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Tips for Tacking in a Powerboat

There are times when tacking like a sailboat makes sense.

September 27, 2013
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Halfway through our crossing to the west end of Catalina Island off the southern California coast, seas pushed up by Pacific zephyrs eventually turned our fast cruise to a slow, pounding slog. “This sucks,” I said over the wind noise. “We’re taking a different tack.”

Crew members thought I was returning to Long Beach Harbor. But instead I turned the 22-footer about 45 degrees to port and began quartering the seas.

I was able to pick up the speed, but more importantly the pounding abated. We now cruised more comfortably at a less-severe angle to the waves. Still, spray over the starboard bow drenched the decks and I had to pay close attention to the helm as we sliced diagonally over the capping rollers.

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Eventually we reached the lee of the island. Once the seas settled, I tacked 45 degrees to starboard and firewalled the throttle, putting us on a course to our fishing spot on the front side of the west end.

While a straight line between two points is the shortest route, it’s not always the safest, most comfortable or even fastest in snotty seas. That’s when you might start tacking, like a sailboat. Let’s look at three situations where this helps.

1. Pounding Up-Sea
As described earlier, running at a right angle to steep, closely spaced seas ranks as a hate mission and slows your progress to a crawl. There’s also the distinct possibility of stuffing as the boat falls off the crest of a roller and into a hole at the base of the next nasty one.

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In this situation, try steering off-sea in one direction for a few miles, and then tack the other way. Quartering the waves helps smooth the ride but also requires all of your piloting skills — including judicious application of throttle and attention at the wheel — to keep the boat on course and deal with the occasional cowabunga wave.

One downside to quartering up-sea is more wind spray than if you meet the waves head-on. That’s the price you pay for a smoother ride. With an enclosure, you stay dry.****

2. Racing Down-Sea
Large following seas loom treacherous as the boat races down the face of a wave, sometimes losing steering and leaving you vulnerable to the roller astern. In steep seas, you risk stuffing into the backsides of waves. I know. I’ve been there.

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Quartering down-sea helps minimize these risks, but you may find it helpful to take a wider angle than when quartering up-sea. Also realize the faces of the waves can be very steep. So on small boats, discourage crew from taking shelter on the lee side of the boat. Instead, ask them to move to the windward (aka wet) stern quarter. Time your reverse tack to a lull in the waves, and then come about smartly.

3. Soaked in a Beam Sea
On breezy afternoons on a lake in a small, aluminum boat (prone to be wet), I like to tack to stay dry. If our course has us running across the lake with a breeze on our beam, I’ll quarter sharply up-sea for a while, then down-sea. I guess I could just put on a rain jacket, but zigzagging like a sailboat across the lake is more fun.

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