While the sound of a hearty “crunch” may be a wonderful thing when you’re enjoying your morning breakfast cereal, a hearty “crunch” from underneath your boat is a bad thing–a very bad thing indeed. The damage from running aground in shallow water can not only ruin your boat outing, it can also put a significant dent in your wallet.
If you’re the adventuresome type, you may be more willing than most to push the limit with your boat. You may be itching to picnic on that secluded shore, or to fish that shallow little hole that you just know is the Grand Central Station for fish in the area. No matter what idea spurs you on, the watch word for skinny water is caution.
You’ve invested a lot of time and money in your vessel, and your wanderlust is no reason to see that investment scraped, scuffed or worse. If you’ll just put forth the effort for some prior planning and careful observation, you can probably reach your goal.
The first thing you have to know is the draft of your boat. While this information should be prominently listed in your owner’s manual, or on the manufacturer’s website, keep in mind that the number can vary. Your boat is going to ride higher or lower depending on how much weight you’re carrying at any given time.
Now that you know the approximate depth of water you need, it’s time to find out how much water there actually is. This is where charts (whether paper or electronic) come into play. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel—the area chart will give you a great starting point, and a good idea of the terrain. Keep in mind that with floods, storms, and time, sand bars can shift, and the channel can also move.
Now that boat electronics don’t cost an arm and a leg like in the past, you really ought to have a depth finder at the very least. You should have a good idea of where the shallows and obstacles are from previously checking out the charts on the area. When the depth finder indicates the water is getting shallower, pay attention.
You can never rely 100% on charts or electronics. You need to use your eyes, and your powers of observation. Look for color variations in the water. Depending on where you are boating, different colors mean different things. In some areas, darker water means deeper water; in other areas, darker water may mean a shallow area covered with turtle grass or other vegetation.
Pay attention to the surface of the water as well. Watch for ripples and breaking waves—they may likely indicate a shallow area. Does the water surface appear uneven? Does the water eddy into itself in areas? Can you see local wildlife—birds for example—that don’t seem to be swimming, but look happily stationary? It’s likely they’re just sitting there on a shelf or a sand bar. If you’re approaching any of these situations, slow down and assess the situation. You’ll be glad you did–it’s so much easier than trying to rock your boat off a shallow bank after you’ve run aground!