Inlets are essentially nautical highways. They are as hectic as their roadside counterparts, but with the added challenge of changing depths, tidal flows, winds and boat traffic. Passage through any inlet is rarely the same twice, which is why situational awareness is always the key to safety.
That situational awareness should start when you’re on approach from the ocean. It’s not always easy to predict the sea state near the inlet. A mile out, conditions can be flat calm, but at the inlet’s mouth—where the inflowing or outflowing tide can conflict with the wind—substantial waves and deep troughs can develop. For that reason, a savvy strategy is to approach the inlet from offshore, rather than by running tight to the shoreline and making a 90-degree turn at the entrance. As your boat approaches from a distance, you’ll be able to get a better look at the conditions ahead.
Never cut corners at the sea buoy marking the inlet’s entrance; you don’t want to enter a dredged channel between buoys where shoaling might occur. An inlet also may have a submerged breakwater that is not visible at high tide. Pick out several buoys before you even enter the inlet to ensure that you clearly see the pathway to the entrance.
Also make sure that you’re aware of other boats. Once, while approaching Manasquan Inlet in New Jersey after fishing for tuna in the canyons overnight, I was operating a big sportfisherman. About 50 yards from the rock-pile jetties, an outbound kayak popped up from behind a large swell at the inlet’s mouth. I’ve learned over the years that with kayakers and Jet Skiers, where you see one, chances are another is nearby. Give those guys plenty of room while minimizing your wake.
As you reach the inlet’s entrance, almost certainly without fail, an onshore wind will bully the opposing, outgoing tide. From your perspective coming in from the ocean, large, confused seas will develop rapidly. Remind your guests to grip whatever they can grab, or to sit tight. The first two waves of the set are attention-getters, and it is often the wash on the third swell that does real damage.
The story is different inbound with the sea on your stern. Don’t rush, be patient and make sure your boat’s trim tabs are up (you want the bow high, not digging in with the stern crabbing and pushing the boat sideways). Pause to note the cadence of the seas before you commit to an approach. You will generally discern a set of three, four or possibly more waves, with the last one being the largest in each series. Just be aware of what’s going on. Then, match your speed to the flow, and you can ride the last wave through most of the turbulence to the calmer water inside.
Always be aware of sea conditions astern. If a wave from astern crashes into the boat, keep moving ahead; no matter the size of your boat, it is nothing more than flotsam and jetsam to a wall of linebacker-size waves. And don’t come in hot, attempting to outrun the incoming waves. You can get burned if the bow digs in and causes the boat to broach, turning it sideways to the sea or wind—and totally out of your control.
The worst-case scenario is pitchpoling, which means the boat’s stern rides the face of a steep sea and the thrust from the propellers actually forces the bow underwater. Do this with an open-bow center console, and the weight of the water flooding the deck could flip the boat right over.
Much of my boating is done in the ocean aboard small and large vessels. Having traveled through many inlets on the East Coast, I’ve learned to respect the time it takes to negotiate safe passage. Generally speaking, each inlet is different. You can encounter everything from manmade rock-pile jetties and structures dredged and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers to naturally formed inlets with occasional dredging. Manmade inlets, by their nature, are generally well defined and may or may not have speed or no-wake signage.
Not so well defined is the behavior to expect from other boats in the inlet. When it comes to small fishing boats, finding a balance between those blocking the channel and those upholding their responsibility for their wake is an ongoing battle. Large commercial-fishing and party boats generally operate under what they consider the tonnage prevails rule. If you’re going to take a chance and fish amid all this traffic in “the street”—an idea I don’t recommend—then keep your motor running with someone at the wheel. And expect another boat to roll you with its wake.
One final observation: When approaching an inlet, make sure you have access to an anchor. Many years ago on a cool fall day, my dog and I were taking a run after an outboard-engine tune-up. The engine quit, and the tide began to ferry us out of the inlet toward the ocean. As we drifted closer to the angry-looking black jetty rocks, I tossed my Danforth. It held long enough in the muddy bottom for help from the Point Pleasant Beach Coast Guard station to arrive. In the end, they towed us to safety.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.