Just two weeks into retirement, my friends Keith and Cindy were living their dream aboard a sturdy trawler. As they worked their way north for the summer, their confidence in handling the boat increased with each night’s stop at a marina. Unfortunately, that all changed as they made their first stop at a marina with swift currents running through it.
On sheer luck, they arrived in the evening at slack current. The marina did not caution them about the current, as conditions were benign. They ended the evening securely tied bow-in, with their slip at the end of a long fairway close to shore.
The following morning broke with a fresh breeze coming from shore. Keith dealt with it fine as he backed out of the slip and pivoted the boat. Feeling confident as they motored slowly out of the fairway, Keith and Cindy realized they were being set to starboard almost as fast as they were going forward. He attempted to use his thrusters, but they had little effect with his forward motion. A crosscurrent to the fairway was taking him right into a row of gnarly-looking anchors and bow pulpits.
He attempted to crab into the current, but the fairway wasn’t wide enough, and his increased speed only made the eventual ending worse. Cindy could do nothing but stare in horror as they came to a crashing halt, tangled into the bow pulpits of four other boats.
This scenario plays itself out too often, with too many boaters realizing too late that current can have such a big influence on a boat. While no one would say that boaters plan to damage their boats by losing control in a marina, you can certainly say that a lack of planning and awareness invites the situation.
A lack of planning and awareness is exactly what happened to Keith and Cindy. Keith told me later that he was focused on the wind and was completely unaware of the current.
In close-quarters handling, boaters tend to pay more attention to wind than to current because wind is easier to see and feel. Wind is more obvious. Current, however, can exert more force on your boat than wind. While its effect varies with the height and draft of your boat, 2 knots of current could equal or overcome 20 knots of wind.
Even when boaters are aware of currents in a marina, timing them is frequently miscalculated by the belief that slack current coincides with high or low tide. The water may reach its highest or lowest point vertically, but the horizontal flow—the tidal current—can continue well past high or low tide. This is the case in numerous marinas along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, where slack current is offset from tide. If you time your arrival at high or low tide because you are expecting slack current, you could be surprised by swift currents still running.
Fortunately, current tables are available in the most popular tablet navigation chart programs, and in most chartplotters. The current information is typically indicated on the chart screen by separate icons distinguishing it from tide.
Currents can be deceiving, so make sure to compare the difference between tide and current. If there are no tide or current markers near the marina, or if you’re uncertain what to expect, then ask the marina staff prior to arrival. Reading reviews from other boaters on websites and boating forums can also provide valuable information.
Time your arrivals and departures as close to slack current as possible. If current is predicted for your time of arrival or departure, then leave early or anchor out away from the marina until conditions are more favorable to maneuver safely within the confines of the marina. Also, don’t hesitate to ask the marina for a T-head or side-tie location that will be easier to approach or leave.
One could argue in Keith and Cindy’s case that the marina should have warned them about the conditions they could expect on departure, and some marina staff do exactly that; however, many of the dock staff working at marinas lack the experience or awareness themselves. The responsibility is on us, as boat owners, to understand the conditions we could encounter, and to prepare for them in close-quarters handling situations.