Bluejacket in various sea states

Questions about the handling characteristics of the Bluejacket 24 in “chop” occur pretty often.  Many people consider their home water to be some of the roughest around and ask if the boat will be OK there.  Of course, I have never had the boat in most of those places so my answer has to be related to the conditions that I have direct experience with.  On the other hand, the Atlantic ICW cruising guides all agree that the North Carolina Sounds and rivers, particularly the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and the Neuse River are usually the roughest on the entire run from New York to Southern Florida.  These are the home waters of the Bluejacket “Liz” so I am able to give performance results on these. 

The perception of handling capability, or comfort, depends on more than wave height.  A 3-foot wave in the open ocean is usually not much of a bother but the same wave height in shallow inshore water can be a real bone cruncher.  This is because the friction of the nearby bottom causes the waves to bunch up and shorten the wave period.  The waves thus develop a steeper front that gives the boat a sharper blow at a greater frequency than in deep open water.  The other factor is that these short waves move much more rapidly than open water waves of the same height or wavelength period.  The shallow water will not allow really high waves to develop and as the wind increases further, the speed of the waves increases disproportionally to the height and period. 

So, when you are running into waves or chop, the relative speed of the boat to the waves can be, and usually is, just as important as the wave height.  I recall one instance when we were coming north from Beaufort, NC and needed to cross the Neuse River to get home.  The wind had been blowing 30 to 35 knots for two days from the northeast into the funnel of the Neuse River with a fetch of over 50 miles, all the way from Cape Hatteras.  The water depth on this crossing was mostly less than 20 feet so the wave height, while scary, was not really high.  We found that if the indicated speed was greater than about 3mph, the boat would literally become airborne and fall into the next trough with a frightening slam.  It took over an hour to crab across the 3 mile width of the Neuse to Oriental.  When we turned to run into the harbor channel, we found the wave speed to be in excess of 11 mph!  Thus our relative up-wave speed had been, not 3 mph, but more like 14 mph.  Not so surprising that it was rough going.  An extreme case, I admit, but it clearly illustrates the situation. That time, we just wanted to get home but, in the future, I will find some other outlet for excess adrenalin.   “Liz” performed admirably on this day but, as is always the case, real safety depends not only on the boat, but on recognition of the conditions and safe handing by the helmsman.

While returning from a short cruise to New Bern on a recent weekend we encountered a run directly into a northeast wind of about 13 kts with some whitecaps and a water depth of 12 to 13 feet.  At a speed of 15mph, the ride was a bit bouncy but pretty quiet with no regular pounding other than the occasional hit from a bit of rogue chop.  Increasing speed to 19 mph produced a more stable ride with less bounce but also less comfort and more noise and pounding.  Wave height is so hard to determine that I’m hesitant to give it but my best guess is that the height was about 12 to 18 inches max. 

Also recently, we took a neighbor couple out to see the Etchells “Fall Blast” (with Dennis Conner, no less) regatta on the Neuse.  Wind was 20 to 25 from the north-northeast so that the near shore water of the Neuse was somewhat sheltered by the north shore and the waves lower than normal.  As we ventured further out to where the boats were sailing, the waves got progressively higher and nastier.  At first we were able to run at about 10 to 12 mph into wave height of about 2 feet with the usual sets of three waves of about 3 feet coming along in fairly regular fashion.  The sharp convex sections of the bow entered the waves quietly and lifted as the buoyancy increased but not so high as to allow the waves to strike the flatter mid bottom sections and produce pounding.  The principle waves were, by now, running in the direction of the river, which is east-west and the wind was about 50 to 60 degrees north of the wave direction.  This caused some cross-waves to develop in open water, which added to the confusion and height of the wave pattern.  As it got progressively rougher, a jab in my back from first mate Liz let me know a slower speed would be preferable as it was becoming uncomfortable and wet as the conditions worsened.  At 8 mph, the ride became pretty comfortable but with considerable pitching due to the increased wave height.  

While life on the Etchells was wet and cool for the sailors, they were having an easier time in the waves than we were.  If the conditions had worsened much more, we would have needed to slow down even more and would have been unable to keep pace with the straight line speed of the fast 30 foot Etchells which are long and narrow with lots of sail area and a 60% ballast ratio.  Before that happened, a second jab let me know that it would be preferable to turn back toward calmer water.  By this time, were taking a fair amount of spray as “Liz” punched into the waves although we were warm and comfortable in the pilothouse. 

I often find that comfort can be improved by either increasing or decreasing speed in the wave conditions at hand.  The characteristics of a particular boat relative to the existing wave conditions will dictate which speeds are more or less desirable and the helmsman needs to be open to finding the speed and/or course where life is more enjoyable for both boat and crew. 

Running down-wave is usually more comfortable but requires more attention from the helm and is far more dangerous in a powerboat than going against the waves.  The tendency of the boat to surf down the face of following waves and stick the bow into the backside of the wave ahead needs to be avoided.  When this happens, the boat immediately slows and the following wave catches up and likes to slew the boat to one side or the other depending on the relative angle of the wave to the stern.  This can easily cause the boat to broach and, in the worse case, to roll over and swamp or capsize.  This is the main cause of boating disasters in running inlets that takes lives and destroys boats each year along the coasts of the USA.   It takes a lot of attention from the helm to run with larger waves.  Steering corrections must be decisive and rapid to avoid the slewing problems.  

I find that if the conditions permit, I like to run enough slower than the wave pattern so that surfing is minimized.  On this day, the wave speed was a nearly 9 mph so we ran at about 8 and handling was fairly easy.  One wave did pick up the stern and surf LIZ up to 13 mph and stick the wave ahead.  With plenty of reserve buoyancy in the bow and a transom chine beam less than that amidships, plus the steerable outboard of ample power, it was easy to avoid any possible danger.  Many will recommend that the boat be run on the backside of the wave ahead.  In confused wave patterns of short period, that is poor advice and would be very difficult or impossible to do.  A broad flat immersed stern and a sharp deep bow would be the worse thing to have when running down waves.   Any such boats should be restricted to calmer waters.

A disclaimer; These are my subjective thoughts and do not necessarily apply to boats in deep, open offshore waters. There are undoubtedly other situations where different type boats and conditions may produce different results. While I believe the Bluejacket 24 could survive offshore excursions in many typical conditions, I did not intend that she be used for that purpose.  Her lightweight and stable attitude would work against her in rough offshore situations.  I would never consider running the Bluejacket either in or out through the breakers in many coastal inlets which some have to contend with.  However, she enjoys many advantages over the boats that are best equipped for such inlets and offshore work and is well suited for the vast majority of us who operate our boats in inshore waters.

Tom Lathrop