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Old 09-23-2014, 10:28 AM   #1
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Bad Weather and Rough Water: Entering and Exiting a Port

Bad Weather and Rough Water

By Captain Bob Figular, reprinted with permission from Mariner's Learning System
Entering or Exiting a Port

While operating your boat there will be times when you will need to either exit or enter a port in rough and challenging conditions. Although certain inlets and rivers have extreme conditions much more often than others, learning how rough weather affects the various harbours and entrances throughout your local area is necessary to operate safely. Knowing as much information as possible prior to entering a harbor, inlet, or river in rough weather will help guard against potential dangers or impending problems. In these cases local knowledge can make the difference between a safe passage or getting you and your crew in trouble. If you are operating in an area which is new or unfamiliar to you “local knowledge” can also be gained through the use of cruising guides or Coast Pilots found in many ship stores or online. Here are a few things you should be aware of before entering any of these areas:
  1. Watch where waves break. Know how far out into the channel, whether near jetties or shoals, or directly across the entrance the waves break.
  2. Pay close attention to how the entrance affects wave patterns. An entrance that has jetties may push waves back across an entrance where they combine with the original waves.
  3. Some entrances have an outer bar that breaks, and then additional breaks farther in. Others are susceptible to a large, heaving motion that creates a heavy surge as it hits rocks or structures.
  4. Know where the channel actually is. If shoaling has occurred, room to maneuver may be significantly reduced.
  5. Know the actual depths of the water. Account for any difference between actual and charted depth due to water stage, height of tide, recent rainfall, or atmospheric pressure effects.
When entering a harbor, inlet, or river you will need to pay special attention to the direction of the current and seas. The most challenging condition you can encounter is when the current opposes the seas when operating near an entrance. In this case the current will have the effect of shortening the wavelength, and increasing the wave height. This makes waves much more unstable and closer together. While heading into the oncoming seas, you will find that the current is coming from behind your vessel thus pushing your boat into the seas at a relatively higher speed. You can reduce this effect (which will also give more time to react between waves) by slowing your vessel, although the current is coming from behind you will still need to keep enough headway to ensure effective steering. Do not to allow the current to push your boat into any large cresting waves or combined waves that are peaking together.
Transiting an Entrance

When transiting an entrance, you will find that maneuvering room is often very limited. The only safe water may be found in the area that you just left. Be ready to back down and avoid the breaking crest of a wave. This situation can become critical in following seas with a head current. The waves will overtake your vessel at a higher rate and will break more often. The current will reduce your boat’s speed over the ground (SOG) which will expose your vessel to more waves. In this condition it is important to remain calm and not panic. Remember that with all following seas, you need to stay on the back of the wave ahead. As these waves become unstable they tend to break more quickly, use extra caution to ensure that you do not go over the crest of the wave ahead. Concentrate both on the crest in front of you and the waves behind. You must keep a hand on the throttle and adjust your power continuously. In many entrances, there is not enough room to maneuver allowing you to take a breaking wave bow-on. Learn to understand and anticipate the flow and direction of the waves. If a wave looks like it is going to break, your only out may be to back down before the wave gets to the vessel. Stay extremely aware of any wave combinations and avoid spots ahead where they tend to peak. If they peak ahead in the same place, chances are they will peak there when you and your vessel are closer. Do not let a slightly different wave or wave combination catch you by surprise!

In a situation when the current and seas are going in the same direction, current has the effect of lengthening the waves. Longer waves are more stable, with the crests farther apart, with this said you still need to use caution.

While heading into the seas and current, your boats forward speed over the ground (SOG) will be lessened, this in turn will require more time transiting the entrance. Increasing your boat speed may be necessary to maintain forward progress. However, do not increase your boat speed to a point that makes negotiating the waves hazardous. If you have increased your overall boat speed to maintain forward progress you will need to reduce the boats speed as you approach each wave crest individually to maintain control.

