Follow the Leader
By Tom Neale, 10/16/2008
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Somebody Must Know Something
We all know that the guy who comes on the VHF and says “Just follow me,” really knows where he’s going. Don’t we? Let me tell you a couple of true stories. Names (and a few details) have been changed to protect the innocent.
The sounds of Georgia are spectacularly and hauntingly beautiful. And very tricky. Here are coastal flats, surrounded by marsh and hummocks where the ocean waters flood and recede, with currents that rage against the shallows and bars as they make up the 8 foot high tides, and then empty them out again into the ocean. You’ll go through several of these sounds if you cruise along the ICW. You’ll see water ripping around buoys and you’ll see fixed aids to navigation sitting on dry banks at low tide. You’ll hope you remember to not pass them too closely if you come back through at high tide.
All this water goes in and out the inlets. In seasons past many of the inlets were “doable” from the perspective of cruising boats. They were relatively well marked and, unless there was a lot of onshore sea, boats could get through, skipping shallower parts of the ICW. Many did, including “Chez Nous.” Not today. Some, such as the Altamaha Sound Inlet are simply not safe. In this particular one, the shoaling got so bad that several years ago the Coast Guard removed the aids to navigation. We reported this on East Coast Alerts on the BoatUS web site on various occasions. It was also reported in other places, such as the Waterway Guide and in the USCG Local Notices to Mariners, which boaters must follow to get the latest changes which are not reflected on their charts.
The Little Mud River is a short shallow portion of the ICW. It’s always been shallow. It’s not very tricky; just shallow. If you have doubt you wait until the tide reaches half tide or so, on the rise and go on through. But this particular year there was a lot of panic about the Little Mud, as well as many other places. The panic came from reports on various web sites and other sources that were saying that the river was shallow. It was, but if you’d been there before you wouldn’t have been so concerned. You’d be familiar with that fact and know what to do about it. Just another day on the waterway.
A convoy of boats approached Little Mud just before low tide. We could hear them talking—and talking and talking—on the VHF. They began to panic. After all, that’s what a lot of people were doing on web sites and chat rooms. They began to “conference” on the VHF, trying to decide what to do. One gentleman announced that he had been in and out the Altamaha Sound Inlet and that all they had to do was go out the inlet, get into the ocean and bypass this shallow river. He offered to lead everybody out and they all happily followed. As is typical of sounds like these, at first there was plenty of deep water, within the sound, as they approached the ocean inlet. But, as is typical of many of these inlets, things drastically changed. Where the swift flowing waters of the sound meet the incoming waves of the ocean, they spread out and are deflected back and forth and deep channels suddenly disappear into flat barely buried beach, covered with breakers. It’s been this way for centuries.
Yes, these folks, as they proceeded on, did notice that there were no aids to navigation, but that didn’t seem to faze the intrepid mariners. One of them had a chart plotter and the line was still there where he had used the inlet before—several years ago. So, on they went, never mind that the hard sand shoals were getting closer and closer to their keels. Finally it got to the point where there was only a few feet clearance. It was a foot or two deeper on the top of a swell (well, actually, they were more like breakers at that point) and less in the trough. Nobody seemed to be able to accept it. After all, they were on the “line” and the out-dated data on the chart plotter showed a passage through.
Finally they began to figure that they’d best turn around. As one put it, more or less, “All we can see ahead between us and the open Atlantic is breakers. Matter of fact, that’s pretty much all I see all around.” The next question was whether they had room to turn around and what was going to happen with the breakers on their beams. Finally they all made it around and got back in to the sound, bumping and grinding. (One, a shallow draft power vessel, made it through OK.) When they reached the Little Mud River again, some brilliant soul came up with the following idea, during yet another VHF conference. “Well, look. The tide is coming in. Why don’t we all just anchor here where it’s deep and go on through the Little Mud River when there’s more water.” They did, they got through safely, and I hope had a wonderful “rest of the cruise.” Once again God had looked after those who need help the most.
The Alligator River is in a beautiful but remote area of Coastal North Carolina. Going north on the ICW, you exit the straight and narrow dredged Alligator River-Pungo River Canal, pass down the broad and easy Alligator River, and then things change dramatically. But, from careless observation, you may not know it.
The river empties out into the Albemarle Sound. Often placid and nice, this sound can be treacherously rough because of its shallow waters and long wide open fetches in prevailing winds. When you pass through the Alligator River Bridge and look ahead into the sound, it looks easy enough. The mouth of the river is very broad. But if you look at the charts (What? Look at charts? And certainly you don’t mean updated charts!) you see that it’s a very different story beneath the surface. Shoals come out from each side of the river. The one on the inland side is so shallow that sometimes you can see birds walking on it. Up until several years ago the dredged channel from the river out into the sound followed a slightly doglegged passage between the shoals. Then things changed.
When dredging funds dried up, the path of the ICW changed in many places. Often, it began to follow the more natural route a river or creek had formerly taken. Sometimes, these routes had been bypassed by the dredging to make the passage straighter, shorter and safer. This is what happened in the mouth of the Alligator River. Instead of taking a jig and a jag out in a fairly straight route, it jigged far over to the port (if you were going north) and then back to starboard. East Coast Alerts on BoatUS.com, charts, Local Notices to Mariners, and the Waterway Guide reported this.
One spring day we, with many other boats, were making our way north out of the river. “Chez Nous” diverted to port, following the deeper water in the newly marked channel. A fleet of boats, following a large trawler, kept to the old route. After all, that’s what their charts said—never mind than nobody was using updated charts. They started bumping bottom, one and then another and then another. The trawler in the lead insisted that he knew where he was going because he had a chart plotter and he’d “done this before,” just before he found the bottom and hit hard. We put out a call on the VHF, as we followed the safe and easy newly charted route, telling the fleet that they should be following that route. No one replied, no one changed course--most kept bumping bottom. If it had been rough that day, some would have been seriously damaged.
So what’s the point here? The point is that we’ve seen a distinct pattern among some cruisers and other boaters over the years that, if everyone else is doing it, it’s OK. It’s like they think the shoals go away or the storms don’t come if there’s a fleet involved. It just ain’t so. We’re still basically on our own out here, and we’ll all have a lot more fun (and maybe even pay lower insurance rates) if more skippers live up to the responsibilities of doing their homework and being “captain of your own ship.”
And before I leave, I want to point out that I’ve done plenty of stupid things too. And I’m sure I’ll do more. But that’s not such a problem. Most people have more sense than to follow me.
Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale