviving images of Capt. Steve’s Champion II. Notice how the deck 
is recessed below the gunwales, which increases the height of the rails to a regulation 
39.5” (100.3cm). (The jug is thrown overboard by the mate to mark a fishing spot as 
you pass over it. Then you come around and anchor precisely, resting at that buoy)
I had finally entered Buzzards Bay and the going went well enough for the first several miles.

Then things started to change. The winds, ever present from the Southwest, started to
increase without warning, just as the tide was reaching its max ebb. This was a setup
for the classic wind against the tide scenario that causes building seas. And with nothing
but unobstructed room for hundreds of miles, the waves did build indeed. But this was
nothing I hadn’t been through before, and when you operate the same boat every day
for years on end, you become intimate with its handling quirks in different seas.
C2's Handling Characteristics
And the ole “C2” had her quirks to be sure. She had high bows that flared out nicely, and that
made her great in head seas. But beam seas were another matter, as she was so top heavy.
This caused a serious roll that you really had to watch out for. More than once I’d trail a 5
gallon bucket off the stern when anchored with the wind against the tide in order to get myself
out of a beam to anchor position.
Then there were the following seas. If the beam seas didn’t catch you on this boat, the following
seas would. With her narrow beam, C2 would get pushed around when a wave came up against
the square stern. Every day was a fight heading back in from the fishing grounds since every
day it’s blowing in Nantucket Sound...every day. Such was the case this day in Buzzard’s Bay,
and the following seas were steadily building.
So it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and fighting with the helm to keep the boat headed
square to the seas coming from behind. We’d surf down one wave and hit the next, throw water
everywhere, ride up and over the top and do it all over again. And over and over and…
Recipe for Disaster
Then, we hit upon the perfect combination of wave height, speed, and angle of attack that set the
stage for disaster. While coming down the front side of a particularly large wave, we hit enough
speed to cause us to penetrate the forward wave, rather than ride up and over it. Now a number
of things could happen and they were all going through my mind in quick succession.
This had happened before, and when it did, the bow’s buoyancy took effect and pulled itself out
of the wave. This time I waited briefly for that to happen...but it didn’t. We just kept going deeper
into that forward wave. Suddenly white water was going over the rails, and then it started turning
to blue water.
We had a serious problem: My beloved boat was becoming a submarine. If allowed to continue,
the bow would act as a scoop, and stop the travel, while the following wave would lift the stern up
and over. That’s called a pitch pole. Or… more likely in this boat, the stern would get pushed to
the side and we’d roll over. Or… we’d just keep going straight down, which looked like exactly
what was happening before my eyes. All of this was going on while I was fighting to keep the
boat headed straight.
With the rails going under, it was time to take action. I backed off on the throttle, hoping the
following wave would come under, and lift the boat clear of the surface. What ended up
happening was the following wave did indeed come under us, while at the same time the
forward momentum had stopped enough to end the downward trip. Then, we simply backed
out of the wave in the opposite direction that we went into it.…and...we started to surface.
Taking Stock of Damage
Once out and wallowing at idle speed, it was then a matter of heaving to, and initiating damage
control. I sent the crewman down to report, and he found several feet of water in the forward
cabin, which meant the bilges were flooded. A quick look over the side showed that the three
1750 gph pumps were working, but not quickly enough. The scuppers were almost awash and
we were in serious danger of going back down. The 6-71 Detroit Diesel was still turning, so I
left the helm with the crewman and went below to direct the engine driven fire pump to divert
the water from the bilge overboard. Twenty minutes later, we were back to normal and
continuing on our way. At least normal for the boat. I was purging adrenaline.
What Did I Do Wrong?
Twenty years of Monday morning quarterbacking this event has done little to help me figure out
what I could have done differently. To be sure, I was acting on the past history of the boat and I
therefore expected history to repeat itself, as it had thousands of times before -- but just didn’t
this time. What I needed to do was go slower down that one wave. Only a little slower would
have done it. Following the waves and riding on their backs was not an option. I had miles to go.

