Definition of a Boat Wake


Safe navigation is the responsibility of all boaters.  Even though no vessel will have absolute right-of-way over other boats, there are rules that every operator should know and follow. To avoid collisions on the water, boaters should follow there basic rules: (1) Practice good seamanship; (2) maintain a safe speed and distance; and (3) keep a sharp lookout.

If you do any boating at all, among other things, you will see "no wake zones", this may be in an area where a lot of construction going on near some popular fishing areas, as well as the restricted zones in the channel, or near a dock or moorage area, "no wake zone" buoys are as frequent a site as seagulls at times.  These are generally regarded as 5mph zones (and even marked as such on some buoys) but a comment came up recently that even at 5 MPH, one could create a wake that would violate the law and result in a fine.  Some folks argue (rightfully, given experience on the water) that their boat leaves less "wake" while on plane than plowing upstream through some areas of the river.  OK, but read on.

It is my belief that most boaters do not knowingly violate the regulation of NO WAKE.  But may be misinformed by many things, learning from someone who also was misinformed, read it on the internet, or does not understand what a wake can do under the wrong conditions.  Therefore this little discussion may bring a few things to light, in reality there could be many a number of right/wrong answers depending on the circumstances/jurisdiction & the law enforcement officer nearby.

"Slow-no wake" means operation of a watercraft at the slowest possible speed necessary to maintain steerage, but in no case greater than five miles per hour.  Simply put in the USCG's terms is "as slow as possible and still have control of your vessel".

The key issue however is what exactly is a wake?  How is it defined?   A flat bottomed 14' rowboat will have a lesser wake at the same speed than a 20' deep Vee fishing boat and considerable less than a 36' yacht all doing the same speed.  In short, while operating you boat, how are you to know whether you are in violation of the law or not with respect to "no wake zones"?

There are courses you can take from USCG Auxiliary, or Power Squadrons that for the inexperienced are valuable.  Some skippers after taking these classes have said that they were taught that bare steerageway (as slow as the boat will go in forward gear and still maintain steering/control) is the proper speed to approach into a "no wake zone".  All the above is good information, but some boaters want a more definitive answer. 

So if you do a bit of goggling and poking around at the marine sites online, you will find a policy/regulation/guideline as to what really constitutes a "wake", let alone one that would be in violation of a "no wake zone".   However what you learn here may be for a location 1000 miles from where you boat and therefore may not really apply if you are trying to convince a river patrol officer that is holding a citation pad in his hand.

Even though there is a posted speed (5 MPH) on some of the signs or buoys; There seems to be a gray area on speed as "mph" is a nominal factor when used in terms with a vessel, while some deeper hulls and larger vessels will throw a sizable wake a slow 5mph speed .   If there is any wash created on the adjacent jetty, shoreline to the sides of the entry channel or to a dock or moorage area, you are making a wake as defined by the rule.  Some private boaters think that not being on plane is the same as not making a wake.   It is most certainly not.    Many of these wakes carry a distance, if you don't believe me watch the shoreline after a larger boat has passed.  There may well be waves working themselves down the shore.

It has also been said by some enforcement officers that if you are throwing any amount of "V" wave behind the vessel it is considered a wake, and you are potentially violating the regulation.

And any of you who have been anchored and encountered cargo ships passing by on the Columbia River surely understand the term "Wake".

This can also be for safety's sake when boating near where swimmers could be expected to be.

Bottom Line: slow down if you think you are making a wake; and don't give the officials a reason to ticket you.

USCG - Actual Definition from an USCG/MMC Course manual.
No wake speed is defined as a speed whereby there is no "white" water in the track or path of the vessel or in created waves immediate to the vessel.

If you look on an Inland Navigation Chart you will find the speed determination over land.   It doesn't matter what the state regulations say; if the USCG is patrolling the area, you play by their rules - no exceptions.  However if a state officer is patrolling, HE is in charge and he may have a different rule book.

