Reading the water: navigating unfamiliar waters

Reading the Water

Navigate unfamiliar waters

Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to move several boats in and out of Salt Ponds in Hampton, VA.  This area is notorious for its silting in the channel.  In November 2010, moving a Hunter 376 with its new owner and friends, I asked to take the helm as we approached the entrance to the channel, since the tide was low.  I slowed the boat to a crawl, heart in my throat, and sure enough bumped bottom several times trying to find the “deeper” parts of the channel.   Thankfully there were waves entering the inlet and they allowed us to “float” up and over the shoaling.

Fortunately the channel was dredged in spring of 2011, before my next encounters with this channel.
Still, one must “read the water” when navigating it, so I thought this might be a good lesson on entering unfamiliar waters.


Many students ask me what distance is appropriate to keep from a channel marker.   I have to answer “it depends” (not trying to be a smart aleck).  MOST of the time, I tend to stay within a couple of boat lengths of a marker (on the appropriate side please) when in a channel.   If, as in exiting Broad Creek for example, there is opposing traffic, I will tend to leave a little extra room between my boat and the red markers “2” and “4”.  However, if I am unfamiliar with the channel, and there is no opposing traffic, AND since there are no corresponding greens marking the opposite side of the channel, my tendency is to stay a little closer to the reds.

But, take a look at the example below of Salt Ponds.

Reading  the Water

This is a screenshot taken from Google Maps showing an overview of the channel.  I added the arrows.  This is pretty much how the area looks today after dredging.  Still, notice the shoaling in between marker 5 and 7.   If one follows the starboard side of the channel leaving the harbor, running aground is inevitable!

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE, if you can get it, is the BEST information you can get!  Ask a local boater or local marina about the channel leading to an unfamiliar destination.

Below is the view from the boat leaving marker “7 “and heading for “5”.   Notice the ripples on the water on the starboard side.  I stayed over to the port side of the channel leaving!

Reading the water

After getting past this I took this shot looking back:

Reading the water

That was leaving at relatively high water.  Now, returning two weeks later (Nov 26th) take a look at what this stretch looked like at LOW tide.  (Please forgive me if Marker “7” is actually “9”, I can’t read in my photos.)

Reading the water

Needless to say, I was smart not to go straight by the marks!  By the way, take a look at red marker “8” below:Reading the water

Looking back to the aerial shot, see how the depth is better around the top side of the channel.  The natural channel follows the contours of the water flow.  Usually it is best to stay to the OPPOSITE side of a creek from a point of land.  Try to visualize the way the water might flow out.  That movement creates a natural channel.  I use this every time I am in a creek without markers.

Reading the Water

As an aside, I took a look at Mapquest’s shot of this area and realize the satellite image they are using for this area must have been taken before the dredging was started this past spring!

Reading the water

Anytime I am going to an unfamiliar harbor, I pull the area up on both Mapquest and Google Maps just to get a general overview.  Use your phone for Mapquest and Google Maps, but use your eyes and learn to read the water!