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Smooth Operator: 4 Techniques for Traversing Wakes

It's a beautiful day and you have decided to take the family for a boat ride. But dozens of other boaters have the same idea, and their wakes are turning your relaxing cruise into spine pounding torture. To solve the problem, you can either buy a much larger boat, or just learn how to handle boat wakes, because both size and science affect boat wakes. By simply following a few tips, you can become a “wake master."

Here are the 6 Steps to Minimize Wake Effect:

1. Anticipate the wake from a passing boat

2. Judge the magnitude of the oncoming wake

3. Judge the number of wakes that the passing boat will create

4. Decide on the proper wake defensive tactic that is right for your specific situation

5. Steer your boat into position to apply the wake defense tactic you have chosen

6. Ride through the wake using the chosen tactic, for a smoother crossing

Let’s look at these in more detail. Long before you reach another boat's wake, keep a lookout for nearby boats whose wake you will need to cross. We have all watched a large cruiser approaching and thought, 'This is going to hurt.' Heavy boats push water deeper than lighter boats as they ride through it, meaning the deeper they push water, the higher it surfaces in the form of a wake. Wide beam boats create a wake with a larger “moment," or the distance between crests. Some people are surprised to learn that boat wakes don’t actually move across the water as they appear, but rather move only up and down in a sequence that gives them the appearance of moving.

To decide on the best approach to deal with all this, I like to categorize wakes on a scale of 1 to 5, with small wakes being a 1 and the largest being a 5. Runabouts, catamarans, flat bottom boats, and sailboats usually produce small wakes in the 1-2 category. Boats over 25' with two or more motors and small cruisers can create wakes in the 3-4 category. Big yachts and offshore diesel fishing boats can be a 5.

Take the time to observe the size of wakes produced by different boats. With a little practice you will be able to identify between boats that create ripples, and boats that crunch your back. While most boat wakes are different, the angle of the wake leaving any boat is always 22 degrees. As you approach any wake, use your experience to forecast the height and quantity of wakes that you will need to deal with. To defend against them, you should choose one of four different procedures, depending upon the category of wake you are forecasting.

1) The Direct Approach

When anticipating a category 1 or 2 wake, turn directly towards the wake, approaching it at 90 degrees. This puts the trough of water approaching your boat evenly split by the two V-shaped sides of your boat. Placing equal pressure on each side of your boat will give you a smoother entry and prevent one side from striking flat on the upside of a wake. You can usually maintain the speed you are running and with experimentation, discover that some crossings can be made even smoother by increasing your speed.

2) Use Your V-Bottom

The previous head on approach can create a problem when travelling in a channel because once you have crossed the wake, you may find yourself in the path of a boat behind the boat that made the wake. If you are in a channel and believe the approaching wake will be a category 1 or 2 and do not want to end up behind the boat whose wake you crossed, revert to an approach where you steer your V-bottom directly towards the rising side of the oncoming wake, but instead of riding through, turn sharply away from the wake. Timed correctly, this will lean your boat away from the wake and allow your V-bottom to strike the rising side of the wake with equal amounts of water running up each side of your boat, for a smoother entry.

3) The Big One

If you anticipate that an oncoming wake is large enough to spoil your day, (i.e, a big number 5), select an approach that steers you directly into the wake. Well before it hits, come completely off plane, slowing to an RPM level of around 1,500, then trim up to raise your bow as high as possible before the wake strikes. Your boat will bob fore and aft considerably, but this tactic will prevent a large wake from pouring over your bow or launching you into the air. While large wakes can be scary, there are usually not as many in a sequence, so once the bobbing stops, simply trim down and come back onto plane.

4) Roll With It

This approach is my favorite and works for all but the truly gargantuan. Just before the wake strikes, turn to line up parallel to the approaching wake. Hold this course and your speed. In this tactic, the rolling wake will simply rock your boat from side to side. You will avoid all the usual wake pounding and the other boat’s wake will feel like it has passed harmlessly under your boat. Best of all, you get to keep your teeth. When the rocking stops, turn back onto your desired course.

On most waterways you will encounter boat wakes on every outing. The objective in crossing wakes more smoothly is to avoid jarring action, water spray and boat damage. Practice selecting and implementing each of these four wake handling maneuvers. Apply the appropriate tactic -- and your passengers will love you.

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You might want to amend this article to cover how deck boats and tri-toons without a high bow should deal with big wakes... taking them directly at 90 degrees is NOT the right approach unless you want your boat full of water!

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