Watch Your Wake!

Watch Your Wake!
Boaters should be particularly watchful of the wake made by their craft in summer when lots of fellow boaters are on the water. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)

Boat wakes. There’s nothing in the world that will make one boater mad at another quicker than one of these long, frothy, V-shaped waves from the stern of a powerboat as it slices through the water. Better to steal another guy’s fishing hole, tell him his wife is ugly or put a ding in the door of his brand-new pick-em-up truck than to rock his world with a big dangerous boat wake. Here’s a case in point. (The names are changed to protect the not-so-innocent.)

Years ago, I was staying with some friends on a houseboat they owned. The boat was anchored on the lower White River in a quiet, backcountry area far from the beaten path. We were using the houseboat as home base while we fished for the river’s big catfish, and everyone was having a good time until it happened.

We were eating dinner in the boat’s galley when suddenly a tsunami hit. The huge houseboat rolled up on one side, food and dishes crashed onto the floor, and two of my friends were thrown from their chairs. When the boat rolled back the other way, everything in the boat that wasn’t tied down fell to the floor. Lamps broke. Jars of food shattered. Furniture collapsed. Everyone on the boat was tossed about like rag dolls. A tidal wave could hardly have done more damage.

The two men who owned the boat — we’ll call them Bob and John — were infuriated, and rightfully so, because all this pandemonium had been caused by another boat passing on the river — a crew boat piloted by the employee of a U.S. government agency that was constructing a dam on the river downstream. Another party on a houseboat moored just upstream also felt the brunt of the crew boat’s wake. In addition to their boat being damaged, one man got a big gash across his forehead and another received a broken wrist.

Despite the bedlam, Bob’s reaction was immediate. “Get in the boat, John. We’re gonna run that son-of-a-gun down and make him wish he’d never done that.” He rushed out the door to a johnboat tied astern, a shotgun in his hand. And off they went.

I didn’t go. It was pretty obvious there was going to be trouble. And trouble there was. An hour later, they returned with the boat operator. His hands were tied behind his back with a piece of trotline cord, and he had a look on his face like a government contractor who’d just been taken hostage by Iraqi militants.

“We’ve already called his boss and told him they can have him back when they send someone out here and pay for all this damage,” Bob said rather nonchalantly. I was just relieved to see the guy alive. I figured they were going to tie trotline weights on his ankles and throw him in the river.

The incident was resolved peacefully later that day when a government official came out and promised to pay the two houseboat owners for damages totaling more than $10,000. Surprisingly, no one went to jail despite the kidnapping. And while the guys on the other houseboat were seriously hurt, no one died. That in itself was a miracle, and something the crew boat captain must be thankful for to this very day.

That’s an extreme example of what can happen when a boat throws a dangerous wake without regard for other boats in the vicinity. But I’ve also seen other frightening incidents — shouting matches, fist fights, capsizings and serious injuries — caused by boat operators who showed blatant disregard for their fellow boaters. Wakes can damage property and hurt people. They can make people angry, and they can bring the wrath of law enforcement.

The Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatU.S.) recently looked into the problem by combing through insurance-claim case files, where swampings, broken teeth and back injuries are found.

“You avoid being the recipient of gestures from other skippers by using a little common sense and courtesy,” says BoatU.S. Director of Damage Avoidance Bob Adriance. “This means coming completely off plane when you enter a no wake zone or anywhere your wake could compromise the safety of other boats.”

Here are some additional tips from BoatU.S. to help prevent boat wake injuries to you and other boaters. Heeding them could save your life and the lives of others.

Slow early. Boat wakes travel long distances, so slow down before you reach a slow-speed zone, not as you pass the marker. Just a little slowing down isn’t good enough. Upon entering a no-wake zone, some boaters react by only slowing the vessel slightly, and then plow through with the bow way up and stern dug down, actually increasing the wake. It’s best to come completely off plane.

Make her level. Without using trim tabs, a slowed vessel should be level in the water. With some smaller boats, shifting passengers around can help, as too much weight aft increases wake size.

Watch the shallows. Shallow water increases wake size.

Small boats aren’t innocent. Wakes are not just a big-boat issue. Small vessels in the stern-down position can throw surprisingly large wakes. When approaching a wake, slow down but don’t stop. Motorboats are more stable when underway, so stopping could make things worse. Avoid taking a wake on the beam or head on. The best approach is at a slight angle. This will keep your passengers in your boat.

Take care of older crew. The BoatU.S. insurance claims files show that persons over the age of 50 have the most personal injuries, mostly as a result of being seated near the bow when the boat slams into a wake. It’s best to seat passengers, especially older passengers, amidships.

Warn the crew. A simple “Hold on, boat wake!” should do the trick, just as long as you shout the warning well before the wake arrives.

This summer — make that any time you are on the water — watch your wake. It’s the courteous, and safe, thing to do.

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