In an effort to get everyone on the same page, let’s start by defining what an inlet (often referred to as an "entrance" or "pass") is for the mariner.
According to Webster, an "Inlet" is:
It would probably be prudent at this point to also define what an "Inlet" isn’t:
It Isn’t Always Safe!
Most inlets are dynamic in nature, especially the smaller ones that most cruising sailors tend to use. They are constantly evolving and changing. Many frequently change so dramatically in channel orientation, depth, and shoaling over a short period of time, that the approach and entrance navigation buoys and marks are not shown on NOAA charts because they are relocated so often.
The larger inlets and entrances along the coast are for the most part much more stable and change very little. Those that do change, generally have improved channels that are deep, well-marked, and are kept dredged to support safe navigation.
One of the major concerns for the cruising sailor is making landfall at a new destination and having to enter an unfamiliar inlet for the first time. Now when you add in heavy weather, opposing winds and tides, darkness, limited visibility, the possible lack of crew experience, or any combination of these factors; the pucker factor increases exponentially.
Here is one that you could try before you leave the dock:
"The careful selection of the entrance, inlet, or pass that you will be using when you make your next landfall."
"Planning your arrival times for daylight hours or heave to offshore until the sun is up or the weather has moderated before attempting to enter an unfamiliar inlet."
Whether due to careful planning or just plain dumb luck, thankfully, this final phase to all voyages, goes well. . . On most occasions!
Wouldn’t it would be wonderful if every time we were to enter an inlet that the sun would be high in the sky, the winds would be light, the seas calm, and the currents favorable.
Sounds pretty great doesn’t it? Too bad it isn’t always that way. You know . . . Murphy’s Law and all that!
We have all heard the term "All Weather Inlet" and the term "Class ’A’ Inlet" seems to be the nom du jour lately. Both of these terms have become popular in describing what "someone else" thinks is an inlet safe to enter or exit under any weather conditions.
I say "someone," because I have been going to sea now for more years than I care to admit, and I have yet to find an official definition of either one. I have searched the libraries, the blogs, the bibles of navigation like Bowditch, and even Googled the terms the results: "Zero, Zip, Zilch point Sh..!" You get the idea.
So, how can anyone classify an inlet as "All Weather" or "Class A" when apparently no definition exists to compare it against?
Many people in the past right up to today, have tried to rank inlets based upon their ease of use in all weather conditions. While this is a great idea and would definitely provide the mariner with a valuable tool in voyage planning, the results of these rankings are still very often subjective in nature based on that persons criteria.
What may be easy for a 70’ twin screw custom sportfisherman with 2500+ HP on tap is not necessarily easy for a 30’ 200 HP Stern Drive Express. Likewise, the 30’ Express drawing 3.0 feet may find an inlet to be negotiable while the same 70’ sportfisherman above; drawing 5.5+ feet may find the same inlet impossible under the same conditions.
So now that I have muddied up the issue even further, let’s move on and try to come up with some answers.
Chances are that it looks different to different people. A person having to make the decision to enter an inlet, or not, may have different criteria and/or differing skill levels in which they measure the risks of that action.
There is however one thing you can almost be certain of . . . Your Typical Luck will be right there with you. "When it is time to enter an inlet, nothing will be in your favor. The weather will be crap, it will be night, your crew will be tired, visibility will be negligible, and the winds and currents will be opposed."
Welcome to my World!
So what do you do now? As mentioned earlier, often the best solution is to lie off until conditions improve or choose another inlet that will offer you a better opportunity to enter safely.
With that in mind, maybe the answer is not to try to define what makes an "All Weather Inlet" or "Class A Inlet," but rather what makes an inlet safer to navigate when all these forces are aligned against you. So we will attempt to define an Inlet from that perspective.
It stands to reason that anything that makes an inlet safer to navigate for one vessel will likely make it safer for any vessel. So hopefully some of that pesky subjectivity will be avoided.