We ultimately continued the trip but it definitely put a fear into me and the memory lingers to this
day.  Since then, however, I’ve operated differently to ensure that I’m keeping the boat out of
trouble rather than depending on the boat to do it for me. And that’s a big difference.
So What Does This Look Like
To determine how to do it right, we first need to see it done wrong. The following pictures
depict another captain in nearly the same predicament. The differences are the boat of course,
and the breaking seas are closely located over an inlet reef, not stretching for miles like mine
Let’s dissect this trip with some incredible photos….
Inlet Running
We start as the fishing boat, a Garlington 51, is approaching the inlet. Breaking seas 
are present, likely from an outgoing tide. We have an experienced captain who has 
been running this inlet for 15 years, and who is intimate with his own boat. He 
encounters the first of the breaking seas at a speed greater than the wave itself is 
travelling. This is a well built boat with wide flaring bows that is capable of handling 
this encounter.
Inlet Running
At this point, the boat is on top of the cresting wave, and about to go down into the 
trough, just as she has it had a thousand times before.
Inlet Running
But this time the 51 had built up so much speed going down the following wave, that 
instead of going up and over the next wave, she instead plunged into it. This is called 
“stuffing” the bow. At this point, the bow acts as a sea anchor and digs in, slowing the 
forward half of the boat to a crawl. The stern, still wanting to keep up its speed, then 
gets pushed sideways and a dangerous broaching scenario is now likely. The following 
wave will roll the boat over.
Inlet Running
The rails are going under and the roll is imminent. Everything about the boat’s portside 
says stop, and the starboard side says go. Something’s got to give. Usually the only thing 
left is to roll over.
Inlet Running
At this point there are two things that can be done from the helm. Turn to port and try to 
get the boat leveled, or turn to starboard and hope to get the boat to heel over in the 
opposite direction. If you take off power you take away controllability. You have split 
seconds to decide… lives are at stake. What are you going to do?
Inlet Running
The cockpit is now under water and the bow is starting to rise. In spite of the wave’s 
best efforts, the boat refuses to accept her fate, and the captain is clearly struggling. 
He’s turned the helm, but we can’t determine which way just yet.
Inlet Running
Here the boat has reached her extreme of travel to the port side and the flybridge is 
nearly going under. The props are throwing water with the captain still fighting to 
regain control of his boat. With the bow rising, the rest of the boat is likely to follow, 
but that is by no means guaranteed.
Inlet Running
Now the boat is recovering from near disaster. We now know that the helm is hard to 
starboard causing the stern to travel in the direction of the heel, and the bow to go to 
starboard. The boat will attempt to roll to starboard, with the turn, aiding in its recovery.
Inlet Running
Now the boat is fully recovered and just needs to dewater, and of course maneuver 
out of harm’s way. This brings to light the benefits of a self bailing cockpit and the 
need for large scuppers.
Why Do The Waves Get This Big in an Inlet?
Picture a wave as viewed from the side. Now picture that there is as much under the wave 
as there is on top. When this bottom section comes into shallow water, as in an inlet, the 
wave gets pushed up. Eventually, there will be so much of the wave on top that it can’t hold 
itself up anymore, so it must crest and break over itself, or the shoreline.
When you have a wave running in one direction and the tide running against it, the resistance 
of the current underneath also acts to push the wave up. That’s why wind against the tide is 
such a bad combination.
So What Are We To Do?
Well, there are a number of things that we as mariners can do. First, stay inshore, inside the 
inlet. Of course in our private boats, there is rarely a need to make the trip. There is always an 
option of sitting at the dock wishing we were out there. And that can be classified as good 
But saying inshore is not always practical, so if we must head out into a breaking inlet, 
proceed out with our bow into the seas, or even just off. Ride up and over at a slight angle 
and we should be fine. Do not get caught sideways to a wave, and you still need limits. 
You can’t just go out in everything. Why not have everyone put on life jackets?
Heading Into an Inlet
If heading in, timing is everything. Ideally, you’ll want to avoid an ebb tide. Check your tide 
tables, waiting a couple of hours for the tide to change could be smartest thing you ever did. 
If you must run into the inlet, then do not go over the forward wave. Ride in along its backside. 
It will not be fast going, but it will be safer. For a rule of thumb, generally waves run in threes 
with the third being the largest and the tenth will be larger than the threes. That’s “rule of thumb,” 
not a hard and fast rule.
If the seas are too big to handle, choose another inlet, preferably one with deeper water, or 
heave to and wait out this one. It’s easier to get a cab ride back to your car from another port 
than to lose your boat getting into this one. If fuel is an issue, drop the hook.
Lesson Learned
When I said that my experience has changed my method of operating, I meant that I don’t let 
myself get caught screaming down a wave anymore. I do it, but not if it gets the boat to 
extremes. Not on any size boat.

I test boats regularly, but every time build up to the ends of the performance envelope slowly. 
It’s not like in the movies when you launch off and put the plane in the worst situation to see 
if it stays together. That never happens. But most importantly, when I’m in following seas, I 
progress slowly over the waves to see how the boat handles.
If I get close to stuffing the bow, I’ll slow down first, then raise the trim, then back off the speed 
more until I’m able to stay in control of the boat, rather than depend on the boat to control itself. 
Then I can report on what I did, and how you can do it in that boat.
I’ve crossed the street without getting hit by a car, but that by no means guarantees that I won’t 
ever get hit. Seeing someone else get hit, or almost getting hit myself, makes me cross that 
street differently. My incident makes me operate differently, but I still am an operator. 
Hopefully, reading this and seeing these photographs will have the same affect on you.
Capt. Steve
Editor's Note: As regular readers know, is dedicated to boater safety 
and helping boaters learn safe boating practices. We have published the photographs 
above, as well as Capt. Steve's commentary, to help make boaters all over the world 
more acutely aware of the danger of running inlets -- even for life-long professionals -- 
in adverse conditions.--Ed.

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