Few passages are more significant to a boater than ocean inlets. They are a gateway to adventure, or they can mean you’ve safely returned to port after a day on the ocean. Whether it’s the end of a simple run down the coast or the momentous finish to an ocean passage, the outer sea buoy and channel markers leading you in are a welcome sight.
Even experienced boaters know, though, that this last stretch can ask the most of a boater’s skills. Inlets may welcome you home, but they can do it with teeth that will bite the unaware or unprepared. Transiting inlets doesn’t have to result in a harrowing tale. A little knowledge and preparation can keep yours from being the next story told.
Let’s first understand the dynamics of water flowing through an inlet. Inlets allow an exchange of water between inland rivers and bays, and the ocean. At each change of tide, currents ebb and flow through an inlet. The greater the change in tide, the more water that must be exchanged, resulting in a faster current flowing through the inlet. If the inlet is also the mouth of a river, as opposed to just an opening through barrier islands, then the river’s natural current will increase the outward flow of water.
Timing your entrance at an inlet is the first step. Whether heading out to sea or returning home, the time at which you transit the inlet is the most important. Timing it for slack current is the safest, but the time of high or low tide is not necessarily the time of slack current. The two can be offset by several hours (consult current tables in addition to tide tables to see the difference).
When navigating along the coast from inlet to inlet, time your departure based on arriving in optimal conditions. If this is not possible, it could mean waiting outside the inlet or making a run along the coast and back until conditions are more favorable.
If you have to transit an inlet with or against a mild current, it is best for the wind to be in the same direction as the current. This will help knock down any waves. The worst condition is having the wind against the current; this will cause the waves to build, sometimes dramatically. In certain scenarios, wave heights in an inlet can be multiple times higher than sea conditions forecasted for that day.
You will likely not be the only vessel using the inlet. If commercial traffic is present, then monitor VHF channel 13 (ship-to-ship communications) as well as channel 16. And remember: Channel 13 is fixed in your radio at a low power setting of 1 watt, which means you will need to be reasonably close before a vessel you’re calling will hear you.
Another tool you have in a commercial-traffic situation is the Automatic Identification System. It identifies the name, type and speed of other vessels near you, and increases your ability to maneuver safely around them. Beyond what your boat’s AIS sees, it’s also useful to have a marine traffic app on a tablet or smartphone, to show vessel traffic before you may see it on your boat’s AIS receiver.
In some inlets, recreational boat traffic can be as large of a concern as commercial traffic. I remember coming into the Beaufort, North Carolina, inlet one morning after an overnight run from Charleston, South Carolina. I had timed our arrival to be just at the beginning of the flood current entering the inlet. What I didn’t plan for were dozens of sportfishing boats heading out for the largest sailfish tournament on the East Coast. It was one the most difficult entries I’ve ever made through an inlet.
I learned my lesson: When entering or exiting an inlet for the first time, call for local knowledge of typical conditions. Local towboat services will gladly share with you the location of sandbars or trouble spots. This is especially important in smaller inlets, where the buoys are not charted because of frequently changing conditions.
Last, use all the markers. Larger inlets will have a sea buoy located in safe water at the beginning of the channel markers. When entering an inlet, go to the sea buoy first; this allows you to see the channel markers and line up your entrance while your boat is still in deep water. Exiting or entering midchannel or too close to shore could place you near shoals or even submerged jetties.
Your first time at the helm of a boat going through an inlet will be a memorable one. A little knowledge and planning will help make the experience a pleasant one, too.