With following seas and current, your speed over the ground will be increased. Because the waves are farther apart, the effort required to ride the back of the wave ahead should be easier. Because the current is coming from behind your vessel, more forward way will be required to maintain steering control. As with all following seas, stay on the back of the wave ahead. Do not allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security. With higher speed over the ground and less maneuverability due to the following current, there is not as much time to avoid a situation ahead. Keep a hand on the throttle and adjust power continuously. Because less time will be spent in the entrance, stay extremely aware of any spots ahead to avoid. Maneuver early, as the current will carry the boat.
Dealing with High Winds

In addition to coping with the current and state of the seas it is also necessary to understand how to deal with high winds and the effects they will have on your boat when transiting harbours, inlets, or rivers. Depending on your vessels design and sail area, it may be necessary to steadily apply helm to hold a course in high winds. As a boat operator you should be able to “read” the water to identify stronger gusts. The amount of chop on the surface will increase in gusts, and extremely powerful gusts may even blow the tops off waves. The effect of a gust should be anticipated before it hits your boat. In large waves, the wave crest will block much of the wind when the boat is in the trough. Plan to offset its full force at the crest of the wave. The force of the wind may accentuate a breaking crest, and require steering into the wind when near the crest in head seas. Depending on the vessel, winds may force the bow off to one side while crossing the crest. For light vessels, the force of the wind at the wave crest could easily get under the bow sections (or sponson on a RIB), lift the bow to an unsafe angle, or force it sideways. Though a light vessel must keep some speed to get over or through the crest of a large wave, do not use so much speed that the vessel clears the crest, most of the bottom is exposed to a high wind. Be particularly cautious in gusty conditions and stay ready for a sudden large gust when clearing a wave. If your boat is fitted with twin-engines, be ready to use asymmetric propulsion to get the bow into or through the wind. As with all other maneuvers, early and steady application of power is much more effective than a “catch-up” burst of power. Vessels with large sail area and superstructures will develop an almost constant heel during high winds. In a gust, sudden heel, at times becoming extreme, may develop. This could cause handling difficulties at the crest of high waves. If the vessel exhibits theses tendencies, exercise extreme caution when cresting waves. Learn to safely balance available power and steering against the effects of winds and waves.

By following these simple procedures and considerations when transiting harbours, inlets, or rivers you be ready to handle even the toughest challenging conditions.
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Old 09-23-2014, 11:28 AM   #2
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Great information.

On the east coast we get so much of the local information from towboat captains and dockmasters. In the PNW it has come from commercial fishermen and fishing charter captains.

On the east coast also have Cruisersnet and Waterway Guide, both updating navigation information and alerts.

And don't think for a moment just because you've entered and exited a lot in one part of the country or world, you know all there is to know in another area. It's those small differences that can get you into trouble.

Also timing relative to tides may be important in some areas, not just for depth, but for conditions.
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Old 09-23-2014, 11:53 AM   #3
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Another often missed detail is that the favorable timing of ebbs and floods can be all goofed up because of daylight vs dark. I for one do not like the west coast bar transits during the dark hours. It adds another variable to bar crossing, especially when trying to beat the weather.
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Old 09-23-2014, 12:27 PM   #4
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Wow Dbl Wow

A lot of real deal detail, very thorough. There is nothing like being surprised by the quickness of changing sea state in bar crossing. I've had a few butt puckering experiences myself. Sounds like you may have as well. Well written. Thanks my neck is still tensed up.
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Old 09-23-2014, 01:21 PM   #5
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Another often missed detail is that the favorable timing of ebbs and floods can be all goofed up because of daylight vs dark. I for one do not like the west coast bar transits during the dark hours. It adds another variable to bar crossing, especially when trying to beat the weather.
I don't do them during dark. May very occasionally exit a little before sunrise but never enter during dark, with the exception that I will enter Port Everglades after dark as the route from there home is lit like a city street.
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Old 09-23-2014, 02:17 PM   #6
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My virgin Columbia River bar crossing was about a year ago. I was coming in from the sea. South winds 35mph, gusting to 50mph, west swells 8-10 feet and I hit the bar with a full ebb tide to a -6 ft tide. My new to me boat did great, but if I had a chuck of coal in my butt cheeks it would have been a diamond by the time i made it to the other side.

You can read about here: http://alaskanseaduction.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-big-voyage.html
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Old 09-23-2014, 03:14 PM   #7
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My virgin Columbia River bar crossing was about a year ago. I was coming in from the sea. South winds 35mph, gusting to 50mph, west swells 8-10 feet and I hit the bar with a full ebb tide to a -6 ft tide. My new to me boat did great, but if I had a chuck of coal in my butt cheeks it would have been a diamond by the time i made it to the other side.
Our only entry to the Columbia River was calm. We were luckier than you. We got our introduction to those conditions at Grays Harbor. The swells in the Pacific are definitely different than our normal cruising area. And like you following the Charter in, we've used the Charters and commercial fishermen. My wife has referred to following them as them being "blockers". Too much football. On our Alaska trip we followed a Ferry for a good distance one day.

