With thousands and thousands of miles of navigable rivers, the United States offers a tremendous variety of cruising options. Rivers offer many different challenges to boaters, and you need to know what to expect before you start off on your next river adventure.
Hazards that occur on rivers vary greatly depending on where you are cruising. For instance, rivers off the Chesapeake Bay may include such things as shallow waters and soft, muddy bottoms that make running aground very likely, especially if you don’t pay attention to the tide. Rivers in Maine may offer great tidal changes and submerged rocks that will do extensive damage to your boat if you happen to strike one.
Other things to watch out for are low-head dams, bridges with restricted clearances, over-head power lines, and even buoys that are submerged or moved by a fast moving current. Natural hazards include bars and shoals, submerged rocks, floating debris (which may accumulate into partial dams called "strainers") and strong tides and currents.
Navigation on rivers may also be somewhat different from river to river. Rivers such as the Mississippi that have a great deal of river bends and also have a large commercial traffic presence probably offer the greatest challenge to recreational boating.
River bends must be handled with great care, as you often cannot see what is around the bend.
Though most boaters tend to operate their vessels in the middle of the waterway, the waters are actually deeper on the outside of river bends.
It is prudent to stay as near to the outside of the channel as you can in order to keep in the deeper water, and you will also be able to see oncoming traffic earlier - especially commercial traffic.
Rules of the Road state that vessels following the current have right of way over vessels going against the current on the Western River System. But you would be foolish to claim this right if you have right of way over a barge or other commercial traffic that must maintain constant speed and steerage to stay in the channel.
When in doubt, or when you are faced with a much larger commercial vessel, give way! Stay in contact with river traffic, and if you are approaching a commercial tow, consult with the captain to see on which side he wants you to pass, or if he wants you to wait for him to clear the bend before you pass. Remember, it is much easier for you to maneuver than it is for a commercial vessel.
Using maps or following aids to navigation on lakes and rivers can be confusing at best, and very dangerous if you are not familiar with the system being used on that particular body of water.
Different agencies such as local map companies, the U.S. Corps of Engineers and NOAA, use different symbols to show the same object. Similarly, symbols may take on completely different meanings on different charts. Pay attention to the map legend to note what different symbols stand for.