How to handle your boat in wind
Of all the challenges boaters face, learning how to handle your boat in wind may be the most difficult.
In areas with predictable winds, local sailors learn how to control their vessels in these conditions. On the other hand, these same winds can be frustrating and dangerous for inexperienced or visiting boaters.
Unlike storms, currents, tides and fog, wind can be difficult to predict accurately. Of course, wind doesn’t show up unannounced. Meteorologists can track the high and low-pressure systems that drive winds, using widely available maps showing isobars and compression bands, but the accuracy of general wind direction and speed predictions vary from location to location.
How wind affects piloting offshore
You don’t have to be a scientist to understand the effects of wind on a ship. Offshore areas have more predictable winds than coastal areas, making their impact on operation less significant. Indeed, most offshore wind concerns have to do with wave action. Offshore buoys and weather stations do a good job of transmitting sea conditions in real time, and pilots can anticipate sea state changes by keeping a close eye on the instruments. A good pilot considers wind direction and how a change in direction impacts fetch, or the distance a prevailing wind travels over open water before reaching shore or a vessel.
For example, when an offshore wind is blowing, the distance from the shore to the vessel is equal to the fetch of the wind. This is important because energy is transferred from the wind to the water’s surface by friction. The longer this friction occurs, the larger the waves become. As larger waves form, friction increases and builds even bigger waves.
Strong winds also dictate what course should be steered. Even large ships must steer into the oncoming wind to avoid the side-to-side motion called wallowing. A wallowing ship is uncomfortable to be aboard, so always keep wallowing to a minimum to minimize seasickness and keep passengers comfortable. Heavy rolling can also cause cargo to shift or break free.
How wind affects piloting near shore
Winds near shore are a serious safety issue. Shallow waters can drive offshore swells into steep waves. Rocky shorelines or concrete face walls reflect this wave action, causing multi-directional chop that can exceed the height of the original waves.
Wind also makes it difficult to maneuver in channels and harbors. Geography and structures may block some winds but funnel others to much higher speeds.
Large ships have the help of tugboats when operating in these areas and may choose not to enter a harbor until conditions have improved.
Smaller vessels don’t have as many options in windy conditions. It’s miserable to wait outside a harbor for hours while the vessel pitches and rolls.
The most precarious situation is trying to dock in winds blowing perpendicular to the face wall or dock. An offshore wind causes quite a bit of frustration as you are blown back off the wall several times, causing you to attempt landing again and again. An onshore wind is worse; even a gentle and well-planned landing arc might not keep the vessel from being slammed against the wall.
A powerful thruster package is no match for a strong wind. An incredible force develops when just a few dozen tons of vessel are pushed into a face wall at 1 or 2 miles per hour. Multiply those numbers by 10, and you will see what a challenge it is to overcome this situation. Learn how to handle your boat in wind, and your frustration level should greatly improve. –Al Ponzio
Feel at home on the water
Learn to boat with confidence by taking the Boat Handling course online from America’s Boating Club.