Killing Waters

By Tom Neale, 7/10/2008


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Inlets Can Be Very Congested
We headed out Government Cut, bound for the Bahamas. This was yet another time when my stubbornness overcame good sense. It was rough. Not dangerous, but I should have known it would not be fun. Our daughters, Melanie and Carolyn, still asleep up forward in their stateroom, found out quickly how rough it was when a wave swept over the bow and flooded down the slight crack we’d left for ventilation in the forward hatch. It wasn’t a good way to wake up. As soon as we cleared the inlet and got into deep open water, we turned around and went back into our anchorage. The next day the seas were down and we made it to the Bahamas, “No Problem, Mon.”

Another year when we were in the Bahamas, an island freighter with an experienced captain capsized while coming into an inlet. He’d been running that inlet and many others for years. The ship was lost and lives were lost. This was a notoriously dangerous inlet, a killer inlet, but thousands of boats have used it with no difficulty, including the “Chez Nous.” The inlet is notorious because it’s in a spot where the shallows of the Bahamas Banks precipitously rear up out of the depths of the Atlantic. Waves that have rolled unhampered from the northeast for thousands of miles suddenly pile up in 40, 30, 20 feet of water—and less. Part of the passage requires that boats expose their beams to these waves. A large cruise line company tried to blast out the inlet and get its huge ships inside. “No problem with all our money and engineers,” I guess they thought. Oh, but it was. Within a very few years the operation had to be cancelled because the floating glamour palaces were having far too much trouble with that inlet, except when the sea was good. And you know how seldom you can depend on that.

Many inlets don’t have such a spectacular history, but many, perhaps most, have probably taken lives. Inlets are very different from other waters and, when you understand them, it’s no surprise that they can be killers. In general, they often have shoals, the shoals and channels are likely to change frequently, they are subject to high winds funneling in, they are subject to waves from the large body of water piling up and breaking over the shallower water of the inlet, and they are likely to be crowded with other vessels coming and going. Another dangerous feature is that inlets are tempters. The tempt us to go when we shouldn’t. This may mean going out because we want to get out there and start having fun or begin a passage. It may mean going in because we’re already out in the big water and it’s stormy and rough or soon to get that way.

But each inlet has its unique characteristics. If you aren’t extremely familiar with an inlet you’re planning to negotiate, learn about it before you try it. Learn from up to date charts, guide books, pilot books and local knowledgeable. Here are a few things we’ve learned over the years. They’re only general and may not always apply to your specific situation. They only scratch the surface. There’s much more to know, both as to inlets in general and your specific circumstances.

Don’t just consider whether the weather is good for going out the inlet. Remember, you’re going to want to come back in—either that inlet or another up or down the coast or island chain. Study the weather and other conditions so that you have a good idea of what it’s going to be like when and where you return to inside waters.

It’s important to consider weather conditions not just around the inlet, but also far off, if those conditions can affect you locally. It isn’t unusual for the conditions to be fine, say, in the morning, but to be treacherous by the afternoon.

About Inlets

1. Boat handling in inlets often involves special and extremely critical skills.

2. For example, you may have to deal more with stern seas that have a tendency to push your bow under, flipping your stern around and/or over.

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Wind may affect the inlet you want to enter or the shoreline where you want to cruise even though it’s a flat calm day. One of the more dramatic examples of this occurs when winds from a storm, even far away, set up a large ground swell radiating out from the storm. As those swells reach the drop-off where ocean waters thousands of feet deep flow onto shallow banks, they trip and tumble over themselves, often causing dangerous breaking conditions. In the morning, for example, all may look well, but if you go out when swells are approaching from far away, the inlet may be a maelstrom by the afternoon when you want to come in. In the Bahamas they call this a “rage,” and that’s what rolled the island freighter.

It’s often easier to safely go out an inlet than to come in. Your bow is probably going to be into the waves, you’re looking ahead toward them, and you’re choosing weather and conditions. When you go out an inlet, think ahead as to conditions that will exist when you reenter. These include not only the weather, but also the direction of the current, tide level, light, glare and angle of the sun (Will it be in your eyes making it difficult to see buoys ahead?).

Onshore sea can make an otherwise safe inlet dangerous. Onshore sea against outgoing current can be much more dangerous than the same sea with an incoming current. It can cause breaking and standing waves across an inlet.

When negotiating a rough inlet during an outgoing tidal rip you may be tempted to steer to the side and out of the rip to get into calmer water. Don’t, unless you are sure of depths. Also, remember that waves may be more likely to break in shallower water outside the channel.

Before negotiating an inlet, watch for a while to determine the sea state. Even on a calm day with good weather, a storm far offshore may build swells that will occasionally break across an otherwise calm inlet.

Study updated charts and guides. Beware of submerged jetties that may extend alongside the channel out to sea.

Consider that shoals may have shifted and/or that aids to navigation and previously “good” GPS waypoints may be off.

When entering an inlet, keep watch ahead and all around. Watch following seas and respond according to the behavioral characteristics of your boat.

Swells and Shoals at St. Augustine Inlet

In sailboats, it usually helps to keep at least the mainsail up for power and stability, but it is wise to also use the motor for additional power and maneuverability.

If sharing in inlet with larger boats, beware of their navigational limitations and give appropriate right of way.

Boats overtaking and passing others can present special problems in an inlet, not just because of the congestion, but because of wakes. Bottom contours of an inlet may cause what would be a safe wake in other wider deeper waters to be a damaging or even dangerous wake in the inlet. Also, because of other traffic or perhaps because of the narrowness of the inlet, a slower boat may not be able to turn into wakes and thus be extremely vulnerable. Many inlets now have speed limits and strictly enforced wake laws because of these dangers. However, sometimes a certain speed is needed to maintain maneuverability and steerage as when the current is very strong and pushing a boat, or there are severe eddies.

An inlet may be a highway to freedom, but it can also be a temptation to disaster. Never take them for granted.


Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale