How To Drive A Boat In Rough Water

Is winter coming to an end where you live? Do you know how to drive a boat in rough water? Are you constantly thinking about taking out your boat to do some fishing or just enjoy the warmer weather? Thousands of boat enthusiasts will hit the water when the weather breaks, and many will run into rough waters and terrible storms, but only some will be prepared for it.

One of the first things boaters need is to be prepared for anything since Mother Nature is unpredictable and you could, unfortunately, find yourself and your boat in a situation you weren’t ready for. That’s why we must know how to drive a boat in rough water which will permit us to keep calm and to handle the situations.

By being prepared for the possibility of bad weather striking while you are out enjoying the water is one of the most important aspects of boating, safety should be your first priority. The following tips can help you navigate your boat in rough waters, allowing for good memories as opposed to bad ones.

How To Drive A Boat In Rough Water
How To Drive A Boat In Rough Water

Safety First and Proper Supplies

Always be prepared for the inevitable. Be sure you have a plan in case of an emergency. Any boat captain can tell you that having an emergency float plan can be a lifesaver.

Once you create your float plan, let anyone else that is going to be on the boat with you understand its importance and understand what part they might play in getting through rougher times.

Also make sure that everyone on the boat knows where the emergency supplies like float rings, life jackets, first aid kits, emergency lights, food, and other items are located.

Along with an emergency plan and emergency supplies, always keep on hand and in the boat a few other items such as satellite radar, a GPS unit, VHF-FM Marine Radio, navigational charts, and a hand-held compass in case you get stuck in a storm and loose electrical power.

Also bring extra fuel along, because if you run into a storm, it can eat your fuel supply up leaving you stranded.

Understand the Weather

It’s not unusual for professional boaters to check the weather forecast every half hour or more because as mentioned before Mother Nature is unpredictable and a force to be reckoned with. The National Weather Service will announce marine warnings if the threat is out there.

By understanding the language of the NWS, you will know what to look and listen for. Marine wind warnings are issued in knots and nautical mph instead of the regular mph that everyone understands. The following marine warnings that every water enthusiast should learn.

Mild or Light winds are 1-14 knots=1-16 mph

Breezy or Moderate winds are 15-19 knots=17-22 mph

*Small craft warnings occur when winds are mild, light, moderate, and strong.

Gusting or Strong winds are 20-33 knots=24-37 mph

*Gale warnings occur when winds could strengthen to 34-47 knots

Storms wind are 48-63 knots=55-73 mph

*Storm warnings occur when winds could strengthen to 48-63 knots

Be sure to listen to the weather before and during your trip, and keep alert to changing weather patterns.

Know Your Craft/Know Your Distress Signals

Be certain you know the ins and outs of your boat or craft. Although they are created for the same reason, no two boats or crafts handle the same. So knowing how your boat handles in different situations is a top priority before heading out onto open waters.

While avoiding rougher waters is your best course of action, it isn’t always possible. So knowing how to navigate safely through them is no easy task, but can be learned with trial and error.

Novice boaters that are not prepared by the tips provided, will have a harder time even knowing how to handle rougher currents. Veteran boaters that understand will have an easier time making it through rough waters.

Just because one storm passed you over, doesn’t mean that another one will be so gracious, so you want to get yourself to safety or your systems back up as soon as you can if they have gone out. Using the distress signals that you’ve put in place can be the difference between safety and peril.

Techniques To Drive A Boat In Rough Water

We should know the proper techniques to learn how to drive a boat in rough water. These old techniques are well proved and valid for rough waters of different situations. Let’s get to the points…

Reduce your Speed

Should you find yourself out in the middle of an ocean or any large body of water and the waves are becoming rougher, slow your speed. The first thing that inexperienced boaters want to do is speed up to outrun the oncoming storm, this almost never works and can end in unthinkable circumstances.

You will need to fight the urge to speed up, instead you’ll need to slow your boat down. When you reduce your speed, keep an eye out for other water lovers, boats, water skis, and any debris that might be floating nearby, you want to avoid both to lessen the damage you may obtain. By reducing your speed, you will be able to navigate much safer than at higher speeds.

Ride the Waves

Sometimes by slowing down and idling, a storm can just pass you by, but not always. Therefore, if you find yourself heading into treacherous waves, do not take them on head-on. By running your bow straight into the waves, you could capsize, lose power, and damage your only way home.

