I was looking forward to a cold beer and a set of warm sheets as I swung into the narrow channel of Florida's Longboat Key inlet. It wouldn't be soon enough; it was nearly midnight and lightning flickered from an ominous thunderhead in a black and lowering sky. I called for an opening of the bascule bridge that sits just inside the inlet's entrance, and as I powered between the breakwaters I could see the span's signal turn a welcoming green — home free.
Then, just as I made a final approach, the light went red and the bridge began to lower. In the few seconds I was broadside to the current while pulling an emergency 180, the fast flood carried the boat to within a few feet of the now-lowered span. With the bow into the current and under full power, those steel bridge girders felt as if they were tickling the back of my neck as we slowly pulled clear.
It turned out another boat slipped through without calling and the bridge tender, thinking it was us, started to lower the bascule.
I narrowly averted an accident; I was lucky — this time. But over the years I learned not to count on luck, especially when dealing with inlets. Up to the point of the near miss at the bridge, I followed my usual conservative approach to the inlet. For example, while making the approach, I didn't hug the shoreline to save a few moments and then swing through the breakwaters. I don't do that with any inlet — much less one that has a bridge just inside the entrance. Instead, I go straight out to the sea buoy, which, depending on the inlet, could be a few hundred yards to a mile off the beach. Those sea buoys aren't there only to mark the inlet from offshore. They are situated so an approaching vessel can scope out the inlet's entrance and often enable one to eyeball right down the fairway.
While making the approach from the sea buoy you can scout the conditions at the inlet's mouth as well as judge the effect of wind/ current on your vessel and visualize other traffic. Often, especially in limited visibility, I broadcast a security call on Channels 16 and 13 — the latter because sometimes commercial vessels monitor 13 and not 16 — to advise traffic of my presence (the captain of the vessel that beat me to the bridge obviously wasn't monitoring his radio) and listen for a moment before I begin my approach.
When conditions are unfavorable — especially when a strong onshore wind opposes a fast-running ebb, the seas and breakers that often build up outside many inlets can make an approach downright dangerous if not — depending on the vessel — impossible. When the tide does change, which is never more than a few hours later, the situation at the inlet's entrance can alter dramatically for the better. I've seen inlets with huge breakers (caused by offshore seas meeting an ebb tide) become pond-like shortly after the onset of the flood. The sea buoy, then, becomes a great place to hang out and wait.
It's common sense to do a bit of homework before entering a strange, or even a familiar, inlet if facing unfamiliar conditions. Knowing the tidal picture is what first comes to mind, but it's also important to make thorough examination of the chart — especially the surrounding depths.