The next couple of days are like you encountered. In fact, a gale warning starting at 3 this afternoon. Tonight combined seas are 11 ft at 8 seconds. Tomorrow, 17 ft at 16 seconds, Thursday, wind waves 6 ft and swell 12 ft at 12 seconds. Not the kind of days you'd want to be crossing Columbia Bar.

Which is another critical part of cruising in this area. You've got to know when to fold them...stay put. Schedules fall by the wayside. There is no ICW alternative.
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Old 09-23-2014, 03:23 PM   #8
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Good article. I'm something of an "inlet collector" as past of the boating hobby. Planning and knowledge are paramount. Like they say, the most dangerous thing you can have on a boat is a schedule. Keep in mind, boats get in trouble in all classes of inlet. On the west coast, the CG is very helpful on bar and inlet conditions and navigation, as are the harbormasters. Vessel Assist (known as Towboat US back east) has a few stations along the coast. On either coast, I prefer to gather that advice a day or two in advance.

Inlets will always have one slack tide during daylight, I basically don't like night pilotage to begin with. As the article mentions, being able to see the sea conditions is critical if things are snotty.

A S-D, sometimes it's better to be lucky....
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Old 09-23-2014, 06:21 PM   #9
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A S-D, sometimes it's better to be lucky....
The weather was good when we left Newport, but quickly closed, so when we finally reached the Columbia a decision needed to be made. Cross during rough weather or wait 6 hours in bad seas and attempt a crossing at 8 PM in the dark. Neither was a good option, but I would much rather cross in daylight than make my first crossing at night...
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Old 09-23-2014, 06:30 PM   #10
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The weather was good when we left Newport, but quickly closed, so when we finally reached the Columbia a decision needed to be made. Cross during rough weather or wait 6 hours in bad seas and attempt a crossing at 8 PM in the dark. Neither was a good option, but I would much rather cross in daylight than make my first crossing at night...
We have radar, we have gps, we have sonar, we have night vision, we have spotlights, but I still don't want to enter at night. That's why you see the breed of boats you do in the PNW because if you use it outside at all, you are going to get caught sometimes. And I'm going to do anything I can to arrive in daylight. We have just idled in position to wait for the sun to rise.
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Old 09-23-2014, 09:09 PM   #11
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Great post and information, but the best learning method is to experience it firsthand. I recommend to people to venture out in not too bad weather (with an experienced captain if possible) and learn how your boat handles because every boat is different. This way you will build confidence in yourself. If your ever in Georgia i can send to a place!
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Old 09-23-2014, 10:11 PM   #12
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Great post and information, but the best learning method is to experience it firsthand. I recommend to people to venture out in not too bad weather (with an experienced captain if possible) and learn how your boat handles because every boat is different. This way you will build confidence in yourself. If your ever in Georgia i can send to a place!
The captain training us made us learn to handle some less than ideal conditions. Nothing dangerous, but challenging. We didn't run for cover at the first threat of rough as he saw it as a good teaching time.
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Old 09-24-2014, 12:38 AM   #13
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Great information.....put it right into my book of boating resources. I'm not to proud to say that I learned a big lesson going out Government Cut in Miami that we've never forgotten, clearing 6 ft. under our hull several times before I could maneuver out from between the jetties. My Admiral was standing in the cabin when we launched over the first wave. She first impacted on the cabin roof, then fell back to the sole at the well between the waves, catching a door handle on the way down and scaring her back from sacrum to neck. There was nothing I could do but stay at the helm and cope with the situation we were in. The waves were 6 ft. but so short that we could only launch off the top, crash in the well and launch again. We were really stuck because there was not enough space between the jetties to quarter the waves, made much worse by the wake of a ship and opposing wind and current. Even while launching again and again, I saw what was happening to a center console ahead of us in even worse conditions. Our boat was light, had a lot of power and dual opposing props, and I knew the boat would spin quickly as long as I could keep the motor in the wave, so the next hit, when we hit the well, about half way up the wave, I spun the boat and by the time we launched, we we had completed the turn and really gunned it when we hit the well, staying ahead of the next wave and surfing it back into the inlet where the flow spreads out enough that the waves finally dispersed. It was a foolish, stupid thing to do, but we learned. Knowing what the boat would do (and trusting that it would do it) was a plus in an otherwise, miserable experience. It could have been much worse, and apparently was for the guy in the center console ahead of us, who ended up on the jetty. We went in and out Government Cut dozens of times after that, but never saw similar conditions to that day.
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Old 09-24-2014, 06:26 AM   #14
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A lot of good advice.

I'll add one thing. When you practice, try to do so in a place with some of the elements, but not all.

I mean practice in deep water, with no jetties or any thing else, you could hit.

