How To Drive a Boat in Big Waves: Step by Step Guide

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You have probably heard of big waves, but you have never experienced one if you’re a new boater.

What if one day, you’re driving your boat like a perfect gentleman (or lady) and then you see a big wave encroaching: 3, 4, 6 feet high coming towards your boat?

You have never experienced this, your heart begins to pump faster. You know that this could be a thrilling experience. But part of the thrill is also the risk. In fact, the high risk makes it more thrilling.

At this point in time, you’re more concerned about safety. As you hold the steering wheel tight, and maybe feel sweaty palms, you wait in anticipation.

Driving in big waves is a common part of driving a boat. Even if you’re a new boater, you’re bound to experience it sooner or later in the future depending on the size and depth of the water body you drive in. It’s better to be prepared for that big wave than to be caught unawares.

Boat in Big Waves
Boat in Big Waves

The first step of your preparation is to get all the important information you need about driving in a big wave.

You have come to the right place as this guide will prepare you for heavy weather especially if you have never experienced it. What are the things you need to know about driving your boat in Big waves?

First of all, check the weather before you set out

Prevention is always better than cure. Before you drive out into the water, you need to know what is the weather condition. What’s the speed of the wind?

Do you have big waves rolling around? Through your VHF radio, you can monitor the weather before you set out.

The best way to handle a big wave if you don’t have the necessary experience or a capable boat is to avoid the big wave completely. When you set out with your boat, it’s a bad idea to go dark. You must know what to expect.

This is important for even experienced skippers. Because big waves are in different sizes. And some big waves are so big that even cruise ships will stand no chance against them.

Boat Radio
Boat Radio

For instance, no matter how experienced you are about riding in big waves, the probability of your boat surviving a rogue wave is probably none.

Having the knowledge of what’s happening offshore could be the most crucial step you can take before you drive your boat out into the waters.

You also have to strap your equipment to the boat especially if you’re going fishing. You don’t want your equipment in the water when your boat takes a hit from the waves.

What to do in a big wave

Now, you’re facing a big wave and as the driver of the boat, you have to be calm. If you panic, then all the crew members will definitely panic too. You want to avoid this as it can lead to more problems.

Tell the people on board to hold on to something. As the boat moves around trying to navigate a big wave, it moves rigorously and this can lead to falls and probably injuries for someone who’s holding nothing.

Let everyone have protective gear on (a life jacket light enough but able to carry the weight of the person wearing it and a safety harness). You can also assign small tasks to members of the crew to keep them busy and less worried about the big wave.

Ensure the steering, engine, and other parts of the boat are in good working condition. Check the battery and connections to ensure they’re secure with no movement. This is to avoid any engine failure while trying to navigate the wave.

Switch to the fuel tank with the most amount of fuel as driving a boat in rough conditions use a lot of fuel. Secure all hatches.

Close all the ports and windows because you want to keep the water outside the boat as the boat is easier to control that way. When water starts entering a port or window, it could turn into a disastrous situation very fast.

Approach wave at 45 degrees, approaching at 90 degrees or angles close to that could get your boat to capsize. Apart from that, you want your bow to be above the wave but also without blocking your view.

driving a boat in rough conditions
Driving a boat in rough conditions

For some, it’s easier to approach the big waves head-on but these are skippers who are much more experienced with driving in big waves. So you can adapt to what works for you when you get more experience considering the size of the wave and capability of the boat you’re handling.

When you encounter heavy waves, you must slow down. You’re not in a tournament and you don’t need to drive fast.

In fact, driving your boat at high speed through big waves can lead to broaching. This occurs when your boat travels too fast down the crest of a wave and the bow submerges under the next wave the boat encounters.

The pressure of the wave can cause the skipper to lose control of the boat as the propeller of the motor comes out of the water. When you slow down and move your boat at an angle to the wave, you can avoid broaching.

As you go through the waves, you have to make sure that you’re getting water out as it comes on board. You can use a bilge pump for this but if you don’t have it, a crew member can get the water out.

If your engine goes out or you end up losing control of your boat because of no backup engine, you can use paddles to navigate out of the big waves. You can drop your sea anchor from the bow of the boat to help keep the bow in the wind.

