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Conduits to the Sea

Inlets are a gateway to adventure, but without preparation and local knowledge, they can be downright scary.

Adventure cruising doesn’t have to involve crossing an ocean. With more than 95,000 miles of coastline in the United States, you can do a lot of exploring without ever leaving sight of land. Heading out for a coastal journey does, however, require leaving the security of inland waters.

Entering the ocean from inland water is not the same everywhere. For example, boaters leaving Newport through Rhode Island Sound wouldn’t necessarily know they are in ocean
waters. The swells might increase a little and be spaced a little farther apart, but other than that, the sound and ocean waters feel pretty much the same.

Likewise, when heading out through large bays like the
Delaware or Chesapeake, the water may take on a different color, the temperature may drop a bit, the sea state changes slightly, but there may not be an “oh, wow” moment when you realize you’re in the ocean. This experience could be the same through the mouths of large rivers, as well.

The opposite is usually true for ocean inlets. Inlets are openings through land, connecting sounds, bays or rivers to the ocean. They are typically narrow or confined. They frequently have human-made concrete or rock jetties marking the opening and protecting it from shoaling. Unlike leaving a large sound, there will be no question here that you’ve left inland waters for the open ocean.

For many boaters around the country, inlets are the only doorway to the sea, and most remember their first time taking a boat through one. After years of running boats from harbors into the Great Lakes, and countless days in the ocean working as crew on dive boats, nothing will compare with the first time I piloted my own boat through North Carolina’s notorious Beaufort Inlet into the Atlantic Ocean.

The morning was clear, the winds were calm, and my wife, Dori, and I were embarking on our first coastal cruise. We had been cautioned to treat ocean inlets with respect, and never doubted the credibility of that advice, but based on our first experience, I couldn’t see what all the fuss and worry was about. That was many passages ago, and we’ve learned since that safely handling a boat through an ocean inlet definitely requires knowledge and planning. There is a reason YouTube channels are dedicated to the folly of unprepared boaters attempting particularly challenging inlets.

During the ebb and flow of tidal currents, enormous amounts of water can flow through the narrow openings of ocean inlets. When this flow combines with the rising seafloors and narrow channels, it can create significant currents within an inlet. The conditions at each inlet are typically unique to that individual location; in other words, if you’ve been through one ocean inlet, you’ve been through one ocean inlet, as they all differ.

Whenever possible, it is best to wait for slack current before attempting an inlet, regardless of whether you’re inbound or outbound. Leaving on an ebb current or arriving on a flood current can be acceptable, as long as the wind isn’t opposing the current. Wind opposing current in an inlet causes waves to stack up against the wind to considerable heights within the narrow confines.

Timing it for slack current is always the safest, but be careful: The time of high or low tide is not necessarily the time of slack current. The two can be offset by several hours, so always consult current tables in addition to tide tables to see the difference.

You also have to be committed to the inlet once you’ve entered the narrowest section. In these narrows, the waves will be the steepest and closest together. I’ve seen boaters become uncomfortable with the height of the waves and attempt to turn around within the inlet, putting their vessel in a dangerous position of being beam-to the waves. If you doubt your decision about going out, or if you develop a problem aboard the boat, it is usually safer to get through the inlet into more open water, where the waves will subside and be spaced farther apart. There, you can attempt to turn around.

Passing through an inlet with following waves may feel safer and not as violent as taking them on the bow, but it also comes with risk. Following seas feel safe right up until they are not, especially for slow trawlers that have to let the waves pass under them. Entering inlets with steep following waves is one of the most common causes of boats broaching.

When coastal cruising from inlet to inlet, time your departure, cruising speed and arrival for optimal conditions at the inlets. If the weather changes along your trip, and if conditions at your arrival inlet deteriorate, then wait outside the inlet for the current to change or for conditions to improve.

One of the best ways to handle inlets, especially unfamiliar ones, is to call for local knowledge. Boat-towing companies are more than happy to tell you where the inlet is currently shoaling, and how to approach it safely. Charter-fishing captains are another great resource for local knowledge.

Inlets are not just an opening to the sea; they are a gateway to adventure. Learning how to plan your timing and handle your boat through inlets opens a world of coastal cruising for you to explore.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue.