How does wind affect a boat?

29th September 2021 Jack O'Rourke

How does wind affect a boat?

Whether boating or sailing, a vessel will handle the wind in different ways depending on its make and size. The wind has the power to affect the boat's speed and direction and can influence the skipper's navigation.

It is important to understand how wind affects a boat. Being responsive to the wind is a skill that even the most experienced boaters take a while to develop, but getting tuned in to the wind will allow operators to control their boats better.

Wind will impact how nice your time on the water will be. It is always essential for boaters to check wind and wave conditions before attempting to head out, regardless of the size of the boat.

Once you've decided that conditions are satisfactory, it's time to head out.

The right boat for windy conditions

A boat with very high hulls and a big flybridge will be more affected by the wind and tend to rock wildly than a boat that sits lower in the water and has a thick hull. 

The best boat for handling high winds on small bodies of water where waves are smaller is an aerodynamic boat with a small surface area. When it comes to bigger bodies of water, heavier boats will handle well if they are big enough to take on large waves.

When dealing with high winds while boating, it is best to be confident in the skipper’s abilities before attempting to go out on the water. Choose the right vessel for the conditions, and know the wind has an effect on tides, waves and weather.

There are several ways to get an idea of what the wind is doing before you head out on the water.

In particular, there are three aspects of the wind boaters should try to get a good feel for. Wind speed, wind direction and knowing the difference between true and apparent wind. 

Wind direction

To become an experienced boater, skippers should know where the wind is coming from at all times. Especially in sailing, knowing wind direction helps for trimming sails and handling the yacht properly. 

Wind direction is where the wind is blowing from, not where it's going. There are a number of ways to determine this.

One of the simplest ways to feel it on your skin, or wet your finger to feel which way the breeze is coming from. It’s not the most scientific way, but it is just as effective in some situations. 

When detecting subtle variations in wind direction from a boat, skippers should be looking forward and back. Keeping an eye on a horizontal stretch of ripples ahead of the boat can indicate how the wind is affecting its direction and steering, and glancing back behind to see what the wind is doing will allow skippers to observe changes in the wind directly rather than waiting for it to affect the boat.

You can determine the “cardinal direction” of the wind by using a compass. 

Wind speed

On the water, wind speed is measured in knots, which are based on nautical miles. The use of the term knot originated from sailors who measured the speed of their ship using a rope with knots at regular intervals, called a “common log”. 

While it depends on the size of the boat and the size of the waves, if wind speeds reach over 20 knots then it is very challenging to go boating. At these speeds, most boats will struggle with the conditions, and smaller boats may capsize.

When the wind starts to reach 34 knots it starts to become a real danger to boaters. The Deckee app provides real-time wind speed in the weather dashboard.

Understanding the speed of the wind and being able to interpret it will ensure boaters stay safe. Knowing when a gust is coming and when the wind is about to die off could be the difference between everyone having a fun day out on the water and getting caught in a dangerous situation. 

When the wind picks up, large bodies of water will create large waves, so it may be safer to venture out onto protected bodies of water such as lakes and rivers.

True vs. apparent wind

True wind speed measures the actual speed of the wind as it passes over the surface of the water, while apparent wind speed is the wind felt by the observer in motion (so basically how fast the wind feels in relation to the speed and direction of their boat). 

The true wind speed and direction is displayed in weather forecasts, but the apparent wind is more useful when sailing a vessel. 

On a boat, the apparent wind can be determined by first sailing upwind and then bearing off to a downwind course. Apparent wind changes depending on the speed and direction of the boat, and yachts can take advantage of apparent wind to sail faster.

Docking and anchoring

Docking in windy and wavy conditions can be challenging, but it is a good strategy to use the wind to push the boat. The wind affects the bow of the boat more, and will blow the bow downwind.

When attempting to anchor a boat in high wind, pay attention to the area and the surrounding shore. To select the best spot to anchor, decide where will offer the most protection from the wind. Currents are faster and tides will wildly fluctuate when high winds are blowing, so take care when setting anchor to compensate for a wide radius to avoid any hazards in the water. 

Download the Deckee app to get information on daily weather information with data on temperature, winds, tides and more.