Perilous Passageways

Running the Rip at Local Inlets

Capt. Steve Dougherty May 1, 2017

While Florida is blessed with temperate weather and welcoming sea conditions during all seasons, there are times when the waters around the Sunshine State churn with the best of ‘em. You won’t see 20-footers out there, but don’t think for a second that you won’t encounter days when navigating is downright dangerous and stressful. The action can be compounded at the mouth of area inlets where boaters must navigate narrow passageways with shallow shoals that increase wave height and make safe navigation treacherous at best. Additionally, conditions can change rapidly so you may head offshore under ideal conditions only to return to an inlet that is far less than welcoming.

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Whether it’s a tropical disturbance with gusty winds, a winter Nor’easter with powerful swells, or a ridge of high pressure blanketing the coast with strong onshore breezes, we do see a fair amount of poor weather and deteriorated sea condition It’s not always sunny in the Sunshine State and even a 10-knot breeze with a short fetch can make for hazardous conditions at the mouth of any inlet. Additionally, wave heights can be compounded by the tide and moon phase, requiring boaters to be aware of several aspects beyond the predicted wind speed and wave height.

...wave heights can be compounded by the tide and moon phase, requiring boaters to be aware of several aspects beyond the predicted wind speed and wave height.

As a surfer I’ve spent countless hours in the water during the roughest ocean conditions and with these experiences I feel that I have a better understanding of the waves than most and know the power even a small swell can pack. Waves are created from distant storms and wind fetch over large swaths of open water. In deep water, as waves begin to distance themselves from the storms that created them they become more defined and organized. Waves of varying heights move at different speeds, and as they approach the shallows they break in sets that appear larger than the typical background surf that’s consistently breaking along the coast. While these set conditions are observed on winter days with long period swells a result of distant storms, most of Florida’s rough days are reserved for short period wind-generated chop.

When it comes to navigating inlets you’ll want to do your best to avoid breaking waves no matter the period and frequency. If you see breaking waves you can be sure that’s the shallowest part of the sandbar—avoid this area at all costs. If you’re dealing with a long period swell you can wait for the set to subside, but if it’s a short, wind-generated chop you’ll be waiting the entire day. If you must head directly into breaking waves it’s best to meet them at a slight angle off the bow. You don’t want to launch off the front of a wave, but you must continue with ample power or you will fall off the back of the wave as it passes and risk stuffing the bow.

Often times helmsmen think they will be just fine, then halfway through the inlet decide it wasn’t such a good idea to push the limits and turn around mid way. Making a course adjustment in rough sea conditions in the middle of an inlet is often where things go wrong and if you must do so make it quick and be sure not to take a large wave broadside. You need to know what conditions are safe for your vessel and navigational experience. Taking a bay boat out the inlet could be treacherous even in 2-foot seas, yet a 65 Viking won’t be phased by anything less than 5-footers.

Heading out the inlet is only half the battle and when you return to port it will be challenging to assess the conditions by looking at the backs of the waves. Additionally, you’ll be looking toward the inlet and may not realize a sneaker set approaching from behind. This is why complete concentration and situational awareness are critically important. It’s essential you carefully assess the situation and time your entrance perfectly. When running in the same direction as the seas you’ll want to match the speed of a chosen wave and ride the back of it. If you power too hard you will rush down the face of the wave at which point your stern will likely kick out and cause the boat to turn sideways and broach. Trimming up your tabs will help keep the bow out of the water. With following seas, it’s all about timing and not as difficult as it seems.

In general, deeper inlets aren’t as likely to develop hazardous conditions, so if nasty weather interrupts your time on the water alter your course so you can enter through a safer inlet. Fortunately, Florida’s coastline is dotted with inlets and passes that allow for the safe passageway of boats of all sizes.

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