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Passing Judgment

Part 2: Understanding how your boat’s hull makes and handles a wake will make cruising more pleasant.

In my last column, we discussed the not-so-obvious but consequential effects of boats passing each other. Now, we’ll review the more obvious and equally serious issue of boat handling in the presence of other boaters’ wakes.

Anyone cruising along the Intracoastal Waterway is accustomed to hearing a familiar call over the VHF radio: “Windswept, Windswept, this is Intrepid on your stern. I’d like to give you a slow pass on your port side.”

This is the call of a faster boat requesting to pass a slower boat. When everyone is being considerate in this process, it can go quite smoothly. But even when boaters think they are being considerate, they may not realize how large their wake is or its effect on the boat they’re passing.

Beyond the annoyance and discomfort of experiencing a passing boat’s wake, attempting to handle your boat through a large wake can be dangerous. According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2021 Recreational Boating Statistics, boat wakes are in the top 10 causes of boating accidents. The Coast Guard recorded a total of 241 accidents, 186 injuries, and 16 deaths directly caused by the force of a boat’s wake. This only recorded incidents, and does not count the numerous secondary issues unknowingly caused by boat wakes.

The style of boat and shape of the hull will partially determine how much wake a boat creates and how a boat handles another boat’s wake. Common hullforms used in recreational boats each create and handle passing waves quite differently. Understanding how your boat’s hull handles a wake and forms one will make a big difference in your comfort moving through a
passing wake and the impact of your wake on other boats.

Boats with displacement hulls stay settled in the water, moving the least amount of water around them when in motion. Planing hulls at very slow speeds are similar to displacement hulls when they are fully settled in the water. However, unlike with a displacement hull, when you add power to a planing hull, the boat will lift out of the water, and the boat’s speed will increase.

As power is increased, a planing-hull boat squats in the stern, as the boat’s bow begins to climb over the bow wave. As the boat’s speed increases, the stern eventually lifts slightly as well. With the stern lifted out of the water, many planing-hull boats create a surprisingly small wake when running at their cruising speed, because the hull is skimming along near the top of the water. Like displacement hulls, planing-hull yachts create little to no wake at displacement speeds and a minimal to moderate wake at full speed, but when transitioning in between those two extremes, their wakes can be significant and dangerous.

We had a firsthand experience with this phenomenon running through Currituck Sound, N.C., last fall. I had been watching two large motoryachts approaching our stern on AIS. The closest boat was doing 20 knots and closing quickly on our displacement hull doing 8 knots. The first boat politely called with the willingness to come down off plane and give us a slow pass. For them to pass us with no wake, they would have needed to come completely off plane, settling their hull fully in the water. Instead, I responded by asking that they maintain their speed and give us a wide berth when passing. The captain complied and passed us with very little wake.

The second motoryacht was doing about 18 knots when they called offering to give us a slow pass. I responded with the same instructions I gave the first boat, but when the captain got close to passing us, she decided to slow down to 12 knots so she wouldn’t give us too much of a wake. She thought she was being considerate in spite of what I had asked her to do. The result was an enormous wake, sending our boat out of the channel. We nearly ran aground.

If you have a planing-hull boat, whether approaching another boat in the same or opposite direction, be aware that slowing down to pass the other boat may make the situation worse if you don’t slow down enough.

If you are the boat being passed, know how your boat handles a wake. If your boat is a displacement hull, especially with soft or rounded chines, you will likely be rolled by the passing wake on your beam. It will help if you turn 90 degrees to the wake and take it on your bow, then turn back to your original course. If your boat has stabilizers, keep them active even in calm inland waters. They will help mitigate roll from a passing wake.

Each year when we move along the ICW, we hear boaters scolding or being scolded for passing too close or too fast by another boat. This rage expressed over the VHF radio rarely solves the problem, as the offending passing boater either gets defensive or doesn’t think they caused any harm, and the boat being passed may have been able to reduce the effects by maneuvering to minimize the wake.

Sharing the waterways is a more pleasant experience when we’re aware of how our actions affect boats around us. You’re also less likely to get upset at a passing boater if you know how to safely handle your boat in their passing wake.  

This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue.