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Navigating Shallow Water

Don’t be afraid of shallow water. These nine tips will help you get skinny.
Boating Safety

The boat just kept coming. We watched from the sand, where we had safely anchored off, as it made a steady clip toward the submerged end of the same bar. We waited for the driver to slow down, but he didn’t, slamming his bow into the bar and coming to an abrupt halt. We walked down the sand to say hi, knowing he’d have some time to kill before high tide.

This newly beached boater obviously didn’t have a chart. But there are things you can do beyond relying on your electronics and setting a course. Use your senses to avoid treacherous water, and if you still get caught, there are some maneuvering tactics for working your way out of danger.

Our stranded friend? A few visual cues (including the fact that we were walking yards away from where he ran aground) should have clued him into the fact that he was running shallow. Not sure what he should have seen or done? Read through these shallow-water cruising tips to make sure you don’t end up beached.

Tactic 1
Reading Water

Watch for wind ripples, breaking waves or current edges to indicate a transition to shallow water.

Sometimes you’ll be able to follow a close-knit assemblage of channel markers to keep safely inside a channel. Sometimes you won’t. And charts may show outdated information due to shifting sandbars or recent weather events.  But your eyes can help.

First, scan the water for color changes. In clear water, the deeper channel should be apparent compared with the flats, sometimes a darker color due to rocks or grass beds or mud flats; sometimes lighter due to pure sand. But in murky water it can all look the same. Watch for wind ripples, breaking waves and current edges that indicate a transition to shallow water. Keep an eye on the depth sounder. A gradual drop in depth could precede a quick jump to shallow water. Watch for drops, and slow down while you’re still deep enough to assess your surroundings. If you boat in skinny water areas, side-scanning sonar, which assesses the depth around the boat as well as underneath, is a great investment.

Color Coded
1. Clear water shows the channel.
2. Dark water shows shallower areas covered in turtle grass.
3. Wind ripples can show skinny water.

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