Avoiding Wake Mistakes

Five common wake mistakes that get boaters into trouble.

Like a lot of boaters, I’ve learned some valuable seamanship lessons the hard way. One lesson that comes to mind occurred as I manned the helm of a 27-foot center-console while shepherding a crew of friends on a sightseeing tour. We were tucked behind a cruiser in a channel, and, growing impatient, I hit the throttles and attempted to cross its wake to cut ahead. All seemed good until we launched into the trough and three of my passengers went flying off the cooler seat in front of the console. No one got hurt, but the mishap has stuck with me through the years. Here’s a quick review of the wake mistakes I made that you should avoid.

Too Close
The first error I made was running up too close behind the cruiser before deciding to overtake it. I should have assessed the situation earlier, but I still could have eased off the throttles and dropped back to pass. The cruiser was throwing a giant wake, which would have dissipated farther back. I crossed the waves at their steepest, tightest point.

Too Fast
I also kept a constant speed, crossing the wakes at about 30 mph, rather than easing off to lessen the impact. While it is important to maintain some speed to keep control of the boat as it hits the wake, sometimes it is necessary to throttle back to the boat’s minimum planing speed (you should find this out by throttling back in calm water, but it’s typically between 14 and 18 mph) or even just off plane.


Wrong Angle
While inside the wake I cut the wheel hard over and tried to cross perpendicular to it, so that I basically launched the boat off the crest and landed in the deepest part of the trough. It’s also a bad idea to take the wake completely on the boat’s beam, which could lead to a serious snap roll. Best to point the bow to the wake at a 30- to 45-degree angle, crossing the wave diagonally and sliding over the crest without getting airborne, to minimize the impact upon re-entry.

Bow Seating
Seating forward of the helm is the worst place to be in rough seas. The bow rides completely out of the water when a boat’s on plane, so it offers the least stability and has the farthest to fall before impact. That’s why my three forward passengers went flying while those in the transom jump seats barely flinched. A boat’s center of gravity — the most stable point in the hull — is usually about two-thirds of the length aft of the bow, typically at or just behind the console.

Silence Is Not Golden
In all this, my worst offense might have been my failure to tell the crew what I was doing. I assumed, incorrectly, that they realized we were about to cross a wake, but they were deep in conversation and caught off guard. Since then I’ve always made a point to sound out my intentions, even something as basic as “I’m turning hard to port.”


Also, I neglected to notify the boat we were passing. Rules of the road call for notifying a vessel you are overtaking via VHF radio or the horn — one short blast to pass to starboard, two short blasts to pass to port. For an instructional video on overtaking vessels, visit