Boating in lakes and rivers has its own set of navigational challenges.
The hazards of inland waterways
Over the years, all of us have run the boat through the same area without incident. But this time, my brother heard the sickening thud of our outboard’s lower unit being sheared off by a submerged boulder. It’s a rock that, when water levels are normal, hides below the surface at a deep enough depth to allow safe passage. That season, however, the water levels had dropped to 20-year lows, turning areas we could normally navigate in our sleep into danger zones.
Changing water levels is just one hazard among many on rivers, as well as lakes subject to flow control by dams. Here are a few other things to concern yourself with when boating on lakes and rivers.
Many smaller bodies of water have not been charted, and on many that have been, the charts do not contain extensive detail in areas outside the main channels. Use extreme caution to avoid shoals as well as unknown obstacles such as rocks, submerged tree stumps and even old dock structures. Rivers with strong currents can also contain hard-to-spot floating debris, or deadheads, which are logs or felled trees submerged just under the surface with only a portion visible. If you spot something small on the surface, remember the iceberg effect and prepare to encounter something much larger under the water. Slow down and give such floaters a wide berth.
Oxbows and other bends in rivers are great for fishing but can be terrible for boaters trying to pass through them. Why? Sometimes you can’t see what’s coming around the bend the other way. Navigational rules call for boaters to keep to the right to pass each other, but not everyone follows the rules. Though they shouldn’t, I’ve seen people anchored in blind spots in river bends, focused on fishing, expecting other boaters to watch out for them. Or I’ve seen giant commercial barges approaching a bend from the other direction, taking up almost the entire width of the waterway. Best to approach river bends with caution, either off plane or at a very slow planing speed, and be prepared to take evasive action if necessary.
On a narrow body of water with a shallow depth, wind can churn up tight-period waves at a moment’s notice. I’ve seen it happen on rivers, and on small lakes nestled in low valleys that act as wind funnels when it blows in the right direction. Once, while boating in Whitewater Bay (a shallow tidal saltwater lake in the Ten Thousand Islands in Florida), the winds kicked the waves up so high and tight that we could see exposed bottom in the troughs. We had no choice but to hop up on plane and run along the tops the waves at an aggressive speed. Though the ride proved uncomfortable — jarring even — we managed to keep the keel and the propeller from bottoming out.
On the St. Lawrence near my family’s place, Great Lakers pass through the shipping channel on a daily basis, throwing huge wakes that can swamp small boats if they are unprepared. Boaters at anchor, hopefully smartly well away from the shipping channel, should be at the ready to quickly raise the hook if a ship is set to pass nearby. Boaters underway should approach the rollers like ocean waves, crossing the wakes at an angle and using the boat’s trim to avoid swamping, rolling or stuffing the bow. On other small rivers I’ve boated in the South, barge traffic can cause the same problems while also taking up almost all of the navigable channel. It’s best to find a spot in deep-enough water outside their course and let them pass.
A few years ago, my brother was cruising in our family boat along the shoreline of an island in the St. Lawrence River.