Boat Shop Sea Savvy Clueless in any channel
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Clueless in any channel

44_clueless_01Boaters who shrug at their lack of seamanship shouldn't be on the water

Help, help. OK - somebody, I need some

help out here. Can anybody hear me?

This is the U.S. Coast Guard. What's your location and the nature of your distress?

I'm right here by this crab pot float.

Do you have a lat/long?

No, but I've got a pair of pliers and a screwdriver.

What's the nature of your distress?

I'm not depressed. I'm just sinking.

How much water is there in your boat?

I don't know, but my beer cooler is floating.

Can you tell where the water's coming from?

It's coming from the river.

Is there a beach so you can ground her?

Don't talk about my wife that way.

Can you throw over the anchor?

Yes. OK, I did it.

Is it holding?

I don't know.

Well, is the rope tight?

I don't know - that was tied to the anchor when I threw it over. I can't see it now.

OK, so there's a little bit of poetic license in the scenario here, but it's a collage of things I've heard on the VHF through the years. Believe it or not, most of it didn't need much embellishment. What happens on the water these days ranges from ridiculous to just plain stupid, to the deadly and even the macabre.

I'm sure you've got your own stories to tell, but here are a few of mine. I've deliberately omitted names of people and places and skewed some of the circumstances, but this is real stuff.

You'd think that the two couples on the very nice trawlers would have had some idea about where they were going and how they were going to get there. This would have meant knowing there are low bridges ahead that had to open to let them pass down the ICW. It would also mean knowing that the bridges only opened at certain times and that they had "lockdown" periods for rush-hour traffic. It would also mean knowing there's a long stretch without anchorages and marinas after the bridges and that slow boats could get caught out in the dark in a difficult area.

We passed through a timed bridge behind two trawlers one autumn morning. We were all heading south in our displacement-hulled boats. The two trawlers went through the bridge first and proceeded very slowly down the narrow, dredged stretch of the ditch, side by side, meandering from one side to the other. There were two other bridges ahead, each timed and at distances that required a displacement boat to boogie in order to meet their schedules and avoid losing up to two hours of travel time.

45_clueless_01After listening to the two skippers have a friendly morning chat on VHF channel 16, I finally broke in and switched them to another frequency and asked if they were going to speed up in order to make the next bridge opening. The response was: "Bridge? Is there another one up there? How far away and what time does it open?"

I told them we had less than a half-hour to go and their response was, after some more meandering from side to side in the channel: "Well, we're not sure we can make it."

I asked for permission to pass - if they would please just go into single file and stick to one side or another - and suggested that if they kept their speeds to a minimum, I could get by quickly, perhaps make the opening and not throw any wake. They said, "Sure, come on by," and moved over, proceeding in a more or less straight course.

Just as I got abeam they decided they would try to make the bridge. With no communication to me, they moved back toward the middle (toward me) and sped up to what must have been their top speed. I did, too, thinking at that point that I didn't want to hang around for hours with the two skippers who, even if they had charts and guidebooks, didn't have a clue as to what they were supposed to do with them.

I made the bridge and the two bridges thereafter. I made the next anchorage before nightfall. They

didn't and lost a couple of hours, which caused them to be too far north the next day to be able to cross a potentially dangerous stretch before a strong front roared through. They then lost several days waiting for the weather to clear.

*     *     *

Warnings had been issued on several websites about a stretch of the ICW in Georgia where a river was particularly shallow. This river has been shallow for many years - it's just that the people raving in the warnings hadn't been doing the stretch for many years and didn't know that their "news" was really old news. All you have to do is to wait for the 8-foot tide to get you through if you think you may have an issue.

Other website sages had suggested a better solution would be to simply duck out a nearby inlet and go around the section, coming back into the ICW later. Amid all this advice was no mention that the Coast Guard had removed the beacons from the inlet because it was so shallow and the shoaling was so unpredictable.

47_clueless_01We listened incredulously one day as a small fleet approached the shallow passage, discussed the conventional website wisdom and decided to go out and around, following GPS waypoints clicked onto a chart plotter. The depths were fine as they approached the inlet, but it is the nature of inlets in this and other areas to shoal where the waters of the sound or river meet the waves and currents of the ocean, even though there is plenty of water just inside that area.

Approximately an hour later, these boats found themselves in the ocean with waves breaking all around and with some bumping the hard sand bottom in the troughs. The GPS courses were worthless because things had changed. Fortunately, they were lucky enough to be able to finally turn around and head back in, following the track out, perhaps with little realization of how close they had come to losing their boats and maybe some lives.

More than one boat has grounded in the inlets in those areas in the last few years, to be swallowed by the sand in a few weeks. They could have followed USCG Notices to Mariners or, if they wanted it easier, they could have read our East Coast Alerts on the BoatU.S. website ( They would have known the whole story.