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Boat Wakes And Bad Tempers

On a recent summer afternoon, the Coast Guard cutter Vice was resetting day marker #20 on an especially busy day on Florida's Blackburn Bay along the ICW, north of Venice.

White powerboat cruising over a blue-green churning sea leaving a large wake behind in

Allan Horton, a BoatUS Member in Nokomis, Florida, noted that boats of all descriptions kept passing Vice with, at best, a token reduction in speed. As the Coast Guard crew worked to install the new marker, they were continually being tossed around by the passing boats' wakes. The Vice's captain responded by sounding the five-beat emergency signal several times. Remarkably, very few skippers seemed to slow down or even notice.

Horton, who describes himself as a frequent fist shaker whenever his boat is rocked, says he understands the Coast Guard captain's frustration. So do a lot of other skippers. Wakes make people angry. Lt. Scott Olson of the Florida Marine Patrol says he's been rocked quite a few times himself, even when his boat was in no-wake zones. It doesn't make him angry, however, because he says most people don't realize their boats are creating large wakes. Olson is a patient man; he says he turns on his blue light and "educates" them. Depending on the county in Florida, the cost to learn how to reduce the size of your wake is somewhere between $90 and $140.

What About Your Boat's Wake?

You can save a lot of money and also avoid being the recipient of rude gestures from other skippers by using a little common sense and courtesy. This means coming completely off plane when you enter a no-wake zone or any area where your wake could compromise the safety of other boats. All too often the skippers react to a no-wake sign by slowing the boat slightly and then plowing through with the boat's bow up in the air and the stern dug down into the water. Instead of reducing the size of the boat's wake, this token reduction in speed — not quite on plane — increases the size of the wake.

No wake means NO WAKE. The first rule is to slow down so that the boat is level (without using trim tabs) and the size of the wake is negligible. Look back at the wake you're creating. You can help to reduce the size of your boat's wake by positioning passengers toward the center of the boat to keep it level. Too much weight aft lowers the stern and increases the size of the wake. Finally, keep an eye on your depth sounder; shallow water increases the impact of your boat's wake.

Damaging wakes can also be caused when a skipper waits too long to pull back on the throttle. A good example is the young skipper in New Jersey who was tying up at a marina gas dock when he encountered someone who was "cursing and accusing me of not having any respect." Words were exchanged, gestures were made. The young skipper's cruiser, it seems, had created a large wake that bashed several boats at the marina against pilings and finger piers. He had "slowed" just before reaching the gas dock, so he reasoned that the damage must have been caused by "some other boat's wake."

Even a small boat in the stern-down position can throw up a huge wake. A center console off the coast of San Diego, California, to cite one example, inched past a 34-foot trawler then crossed its bow and ran down the other side. "Having experienced this type of 'courtesy' before, I called to my wife to hang on because we were about to get rocked from three sides," says the trawler's captain. "She grabbed the Bimini but couldn't hold on. She landed on the steering console, knocking out three of her front teeth." The boat that caused the dangerous wake was only 22 feet long.

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Large blue and white powerboat crusing towards drawbridge with other large powerboats docked in the background

How angry do people get when their boats are rocked by another boat's wake? A skipper working on his boat in Florida got so irked at the owner of a passing boat that he jumped in his car, drove to the next bridge, and parked in the center of the span. He refused to move until the startled bridge tender agreed to call the marine police.

In another claim, an elderly gentleman in Alabama, a retired minister, became a local "celebrity," according to our claim files, when he had the skipper of a transient powerboat arrested for swamping his small rowboat while he was quietly fishing in a no-wake zone.

Overtaking Boats

Wakes lose power the farther they travel. If you're overtaking a boat in open water, give it a lot of room. Passing as far away as possible reduces the wake's impact (not to mention ill feelings). Conversely, in a narrow channel, overtaking a boat without regard for your boat's wake can have serious consequences. The skipper of a 42-foot powerboat in North Carolina, for example, slowed down only slightly and sent a 25-foot sailboat surfing wildly onto a sandbar.

When you're the overtaking boat, use VHF Channel 16 and/or your horn to signal your intentions (one short blast if you're overtaking the other boat on its starboard side, two blasts if you're planning to pass on its port side). Cross the wake quickly (don't ride the waves), but be aware of your own boat's wake. If you're being overtaken, come completely off plane so that your stern is level. Slowing your boat will allow the overtaking skipper to slow his boat as well.

Coping With Other Boats' Wakes

Alas, not every skipper is as courteous as you are. There will be times when you'll encounter a wake that has the potential to do serious damage to your nervous system, passengers, and the boat itself. The larger the other boat's wake (and the smaller your boat), the more important it is to lessen the impact.

First, if your boat is underway, don't wait until it's flying through the air to pull back on the throttle; slow the boat well before reaching the wake. Bringing the boat to a complete stop, however, is counterproductive; boats are far more stable when they're moving and you must also be careful not to lose steerage.

Avoid taking the wake on your beam. Especially in small boats, it's better to turn toward the wake briefly, then come back on course when you're in smooth water. Rather than plow directly into the wake at a 90-degree angle, bear off a few degrees so that you cross at a slight angle. This helps your boat's hull grip the waves and reduces the chances your boat (and passengers) will be thrown into the air.

Bow Riders And Wake Injuries

The most common type of personal injury in our BoatUS Insurance claim files involves passengers (typically over age 50, but anyone can be injured) who is seated near the bow and goes airborne after slamming into a wake.

In a claim we received from New Jersey, a woman seated on the bow of a 20-foot boat was thrown up into the air, came down hard, and suffered a compression fracture. In a similar accident, a passenger seated in the bow of an 18-foot boat in Florida was thrown into the air when the boat slammed into a wake. He landed at an awkward angle on the edge of the seat and severely sprained his back. Our claim files tell stories about passengers who have lost teeth, and have broken bones when boats hit wakes. The list is long and the claims involving wakes and personal injuries make for some grim reading.

Passengers, especially older passengers, should be seated amidships where there is less motion.

Finally, always warn the crew. A simple, "Hold on. Boat wake!" should suffice. Waiting until the boat is into the wake is too late. In another one of our claims, a 40-year-old woman in Ohio was seriously injured on a 22-foot powerboat because the skipper waited until the boat was only a scant second or two away from slamming into the wake to warn passengers down below.

Overloaded Boats

Two men were drowned on Florida's Lake Okeechobee when their 15-foot boat was swamped by the wake from a 72-foot trawler. Two other passengers managed to swim to shore. Keeping passengers aft to raise the bow may have prevented the mishap, but a far better solution would have been to limit the number of passengers aboard.

According to the police investigation, the weight of the four passengers alone exceeded the boat's rated capacity. In addition to the passengers, there was also a five-gallon can of gasoline, two large batteries, a trolling motor, tackle boxes, an anchor, and other personal effects. The investigation concluded that the boat had been dangerously overloaded.

By law, the boat's capacity (both number of persons and total weight) must be posted on all boats 20 feet and under. If the boat doesn't have a capacity plate, the best rule of thumb is to limit the number of passengers to the number of seats onboard. Never let passengers sit on the side of the boat.

One other note: While only mandatory in most states for children, wearing a life jacket at all times is advisable for non-swimmers and passengers in small, tippy boats.

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Bob Adriance

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Bob Adriance is the former editor of Seaworthy, which is now incorporated into BoatUS Magazine and called BoatUS Reports. The stories and lessons learned are based on real-life BoatUS Marine Insurance claim files.