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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Sea Conditions

Sea Conditions
Sea Conditions.  This is bad news.  I think we need a bigger boat!?
There's a funny thing about knowledge; once you know something, you can't un-know it, and it's hard to imagine a time when something was new and foreign to you when it's so 'obvious' now. 

Boating is one of those tasks that I like to view from the outside once in a while, to remind myself that things aren't that obvious when you're starting out.  If they were, you'd never get so much hilarity at your local boat launch!

One of those obvious things is regarding sea conditions, or the 'sea state.'  In the beginning, it's easy to see two conditions: one, water is flat, and two, water is rough or choppy.  But upon further examination, there are actually a bunch of different water conditions, and they are influenced by wind, tide, underwater structure, above-water structure and traffic, among other things.

Although some may disagree, I feel there are five primary water conditions:

  1. Head Sea
  2. Following Sea
  3. Beam Sea
  4. Confused Waves
  5. Calm Water
Obviously, calm water is easy to spot.  However, some of the others may sometimes be difficult to discern, and even harder still to ride comfortably.

A head sea occurs when the direction of the waves is flowing toward you.  So, you are riding directly into sets of waves that are coming straight at you.  Depending on the size of your boat and the size of the waves, this can be extremely uncomfortable as your boat slams into wave after wave, which is essentially serving as an opposing force to push your boat back.  Avoid traveling in a head sea.

A following sea is exactly the opposite, when you are riding with the wave direction.  This can be good or bad, depending again on size of boat and size of wave, and distance of wave length.  A following sea, if the waves are large, can potentially be life-threatening if broaching occurs.  A broach occurs when a wave overtakes you from behind, pushes your stern to the side (turning the boat sideways), and capsizes you.  Or, if the wave is large enough, it may just capsize you end over end.  This style of roller coaster is not recommended.  However, a mellow following sea can be a nice asset; not only will it assist your forward progress with speed-over-ground, but it can also cushion your boat as it rides from one wave to the next.

A beam sea is when the direction of the waves is perpendicular to your line of travel.  Sometimes I find that this can create dreadful pounding (when the bow of the boat rides up one wave into the air, then crashes woefully into the next wave, over and over again until you want to cough up a kidney).  However, sometimes I find I can ride between the wave sets and it's quite comfortable. 

If all of this seems like an annoying 'it depends' answer, that's because it really depends.  Until you take your boat out and ride around in these conditions, you won't really know what's an appropriate speed or direction to make for a comfortable ride.  Sometimes you won't find one, and you'll wish you had a bigger boat.  Who am I kidding?  We all wish we had a bigger boat anyway.


Lastly, confused waves can be the most fun, or can drive you nuts.  I've gone through five-foot standing waves before in the Race (between Fishers Island and the tip of the north fork of Long Island) and it was like threading a needle; calm, easy riding through a slalom course of waves that would slap my hand if I held it out to the side.  However, sometimes confused seas can crop up to make mini-super-waves or mini-super-troughs which will surprise your vessel, causing it to rise and fall suddenly (what goes up, must come down...like a few tons of bricks, in our case here). 

If you're like me, a weekend warrior, sometimes you don't have the luxury of a retiree to wait for fair weather and calm seas.  Sometimes, you just have to get back for Monday's workday.  However, know your boat, know how it rides, and know how to manipulate the vessel to provide a comfortable ride.  For instance, trim tabs may help reduce pounding, but trim tabs used in a following sea can capsize you.  'Riding the chine,' where you essentially tip the boat on its side to provide a better slicing angle on waves, has been suggested in various forums; however, I've never been able to get this to work, and I don't like the idea of riding my boat like a sailboat.  If I wanted to ride tipped-over, I'd just sail, and I'd have a smoother ride because of a sailboat's better wave-handling properties. 

If possible, try to ride the waves at a 45 degree angle to where they are coming or going, so midway between head/following sea and beam sea.  That should produce the easiest ride.  However, don't forget throttles and steering either.  Sometimes slowing down and making the changing landscape into a slalom course can work to your advantage.  When all else fails, heed the advice of Captain Quint in Jaws - and get a bigger boat.
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