Cruising Tips: Sailing Through Reefs

Negotiating a reef inlet, be it in the Bahamas or the South Pacific, requires precise navigation and skilled seamanship. Detailed charts are essential, and you should always consult any local sailing directions you have onboard in advance.
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Reefs demand respect; always wait for daylight before running a reef break

Reefs demand respect; always wait for daylight before running a reef break

Negotiating a reef inlet, be it in the Bahamas or the South Pacific, requires precise navigation and skilled seamanship. Detailed charts are essential, and you should always consult any local sailing directions you have onboard in advance. You can also glean local knowledge by asking for help via VHF radio. You’d be surprised how eager others often are to offer advice.

Run a cut only in daylight, ideally with the sun aft. If you’re approaching at night, heave-to and wait for dawn, or even better, plan your passage to arrive just after sunrise. Plot precise compass bearings, confirm any visual reference points, and program a series of waypoints into the GPS. The helmsman should have a hand-bearing compass at the ready. Establish a bail-out point that allows you room to safely turn around if anything seems amiss.

In a sailboat, it’s actually easier to sail through a narrow inlet (unless the wind is on the nose), especially with a sea running. Driving the boat at speed with sails flying helps to stop rolling and improves directional stability. Keep the boat below hull speed, but sailing fast enough to answer the helm. Have the engine running, but in neutral. The anchor and rode should be ready to run, and all halyards and sheets ready to let fly.

Station a crewmember at the bow to read the water. Know the charted depths and keep a sharp eye on the depth sounder. White water across an inlet—like the “rage” conditions often seen in the Bahamas when the wind and sea are up from the east—means “no go.” Sit tight and wait.

Once past your point-of-no-return, trust your visual bearings and hold a steady course. Now is not the time for indecision, so be sure to triple-check everything before entering. The reward is tranquil water and a cold beverage once your anchor is down.

Photo by Peter Nielsen

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