Heads Coach

Learning to pick your way through the rough stuff.

I have this friend. Many years ago we were cruising the North Atlantic in a new $100,000 boat borrowed from a manufacturer when the wind and seas kicked up and got hairy. We were running in a nasty, confused head sea and my buddy tried to hand over the controls to Boating's Senior Technical Editor Kevin Falvey, who happened to be along for the ride. Kevin begged off and suggested that we use my friend's experience as fodder for a column. I mentioned that we'd already published "How to Sink Your Boat," but Kevin persisted. For my friend it was baptism by fire or, more accurately, baptism by salt spray. But it was worth it. Here's what we learned.

Hang Loose
A rough head sea constantly changes. To navigate for the duration, you need strength and flexibility at the helm. This part is crucial: Keep one hand on the wheel and the other on the throttles to deal with ever-changing course and speed. Electronic controls and power steering help. In a small open boat, you'll likely take some spray in the face. Try to relax. Bend your knees. Don't tense up.

The Hull Truth
Good news! Your hull is designed for these conditions. Use it. While at the helm, visualize your hull at work. Its sharp stem eases in, the bow flare picks up buoyancy as the boat penetrates deeper, and the rest of the hull follows the bow through and over the waves. It may not feel like this is what's happening-after all, the boat is pitching up and down. But navigating into a head sea provides the greatest amount of directional stability because the bow provides the least resistance to the waves.

Slow as You Go
There are those who swear by the Full Speed Ahead at All Costs rule. This assumption is, in a word, insane. What follows may seem obvious to those with all their senses: Slow down. A slower speed of approach gives the bow time to rise after meeting the wave.

Reading Is Fundamental
In a head sea the waves and the water are an open book. After all, you're staring directly at them. Look for green water and avoid white water. Because its full of air bubbles, white water doesn't provide as much buoyancy as green. Propulsion and helm response can be sluggish in aerated water and cavitation is more likely, too.

Don't Break Dance
Breakers leave no room to maneuver, and the troughs behind them are steeper than those of non-cresting waves, which also leaves no maneuvering room. If you find yourself having to deal with a breaker, power up the face and get the bow over the top, then come off the throttle and allow the boat to settle as easily as possible into the trough. You'll probably drop, but that's better than launching and falling. Dropping into the trough might jar you, but it won't be nearly as bad as the fall following a complete launch off the crest.

Keep On Keepin' On
Sure, rough head seas are unpredictable, but you can sometimes anticipate waves in a set. Always choose the path of least resistance. Use the Mountain Pass Theorem, which states that the pass lies along the lowest point of elevation through the mountains-a saddle point. Look for the same thing in waves. Forgive the sailboat jargon, but tacking is often the best bet. Work your way over each wave and vary your speed and angle of approach to account for differences among them. In the conditions we were in, an approach of 10 to 25 degrees was best-instead of straight ahead-then a hard bank to port to keep the hull connected to the water. And each time, we increased speed on the way up the face, then immediately reduced speed to avoid a hard impact. If you find yourself approaching a wave straight ahead, use a slight angle when coming off it to avoid falling off the cliff.

Go into a head sea knowing that you won't get through without pitching and banging...but you will get through it in the end. Oh, and thanks to Kevin for not letting "my friend" relinquish the wheel.