OVER THE BAR
Running Rough Ocean Inlets
“Hang on tight, but be ready to jump.”
I still remember that unsettling advice delivered 35 years ago from our skipper Ed Pitts as he pointed his 25-foot single-outboard HydraSports center console toward the wave-swept inlet to California’s Oceanside Harbor.
It was my first such experience. A big storm raged hundreds of miles away. We had enjoyed pleasant weather while fishing, but the distant tempest generated an onslaught of combers that began pounding the coast at the same time as our afternoon return.
Lack of recent channel dredging resulted in a bar that thrust the big, long-period swells into steep, mountainous waves. They curled, broke and boomed like thunder at the narrow entrance.
We weren’t alone. A fleet of boats hovered outside the harbor mouth, assessing the situation. But for us, it was worse. A propeller with a worn hub had started to slip on the way home but seemed to regain its precarious grip. For now.
Despite the complication — and after a bit of deliberation — Pitts decided to head in. We donned life jackets, and with his advice still ringing in my ears, I secured a white-knuckle grip on the console grab rail. He eased the throttle ahead and accelerated toward the harbor mouth.
Our timing was bad. Almost immediately, a racing wall of water rose up from astern. It would surely overtake us. Pitts reacted swiftly, bringing the 25-footer about to ascend the face of the swell before it broke. Once on the backside, he quickly spun around and followed the big wave home.
Inside the harbor, bobbing in the froth left by the crashing seas, we heaved a collective sigh of relief. We would live to fish another day.
An ironic truth of saltwater fishing holds that some of the roughest water often erupts just as you’re departing from or returning to port. From inlets along the south shore of New York’s Long Island to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and cuts along Florida’s east coast to the harbors of the Pacific Coast, boating anglers face some of the world’s most challenging sea conditions.
It’s not just waves. A combination of factors turns inlets nasty. A powerful outgoing tide streaming through a narrow channel and a strong onshore wind can pile up seas. Combine these two factors with shoaling and shifting channels, and you have waves that are not only steep, but also packed tightly and breaking. In places such as North Carolina’s Oregon Inlet, treacherous water can stretch for a mile or more. Not fun.
Before you tackle a dicey inlet, research the conditions, says boating angler Brendan Strum of Manteo, North Carolina, who’s run in and out of Hatteras and Oregon inlets for more than 30 years, chasing bluefin tuna, mahi, marlin, wahoo and other species. While Strum now runs a Regulator 31 with twin Yamaha 300 outboards, much of his experience running inlets came aboard a Regulator 25 with twin Yamaha 200s.
“Talk to other people, especially if you have not been out for a week or more,” Strum implores. “Our inlets change from day to day, so I always call guys I know to get the latest information.”
Expanding your base of fishing friends and sharing information ranks as one of the most important facets of inlet safety. “Never assume you’re an expert, no matter how much experience you have,” advises Strum, who confesses to being nervous every time he crosses the bar at Oregon Inlet. “You need to listen to others who’ve run the inlets in the past day or two.”
If you are unfamiliar with an inlet, consider hiring a guide with strong knowledge of the inlet to show you the way. Use your chart plotter to record the track. Keep in mind, however, that the safest course can change quickly.
Stay posted on the latest weather conditions and tides, using online resources such as Buoy Weather and NOAA marine weather, checking not only for your departure time, but also for your anticipated return time.
STUDY THE CONDITIONS
“A strong outgoing tide is always cause for concern,” says Capt. Eric Davis of Vero Beach, Florida. Davis guides anglers aboard his Pathfinder 2500 powered by a Yamaha 350. He regularly runs in and out of Fort Pierce, Sebastian and St. Lucie (aka Stuart) inlets. “When the wind pushes waves against an outflowing current, it can make things dangerous, especially when coming in,” Davis points out.
Take some time to assess the inlet before making your run. Study the cycle of waves; there is often a rhythm to them. Long-period swells, for instance, often roll through in sets, with a slight lull in between.
Obviously, you want to cross where the waves are smaller. For this reason, Davis often avoids the deepest water in the middle of the channel when there is a strong outgoing tide. “The middle of the channel is usually where the current is strongest,” he says. “Hang to the side, where the waves are often smaller and tend not to break as much, but also avoid any potentially dangerous shoals.”
This advice applies to smaller boats, such as Davis’ Pathfinder 2500 bay boat, which don’t draw a lot of water. Larger, deep-draft sport-fishers, by necessity, need to stay in the middle of the channel to avoid grounding. Bigger boats are also better at handling larger waves.
To find the smoothest line, Davis recommends running on the downwind side of the main channel when you’re outside the protection of the jetties, using the south side when the wind is out of north/northeast and the north side when the wind is from the south/southeast. WAIT IT OUT Waiting a few hours for a slack tide can make the difference between a calm crossing and a calamitous one. “An incoming or slack tide tends to flatten out the waves in inlets such as Jupiter and Stuart,” Davis has discovered. This can mean cooling your heels for as long as five hours. If you’re coming back in the afternoon, that’s a long wait.
Another option is to run to another, moreuser-friendly inlet. Though it will take time and you’ll burn more fuel, increased safety and peace of mind can make the extra miles worthwhile.
On days when the inlet is raging, let prudent seamanship prevail. “If it’s questionable, don’t go out,” Strum says. Your crew might be disappointed, but as the captain, it’s your job to make sure everyone stays safe. SIZE AND POWER The size of your boat counts. The last thing you want is a boat that’s too small to handle steep seas, Davis says. “You need to know the limitations of your boat ahead of time,” he adds. “You don’t want to be challenging steep 6- to 8-foot waves in a 20-footer.”
Having a high horsepower-to-weight ratio can also help keep you safe, Davis says. Power becomes especially important when trying to stay ahead of a breaking wave while returning. (See sidebar for tips on how to handle the boat in a rough inlet.)
Negotiating a rough inlet turns far more difficult when you can’t see clearly. Strum’s advice is to wait until daylight before you head out, and return before nightfall. If there’s heavy fog or torrential rain, wait until it clears before crossing the bar.
Low visibility also heightens the risk of collision with a jetty, breakwall, buoy or other vessels. More than one boat has run into a rock jetty while negotiating an inlet at night or in fog. If you must run an inlet in these conditions, use your radar and chart plotter to avoid collisions.
Inlets serve as gateways to many great fishing adventures. With these tips, a seaworthy vessel, sufficient power and a good measure of prudent seamanship, you will be able to meet the challenge of rough inlets, and cross over the bar to find fish and return safely time and again.
Search-and-rescue authorities such as the U.S. Coast Guard and boater assistance organizations including BoatUS (pictured here) sometimes stand by when inlets are raging, allowing them to respond quickly to lend a hand in case of an emergency.
Inlets along the West Coast of the U.S. are often subjected to large, longperiod ground swells generated far out at sea. These swells build into enormous waves that break violently as they roll into the relatively shallow water of harbor entrances.
Big boats can also encounter trouble when running inlets. This image of the sport-fisher Waterdog shows the boat sideways to the seas at Jupiter Inlet, listing to port before it snap-rolled to starboard, ejecting the captain, resulting in a tragic...