The nautical chart is the best resource available when it comes to determining a safe inlet. It allows you to visualize what the difficulties may be for any inlet along any coastline and compare them against your personal criteria for selecting the best/safest inlet for you.
Below, I have listed some criteria that I use when choosing an inlet that I have never entered before or am unfamiliar with. This especially being true when conditions are anything less than ideal.
So let’s look at these criteria a little closer:
This simply means that the inlet environment should be easily identifiable from well offshore by any number of fixed landmarks during the day and/or a Major Light during times of darkness or limited visibility.
The seaward approaches to the inlet entrance should be deep, wide, unobstructed, well-marked by charted lighted buoys and/or beacons, and have very few or better yet, no hazards to navigation.
The outer approach buoy (sea buoy, fairway buoy, outer most channel buoy, – pick your poison) should be lighted as well as RACON and/or AIS equipped.
The approach channel should be equipped with lighted range markers or a directional light if shoal waters or other dangers exist within 1 NM of the approach channel.
The entrance channel to the inlet, like the approach channel, should also be deep, wide, unobstructed, well-marked, by charted lighted buoys and/or beacons, and have very few or better yet, no hazards to navigation. It should be equipped with lighted range markers or a directional light if shoal waters or other dangers are within 0.5 NM of the entrance channel.
Simply that the approach and inlet channels should be proportionately deep compared with your vessels draft and the current sea state and also proportionately wide compared with your vessels length and maneuverability.
For more information on this topic, see Winds, Waves, & Shallow Water. The bottom line: The Deeper the Better!
It may be 0200, but I can guarantee you that "Murphy" isn’t sleeping. In the event of an emergency, you should be able to safely maneuver without fear of running out of the channel or putting your vessel in the rocks.
A second benefit is a wider inlet will typically lessen the velocity of tidal currents and likely reduce the height of (wind against current) wave formation.
Some of the first things that I look for when considering an inlet is what I refer to as "Immediate Disqualifier’s."
Again, the Nautical Chart is probably your best reference. That along with the proper Coast Pilot or Sailing Directions can provide you a wealth of information when looking for a "Safer to Navigate" inlet.
Besides looking at the items I have mentioned above, I am also looking for any chart annotations such as:
"Channel is subject to continual or frequent change."
"The buoys are not charted because they are frequently shifted in position."
"Mariners are advised to use caution and local knowledge."
"Breakers or Shoals" close to or across the approach or entrance channel.
For me, these are immediate disqualifiers when entering an unfamiliar inlet in less than ideal conditions.
Operating Bridges crossing the inlet are an immediate disqualifier as well. Do I really want to place the safety of my vessel and crew in the hopes that the bridge tender will be able to open the bridge in time or what about the possibility of a mechanical failure of the bridge?
While not always an immediate disqualifier, a "Fixed Bridge crossing the inlet" is also something that causes me great concern. I would be extremely hesitant unless the clearances were adequate (plus a whole lot more).
With all of the above in mind, you need to ask yourself: Am I sure I want to attempt this inlet in other than ideal conditions?
You now have a pretty fair understanding of what my idea of what a safe inlet might look like and what goes into my selection criteria. If I am forced into making an entrance into an unfamiliar inlet at night or in less than ideal weather conditions, or both; this is the inlet that I am looking for.
Hopefully it may offer you a starting point to decide what inlets are suitable for you and your vessel. You may also be wondering where my list of "All Weather," "Class A," or "Safer to Navigate" inlets is located. Well, sorry to disappoint, but you will not find that here. Once again, it would be a list of what "someone else" thinks but....
The final decision to run an inlet whether in good weather or bad, can only lie with one person; You. You have to balance the risks to your vessel, your crew, and yourself versus your experience, how well found your vessel is, and the competency of your crew.
When the weather has gone to … (deteriorated significantly), visibility is reduced by heavy precipitation or fog, and it’s 0-dark thirty out; your decision to run an inlet, might be a lot more serious than the simple embarrassment of having to call Boat US or Sea Tow.
"Get Home-Itis" can be the Death of You!