Common Sense is Critical When Crossing Inlets

A reminder of how tricky and at times dangerous inlets can be for unprepared boaters

Common Sense is Critical When Crossing Inlets
Jupiter Inlet’s reputation for treachery is well-founded, as these most unfortunate anglers, attempting to cross the bar en route to a day of fishing, are about to learn.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphotography.com

OPINION

For a great many readers of this magazine, traversing inlets is simply a fact of life. Inshore anglers, who fish inside bays and estuaries, have no worries about “crossing the bar.” Offshore anglers in some areas, such as the Florida Keys, can head offshore without negotiating an inlet.

But more often, fishing off the coast means first traveling through an inlet — and of course, later in the day, heading back through it again.

On calm days, particularly with a flooding tide, that crossing should be a non-event. I’ve made many such crossings in inlets with shallow bars (the area where the ocean shallows up at the mouth of the inlet) where it was impossible to tell from water conditions at what point we had crossed the bar.

But of course there’s the flip side, when that very same, smooth accommodating surface has become a chaotic maelstrom of big, close-set breaking waves that loom between the ocean and home, when the tide is flowing out against building ­afternoon seas.

Welcome to the world of ocean inlets.

That world is the subject of Sport Fishing Pacific Coast editor Jim Hendricks' article in this issue, "Over the Bar."

Of course not all inlets have shallow bars, and some are easier to cross than others, but at the least, most can become tricky in certain conditions. And many have reputations that have earned them great respect among savvy mariners.

The thrust of Hendricks’ feature — as we approach the annual National Safe Boating Week, May 19-25 — is not to scare readers into avoiding inlets, but to remind them of the dangers and how to be safe when making those essential crossings.

The list of inlet do’s and don’ts is pretty straightforward. Much of the advice — and isn’t it always the way? — comes down to exercising common sense and caution.

If you Google “inlet boating accident” or the like, you’ll find page after page of reports from inlets around the country. But the fact is that most of these mishaps (or disasters) were avoidable, starting with the boat. The smaller the boat, the more difficulty it’s going to have getting through steep waves in an inlet. Yeah, that seems like a “duh!” yet no doubt U.S. Coast Guard records would confirm how many of the boats capsized in inlets were simply too small to be where they were. (With those aboard in many cases, unbelievably, failing to wear life vests.)

Common sense and caution should — but don’t always — dictate that a helmsman be patient and observant, stopping well away from the inlet at a sea buoy, to get a sense of wave patterns across the inlet, and where if need be he can sit out a low ebbing tide until the flood is underway. And when the time is as right as it will be, he can adopt a slow and careful approach. Reports suggest too many boaters fail to take their time, coming in faster than the waves; coming over the face of a large, steep wave can mean broaching or, worse, pitch-poling down it.

The bottom line here is simple: The advice boaters need to prudently and safely cross inlets is readily available, in our feature on page 86, but also on many websites, such as boatsafe.com, from print and in videos, and of course via the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s boating-safety courses.

If you don’t really know this stuff, learn it. If you do know it, learn it again.

As comedian Ron White said it: “You can’t fix stupid.” Inlets and ignorance don’t mix.

Doug Olander is editor-in-chief of Sport Fishing magazine.

Sport Fishing welcomes opportunities to share a variety of perspectives from prominent or influential participants in issues related to recreational fishing and fisheries.