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Driven to Distraction

There’s a lot going on, all at once, along many inland waterways. These tips will help you stay focused.

Successful boat handling takes many forms. In previous columns, we’ve covered the skills and techniques required for close-quarters handling inside the confines of a marina, because that situation tends to induce the most stress for boaters. Now, it’s time to head out. Passagemaking boats weren’t built to stay in marinas.

The next most intimidating bodies of water are the maze of inland waterways just outside the marina’s breakwater. Narrow intersecting channels, shifting shoals and frequently heavy boat traffic can also make for stressful boating.

The overall challenge in these busy waterways is the number of things that require your attention simultaneously. An important first step in safely navigating is to research and plan the day’s route ahead of time. No matter how short our run or how familiar I am with the area, I lay out our route and put it in the chartplotter. Overkill, you say? Maybe, but it’s an extra measure of safety that has saved our bacon and the bottom of the boat more than once.

One day, we were approaching a split in the channel, with the current pushing us into other boats headed our way. A line of crab pots extended along our port side, and a boat behind was calling on the VHF radio, asking to pass us to starboard. Nothing stressful here, right?

Being able to glance down at the bright pink route line on the chartplotter kept us on our route and allowed me to focus on what was going on around us, all the while knowing we were staying on our planned course.

The scenario above happened to be on a stretch of waterway I know quite well. Now, imagine having all of this going on while attempting to navigate through an area for the first time. It only takes a little distraction to inadvertently turn off in the wrong direction, possibly into shallow water.

Fortunately, with today’s technology, there is no reason to take your boat into an unfamiliar area. Between the detail on modern tablet charting apps, satellite imagery and the availability of crowdsourced information, you can virtually review your intended route ahead of time.

Begin by creating a route in your favorite medium. I use a combination of the Aqua Map and Navionics apps on an iPad. Once the route is created, scroll along it to read boaters’ remarks about the area. Be sure to check the dates when reading these comments to ensure the information is current. Comments about shoaling from one year ago in an area with shifting bottoms could be irrelevant today.

After scanning charts, view the area on a satellite imagery app. You can often see deeper channels and shoals quite clearly in satellite imagery. Compare these against the chart information. For instance, the deep water through Redfish Pass just north of Captiva Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast is not shown correctly on most charts, but crowdsourcing comments reference it, and it’s clearly shown in satellite imagery.

Another way to take the stress out of navigating unfamiliar waterways is to access local knowledge before you arrive. Towboat captains are a great source of this information. Call the local Sea Tow or TowBoatUS office for a current assessment of the area. They know where they’re pulling people off a sandbar and will be happy to help you avoid it.

On one occasion when calling for local knowledge, I received the following instructions: “When you enter the river, you will see a Coast Guard station on your port side. As soon as you’re even with the station, look straight ahead for a bright blue water tower and a church steeple. Just center the steeple under the water tower and hold that course until you come even with Green Marker 11, then look to your port side and you’ll see the entrance channel to the marina.” After speaking with them, I looked at the area on charts and satellite imagery, and found everything exactly as they described it. When I entered that river for the first time, everything was familiar. It was as if I’d already been there.

Use all of this information to create your intended route and upload it to your chartplotter. In doing so, you will know the way ahead of you. Familiarize yourself with as much information as possible about the destination prior to taking the boat there. Avail yourself of today’s technology to take a virtual trip ahead of the actual one.

There are enough demands on your attention in crowded waterways. Eliminating an important one by establishing your route ahead of time enables you to pilot an area more comfortably and confidently.