Waves and Boat Limitations


47' Coast Guard Rescue Boat – designed to capsize and come back up in large waves

Cruising requires more than skill, it requires the right boat. If you had the choice of casting off with the right training or the right boat what would you choose? Getting the right boat, for where you want to go, is more important than getting the right training. The sea is tireless and you are not. You can change your sailing skill level but you cannot change your boat. If your boat is not right, fatigue will quickly beat you down.

We first encountered waves that were too rough for our boat on a 30 foot C&C that we chartered in the Virgin Islands in 1986. We had more than enough cruising skills for the charter and we liked strong wind. We were accustomed to sailing with a double reef and we enjoyed a fresh, wet ride or so we thought. But within a couple hours the Caribbean, with its steep, choppy 5 foot waves driven by 25 knot trade winds, sent us running for cover. Because of the waves all of our energy was put into protecting our body parts from bashing into boat parts. Though young and in good condition we had no energy left for sailing. It simply was not fun! Were these storm conditions with threatening skies? The conditions were typical, blue sky, trade wind conditions. There was a contrary current that increased the wave action but that too was normal for our location. We did not sail the C&C outside the lee of the islands for the next 3 weeks. It was a humbling experience. The interesting anchorages and the wonderful snorkeling in the Virgin’s were great but our self-imposed abstinence from open water sailing was a big disappointment. We came away from that experience with a very healthy respect for waves.

The C&C was a light racer/cruiser. In 1987, we started looking for a boat that had a better cruising pedigree for a 1 ½ year sailing sabbatical. We landed on a 32 foot Alan Payne, Columbia to house my wife, a 3 year old and a 5 year old child. Although the Columbia was designed for cruising and better than the C&C, the Columbia fell well short of our expectations. If the waves were over 4 ½ feet with short duration (steep) and we were going up wind, we got beat up. One day our 5 year old asked us if she could take a bus home. Although we were in good physical condition, we spent many hours feeling fatigued and my wife was often frightened. Again, we were not experiencing storm conditions. Storm conditions would have been far worse. The 1988 sailing season was considered a little windier than normal but nothing that extraordinary. So what boat do you need for cruising anyway? One that is comfortable in livelier wave conditions for where you want to go. This we can help you determine.

Did you know that the US Coast Guard rates all of their rescue boats with wave height/duration limits? For example, a very powerfully built 47ft USCG rescue launch is rated for choppy, 10 ft waves when operated by a Coxswain (standard helmsman) and rated up to 20 ft waves when operated by a helmsman with a “heavy weather” certification. The Coast Guard rescue boats have 100% watertight topsides like a submarine. They are designed to capsize multiple times and keep going. The windows are 1 inch thick tempered glass and every opening is screwed shut with powerful hand tightened fasteners. You would think that there would be no limits to the waves these boats could endure and that is true! The coast guard rescue boats could endure any waves but the crews could not. The Coast Guard will not take their boats out to save you if the waves will greatly fatigue their crews, even if you are in great peril. That is not because the crews are timid. It is because the crews cannot function when the waves are too mean for the rescue boat or the helmsman. Should you not rate your boat and rate your skills as a helmsman just as the Coast Guard does?

Arguments for selecting a cruising boat are endless. Various points of view favor full keel/fin keel, light displacement/heavy displacement, narrow beam/wide beam, flat bottom/V shape, big boat/little boat. You can find literature to support any opinion that you want to believe. But the only opinion that will matter is yours, after you experience the wave action that you must live with. We want to point you to the right type of boat for your cruising dream.



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