Launch Wheels Attached
Handling a boat in the surf zone is risky business. Many, however, don't consider that the risks go beyond getting wet. In the twenty-plus years we've been launching and observing, we've seen plenty: from the comical, to the heroic, to the disastrous. Most of the miscalculations we've seen were avoidable and clearly caused by an ignorance of the forces at work in the surf zone.
Because of the curvature of the bay, the largest surf happens directly in front of the campground, while Chicken Cove to the northwest is almost always calm. The anxious and inexperienced will sometimes opt for the riskier frontal approach in order to avoid hauling their gear the extra 1/4 mile. Chicken Cove got its name not because there were a bunch of chickens running around back in history, but because of the number of humbled individuals who have sworn off macho launches and now use the cove in reverence to Neptune's pranks.
The following discussion is not meant to encourage folks to launch through the surf, but to share some of the knowledge we've gained over the years. It assumes the waves are small and manageable. Anything larger than one or two feet should be avoided. No one should launch in surf conditions who does not completely know what they are doing.
The Forces at Work in the Surf Zone
The surf zone is the hazardous area where waves form and break. Think of a surf launch as having two phases: (1) Preparing the boat for launch in shallow water, which sometimes means holding it into position for several minutes. We can call this the "staging area." (2) The other phase involves jumping in and powering across the surf zone to safety beyond the zone.
The staging area is often a confusing mix of currents and shears that push a boat in several directions at once, and the influence of them changes, starts, and stops every few seconds. This is because the waves close to shore have two forces of water flowing into each other: water moving toward shore, usually at an angle, and water moving seaward. The effect of them is to turn the boat sideways to the surf, its most vulnerable position for a turnover.
The deeper water section of the surf zone is much more predictable as the energy is basically shoreward. As deep-water swells reach the shoreline, they slow, grow in height, and cascade. The type of cascade depends on the size of the swell, its direction in relation to shore, and the steepness of the beach beneath the water.
(1) The boat is held in position, to keep water from swamping it and to keep it from turning sideways, in water just deep enough for the engine to be started and warmed up. A cold engine will quit "under load" (when you throw it into gear) even though it sounds perfect in neutral. A large number of accidents happen when the engine quits in the surf zone and the boater, floating aimlessly, tries to restart it. The solution is to warm the engine up, then try slipping it into gear a couple of times, being mindful of the folks holding the boat, before any launch attempt. Note: Starting a dry outboard can burn out the water pump impeller.
Waves come in somewhat predictable sets and its possible to time an escape across the zone with the lulls between these sets. It is necessary to study the patterns of sets and lulls for several minutes to get a feel for the activity in the zone.
(2) When the right moment comes, the boat handlers in the water should either step back away from the boat or quickly scramble aboard while the boater powers directly to the outside of the surf zone. The "right moment" is completely a matter of judgement tempered by experience. There must be time given the speed of your boat, its power and load, to take off just as a wave has passed and get beyond the surf zone before the next wave forms. I've seen folks casually load up people and gear to the point where there is maximum drag on the boat, slowing its escape through the zone. Some people leave their launch wheels down adding even more drag. Motoring complacently around in the surf zone is courting disaster.
The cause of many swampings and injuries is bad timing in this phase of the launch: taking off after a swell passes only to meet another head on. After the boat first takes off and you notice the oncoming swell developing into a cresting wave, you are left with four possibilities: One is to doodle along and let the wave break directly into your boat where you will get wet at the very least, turn over and loose your gear, or worse, get tangled, bashed and banged as the boat is rolled over on top of you. The second thing you could do is charge toward the wave like Don Quixote. If your lucky, you'll give all the folks on shore a big thrill as man and machine are tossed high into the air to land with a bone jarring crunch. If you have some one in the bow of the boat, if they're lucky they won't suffer any spinal injuries or a dislocated shoulder. The third thing you could do is jump free of your boat and call it a day. The fourth thing is turn around and head for shore as fast as you can and try it again in a few minutes.
Beaching is the other half of launching and has its hazards, but the technique here is simple.
(1) Wait outside the surf zone to study the swell pattern. This could take several minutes. Looking shoreward, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between a one foot and a four foot breaker, or to tell what the cascades are like. Tell the folks in the boat what's going to happen and what you want them to do.
(2) Just as a swell passes, motor along a few boat lengths behind it -- never in front of it or on top of it -- making sure it breaks and flattens before you motor over it toward the sand. As the wave breaks it slows its forward movement, so vary your forward motion to match it. You do not want to go over the falls, nor will your motor work in foam.
(3) When you arrive onto the sand or lose your forward momentum, your companion should immediately get out and grab the bow to hold the boat or it may be drawn back and turn sideways into the next wave. They' ll get their feet wet but that's not as important as the safety. I've seen many boats almost make it to shore, just feet left, the engine killed, the folks inside gazing over the side waiting for the appearance of dry land.
The most spectacular beaching accidents occur from the "Hawaii Five-O" error. North coast vessels are not native dugouts. The fool who tries to surf his craft neatly onto the beach down the face of a wave has been watching too much T.V. It never works! The lucky ones get a thrilling and often wet landing sometimes sideways, sometimes backwards. The unlucky ones? Treasure cove.
Boating Safety Information