Grounding at the Place of Slaughter

By Tom Neale, 4/15/2010


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I’ve only been aground once at Matanzas Inlet. But that was enough. We were headed north and the tide was racing out to the ocean. We were still on the south side of the crossing and so it was pushing us forward like a freight train. (What’s wrong with this picture? Stay tuned.)

Area of Concern, Matanzas Inlet ICW Crossing
“Matanzas” means “place of slaughter,” but not for what it did to my boat. The story goes that after Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles conquered and killed the French Huguenots at Ft. Caroline on the St. Johns, he learned that Jean Ribauld's fleet had perished in a storm off this inlet, and that survivors were encamped ashore. He marched down from St. Augustine to find approximately 300 souls. With only around 50 men in his force, he convinced the French to surrender, promising fair treatment. The “fair treatment” consisted of a meal and then execution of all but the few who claimed to be Roman Catholic. A few days later, he found more survivors, including Ribauld, just a little farther south. He induced 120 to surrender with the same type of promises, and the same fulfillment. This was in the last half of the 1500’s.

Today, the intersection of the Matanzas Inlet channel and the ICW is one of those ICW areas which are always shoaling. And it isn’t the nice kind of shoaling with good ol’ soft mud. The shoaling here is from hard sand, packed tight by the currents of the 6-8 foot tides. They flow both northerly and southerly in the ICW and also in and out of the inlet channel where it crosses the ICW. It’s been reported that more dredge material is removed from this inlet crossing than any other spot in the ICW in the state of Florida—so powerful are the currents, so unstable is the bottom and so frequent and shallow the shoaling. We’ve seen this inlet crossing fill in within only a few months after dredging. We’ve known it to fill in so fast that on one occasion we had to literally pass on the wrong side of the aid to navigation in order to find water deep enough. The Corps of Engineers surveys it regularly and the Coasties will move the floating Aids to Navigation to try to keep up with the changing bottom, but they can’t do this every day.

Fort Matanzas
People refer to this inlet crossing, as I did, as “Matanzas Inlet,” but the actual inlet is really to the east, breaching the beach, beyond the ancient Spanish fort. If you want to see the actual inlet, take your tender sometime and go up past the fort. Some people actually anchor their mother ship off the fort, but we’d never do that because the shoals shift too much and I think I’ve need to do it almost every day to have enough local knowledge to make it work. As you round the bend after the fort you’ll see the actual inlet, passing under a bridge. It is beautiful, shallow, and treacherous for even small boats unless the tide is high, the seas are calm and you know exactly what you’re doing. As to where so many of us run aground on the ICW, where the channel of the inlet crosses the ICW, you can call it anything you want. It’s a pain in the ___ that probably ensnares more boats than any other single place on the ICW, at least these days.

There is no consistently reliable set of instructions as to where the deep water lies. As mentioned above, it changes. In years past it was usually toward the mainland (red buoy) side of the inlet crossing, but that’s not something you could rely on. Right after it’s dredged and re-marked the best advice is, obviously, to follow the buoys. Even well after that, when it’s started to clog up again, the best advice is to usually follow the buoys. But sometimes the shoals change too fast for the buoy placement to keep up, sometimes it’s difficult to see the buoys or pick out which one is next (especially if you’re going too fast—which is anything over very slow speed) and sometimes the deepest water in the deepest spot just isn’t deep enough. It’s always good advice to study the charts and updated guide books first, call to boats traveling ahead of you to see if they’ve had trouble and where, and to go through at the right time.

Shoals at Matanzas Inlet
Half tide and rising is the right time for this and many other trouble spots. Half tide gives you at least some water and rising means it’s going to be getting deeper, so you’ve a chance of working your way off after you ground. It was half tide the day, many years ago, that we went aground, but not rising. And that’s what’s wrong with this picture. When you hit under those circumstances you know you’ve got to do something fast.

We were in the right place according to the buoys, but that wasn’t good enough. A shoal had protruded far into the deeper water. I’d say that the shoal was probably around 4 feet under water, and much deep water was probably just a few feet away. Often you can tell a little about the depths by the water colors, but not this cloudy day. We were running slow but we ploughed into the sand bar with some force because the tide was pushing us on. I reversed hard but that didn’t stop the current. It was so strong that it swung the stern around. Thankfully it swung the stern not only around, but also out. If it had swung our stern toward the shoal we could have ensnared the rudder and done considerable damage. But often, a following current will be deflecting off the shoal and this will have a tendency to push your stern out.

This can be very good, if you have your wits about you. As the stern is swinging out, you can usually reverse hard enough to pull the boat free. Once you go aground, even in hard sand, your hull will typically become entrapped in the bottom. A current may even start immediately piling sand or mud around your keel, making it more difficult by the moment to extricate yourself. But with a tide swinging the stern around we were able to quickly back free.

Tom’s Tips About Shallow Spots

1. When you don’t know where the deep water lies in a bad area and there’s no other way to find out, try exploring ahead in the dinghy if it’s safe to do so. (Obviously, don’t do this if weather, currents or other conditions make it unsafe.) Wear a life jacket.

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But we were then pointing in the wrong direction! The current had swung the stern so far around and so quickly that we were going back where we had come from. And this is NOT a place where you want to be making circles. At least we knew how we had gotten from where we had come from, so that’s where we went---never mind that it was spring not fall and we were headed then south when we wanted to be heading north. So southbound it was for Chez Nous, at least for awhile. We finally reached an area in the ICW that was wide enough and far enough away from the inlet crossing so that we felt comfortable in turning around and heading back for another try.

A boat behind us had seen our misfortune and passed off to the west of where we had hit, getting through with plenty of water. We talked with the skipper on the VHF to confirm this, and took that route for our second try, which was only a few feet from where we’d found the bottom.

As I write this, I’m listening to the VHF and boats talking to each other as they head through this area. What is apparently a lead boat has checked with the local Towboat US operator and followed his advice. He’s reported back to the boats that are following him that the advice was good and he had no trouble getting through.

When you travel the ICW you’ll find problem areas like this. It isn’t an interstate highway. It’s a combination of rivers, creeks, inlet crossings, sounds and dredged cuts. It’s well worth the trouble, but be prepared when your turn comes.

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