Big Water Driving Tips

A couple of weeks back I wrote a column about some of my big water boating experiences. The reality is, if you spend enough time on the water, you will be faced with windy conditions and potentially have to drive through some rough water to get to where you need to go. It’s all about staying safe and making the ride as comfortable as possible.
The first rule to consider is if the conditions are really bad, if the waves are large and you are not comfortable in your boat you should find a place to hide out and wait for the waves to subside. Across Sunset Country, most of our waters have islands and bays, often allowing us to get on the water and get around even on really windy days. There are stretches on some of the bigger waters, especially on Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake that are big and can really get riled up so obviously those should be avoided. If there is a small craft advisory issued, which will usually be displayed on most weather apps, you should consider staying off the water. The standard now for professional tournaments are to cancel days when there are small craft advisories in effect.
If you do have to cross a big stretch of water on a windy day there are a few things you can do to have a better experience. The first is to try to hit the waves at a quartering angle. It might seem like going directly into or along with the waves is the best way to go and if the waves aren’t too big, that is the best way to stay dry. In large waves, going with them is the most dangerous way to travel because you are liable to spear the waves as you fall down into them, which will fill your boat with water and can cause problems quickly. This has happened to me twice, once on Lake Michigan and once last year at Lake St. Clair. It’s scary when it happens and you always make sure your bilge pump works after this happens once. I actually carry any extra bilge pump in the boat with me that I can plug in if I needed to.
The absolute best way to travel in big waves if it’s possible is to run parallel with them. We call it running the troughs, if there is enough room in between the waves. On really big water, the waves will stack up predictably but on most of our lakes in NW Ontario, the waves just get choppy and unpredictable, so it’s tougher to do this. Hitting the waves with the front side of the boat is safer than directly hitting them off the nose. If you must travel along with big waves, you should consider traveling in a S pattern so that you are always hitting the waves at an angler versus directly hitting them with the nose of the boat.
A larger boat obviously helps with traveling in large waves but it’s not realistic for everyone to have 20 foot boats. In smaller boats, taking the long way along the calm shoreline is usually a good option or simply sitting out a day might be the way to go. It’s not worth risking your safety to catch a fish, I can tell you that. The larger boats are nice because they don’t fall down in between the waves as much and you will notice a significant difference between even an 18 foot and 20 foot boat.
My Lund bass boat is set up as the ultimate fishing machine and it is equipped with an Atlas jack plate on the back of the boat that links the motor to the transom of the boat. A jack plate allows you to move the motor vertically up and down which is handy for use in shallow water but more importantly for better performance in rough water. I will lower the motor all the way down in big waves, then trim the motor up a little bit so that I can keep the bow of the boat up. It makes the ride more comfortable for sure.
Windy days are not uncommon, so using good judgement to stay safe is your best bet on the water. Wearing a life jacket in the boat is always a good idea in any conditions, especially when the boat is under power of the main engine.