Boat­ing in lakes and rivers has its own set of nav­i­ga­tional chal­lenges.

Boating - - CONTENTS - By Pete McDon­ald

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.

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