Running an Inlet Safely

Running an inlet safely

Lets talk about running inlets. When the tidal prism (the water running in and out during a tide cycle) is running out to sea through an inlet, and waves are entering, the wave drags bottom in shallow water. This plus the outflowing tide pulling on the lower portion of the wave’s orbiting water particles, causes tide rips! The front of the wave is most affected, because it is furthest into the tide rip, so it slows down, and the rear of the wave catches up with it. The wave is scrunched together. (That is a technical term meaning squished or clobbered). The wavelength (distance from crest to crest) is shortened. As this happens, the water in the crest is squeezed, too. This results in an increase in the height of the wave. The consequence is a shorter and higher wave, and hence one with a steeper profile.

This is much as if they were striking bottom on a sloping beach, and it causes a very dangerous conditions in an inlet! The foreshortening of the waves is even more severe than is found when a swell enters shallow water and begins to peak up and break.

The wavelength gets shorter, the wave height increases, and the net effect is to produce high, steep waves in the throat of the inlet. This effect is often called a tide rip. It is very frustrating to devote a column to "reading the water", telling readers which side of an inlet on the East coast of the US is deeper and safer than the other side, and that there is often a bar off the seaward side of an inlet, and then to observe large and small boats blithely sailing right into the steep breaking waves on the bar, in a strong tide rip. Sometimes it is also necessary to rescue the passengers on the boat when it goes hard aground on the bar.

I am reminded of a time when a sailboat radioed for information on an inlet. The local marine policeman radioed back that the inlet was impassable due to sand buildup, to go to another inlet in the area. He was acknowledged. An hour later the patrolman was called on the distress frequency by the same boat, now hard aground in the blocked inlet. When the marine police captain asked him why he had come in after being warned, he said it looked OK to him and was the closest inlet to his dock.

For Pete's sake or better, for yours, go where the water is darker, which usually equates to deeper, quieter water, with less breakers. That is where you stand the least chance of grounding. The jet from an inlet almost always goes essentially straight out and a little to either side of the jet the conditions are much less rough, so turn out of the tide rip as soon as it is safe to do so, but not into the breakers which indicate shallow water.

Learn to read the water and go where the safest boating conditions are found. A growing number of your fellow boaters and ex-boaters will tell you how wise this advice is!

Riding the rear of a wave, never exceeding its forward speed, and never allowing a following wave to break over your stern (this is called “being pooped”), is the only safe way to enter an inlet on an outgoing tide with big incoming waves. Once out of the rip, and they usually die off very rapidly as you get well into the inlet, resume safe speed.

Repeating, never surf your boat in thru the inlet. The waves entering the inlet, most particularly on an outgoing tide, go thru a shoaling transformation. They get higher, with shorter wavelength, and your boat may surf down the face of the wave, bury its bow in the preceding wave and the stern, still surfing, swings to the side and the boat broaches. If you are lucky you make it through, scared and wet. If you are unlucky, you roll over and lose gear or the boat or some passenger's life! Ride the back side of a wave all the way in to quiet water, which is possible even in huge seas, if you have dependable throttle and steering, and enough gas not to run out in the throat of the inlet!

We lose several boats a year in many of our local inlets and so it s imperative that one NOT surf these waves. Boats do not handle like surfboards and an accident (or wipe out) in a boat is more severe, expensive and deadly than a wipeout on a surfboard. The swamped boat and occupants are them swept out to sea, sometimes trapped under the boat, or having inhaled water, their bodies sink. In rough, dirty water, the victims are often hard to find.

I always check my fuel supply just outside an inlet, because running out of fuel means loss of control, and often loss of the boat. It’s a simple check and may save your life. I’m also not averse to asking my passengers to don life jackets (PFDs) if conditions are bad. It is no shame to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) Just ask the spouse of one of the half dozen persons lost in an inlet along the coast each year.

This caution was brought about by my difficulty some time ago, when conditions worsened rapidly at sea, and we entered the inlet with PFDs on, and with great care. That same day a seasoned local boatman anchored outside the inlet, prepared to risk the large waves offshore rather than face the wild tide rip in the inlet. When the tide changed, and the waves and tide water both were coming in, so that the waves did not suffer the foreshortening, he entered safely.

The same day, the captain of one of our 36-foot dive boats, had a very close call, broaching in one of the inlets, and almost losing a boat full of divers. And he was very knowledgeable about such matters and thoroughly familiar with that inlet, he thought!

Learn how to run your local inlet and practice it when conditions are not too bad so that you can come in safely when everything goes to hell. Do not practice with a boatload of passengers, either. If you feel secure enough to practice this dangerous maneuver, do it alone and carefully!

An incident in the Hillsboro Inlet, recently, brought home the dangers quite vividly. The incident almost resulted in the loss of a very nice small family cruiser that was entering the Inlet during an ebb tide.

In any case the captain was not familiar with techniques for running an inlet and let his boat be pooped. Salt water drowned the engine, the outgoing tide swept the boat to sea and it came out of the tide rip to the north, where the wind blew it back into the N jetty. The combination of NE wind, outgoing tide and a small notch in the rocks of the jetty held the boat there while incoming waves beat it to pieces. The occupants managed to scramble out onto the rocks of the jetty but could do nothing to save their vessel.

Fortunately there was help at hand. Another small boat was exiting the Inlet when its occupants saw the two Broward County Sheriff’s boats standing by, and went over to see if assistance was needed. The Sheriff’s deputy in one boat said that there was nothing that could be done. We did not accept this and I asked my two companions, Bill Fay, a very competent water man and now working as a ocean engineer, and Gary Sharp, a local computer magnate, if they would mind trying a rescue. They agreed to try. I then positioned the boat north of the red marker at the Inlet, well offshore where the sea was less dangerous. We deployed a good Danforth sand anchor with lots of scope and let the sea drive us, under control, toward the boat on the rocks. We kept power to the propeller during the entire operation. Waves were breaking under the bow and foaming down the sides about level with the gunwales.

Now anchored about 100 feet seaward of the boat on the rocks, Bill Fay swam a line to the damaged boat and cleated it off on the stern cleat, then swam out of the way. We took a strain and pulled the damaged boat out 50 feet or so. Giving a little slack in the towline, the owner of the other boat relocated the tow to the forward cleat. Gary tended lines to keep them out of the propeller, which would have put two boats into danger, instead of one. When Bill was aboard again, he rigged a tow bridle to help keep the towing boat, ours, out of irons, and with the Sheriff’s patrol escorting us, the convoy ran the Inlet, paying out enough towline to keep both boats on the back of a wave, avoiding broaching, et al.

Another lesson to be learned is that swimmers can often do things otherwise unsafe. While I will not usually put a boat into the surf, a swimmer with a PFD or wearing a foam rubber wet suit, can very nicely swim in the surf. Thus a line can be carried to a small vessel in the surf zone with relative safety. I have seen other rescues affected in this way. Swimmers are great for removing lines from a screw, for plugging a hole in the hull, for clearing an intake, and for a host of other boating problems, too.


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