What if you find it impossible to control the boat?

Although you want to avoid this, by all means, it is possible to lose control of your boat and even get it capsized. This is why you must have your life jackets on while riding a big wave.

But before your boat gets capsized by the wind, fire a flare into the air to call the attention of other boaters. This is also to enhance visibility so that you can prevent collision with other boats. Call the emergency numbers to inform them of your troubles.

If bigger waves end up capsizing your boat, then you’re less concerned about your boat and how you can survive to live another day. The biggest risk when your boat capsizes is that you can get drowned.

That’s why the first thing on your mind should be how to float for as long as possible. Your life jacket helps you to achieve this and you can cling to objects on board like coolers that naturally float.

If your boat starts to sink, then having a tether that connects you to the boat could actually turn to a disadvantage because it could drag you downwards along with the boat. You have to untangle yourself from anything that could make you drown. You have to remove the harness.

In some cases, you can turn your vessel but that depends on how small your boat is. To improve your chances of getting help, make sure you’re as close to your boat as possible. A boat is far bigger than you and easier to sight than a human being floating alone.

Stay close to your boat so that you can be easily sighted. Also, avoid hypothermia by hugging your knees up to your chest if you’re wearing a life jacket.

Gain more experience to drive better in rough conditions

Before you can start driving in big waves, you need to be a passenger of boaters who are more experienced in driving in rough conditions. Watch them see how they approach the big waves and the general precautions they take.

This will give you a real-life feel of the condition out there and knowledge of what to do and what to avoid. Go out on your boat and practice to get better at handling the big waves and improve your confidence.

General safety gear to have while riding in big waves

Part of your preparation for a big wave is to have the necessary equipment that improves safety. This equipment includes:

Life jackets: it’s called life jackets for a reason. This is because it can be the difference between dying and living if there’s a severe accident that sees you end up in the water.

You don’t hope for this but you have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The life jacket on board must be able to carry the weight of the people on board and be small enough for easy carriage.

Paddles or oars: For those whose boats have no backup engine, it’s important to have paddled in case of engine problems while battling big waves. This way, you can paddle your boat to safety.

Life jacket
Life Jacket

Marine radio: If you have to go more than two miles offshore, you have to hold a marine VHF radio. This is essential for communication between other boats and can be used to call for help.

Distress Flare: When you’re out in the sea, it may seem lonely even when you’re struggling with the big waves attacking your boat. The use of a distress flare alerts lifeguards to come to your rescue and also improves visibility so that you can avoid collision with other boats.

Bilge Pump: When you start accumulating water on board, there is a likelihood of sinking your boat. But with a powerful bilge pump, you can pump the water out and keep your boat afloat as long as possible.

Waterproof clothing: When you’re battling with big waves, it can even get worse if you have to battle with the cold. Putting on waterproof clothing will reduce the cold you feel.

Safety Harness: This is a nylon web harness worn in rough seas or heavy weather. It has a tether with a clip attached to the jack lines.

This ensures that even if you’re washed overboard as a result of heavy wind, you’re still connected to the boat and that reduces the possibility of drowning. Make no mistake, it’s still very dangerous. You don’t want to get washed overboard.

Learn what your boat can do

What is the size of your boat and the power produced by its engine? The smaller your boat and the less power its engine produces, the more difficult it is to control when you hit a big wave.

But handling your boat may not only be about the size of your boat. Many times, it can also be how well your boat has been designed or built to handle the rough conditions. It is important not to drive your boat into waters that exceed its designed capabilities.


There is no exact science on how to drive your boat in a big wave. Because driving your boat in big waves depends on many factors that are never exactly the same for two boaters, or even for two days out in the sea.

The size of your boat, the power produced by its engines, and how high the wave is would determine how you ride. This means you need to pay attention to the conditions of the sea and the safety and comfort of the people on board.

It can be part of the thrill of driving a boat to enjoy the big waves and most boaters would look forward to it, but safety is much more important than enjoyment. You don’t want to pose an unnecessary risk to your lives just to enjoy a day out.

If the big waves ever get too powerful to handle, you can always drive to calmer waters to either fish or enjoy your ride. If you can’t get to the calmer waters, then you need to call for help as soon as you can.

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