Then you can concentrate on what your boat does on what kind of seas. Go out with winds contrary to current, so you get short period waves.
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Old 09-24-2014, 08:30 AM   #15
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A lot of good advice.

I'll add one thing. When you practice, try to do so in a place with some of the elements, but not all.

I mean practice in deep water, with no jetties or any thing else, you could hit.

Then you can concentrate on what your boat does on what kind of seas. Go out with winds contrary to current, so you get short period waves.
And that was how we did it. First time was just rougher conditions and then we gradually over time saw even worse. But I remember as we were in the Gulf of Mexico and close enough to duck in at any time. 6-8' when we'd been use to 2-4'. So we spent several hours practicing under supervision and instruction with the seas hitting us from all angles. We practiced at various speeds as well, learning to match speeds to the size and period. Then we went in but a wide deep inlet and by then we'd practiced with the conditions a good bit. The wave hitting our stern seemed calmer than just a couple of hours earlier when in reality it was probably a bit larger. When we hit the calm we just smiled. We were definitely tired but had learned a lot about ourselves and out boat. And that was in a 63' Riva sport coupe so not a boat best for those conditions.

Gradually we've encountered worse conditions and more complicated inlets but each has just been a moderate increase. Our first PNW 4' wind with 10' swells (with 13 second periods fortunately) was certainly different but we thought through how to handle it and had someone with us who faced it regularly. Then we were surprised that it was just another step in our education. We're not going out in the 7' wind waves and 16-19' swells of today. But if we were somehow caught out in such conditions, we would know how to approach it and not be overwhelmed while remaining very respectful and careful of the conditions.
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Old 09-24-2014, 08:52 AM   #16
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Took Bay Pelican out of Miami's Government cut in heavy weather to test her. Found out several things which were very important:

Some things I thought were secure were not, e.g., the stove, normally secure cabinets, older style tvs on an arm
In heavy weather in the semi-tropics if I am going to seal up the windows, need to turn on the airconditioning in advance as the pilot house got very warm
Need water at the helm as was unable to leave the helm or rely on the autopilot.
Admiral unable to handle the wheel
Need to realize won't be able to get to the head until weather clears
Need seat belt as I was tossed from helm chair
Carving of the waves is a necessity
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Old 09-24-2014, 09:15 AM   #17
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Every day I am amazed at how much info is shared here. Thank you. I am new to all this as I have posted before. So here is a question. Which online learning course suited you the best? I want to stuff my footlocker with as much knowledge as possible then put it to use. I spoke with the gentleman who owns Mariners Learning Center, sounds like a go-to organization. Thanks everyone.
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Old 09-24-2014, 09:29 AM   #18
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Every day I am amazed at how much info is shared here. Thank you. I am new to all this as I have posted before. So here is a question. Which online learning course suited you the best? I want to stuff my footlocker with as much knowledge as possible then put it to use. I spoke with the gentleman who owns Mariners Learning Center, sounds like a go-to organization. Thanks everyone.
I can't speak directly of Mariners or any online course. However, I can say this. I can't imagine that I could have gotten as much out of an online course as a formal course in a Maritime school. The interaction was very important. I wanted not to just get a license but to learn all I could. Second, classroom is only a basis. I believe an important basis, that it can really help make the hands on training easier. But really learning how to handle a boat is only going to be by doing it and that's where some form of trainer or captain can be invaluable.

Now, I see you are in Mexico and don't know what schools are available or captains who train. Certainly you can learn a good bit by an online course such as Mariners Learning. Just like any self study course. And it could be a good start. And Mariners does have online instructors you can communicate with. Some things such as rules of the road and aids to navigation are easy for online. But I would think others like electronic navigation would be more difficult as would vessel handling skills. I think if you read about it then you only get maximum benefit by then having some way to go practice what you read.
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Old 09-24-2014, 10:05 AM   #19
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Start wit Chapman's as reading material. Tontoross it sound like you have the boat in the PNW on the Columbia, check out the local US Power Squadron for all kinds of classes and references to professional teaching captains who have a formal system for teaching newbies.
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Old 09-24-2014, 10:17 AM   #20
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Every day I am amazed at how much info is shared here. Thank you. I am new to all this as I have posted before. So here is a question. Which online learning course suited you the best? I want to stuff my footlocker with as much knowledge as possible then put it to use. I spoke with the gentleman who owns Mariners Learning Center, sounds like a go-to organization. Thanks everyone.
Guess I'm confused. Are you in Mexico or the US? If in the US, I would definitely not see a reason to do it online versus in a classroom and training captains are readily available.
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