Handling in heavy weather

Top tips on dealing with conditions that test your skill and nerve...

Top tips on dealing with conditions that test your skill and nerve…

There comes a time for every boater when you face conditions which are going to test your skill and nerve. A sudden change in the weather, a wind shift, or the arrival of a big swell can transform a tranquil trip into a rollercoaster ride.

If you know what you are doing, heavier conditions can be exhilarating, but if you lack technique, the chances are you will be scared. In addition to this, poor technique in rough conditions can even result in injury, so good technique is all important.

The RYA's Intermediate Powerboat and Advanced Powerboat courses provide practical rough weather pointers but in the meantime, here a few top tips from Paul Glatzel’s RYA Powerboat Handbook:

Driving upwind

Waves are generally generated by wind and come from the same direction. Driving into the wind therefore means driving into the waves. Driving downwind the boat drives with the waves, applying special techniques will ensure safety and comfort.


Driving upwind usually entails trimming down and driving up the face of the wave.

Ease off at the top of the wave to ensure you do not take off.

Accelerate down the back of the wave, speeding up to raise the bow as the trough is reached, then drive up the wave towards the next crest.

The ride then becomes smooth and quite fast. Progression is achieved by throttling on and off as you move over the wave. Trimming down ensures that the ‘V’ of the

hull is used to slice into the approaching wave, while applying more throttle lifts the bow in the trough to drive up the approaching wave and prevent the bow driving straight into it.

This avoids the need for trimming up and down to achieve the same effect.

Tip - Upwind - This can be summed up as: when the bow is rising - throttle back, when the bow is falling - throttle up.

Whether this proves to be a comfortable ride depends to a large extent on the ‘wavelength’ (the distance between the wave crests). Shorter wavelengths can make it very difficult, as there is little time between wave crests for the helmsman to adjust the throttle settings. In this case, you might find it easier to drive at 30º–45º to the wave front.

Driving wind

This increases the ‘apparent wavelength’ and can therefore allow you to increase your speed and smooth your journey. You will then need to zigzag towards your destination but, while longer in distance, this method can be less stressful and quicker.

Beam seas

Beam SeasLarge breaking waves taken on the beam have the potential to capsize a boat. Usually, keep a fair speed, constantly watch for breaking waves, then steer a path behind, or in front of and away from them, as conditions dictate.

The speed and power of your boat is key. If you get caught on the downwind side of a breaking wave, turn into the wave and power on to climb up the wave or turn away from the wave and try to outrun it.

Driving downwind

One of the most dangerous conditions for a sportsboat is a ‘following sea’ (the craft is running in the direction of the wind). If a breaking wave catches the vessel, the confused water catches the prop, reducing its ability to bite. The following wave then turns the craft side on to the waves making a capsize almost inevitable with the next wave. To avoid this, match the boat’s speed to that of the waves.

Another problem of going down the face of a wave is going too fast through the wave causing the bow to fall into the trough. The boat loses speed, the wave pivots the boat beam on and the next wave either swamps or capsizes the boat.

Driving downwind
  1. To make progress in these conditions, trim the bow up and ride the wave, staying behind the crest.
  2. As it breaks, care is needed not to power through the breaking wave too early. As the wave breaks, you may need to ease the power in the confused water to avoid the prop losing grip and speed. A good look out must be kept behind at all times to avoid the chasing waves catching you up. Alternatively, pick a calm patch to turn into the sea and look for another port.
  3. Watch the boat speed as you may need to ease the throttle, then power through to sit on the back of the next wave.

The conditions you experience may be magnified or reduced by the combination of wind, stream and the local environment. Wind in the opposite direction to the stream (‘wind against tide (or stream)’) can create short, sharp and unpleasant seas when driving upwind, yet markedly different conditions if driving downwind. Short, sharp seas can be difficult to deal with, as the helmsman has little time between each wave to recover and plan how to deal with the next one.


Make sure that everyone has good handholds and seating positions and the helmsman is wearing the killcord. Clever handling in rough conditions can be the difference between, a stressful, potentially dangerous experience and a thrilling trip.

Extract taken for the RYA Powerboat Handbook by Paul Glatzel.

You can purchase copies of the RYA Powerboat Handbook and RYA Advanced Powerboat Handbook (print and eBook editions), both by Paul Glatzel, in the RYA web store.

RYA Powerboat Handbook