Recreational Boating Safety – Dealing with Other Boats’ Wakes

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
If you have ever traveled a busy waterway such as the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), then you have seen the results of crossing another boat’s wake at the wrong angle, the wrong speed, or too close to the other boat. Perhaps you have done one of these things (you know you have) and quickly regretted it. If you are lucky, you will only experience a very rough ride if you cross another boat’s wake improperly. Other results can be damage to your hull, swamping your boat, ejecting passengers and gear, and flipping your boat. If you learn a few pointers then you will have so smooth a wake crossing that you will amaze your passengers with your boat handling skills and you will probably get a salute from the other boat operator. Here is a list of considerations for each wake crossing:

  1. Which side to cross (port to port or starboard to starboard)
  2. How to signal your intention
  3. How close behind to cross
  4. At what angle to cross and at what speed to cross
  5. How to trim your boat for the crossing
  6. What to do when things go wrong

Rules of the Road: Passing Head-On (Rule 14)
“Unless otherwise agreed when two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.”

It’s just like driving a car on a two-lane undivided road: keep right! Oh, if only it were that simple. In most cases it is, but there are some other considerations. Each meet requires some analysis. Just be sure to clearly signal your intentions.

Land Ho!
First, is there room to move to starboard. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW) for 1,088 miles between Norfolk, VA, and Miami, FL. The AIWW is authorized to 12 feet deep with widths of 90 feet through and cuts and 150 feet in open water areas, and nine feet deep in most of Florida. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) runs approximately 1,050 miles from Carrabelle, FL, to Brownsville, TX. The depths and widths stated above are minimum standards, and experience in my areas shows the depths to be 17-18 feet in most places. Widths have also increased over time as barge traffic has eroded the sides of the channel, but even so, care must be taken when meeting large barge tows so that you don’t ground your boat in the very shallow waters on either side of the channel. A GPS map on your chart plotter can be very useful in keeping you in deep water.

Stand By for Collision!
Second, ask yourself does the boat you are meeting have following traffic that could interfere with your meet with the first boat. In a busy section of the ICW following boats is often the case. You have to worry about that center console boat closing on the boat you are meeting at 40 mph. On which side will he pass? Due to the instability created when you cross a large boat’s wake, consider waiting until following traffic makes its passing move. You don’t want to meet such a boat within the wake of the boat being passed. Neither of you is in full control of your boat at that time. You can only guess how the boat wake will affect your maneuverability as you cross it. A tug with 10,000 hp shoving several loaded barges creates some powerful currents and eddies that can swing your boat around 180 degrees if you cross too closely. Don’t take a chance on colliding with a following boat.

Move It on Over
Third, don’t make your move in a curve. Hank Williams sang it best: “Move over little dog ‘cause the big dog’s moving in.” A typical American barge measures 195 by 35 feet, and most barge tows are double wide and double to triple long. If you think your mega truck is hard to maneuver in a parking lot, think of how hard it is to control a 600-foot long, 70-foot wide barge tow going around a sharp bend in the channel. On the water we call this situation “Restricted in Ability to Maneuver.” That barge tow is going to go where it needs to go, and it is up to you to stay out of its way. “Move over skinny dog ‘cause the fat dog’s moving in.”

Rule 8: Action to Avoid Collision

  1. Any action taken to avoid collision shall be in accordance with Rules 4-19 and shall if the circumstances of the case admit, be positive, made in ample time and due regard to the observance of good seamanship.
  2. Any alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel observing visually or by radar; a succession of small alterations of course and/or speed should be avoided.
  3. If there is sufficient sea room, alteration of course alone may be the most effective action to avoid a close-quarters situation provided that is made in good time, is substantial and does not result in another close quarters situation.
  4. Action taken to avoid collision with another vessel shall be such as to result in passing at a safe distance. The effectiveness of the action shall be carefully checked until the other vessel is finally past and clear.

It’s me again. We aren’t playing dodge ball here. Signal your intention to the boat you are meeting so that he doesn’t have any doubt as to what your intent is. Make your move sooner than later. If you want to talk to a commercial boat that you want to meet, you can do so on marine channel 13 (bridge to bridge). If your situation is such that you cannot move because you are having engine problems, anchor as soon as possible so that you don’t drift into the path of the other vessel; let the captain of the other vessel know your situation.

What’s Your Angle?
You have made it past the boat you are meeting. Now you have to deal with the big elephant in the room: the wake. Here are some important tips to properly crossing the wake of another boat:

  1. Alert your passengers. Let them know if you plan to make a course change or speed change (“Coming down!” “Turning to port!”). This allows them to brace before they feel the effect of your actions.
  2. Move out away from the wake as far as safely possible to allow it to dissipate, keeping in mind where the shallow water is.
  3. Prepare to slow down. If your boat is on plane, reducing speed below plane will lift the bow up and help to create a cushioning effect. The bow high position also reduces the chance of diving the bow onto the second wave.
  4. Approach the wake at a 45 degree angle. Do not turn into the wake. Instead, continue heading parallel to the other boat. This allows the boat to roll a bit over the wake rather than jumping it. This also helps keep your boat positioned properly in the channel.
  5. Once you have crossed the wake you can return the boat to plane. In some instances, you can stay on plane if the wake is slight rather than high.
  6. Watch out for boats that may be following you; they may try to pass you while you are crossing the wake of another boat. Some people just don’t know when to slow down. Any change in course should only be made after checking for other boats who could become on a collision course with your boat if you changed course.

Just a Little off the Sides
That’s what barbers call a trim, and that is the next topic. You can smooth your transition across a small wake by slightly lowering your trim. That pushed the bow down slightly, putting more of the hull into the water. When you are bow up you have less of your hull in the water, and that can multiply the effect of the wake on your boat. Not only that, but your boat is better balanced and steers easier with the trim slightly lowered. A half-second downward burst on the trim button should do the trick. Allow your boat to adjust to the new trim before making subsequent changes in trim or you could find yourself over-trimming down. Over-trimming up at high speeds creates unpredictable boat handling. If you find your boat beginning to porpoise (the bow bounces up and down), reduce throttle slightly as you trim down. If you gauge everything correctly you won’t even feel the wake.

When All Else Fails
Sometimes you do everything right but you still find your boat out of control. You could be in danger of being swamped, you could find your bow about to be forced below the water due to a pitching effect, you could find yourself parallel to a deep trough setting yourself up for the boat to roll, or you could find your boat porpoising harder and harder. In most cases your only safe choice is to stop and recover. If you find your boat running parallel to a wave and inside the trough of the wave, then reduce throttle and try to turn out of the trough by gradually turning the bow into the crest of the wave. This is called squaring up. Reduce speed so that you do not launch off the top of the wave. Use enough power to get the entire boat through or over the crest. Lighter craft will not carry momentum so constant application of power is necessary.

Pitching occurs when the boat is running bow into the wave. The bow of the boat rises over the wave and drops rapidly into the trough. When this happens, the bow can drop below the water surface and flood the boat. If the waves become too steep, reduce speed. This will allow the bow to rise, meeting the swell rather than being driven hard into it.

A few simple rules can make crossing a boat’s wake a smooth proposition rather than a bone-jarring experience. First, decide on which side to meet or pass. Second, signal your intention to the boat being met or passed and let your passengers know, too. Third, reduce speed as needed to cross the wake. Fourth, trim down to increase control of your boat. Lastly, watch out for other boats attempting to meet or pass. Make wake crossing a non-event rather than a dangerous venture.

[BC: Nov-21-2023]

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