Another thing to remember is not to ride parallel to the waves because the same circumstances could occur. Instead of heading straight into the waves, position your bow at a 45-degree angle when heading into the waves. You want to be driving slow enough to ride the waves instead of going through them.

Try to keep your boat on top of the waves, and you’ll have a much better chance of getting through the storm unscathed. You can also use a zigzag pattern to navigate through rougher waves, allowing, again for your bow to stay atop the waves instead of straight into them.

If zigzagging doesn’t help you in making progress, keep your boat headed into the wind, but slow and adjust your speed this way you aren’t causing yourself to have any headway, at least until the rougher waters subside some.

Bailing Out Water and Dropping Anchor

When you are navigating through a storm and rough waters, you may notice that your boat is actually taking on water over the bow and along the sides. If your boat has a bilge, be sure to pump it out with a bilge pump, so that you can stay in higher water.

If you don’t have a bilge, make sure you have something to manually remove the water with and if you have a passenger in the boat this should be one of their jobs in order to keep afloat.

When navigating at reduced speeds in rough water and your engine stops, immediately you should be dropping anchor from the bow. You do not want the waves to push you into unknown territory, especially if you have no power and your navigational systems are not working. With a dead craft, only drop the anchor from the front of the boat, never the back.

Being prepared and knowledgeable can be your best friend. All of these tips can help various water enthusiasts to be ready for the inevitable. Even those individuals that enjoy the sport of Whitewater rafting can benefit from learning these safety tips or refreshing their minds with them.

Granted, they are diving headfirst into rough waters voluntarily, safety should still be the first thing on their minds before beginning their adventure.

Most whitewater rafters know the dangers of their hobby and understand the dangers of rougher waters because they have prepared for the inevitable and enjoy the thrill of tackling the rapids. They know what they are getting into, and have learned the proper techniques and safety aspects.

Most whitewater rafter enthusiasts know the ups and downs of the sport, but there are many that are new to the adventure and can benefit from the following information.

White Water Rafting

As mentioned before, all water enthusiasts can benefit from learning the basic rules of safety. It goes without saying that some of the tips for boating in rough waters may not apply to whitewater rafting, but safety should still be a priority even for an adrenaline rush like whitewater rafting.

Before heading out on the waters, be sure to have the following supplies on hand and be sure they are used properly. Most professional rafting outfitters will have most of this gear on hand for your use as part of their rafting packages but check with them first.

Always find a professional outfitter that has guides that are familiar with the sport and the area that you will be rafting in.

White Water Rafting

*A Life Jacket or Personal Flotation Device–when wearing a life jacket make sure you wear it correctly. All buckles should be buckled, and all straps should be strapped.

You’ll want to make sure you wear it loose enough for movement, but not loose enough it does you no good and falls off or can be pulled up over your head. Have your professional outfitter fit the jacket for you; they will not mind.

*Wear the Protective Gear–protective gear is the helmet that is usually supplied by the outfitter you chose for your trip.

*Wear the Proper Clothing–this can depend on the time of year you are going on your trip. Many times in the spring the water can still be a little cold so wearing a wetsuit, a splash jacket, and river/water shoes can be much more comfortable for you.

If summer is your season of choice for whitewater rafting then quick-dry, lightweight clothing, sunscreen, and sunglasses with UV protection will make your trip that much better.

Other Tips to Follow

Hold the paddle properly–with one hand cover the ‘T’ end of the paddle, the other hand should be positioned at the base of the paddle on the shaft. This will give you the control you need to navigate. If you are unsure, ask your guide for the correct technique for holding the paddle.

Stay inside the boat–one of the most dangerous parts of whitewater rafting can happen if you are on the outside of the boat. The rapids can sweep you away in an instant, depending on where you are.

Ask your guide for the proper way to keep yourself inside the raft should it hit a rock. They will give you specific instructions at the beginning of your trip.

Learn the proper swimming techniques–there are several resources you can check out before your trip in order to learn the proper swimming techniques in the event that you fall out of your raft and end up floating down the river. Asking your guide about this at the beginning of your journey is also a good idea.

Learn the commands–just like with boating, there are some commands and language that you should learn when whitewater rafting. Your guide or instructor will explain them all to you at the beginning before heading out into the water, be sure to listen and understand them, then you can be prepared for your next whitewater rafting trip.


Do NOT Panic! Now you know how to drive a boat in rough water. Be confident and never, ever panic when in a bad situation. This applies to boating in rough waters, whitewater rafting, and life in general. Keeping a cool head and knowing how to control a situation can be the difference between life and death–literally.

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