Any "Inland" speed posting is in mph in relation to speed over land.
Any "Coastal or Open Water" speed is actual nautical miles per hour.
That's why speed in relation to a "no wake zone" is a nominal posting and not necessarily an actual speed limit; thus if your vessel creates a wake as defined above, at that speed; you can and will be ticketed.

Confusing ?  Well Yes, but it seems that it may be up to the discretion of what ever officer happens to be observing.

Now if you really look at it, state rules don't supersede Federal Navigation Law.   Many of the WA/OR Boating safety rules and criteria are incorrect in comparison to USCG regulations.  HOWEVER you can deviate from any posted speed or ruling to avoid a dangerous situation.

In USCG licensing, there have been lengthy discussions about the clashing state vs. federal regulations in training and when it comes down to the actual law and taking the test for a Mariner Credential - you go with the Federal ruling.  And remember any captain or operator on navigable waters is subject to enforcement from the USCG end.

However sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. The 5 MPH - No Wake' regulations Oregon state OAR's as provided for in Oregon statute, and NOT federal law.   If you're cited for a violation it will very likely be by a State Trooper or a county Sherriff Deputy (not the USCG), and if you argue it, it will be under in front of a county Judge and be prosecuted by a county DA under the provisions of Oregon law.  Good luck telling that judge or state/county LEO it doesn't matter what the state material says!

Oregon's Multnoma County Marine Patrol's interpretation is that "Any white water behind any boat is a wake".

Then what about any jet pump driven boat, there's usually a quite a bit "white" water behind one of those boats at about any speed.  And they have lesser control at slow speed than a prop driven boat.  Convince the officer of that if he has never operated a jet before.

A few years ago BoatUS put out a press release on wakes that may be worth sharing with you :

Boat Wakes Make People Angry - And Can Injure

ALEXANDRIA, Va., August 26, 2009 - Boat wakes -- those long, frothy, V-shaped waves trailing from the stern of a powerboat as it slices through the water -- have a sinister side. When other vessels encounter them, they can hurt people.  They can make people angry, and they can bring the wrath of law enforcement, for good reason.

Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatU.S.) recently looked into the issue of boat wakes by combing through the insurance claims case files, where swampings, broken teeth, and back injuries are found.  "You avoid being the recipient of gestures from other skippers by using a little common sense and courtesy," says BoatU.S. Director of Damage Avoidance Bob Adriance.  "This means coming completely off plane when you enter a no wake zone or anywhere your wake could compromise the safety of other boats," he adds.

Here are some tips to help prevent boat wake injuries to you and other boaters:

Slow early: Boat wakes travel distances, so slow down before you reach a slow-speed zone, not as you pass the marker.

Just a little slowing down isn't good enough: Upon entering a no wake zone, some boaters react by only slowing the vessel slightly, and then plow through with the bow way up and stern dug down, actually increasing the wake. Come completely off plane.

Make her level: Without using trim tabs, a slowed vessel should be level in the water.  With some smaller boats, shifting passengers around can help, as too much weight aft increases wake size.

Watch the shallows: Shallow water increases wake size.

Small boats aren't innocent:  Wakes are not just a big boat issue -- small vessels in the stern-down position can throw surprisingly large wakes.

When approaching a wake, slow down but don't stop:  Motorboats are more stable when underway, so stopping could make things worse.  Avoid taking a wake on the beam or head on. The best approach is at a slight angle.  This will keep your passengers in your boat.

Take care of older crew:  The BoatU.S. insurance claims files show that persons over the age of 50 have the most personal injuries, mostly as a result of being seated near the bow when the boat slams into a wake.  It's best to seat passengers -- especially older passengers -- amidships.

Warn the crew:  A simple "Hold-on. Boat wake" should do the trick, just as long as you shout the warning well before the wake arrives.

More Confusion ?


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Originally created 5-02-2012, Last updated  12-24-2014
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