RECENTLY I WAS INVITED aboard a new boat, to test and review it. The 41-foot center console had a brace of quadruple Mercury 400s lining the transom. Yes—quads totaling 1,600 horsepower.
To state the obvious, that’s a lot of juice. When I opened up the throttles we raced up to a top-end speed of 75 mph. I don’t even like driving my truck that fast, much less a boat. The wind ripped at my hair, and my pants flapped so violently it actually hurt. I realized that if I suddenly spotted something bobbing around in the water just in front of the boat, there was no way I’d ever be able to avoid it.
Consider this: At 75 mph, your boat travels 110 feet per second. So if you spot a log that surfaces 50 feet away, you’ll have less than half a second to take evasive actions. Good luck with that.
Speeds like this are far more dangerous on the water than they are on dry land. There, better visibility is usually assured, you’re not being thrown around as you hit waves, and you’re ensconced in the quiet, wind-free cabin of a car or truck.
Most boats top out in the low 50s. However, plenty of them– especially bass boats and bay boats–reach up into the 70s. If you take the wheel of one, will you know how to safely operate it? Here are 10 ironclad rules that should help.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number One—Go only as fast as the conditions allow.
Just how fast is that? It’s a judgment call that only you can make as you stand or sit at the helm.
Obvious factors that come into play include visibility (which can be restricted severely by fog, rain, and flying spray), sea state and how rough the waves are, and how crowded the waterway is. Other factors exist that people don’t think about as much as they should.
Has there been a lot of rain and runoff lately? This might cause the lake, river, or bay to be strewn with floating limbs and tree branches. Are water levels down because of drought or very low tides? If so, you risk striking bottom.
Do you have any young or old passengers aboard who may have a more difficult time hanging on sufficiently for high-speed operation? The list of variables that can contribute to increasing the danger of high-speed operation is essentially endless. As captain you need to be vigilant to assess the current conditions, then speed up or slow down accordingly.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Two—Provide plenty of warning to your passengers. This means you give a heads-up and ask whether everyone’s ready prior to nailing the throttle. Also, you shout a warning prior to making turns, and make sure everyone’s comfortable with and prepared for high-speed boat travel.
You probably know a few things they don’t, which you need to communicate to your passengers. Remind them to hold on at all times no matter what and take off their hats or be prepared to lose them. If they wear glasses, tell them not to turn their faces perpendicular to the wind-blast or risk them flying off.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Three—Give a wide berth when you overtake other boats. You just never know when the guy steering that bowrider is going to decide to make a U-turn. If you’re approaching at high speed, you might not have the time or space to avoid it. Every other boat on the water needs to be considered a dangerous and unpredictable hazard.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Four—Eliminate all distractions. That doesn’t just mean you turn off and pack away your cell phone, it also means you turn off the stereo and travel at high speeds only when you don’t need to constantly consult a chart plotter.
You need to pay constant attention to what lies directly ahead of the boat. You also need to maintain peripheral focus. You need to be constantly aware of boats, markers, and other items that are not only in your direct path, but which could suddenly be in that path, if either you or they change direction.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Five—At the first hint of any sort of issue, slow down. This might include the sensation of chine walking, which can be utterly deadly when traveling at high speed. It also includes oncoming boat wakes, spray causing a sudden drop in visibility, or a change in the direction of the waves when you transition from an area sheltered from the wind to one that’s more exposed.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Six—Don’t make sudden turns if at all possible. If you’re faced with the choice between hitting a tree limb and wiping out your lower unit or making an evasive maneuver that risks rolling the boat, accept your fate and be prepared to shell out a few bucks. Bottom line, safety has to come before the boat’s mechanical well being.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Seven—If you’re not already intimately familiar with the boat you’re running and how it handles at high speeds, work your way up to speed gradually. If the boat’s capable of 75 mph, for example, stop advancing the throttle when you get to 50 and get a feel for things. Only when you’re comfortable should you inch up to 60, 65, and so on.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Eight—Inspect the boat thoroughly prior to operating it at these speeds. A simple mechanical issue, such as a stuck trim tab, can have huge implications when you’re going this fast You need to know about it ahead of time and either make a repair or hold that throttle back.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Nine—Don’t just trim the engine up as high as possible to attain maximum speed, and forget about it. Engine trim has a huge impact on a boat’s handling at high speeds. Every boat is different in this regard. Weight distribution because of passengers and gear will change how a boat reacts to trim. So, unless you already know the boat very well, experiment a bit at slower speeds before determining the best trim position at WOT.
High-Speed Handling Rule Number Ten—Here’s the no-brainer you’ve been waiting for, folks: never operate a boat at high speeds under the influence of alcohol. Period. Remember, 75 mph means 110 feet per second. Even the slightest drop in your reaction time is simply unacceptable.
Email Lenny Rudow at [email protected]