Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reading The Water

I don't know how it happened but my wife, woman of many talents and skills, added reading the water to her list of life accomplishments suddenly one day when we were out sailing years ago. This was odd to me because if you give my wife a chart or a map she will look at it as though it were printed in Babylonic cuneiform and she will throw her hands up in the air and look cross and say tartly: "You know I can't read a map" as though I'd caught her out in an act of humiliating illiteracy.But then, one day, we were sailing our shoal draught catamaran in some lonely exotic place and she overrode my line of approach to the anchorage and confidently steered us through the shallow waters. Bizarre but true, and she still doesn't know which way is up on a map. Reading the water is an enormously useful skill in certain waters even for those of us who can read a chart.
With the sun overhead or in front the water presents a uniform sheen and the stranger to those waters will anchor safely and wait for clear skies and the correct angle of the sun because if the sun is above and behind your line of travel tropical shallows reveal themselves:
In the Florida Keys major channels and approaches to most canals harbors and docks are marked either by local entities informally or properly by the US Coastguard with markers that make it hard to run aground. However if you want to wander the back country and you own a boat too heavy to push off a sand bar to deep water, and on the water as elsewhere in th US bigger is always better in some people's minds, you need to read the water to go exploring.The general rule is to stay away from land even if "land" is simply mangroves growing out of the water, because most places in the Keys the bottom is regular and shoals evenly the closer you get to land. However if all you had to do was keep your distance from dry land and mangroves it would be too easy.
Colors indicate the kind of bottom while shades and the sharpness of the edges of the contrasting colors indicate the likely depth. Bright white is shallow, yellow isn't always shallow and black can be sea grass most often in the Keys which you don't want to tear up ever. Black can also be rock or coral which can be nasty.
Just to be confusing black can sometimes be the shadow of a cloud covering the sun and nasty coral heads like these move as the wind shifts the clouds... In the Bahamas I have sailed the minefields of coral heads and it can get quite interesting even in a two foot draft catamaran with the propeller safely pulled up out of the water. Coral heads, which show as crisp black spots are rare in the Keys unfortunately as they make excellent aquariums where fish like to gather. In the picture below the black smudge is most likely sea grass but if one were in the Bahamas, home of the world's clearest seawater it could be a deep coral head.The channel toward the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico below is through the dark patch though running aground in the white stuff would most likely be a grounding on sand. Bad for the driver's ego and any bottom paint on the boat but not necessarily awful if you do it on a rising tide and while not traveling very fast.
Anywhere birds can stand is generally too shallow for boats. These cormorants are on a dead tree which obviously could mean they are in deep water but judging by the mottled colors I wouldn't bet on it.
And there is the reward dead ahead. A thin strip of yellow under the bushes indicated a proper beach.With the lack of markers and the complexity of several passes I doubt the Florida Keys back country will get over populated for a while. Especially as you have to hit bottom from time to time to learn to read the water properly and that can be most unnerving.


Anonymous said...

only 2 types of boaters - those who have grounded, and those who will.

lurching in the shallow end of the gene pool,

Chuck on Fleming.

Anonymous said...

You figured out the recent comment widget pretty quick. Your tech skills are coming along nicely.

Garythetourist said...

One day, many years ago, my family and I were going out with Captain Victoria Impallomeni to a very secluded spot in the back-country. I happened to mention our destination to the dock-master. He said, "You can't find 5 people in the lower Keys who could take you out there; she can do it because she is so good at reading the water." I didn't know what that meant at the time so I asked Victoria. Since that time she has patiently tried to teach me the skill and somehow it always eludes me. It isn't easy. Those darn clouds that I love so much always throw shadows that confuse me. I'll keep trying and maybe one day... Congratulations to your wife for mastering that difficult art!

Unknown said...

Mr Conchscooter:

Thank you for this very educational post. I learned something new today.

Or course in the waters off British Columbia reading the water may be a very different experience. We have rip-tides, whirlpools caused by underwater mountains. Waters are constantly moving making it hard to read anything

Riding the Wet Coast