Lessons From Hell Gate

By Tom Neale, 4/29/2010


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Hell Gate in the Georgia ICW is a place that many fear. It’s a dredged cut connecting the Ogeechee River and the Vernon River, just above where they merge into the Ossabaw Sound. At first blush, it may seem foolish to have this cut. Why not just follow the rivers a short distance further, to where they meet? Piece of cake. Instead the Corps of Engineers has us going through a place with a name that doesn’t exactly give you a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Nun Hard Aground in Hell Gate
The tidal range in this part of the world can be around 8 feet—sometimes more, as during a spring tide. The Vernon and Ogeechee are long powerful and beautiful rivers, fed by countless creeks and streams and millions of gallons of water oozing from untold square miles of muddy marshes. So these two rivers do run powerful. At peak tidal flow they can run several knots, in or out. And as they cross each end of Hell Gate, they push the sand and mud into the cut in continuously building shoals. But if you follow these rivers to where they merge, with the bright idea of avoiding Hell Gate, you find what you find in so many other of Georgia’s sounds: shoals, shoals and more shoals. If you’re lucky and don’t draw much you may find your way through. But that’s a very huge “IF.” And if you find your way through on one trip, and carefully save a course line on your chart plotter, or take bearings so that you know how to repeat your course, you may well find that the good water of yesterday is shoal water today. The shoals in the sounds walk about. And they do it secretly.

So a shallow passage running behind Raccoon Cay was “improved” to make a more stable ICW channel at “Hell Gate.” When it’s regularly dredged, it’s not so bad. As long as you know how to crab and sight not only ahead but also astern, to prevent your boat from being sucked upstream or downstream by the rivers, you just shoot on through, following the buoys. But, as you know, dredging has hardly been regular lately. That money, for several years, went to other purposes. But now, it’s beginning to trickle back. We just completed yet another trip on our annual migrations north and south. And we were very happy to encounter several dredges, hard at work, unclogging the arteries of this invaluable national resource—the Atlantic ICW. One of these dredges had recently worked on Hell Gate. So we decided to break our usual rule of going through only on half tide or better and rising, and went through on dead low.

Chez Nous officially draws 4.5 feet, but when you load her up like we do, with all those live aboard luxuries and necessities, she approaches 5 feet. If you consider a couple of feet clearance between the keel and the bottom to be plenty of water, then we found plenty of water--in the channel. The channel was easy to find at low tide, because the dredges had recently cut it through the banks and those banks hadn’t had much time to cave and wash in to equalize the depths. At high tide, it would have been a different matter. Instead of seeing the mud banks, you’d just see swirling muddy water.

Can Aground in Hell Gate
This is when the “aids to navigation” come in so handy. There are three ways that boaters often use today to find the deep water, and aids are one of those three. Some aids to navigation are fixed on stakes, others are floating green cans and red nuns. They’re floating for a reason. Like I said before, channels change, especially in areas like Hell Gate. So the Coasties can move the cans and nuns as the channels shift.

But take a look at the two pictures. You’ll see a red nun high aground, over on its side, with plenty of exposed mud between it and the water. You’ll also see a green can, not quite rolled over on its side, but still, clearly aground. These are two of the critical aids to navigation in the middle of Hell’s Gate. So does this mean that the Coasties or Corps of Engineers did something wrong or careless here? No. You’ve got to anchor these aids with enough chain to accommodate deeper water at high tide and during extra severe storm tides. This is may be more than 8 feet higher than low water in this area. And when the wind blows as the tide goes down the floating aid may be blown toward shallow water as the scope of the mooring increases. So you can’t always rely exclusively on buoys or even fixed beacons. (We have also seen many fixed beacons at low water with a lot of bank between them and the water’s edge.) What it does mean is that you should seldom pass too close to an aid and you’ve got to be alert all the time as to your navigation.

A lot of people also rely on a second type of help. It’s called the Magenta Line. Years ago when the ICW was younger and dredging more frequent, ICW chart makers generally drew a magenta line to follow the channel. Popular legend was that if you stayed on the Magenta Line you’d have plenty of water. Kind of like that yellow brick road. But the channels of the ICW have been changing every day. So sometimes the magenta line works and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why we pay careful attention to the fixed and floating aids to navigation. They’re more likely to be in the right place. Sometimes.

Tom’s Tips About Nav Aids in Narrow Winding Channels

1. In narrow winding channels with a lot of shallow water around it’s often difficult to keep track of exactly which Nav Aid you need to honor next.

2. Even if you have a chart plotter, keep an updated paper chart at the helm and keep a heavy pointer on the chart, pointing to the aid where you’re presently located or the very next aid. If there’s an electronic or power glitch you’ll have instant access to your location.

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A third method used today is to study all the info on the chart, whether it is displayed on paper or displayed on an electronic chart plotter. We love our Standard Horizon CP300i (http://www.standardhorizon.com/) with C-Map Max cartography (http://www.c-map.com/). It gives multiple layers of helpful information. We still keep paper charts at the helm, and we keep our position updated with a marker on those charts. But our chart plotter has proven itself, over and over again, as an invaluable tool, not only as a direct source of info as to where we are, but also as an aid to using the paper charts. But the cartography in even the best chart plotter (or paper chart) isn’t going to always be right. For this to happen, surveys of thousands of miles of water way and updates reflecting those surveys would have to be done almost every day. It’s easier to update information in a chart plotter or otherwise stored digitally than with paper charts, but it’s impossible to keep on top of every shoal changing.

Enter yet a fourth method of finding the water. It’s old fashioned seamanship. It includes never taking anything for granted, not even an aid to navigation. It means working the tides, going slow when you don’t know (which for me is a whole lot of the time), looking for signs and clues as to where the water might be, listening to reports of others who have recently passed through questionable areas, all in addition to studying magenta lines, charts, chart plotters and following aids to navigation. If you’re on the water enough, you’re probably going to run aground sometimes. I’m living testimony to that proposition. But usually, if you’re careful and use all the resources at your disposal, including your eyes and instinct, you’ll have much better chance of finding the deep water. And this is a part of the fun.

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