Changes in the Bottom Line
By Tom Neale

Shrimp Boat is Under Sand at Jekyll
The large sailboat “busted loose” in the storm and drifted downwind, finally fetching up on a sandy shoal, mercifully missing several boats still anchored. The storm passed, as they always do. But the boat was left aground on a shoal. The current, as it has for centuries, perhaps millennia, continued flooding into and out of Ponce de Leon ocean inlet, rushing past and around the stranded boat. Almost immediately the boat began settling into the sand which swirled around and into the hull, filling it, covering it. Far sooner than you’d think, the entire hull was gone, buried beneath the sands. Around a month ago, Mel and I were with Capt. Scot Stebleton, TowBoatUS operator, who is based just inside the inlet. He pointed to a bit of twisted rounded metal, just barely breaking the surface of some very shallow water over a shoal. “That’s the tip of the rail around the bowsprit of that sailboat,” he said.” A deep channel ran nearby. An anchorage gave quiet shelter not very far away. The shoal, now bare at times of low water, seemed stable and permanent. It isn’t. This is the nature of the sea.

A few days ago we were rounding the southern tip of Jekyll Island in Georgia with TowBoatUS captains Troup Nightingale and Andy Hicks. On the beach there stands one of our favorite monuments to the more subtle powers of the sea. Well up on the beach, far enough up so that the tourists can walk around it, is a mast and two booms, with some rigging intact. The mast and booms are still standing, sticking out of the sand. “Who planted them there—and in what cruel joke?” you might ask. You see things like this in cities. Some artist is commissioned by some council to make a monument for some purpose supposedly having to do with the sea. In a fit of inspiration the artist decides to plant some sticks in a park and call them masts or plant a ship’s wheel in a grassy plat so that kids can play. You think this may be the case on the southern end of Jekyll until you look closely at these bones protruding from the sand, and then you think differently.

About Changing Navigation Patterns

1. There are sources that do a relatively good job at reporting changes. These include information from the USACE (US Army Corps of Engineers), some of which is reported for the east coast on East Coast Alerts which is a part of this section of the BoatUS site. This information is from surveys and position reports performed by professionals using sophisticated equipment. Check it out.

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The mast is still planted in the deck of the shrimp boat. The shrimp boat is still there, far beneath the sand. I remember the year the shrimp boat went aground there. She lay against the bank, at the edge of the deep water channel. In less than a year the shoal had built around and over her so that the entire hull and lower part of the mast were covered. The hold, the sleeping quarters, the engine, the wheel house—it’s all filled with the crushing wet cold sand. Quiet. Tourists don’t walk her decks, they walk far above them. Above the high bow. Above the top of the wheelhouse. They do so until the next storm or the next shift of eddies erodes away the shoal and maybe then the boat will be exposed to the air and the water again, but probably for only a brief time. BoatUS plans to show film of these and other experiences we have on the water, on their web site. Look for it. But that’s not what this is about. This is about change.

Shoals shift and channels change. And when you’re offshore where you don’t have to worry about shoals and channels, it’s the weather and sea state that’s always changing. Sure, those things change inshore too, but there you hopefully have safe harbors. Offshore you’re stuck with what you get. And the best weather forecasting can so quickly go afoul. So many times we’ve been slammed—in the middle of the night—in the middle of the day—by a system, a “feature,” a “back door front” or “whatever” that no one had called. And we’ve found ourselves, fighting to hang on in huge winds, driving rain and monster seas, even though we’d been very careful and, even though when we cleared the inlet our high tech modern resources and dedicated and very knowledgeable weather experts all were saying, “you’re cleared for a good passage.”

All of this is fascinating and challenging. It’s particularly challenging to the folks who want guarantees that they will have a safe easy trip out on the water. They want to have a guarantee as to how to get through this cut or how to make this passage or whether they’ll drag anchor or whether the inlet will be safe. When you walk or drive down the street in most cities on this continent, you can usually be pretty sure about what’s going to be there when you reach an intersection and turn the corner. The sign will say what street it is and, usually, you’ll see the same thing that you saw the last time you turned that corner. If there’s construction that’s causing a change, you’ll probably have been warned about it and there will be signs everywhere. This isn’t the way it is on the water. When GPS units tell us where to go ashore, we know that the streets will probably be there—in the right place. The GPS units that we use on the water are invaluable, but they still can’t know if a shoal just built out around the bend. If we want “OnStar” or the like, we’d best stay in a car.

When we cast off in a boat, it’s a different world. We should use all available resources and tools, but the bottom line is that we still have to do it ourselves. For example, certain charts have “magenta lines.” They’re lines which are supposed to mark the best part of the channel. We’ve seen places along the east coast where you must ignore those lines altogether to avoid shallow water. We’ve also seen places (most places) where if you ignore the magenta line you’re quickly in serious trouble. We all know there are buoys galore. That’s one of the great things about the US. We mark the way. We learn things like “red right return” as we’re drilled with lessons on how to navigate. But we’ve been in places where we’ve had to pass on the wrong side of the buoy or far away from it to get through an area.

Sometimes this has happened because the shoal shifted, as with the two boats mentioned above; sometimes this is because the buoys dragged anchor in a storm or were hit by a boat and pulled off station. In rocky passages the bottom seldom changes. But other things may change. For example, the light characteristics may change—perhaps because of something complex like a mechanical or electrical problem—or maybe because of something not very complex at all, like a huge dump of osprey mess affecting the visual. Or sometimes the current and sea state will do something very unusual because of storms, wind tides, moon tides, or combinations. Sometimes, for example, a strong silent eddy will set up and pull you unsuspectingly from the safe area where you’ve “always” been OK toward that permanent rock.

Bow Rail of Sailboat Buried in Sand at Ponce

Guide books and web sites can be useful. But this is only if we take them for what they are (they usually make appropriate disclaimers, as they should). But we’re seeing more and more people bumping and grinding down and about the coast, off on what should be and hopefully will be their dream of a lifetime, who want to be told exactly how to navigate their boats and exactly what to do and when. When they run aground, usually because they’re in the wrong spot, they insist that it happened “right in the middle of the channel” and write to web sites and other sources claiming that the channel is closed. Hysteria builds as the “news” circulates on the web and on VHF and SSB chat frequencies. People reporting trouble areas do us all an immense favor, but the skipper on a boat still has the responsibility to evaluate each source, the accuracy of the information, and how to deal with it.

Sure, sometimes channels close, but not nearly as much as we often are lead to believe. They just change. Change is a constant about being on the water—not bottom contours or locations of buoys or weather. Be glad. When we’re taking a trip down a waterway and we start seeing signs saying “No Left Turn” or “Right Lane Merges,” I think it’s going to be a lot less fun.

Copyright 2004-2010 Tom Neale

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