Knowing there's enough water to float your boat is only part of it. Whenever a relatively shallow patch is surrounded by deeper water, the chance of potentially boat-killing breakers exists. Take a site with 30-foot depths, for example. Sure, that's plenty of water under the keel, but then look closely at the chart. If the surroundings are considerably deeper, there's a possibility of breakers when the weather gets nasty.
Often, the chart will indicate breakers over the area. That's another good argument for heading out to the sea buoy before making your approach. While there will rarely be questionable water between the sea buoy and the inlet entrance, I can think of a number of inlets where there are shallow and breaker-prone areas just off the approach channel — Barnegat in New Jersey and Ocean City in Maryland are two that immediately come to mind.
There are times, however, when we don't have the luxury to wait for an inlet to settle down before heading in. Most modern vessels can take pretty much anything that is thrown at them, provided the skipper does not make unreasonable demands or engage in foolish maneuvers. A responsible skipper will understand the characteristics and limitations of his vessel and will act accordingly. My advice is to not make the boat's job tougher. It's always prudent to come in on the slow bell with just enough way to maintain steerage.
When seas are running, a slow approach allows you to adjust speed and boat position relative to the wave direction. Seas running diagonally across the inlet's mouth can be taken somewhat off the beam, allowing the boat to be "crabbed" in safely. Usually, once inside the breakwaters, oncoming or quartering seas calm down. With seas running directly into an inlet, I will always come in at a slower speed than the seas. Often, it's possible to "ride the back" of a sea into the inlet, all the time taking care not to exceed the speed of the wave. Outrunning the sea can result in a broach or pitch pole. Allowing the seas to pass under the keel and go on their way contributes toward maintaining boat control.
Yes, there are those of the deep-V pedal-to-the-metal set who recommend boldly blasting into an inlet regardless of the conditions. They count on horsepower and deadrise to get them home. To those who firewall throttles when others practice caution, may the force be with you — keeping in mind the old axiom (with apologies to aviators): There are old boaters and bold boaters, but there are no old bold boaters.
Preparing Boat and Crew for the Inlet Approach
The sudden transformation from an offshore run to what can be the vastly different conditions of an inlet approach is best considered at the beginning of a voyage rather than at the end. As such, I take the following steps to prepare the crew and boat:
» All crew and guests are on deck, and I'm confident all are aware of life vest and life raft locations and that they are capable of deploying the raft.
» All loose gear on deck and below has been stowed and/or secured. Particular attention is taken with dock lines or loose rope that can be washed overboard with the possibility of fouling props.
» I've previously determined my ETA and am aware of the destination's tidal/current picture and bridge schedules, if need be.
» I am aware of local Coast Guard units and which commercial towers are active in the area. Commercial towers are always glad to respond to VHF calls requesting local knowledge and conditions.
» My vessel's filters and water separators have been recently changed or examined in the event of encountering turbulent inlet conditions.
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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.