Running Hazardous Inlets: Capt. Steve’s Near Disaster And The Lessons He Learned -11/17/2010
vessel determined that the probable cause was the decision of the
master to attempt to cross the bar at Garibaldi, Oregon in hazardous
sea states that existed at the time.” “Boca Raton Inlet is dangerous
and particularly hazardous to all boats not designed for open seas.
Persons using this inlet should be experienced boatmen and should
be extremely knowledgeable of the area.” “The Columbia River Bar
is opened and closed to navigation at the discretion of the Columbia
River Bar Pilots, based on existing or anticipated weather conditions.”
So what are we mortal boaters to do? What do you do if weather has
turned nasty and there are breakers on the only inlet to home for 50
miles? If you chose to run that inlet, doing it right might be the difference
between a few heart flutters and disaster.
Let’s look, with Capt. Steve, at some lessons he learned and see what
we can do right, and wrong.
Sometimes Mother Nature can turn ugly. Respect for Her ever changing attitudes
is a necessity for all but the fair weather boaters that operate in only protected waters.
inlet, and I’m one of them. My lesson happened in the late 80’s as I was taking one of my
party fishing boats around Cape Cod for a seasonal haul out in the Cape Cod Canal. The
trip called for me to transit Woods Hole and enter Buzzards Bay to set up an approach to
the Canal. It was late October, roughly ½ mile vis. in dense fog, I was in command with a
crew of one. The Champion II was 42' (12.8 m) long, and top heavy as hell thanks to the
combination of the enclosed wheel house and the boat's narrow beam (the measure of
which escapes me).
One of the few surviving images of Capt. Steve’s Champion II. Notice how the deck
is recessed below the gunwales, which increases the height of the rails to a regulation
39.5” (100.3cm). (The jug is thrown overboard by the mate to mark a fishing spot as
you pass over it. Then you come around and anchor precisely, resting at that buoy)
Then things started to change. The winds, ever present from the Southwest, started to
increase without warning, just as the tide was reaching its max ebb. This was a setup
for the classic wind against the tide scenario that causes building seas. And with nothing
but unobstructed room for hundreds of miles, the waves did build indeed. But this was
nothing I hadn’t been through before, and when you operate the same boat every day
for years on end, you become intimate with its handling quirks in different seas.
made her great in head seas. But beam seas were another matter, as she was so top heavy.
This caused a serious roll that you really had to watch out for. More than once I’d trail a 5
gallon bucket off the stern when anchored with the wind against the tide in order to get myself
out of a beam to anchor position.
Then there were the following seas. If the beam seas didn’t catch you on this boat, the following
seas would. With her narrow beam, C2 would get pushed around when a wave came up against
the square stern. Every day was a fight heading back in from the fishing grounds since every
day it’s blowing in Nantucket Sound...every day. Such was the case this day in Buzzard’s Bay,
and the following seas were steadily building.
So it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and fighting with the helm to keep the boat headed
square to the seas coming from behind. We’d surf down one wave and hit the next, throw water
everywhere, ride up and over the top and do it all over again. And over and over and…
stage for disaster. While coming down the front side of a particularly large wave, we hit enough
speed to cause us to penetrate the forward wave, rather than ride up and over it. Now a number
of things could happen and they were all going through my mind in quick succession.
This had happened before, and when it did, the bow’s buoyancy took effect and pulled itself out
of the wave. This time I waited briefly for that to happen...but it didn’t. We just kept going deeper
into that forward wave. Suddenly white water was going over the rails, and then it started turning
to blue water.
We had a serious problem: My beloved boat was becoming a submarine. If allowed to continue,
the bow would act as a scoop, and stop the travel, while the following wave would lift the stern up
and over. That’s called a pitch pole. Or… more likely in this boat, the stern would get pushed to
the side and we’d roll over. Or… we’d just keep going straight down, which looked like exactly
what was happening before my eyes. All of this was going on while I was fighting to keep the
boat headed straight.
With the rails going under, it was time to take action. I backed off on the throttle, hoping the
following wave would come under, and lift the boat clear of the surface. What ended up
happening was the following wave did indeed come under us, while at the same time the
forward momentum had stopped enough to end the downward trip. Then, we simply backed
out of the wave in the opposite direction that we went into it.…and...we started to surface.
control. I sent the crewman down to report, and he found several feet of water in the forward
cabin, which meant the bilges were flooded. A quick look over the side showed that the three
1750 gph pumps were working, but not quickly enough. The scuppers were almost awash and
we were in serious danger of going back down. The 6-71 Detroit Diesel was still turning, so I
left the helm with the crewman and went below to direct the engine driven fire pump to divert
the water from the bilge overboard. Twenty minutes later, we were back to normal and
continuing on our way. At least normal for the boat. I was purging adrenaline.
what I could have done differently. To be sure, I was acting on the past history of the boat and I
therefore expected history to repeat itself, as it had thousands of times before -- but just didn’t
this time. What I needed to do was go slower down that one wave. Only a little slower would
have done it. Following the waves and riding on their backs was not an option. I had miles to go.
We ultimately continued the trip but it definitely put a fear into me and the memory lingers to this
day. Since then, however, I’ve operated differently to ensure that I’m keeping the boat out of
trouble rather than depending on the boat to do it for me. And that’s a big difference.
depict another captain in nearly the same predicament. The differences are the boat of course,
and the breaking seas are closely located over an inlet reef, not stretching for miles like mine
Let’s dissect this trip with some incredible photos….
We start as the fishing boat, a Garlington 51, is approaching the inlet. Breaking seas
are present, likely from an outgoing tide. We have an experienced captain who has
been running this inlet for 15 years, and who is intimate with his own boat. He
encounters the first of the breaking seas at a speed greater than the wave itself is
travelling. This is a well built boat with wide flaring bows that is capable of handling
At this point, the boat is on top of the cresting wave, and about to go down into the
trough, just as she has it had a thousand times before.
But this time the 51 had built up so much speed going down the following wave, that
instead of going up and over the next wave, she instead plunged into it. This is called
“stuffing” the bow. At this point, the bow acts as a sea anchor and digs in, slowing the
forward half of the boat to a crawl. The stern, still wanting to keep up its speed, then
gets pushed sideways and a dangerous broaching scenario is now likely. The following
wave will roll the boat over.
The rails are going under and the roll is imminent. Everything about the boat’s portside
says stop, and the starboard side says go. Something’s got to give. Usually the only thing
left is to roll over.
At this point there are two things that can be done from the helm. Turn to port and try to
get the boat leveled, or turn to starboard and hope to get the boat to heel over in the
opposite direction. If you take off power you take away controllability. You have split
seconds to decide… lives are at stake. What are you going to do?
The cockpit is now under water and the bow is starting to rise. In spite of the wave’s
best efforts, the boat refuses to accept her fate, and the captain is clearly struggling.
He’s turned the helm, but we can’t determine which way just yet.
Here the boat has reached her extreme of travel to the port side and the flybridge is
nearly going under. The props are throwing water with the captain still fighting to
regain control of his boat. With the bow rising, the rest of the boat is likely to follow,
but that is by no means guaranteed.
Now the boat is recovering from near disaster. We now know that the helm is hard to
starboard causing the stern to travel in the direction of the heel, and the bow to go to
starboard. The boat will attempt to roll to starboard, with the turn, aiding in its recovery.
Now the boat is fully recovered and just needs to dewater, and of course maneuver
out of harm’s way. This brings to light the benefits of a self bailing cockpit and the
need for large scuppers.