As I was starting to write these lines I realized that things are quite complex and certainly would take many pages to give clear, precise answers about handling the rib in tough weather in any case.
And how indeed could it be otherwise when on a tough sea, the waves are influenced by so many factors, all of which combined together is impossible to calculate? When each wave has unique characteristics that require almost always different handlings of the skipper?
Having the enormous variety of the waves as a fact, and afterwards add the type of boat, length and design of the hull, and of course the ability, experience and endurance of the captain, and overall philosophy of every skipper and crew, then it becomes clear that it isn't possible to define precisely how to deal with difficult weather conditions.
Definitely the waves of one meter and waves of two or more meters will be handled in a different way. The waves that are coming against the bow will be faced differently by the waves that are behind or by the side of the boat.
But even on the same waves, we will have different handling if we ride a 6m Rib than an 8m too. A hull with deep V will also be handled in another way from a hull with steps and certainly an experienced captain of a less experienced one will handle it completely different.
As a result, all these factors are related together and each one of them has a very important role in what we call "Handling a Rib on Rough Sea"!
Trying myself too to encode the main factors that affect the way of handling in the best way the heavy seas, since there are too many kind of waves, hulls and of course skippers, I after all conclude that riding our rib in the open sea is not finally a simple affair.
A skilled skipper should, among others, combine the appropriate knowledge with a number of abilities such as observation, insight, perception, awareness, and of course capability.
A rough sea is definitely a challenge for any skipper, but under no circumstances should we forget the dangers hiding out there!
Navigating against the waves
When facing the waves, there are two things to identify: the type of waves and their direction. That's because the primary goal is to have the hull suitably positioned in relation to the direction of the waves. In other words the angle you choose to cruise should be the one that allows you to have a fast and comfortable journey.
When the waves are perpendicular and opposite of our course, then we carefully notice their height and length, i.e. the distance between their crests. Bear in mind that the most critical factor dictating the way in which the boat needs to be handled is wave's length compared to the length of our hull, and not mainly the wave's height.
If we're facing short waves (something very common in the Aegean Sea), whose length is much shorter than the length of our hull, then we shouldn't hesitate trying to travel at the maximum relative speed at an angle of 90o to the oncoming waves. Realising that the length of our hull is longer than the wave's length ensures that the hull will constantly 'bridge' the crests of two or more waves.
Practically speaking, that means that our bow will cut across the first wave, then it is in the trough of the waves and will then alight on the crest of the next wave, while our stern will still be in contact with the previous wave.So, the hull remains in contact with the water from bow to stern, so we won't need to engage in any special manoeuvres, other than some small corrective and abrupt steering at the right direction.
The lower we hold the bow the softer 'landings' we'll have, since almost the entire hull will be involved in riding.
That's the case when the waves aren't that high. However, as wave's height grows, things get more difficult and we need to be more careful. Daring as it may sound, it's preferable to move at a relatively high speed from crest to crest, reducing the trim accordingly and keeping the bow even lower (it will tend to try to lift up after each collision with a large oncoming wave). That requires greater experience and a crew very familiar with such conditions. The time available to react is of course significantly limited. Every single move acquires great importance.
If we don't feel ready yet to handle the boat in that way, which requires the ability to quickly 'read' the sea and react even faster, then we should forget about tackling the waves head on. We turn the hull to a more suitable angle compared to the direction of the waves, and go slow, working the throttle lever all the time.
What happens when the weather worsens and waves are more than 2 m tall but wave length remains short? Things are even more difficult in this case, and it's a good idea –no matter how experienced you are- to forget tackling the waves head on because one sudden jolt out of the water could result in losing control of the boat. So we'd better change the angle of riding and forget the course we'd work out initially. We turn the hull and keep it angled in the same direction as the waves, which is normally less than 40o but that depends on how bad the weather is, the size of the waves, their length, the length and design of our hull as well as our own experience and endurance. The smaller the angle, the longer the wave length we appear to be travelling on, since the bow now has to cover a greater distance to encounter the crest of the next wave.
In cases where there are tall waves with a long wave length (which is longer than our submerged hull) things are easier. Have the weather on the portbow or starbow since you won't be able to 'bridge' the waves if you sail into them head on. With the weather on the portbow or starbow, the bow will cross the peak of the large wave at an angle and the gap separating it from the back of the same wave –and not from the trough- will be much smaller, varying in size depending on the angle of sailing. Your hull will also be more submersed in water and will also ensure a greater safety distance from the peak of the next wave, giving you more time to be able to react suitably.
Riding with the waves at your aft
When the waves are heading in exactly the same direction as ours, then riding is clearly less painful than riding into the waves, and will often be fun; it's certainly not easy though and definitely conceals some risks. It's important to be clear here that when riding against the waves, the hull collides with the wave because of the opposite direction and the bow has the tendency to rise up. On the contrary, when riding with the waves coming from behind, the wave and hull are in the same direction, and the stern is forced upwards, pressing the bow downwards, and the tendency is for the bow to 'ram' the next wave.
We can easily understand that the impact of the waves is completely different in these two cases, and so we need to handle the boat differently. When the weather is behind us, our first concern must be to keep the bow as high as possible, maintaining high angles of trim at all times, thereby balancing out the bow's tendency to 'sink down' into the next wave.
