Navigating inlets safely takes more than just boat-handling skill: It takes the common sense to know when not to go!
In late February, a family in a 21-foot center-console tried to negotiate Sebastian Inlet on central Florida's Atlantic coast during the final sweep of an ebb tide. The actual waves in the inlet were relatively modest, but inexperience, poor planning or plain lack of cause-and-effect judgment caused the operator to attempt a slow-speed U-turn right by the bridge abutment.
The strong current carried the vessel sideways into the abutment and flipped it, dumping the entire family into the 50-degree water. No one aboard wore life jackets. Other boats nearby immediately tossed life jackets to the victims, and all were rescued, though the father, now stable, ended up in the hospital in critical condition. Fast-moving currents common at inlets represent just one of the challenges boat operators face. Wind against tide usually provides the toughest, most dangerous conditions. Consult tide charts and try to transit at slack water or when wind and tide travel in the same direction. Evaluate your boat and its capabilities, and stay at the dock when conditions exceed your boat's design parameters.
I consider the following three situations to be the deadliest. And in each case, remember perhaps the most important caveats: Stop and evaluate your surroundings. Make your decision, and then commit to it; do not change your mind midstream!
Heading Out, Wind Against Tide
Obviously, if the seas look too large, there's nothing on the other side of the inlet so important that you can't turn around and head home. Just as obvious: You don't want to go blasting through big seas, as it can severely damage even the best boats, cause you to lose control as you get tossed off the helm or injure your passengers. Make "prudent seamanship" your watchwords.
Sometimes, if you have room laterally, tacking back and forth across the seas at a 30-degree angle or so can make the ride smoother and safer. In any case, whenever you realize that you are about to engage in a potentially dangerous passage, avoid machismo. Have everyone aboard (including yourself) don life jackets.
Search for the navigable area of the channel with the smallest and smoothest waves - that marks the deepest water. Proceed at a speed that allows your bow to drop as gently as possible after passing each wave crest. Too slow and the wave may break onto your bow.
If you change your mind about heading to sea halfway out the inlet, keep going until you can find a calmer place to turn around. However, the worst possible way to handle steep seas is beam-to. They can roll your boat in a heartbeat. If you absolutely must turn around "midstream," pick your calmest point (in a series of seven waves, only two or three will be the biggest); then turn while applying throttle so your boat spins 180 degrees quickly to avoid laying abeam of the waves.
Heading In, Wind Against Tide
Heading into an inlet with a following sea may present the most dangerous circumstance. Hang offshore and evaluate first. Have your crew don life jackets. If need be, call on your VHF radio and speak to the Coast Guard or the marine police about the conditions. Remember that looking down-sea often gives a false impression of calmness since you can't see the faces of waves - just their smooth backs.
If the inlet is simply too rough, wait offshore for the tide to turn, or proceed to a different inlet. If you commit to entering, again find a smaller wave in a set. Position your boat on the back of a wave and advance your throttle to match the wave's speed. Then ride that wave through the inlet to calm water on the inside.
Never try to surf a wave in by riding on the front side. You can stuff your bow and flip (pitch poling) or swerve and get rolled sideways, or a wave can break into your cockpit and swamp the boat. I choose none of the above.
Many who regularly run inlets in heavy following seas use a drogue streamed off the stern. Like a sea anchor, a drogue keeps a vessel from swerving or being carried along at wave speed, but rather lets waves pass under you safely.
Remember that you may well encounter other vessels somewhere in or on the other side of the inlet. Be ready to avoid them. It's always good to broadcast a warning on Channel 16 to all vessels just before you start your entrance in a heavy sea.
The family at the top of the story misjudged the power of the current flowing out of Sebastian Inlet. Even if you don't see tall waves, you may still be in perilous straits when navigating such currents.
For example, consider the "what-ifs." What if you run out of fuel (did you check before you left the ramp)? What if a submerged lobster-pot line fouls your prop or you hit a log? It is the captain's responsibility to assess the surrounding conditions and plan ahead.
Be aware that phases of the moon affect the strength of tides and currents, and so do recent rainfall and flooding. Plan ahead.
Structure that narrows the passage through which water flows (bridges, jetties, shoals) makes the current stronger and faster. Plan ahead.
Change your mind? Look way out to see what the current may carry you to before you complete your turn.
With all these pointers, you still can't boat safely without a healthy dose of common sense. Don't ever go to sea expecting that someone will come bail you out if you get into trouble. Be self-sufficient and prepared, and you'll enjoy boating for many years to come.