White Knuckle Nightmares

Rough Inlets Create Unexpected Uncertainties

Capt. Mike Genoun September 23, 2009

If you’ve spent enough time on the water you’re well aware that conditions can change in a matter of minutes. Far too often small to mid-size boaters head out under picture perfect conditions only to return to an inlet that appears unsafe for even the largest of vessels.

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Photo: endlessimagery.com

Florida is blessed with an abundance of inland waterways that give way to thousands of miles of coastline. While navigating the inland waters is fairly simple, the passes and inlets that flush ocean water into these waterways can at times provide a navigational nightmare best left for seasoned professionals with local knowledge.

…the ability to safely and skillfully navigate your vessel under adverse conditions requires you have a strong grip on your boat’s handling characteristics…

Commonly referred to as the Sunshine State, the truth of the matter is that it’s not always fun and sun in the great state of Florida. Whether it’s a tropical disturbance bringing 30-knot winds or a winter Nor’easter with powerful swells, it is an undeniable fact that Florida sees its fair share of deteriorated sea conditions. Under certain circumstances, even a stiff 10-knot breeze with a short fetch can produce hazardous passageways at the mouth of any inlet.

One of the main reasons navigating inlets can be so dangerous is due to the formation of tidal rips. This situation occurs when an outgoing tide meets incoming seas, resulting in steep waves with very short troughs – an inexperienced boater’s worst nightmare. These dangerous conditions can also be compounded during full and new moon periods when tides flow with greater velocity. To novices, these hazardous conditions may present themselves without warning. However, those in the know can anticipate the arrival of these dangerous, but predictable situations.

Eventually you, too, will be faced with the challenge of traversing an inlet with a nasty rip. One aspect you must take into consideration is that with a following sea it is extremely difficult to properly survey wave heights and conditions from seaward. Your sight will be limited to the smooth backs of the waves and you won’t get a true depiction of what you’re really in for.

Once you’ve safely navigated your way into the channel you’ll likely have a nasty following sea behind you. In this situation it is all about timing. It is best to carefully assess the situation, match the wave speed and ride the back of one in by carefully adjusting your speed – a task that may be easier said than done. If you’re not extremely careful, you could find yourself in a broach situation. The situation is complicated by the fact that you may lose your line of sight and have to use other methods to ensure that your vessel remains in the channel. You also have to fight the fear that the wave immediately behind you will come crashing down on you, because it won’t just as long as you stay right on the backside of the wave directly in front of you.

For a head sea you should take it easy and don’t launch off the waves like some superhero. However, sufficient power is critical because you don’t want your bow to fall straight over an oncoming wave and spear into the next one – essentially stuffing your bow and taking on way too much seawater. Too slow and you also won’t be able to keep the bow high enough and you may lose steerage – especially with a strong outgoing tide. Even if you do it all right, you may take on some water, but as long as the boat is within reason for the conditions you should be just fine.

Safe seamanship comes with years of experience and the ability to safely and skillfully navigate your vessel under adverse conditions requires you have a strong grip on your boat’s handling characteristics, as well as the prevalent conditions. If you approach an unfamiliar inlet on a rough day and you don’t have the proper navigation skills, you just may become another statistic.

Boynton Bash

A few of Florida’s inlets require boaters to make a sharp turn when entering in order to stay in the channel. The Boynton Beach Inlet, commonly referred to as the South Lake Worth Inlet, is one such danger zone. With a fixed bridge with an 18-foot clearance, swift currents and shifting sandbars, this is arguably one of the state’s most dangerous inlets. This passage was not intended for navigation and was originally created by the Army Corps of Engineers to flush the Lake Worth Lagoon with fresh ocean water. To lament the fact that this inlet requires extreme caution, the jetties aren’t even marked with lights and there are no channel markers!

Local Notice To Mariners

The United States Coast Guard’s Local Notice To Mariners is a weekly report that lists corrections and discrepancies regarding important information to boaters. This information may include reports of channel conditions, obstructions, hazards and aids to navigation, dangers, anchorages, restricted areas, and information on bridges. To find the corresponding Local Notice to Mariners for your region visit www.navcen.uscg.gov.

Knowledge is Power

  • Trim tabs up in a following sea and down in a head sea.
  • Never attempt to turn around in an inlet.
  • Never anchor in an inlet.
  • Never follow another vessel into an inlet assuming that they have the proper knowledge.

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