Where the waves aren't particularly high and the their length doesn't exceed the length of the hull we can maintain a steady course and by keeping a relatively high speed travel by skimming from crest to crest if we keep high angles of trim to ensure the bow remains high and crosses the crests of the waves without problems, with the least possible contact with them.
If the wave's height increases but the wave's length is still less than the length of our hull, we can continue on the same course without reducing speed. Of course, we need to be more careful, especially when dealing with unruly waves. Another very important move that will ensure smooth landings is a sudden, quick forward flick of the throttle lever when the bow is in the air and the boat is getting ready to touch down on the crest the next wave or just before it. If we do this, we won't let the bow hang there, because of the great weight of the boat that's out of the water, but will keep it high using thrust from the propeller. So suddenly revving up the speed will help keep the bow as high as possible, allowing it to more easily cross the crest of the next wave.
However, when the weather worsens and the waves become threatening, we've got two choices: either reduce speed and match our speed to that of the waves, or change direction and place our hull at a suitable angle to the direction of the waves.
In the first case we work the throttle lever constantly, with sudden accelerations to climb the back of the wave, then when we've reached the peak, cut back, travelling with the wave and make sudden small increases or decreases in speed to stay on top of the peak. Then we ride the next wave that's coming from behind and follow in the same pattern. We need to be careful here so that we don't leave the crest of the wave and head into the frond side of it because that means a sudden drop with the bow facing the trough, and unavoidably we'll get stuck in the back of the next wave; because of inertia it will turn quite suddenly resulting in our losing control of the boat. The consequences of that are unforeseeable.
In the second case, which is to be recommended because only this method allows us to build up decent speeds, we change course and the hull is now at an angle to the course of the waves behind us. To use the right terms, the weather is now portquarter or starquarter. This avoids a perpendicular descent on the frond side of the waves, with the risk of the bow becoming stuck in the back of the leading wave. This ensures each wave is portquarter or starquarter and since the journey time until the next wave is encountered increases, we can angle down the frond side of the wave, reach the trough, then for an instant reduce speed, then rev up again to angle up the back of the leading wave. We shouldn't forget to keep the bow high at all times with the aid of the trim, which is something we'll really appreciate when the bow nears the trough of the wave, and when it starts to climb the back of the next one.
Riding with the weather abeam
There's no doubt that when the weather is abeam our manoeuvres and our journey in general are much easier. It's a fact that under those conditions we can travel decently even in rough seas, when riding against the waves would be impossible and riding with the waves behind we would be extremely difficult.
The secret of riding in parallel with the waves is to travel at the highest possible speed permitted by the boat and our own abilities. The faster we go the more we reduce the wet surface area of the hull and the less spray we get. Of course, when riding like this we shouldn't follow a straight line. It's better to head into the wind one minute, then head against the wind the next, maintaining small angles of cruising, just being careful to avoid the breaking waves. In effect, it's a mixed riding style, with the weather abeam some times, in portquarter or starquarter other times, with the trim manoeuvres to suit.
To ensure a smoother ride it's a good idea not to change course with each wave, but to have quite a few waves in a row portbow or starbow and then for a short time to have the weather portquarter or starquarter for some distance. Doing this, you have the ability and time to adjust the angle of trim accordingly, keeping it low when ribing against the waves and raising it when the weather is portquarter or starquarter. That allows us to maintain a steady speed and basically our attention is limited to steering and adjusting the bow to the most suitable height. Also make sure that we calculate when the crest of each wave will break to avoid being trapped into the path of breaking waves.
So turn the bow right or left depending on the course, a few metres before each wave is ready to break, and pass directly behind the break.
Summarising the above, it should be clear that before making any moves, it's vital to weigh up the weather, the boat's capabilities and our own skills. It's essential to first carefully observe the waves checking for their direction, height and length, speed and periodicity. Then decide on the suitable angle of riding to ensure a safe journey that's as painless and fast as possible. All this should be done in relation to the course we've mapped out. Though, when the weather picks up, it's a good idea not to cruise in a straight line.
So we forget our destination and work out a riding plan in our head and then search for the most accessible route between the crest and troughs of the waves, adjusting our speed to suit the weather, the boat and our own experience.
We need to remain fully focused and try to look out for quite a few waves that lie up ahead so we can calculate when and approximately where the crest of the waves will break or figure out the shape of unruly waves so that we can manoeuvre accordingly in advance without being caught out unawares. All that needs to be done instantaneously at the same time, and the faster we're going the faster we need to make calculations and execute manoeuvres. That requires that when steering we become part of the hull and know at any point just how much of the hull is in the water.
Speed and flexibility are two very important weapons ribs have for getting by in even very difficult seas.
Believe in yourself, head out to sea and spend a lot of time in your boat. Don't let yourself get easily disappointed and don't give up the first time things go wrong. No one was born an experienced skipper. Nor can you learn a lot without trying to learn. You can definitely learn a lot by reading or listening to those more experienced than you but there's nothing more educational than -and nothing can ever replace- the sea itself. Only if you're out there can you understand how things really work. Out there you'll be put to the test and discover your own abilities and limits, so start off with small waves and gradually build up to more difficult conditions.
However, we should never overestimate our own abilities and should always operate with safety in mind, bearing in mind that there's a thin dividing line between fun and tragedy at sea; the difference often times balances dangerously on some invisible thread!