10 tips for navigating unknown waters

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When it comes to cruising in unfamiliar waters, even veteran boaters get sweaty palms and make beginner mistakes. Instead of regaling you with mine, I’m passing along 10 tips I learned the hard way.

1.  Pre-plot your course

This is really a double tip, because you have to buy the right charts before you can pre-plot your course. Get an up-to-date chart that shows an overview of the entire area as well as detailed charts of the harbors along the way. Spread the charts out at home, and plot your route ahead of time. Pencil in the courses you’ll be steering along with their compass headings. Navigating will be so much easier.

2.  Highlight problem areas

As you plot your course, you’ll find shallow water, rocks, reefs and other areas of concern. Plot your course safely around those areas, and use sticky notes to remind yourself to be extra cautious when navigating there.

3.  Buy a cruising guide

Cruising guides provide insider information on everything from currents to the best place to stop for hamburgers. Think of them as a supplement to, not a replacement for, regular charts when navigating.

4.  Call ahead

Pick up the phone and call the harbormaster at your destination. Ask what you should know ahead of time. You may discover that you have to reserve a slip or mooring or that the navigation lights are turned off.

5.  Be prepared

Study your chart and cruising guide to help you prepare for conditions at your destination. If the harbor bottom is grass and weed, carry a suitable anchor. If it has a large tidal range, carry long-enough dock lines and extra fenders.

6.  Follow the locals

If you aren’t sure about the channel into an unfamiliar harbor, look for a local fishing boat. Try to raise the crew on your VHF, explain your situation and ask if you can follow them through the channel. Let them know your draft, so they don’t cross an area that’s too shallow for your boat. In harbors with shoals and breaking surf near the entrance, there’s no shame in calling the harbor patrol or Coast Guard for advice. They may send a boat to lead you in if the conditions are dangerous.

7.  Arrive before dark

You’ll have enough problems sorting out unfamiliar waters without complicating the situation with darkness. When planning your departure time, figure out the time it takes to reach each destination and plan to arrive several hours before sunset.

8.  Know the buoy system

If you’re entering another country or crossing from ocean to inland waters, be aware that the buoyage may be different, and be prepared.

9.  Program your electronics

Enter waypoints you’ve marked on your chart into your GPS receiver. By programming these waypoints in advance, you’ll have a useful tool for finding your present position, seeing how far you have to go, determining the course you need to steer, and getting a sense of how fast you’re covering the distance. If your built-in GPS charts don’t cover the area you’ll be entering, buy a navigation chip or download additional chart information from a new or updated CD-ROM.

10. Ask friends

You can often get useful advice and tips from friends who are familiar with your planned destination.

When it comes to unfamiliar waters, always err on the side of caution. If you aren’t sure of something—location, water depth or course—stop your boat until you know how to proceed.

Taking a few simple precautions will allow you to enjoy the sense of adventure you get from visiting new places, and you’ll have an easier time finding your way the next time. –Al Ponzio

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The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.