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Pro Tips For Navigating Rivers

Flow and other factors can make negotiating rivers significantly more challenging than lakes or other bodies of water. Here are the basics for operating safely.

Black GMC truck compensating for a current while launching a black fishing boat in the water.

Compensating for current is a skill that river boaters learn whenlaunching, docking and loading. 

Boating a river offers sights and experiences that are unique to enjoying a waterway that moves. That’s part of the allure of floating atop a flow where the landscape and water features are ever-changing and land is never out of sight. As intriguing as that sounds, it’s important to know those experiences include situations and challenges that boaters are unlikely to face when cruising inland lakes and reservoirs.

Boating on a river versus a lake is akin to flying an airplane versus driving a motor vehicle (and a major reason I have little desire to attempt the former). When cruising a lake or driving a car, if something goes wrong, such as engine failure, you have the option of pulling over to a safe location and stopping to address the situation. That’s certainly not possible when flying, or when navigating a river where currents can conspire to keep you going with the flow. Even attempting to anchor and take stock of a situation can get you into trouble.

That said, most river boating takes place on placid inland waterways that often resemble lakes, with a gentle flow and offer few concerns beyond those faced when cruising lakes and bays. Just know that it’s the flow – however slight or significant – that creates extra challenges to boaters navigating inland streams and rivers. Here’s how that may affect you and what to consider for each.

Laborious Launch and Load

Launching and loading a boat onto a trailer can be frustrating in the face of current. The latter can be especially stressful when you factor in the pace and pressure of the water when lining up the boat to the trailer. Depending on conditions, the skipper may have to aim several yards upstream of the trailer on the approach (when the current is broadside) to allow the bow of the boat to split the guide-ons. The only way to determine how much the current is affecting your approach to a dock or trailer is to test the waters (pun intended) to learn how powerful the current is in relation to your boat and the approach speed required to maintain control. Take several dry runs at your target when your boat is broadside to the current, or at whatever angle required to achieve a controlled landing.

Docking Difficulties

Ditto for docking, where current and eddies can wreak havoc on a craft operated by a skipper who has little experience with river boating. The challenges at the dock aren’t limited to the approach and departure in the face of a strong current; the consequences of a dockline failure are exacerbated by the force of the moving water. A slipped mooring line on a boat docked atop a lake faces only (and that’s relative) the force of the breeze to push it around.

The same situation taking place on a river can send a vessel downstream or sink it if the remaining line is tied fast to a rear cleat and the boat swings like a pendulum to face the current transom-first. Try to get the first line securely around a piling upstream of the current at your boat. If something goes amiss with the lines, you’ll hopefully swing in a more controlled manner.

Lock Matters

The dams found on many inland rivers, such as those along the Mississippi, create a series of navigational pools that may stretch for miles between each stoppage. Each dam along such a route can be thought of as a step in the river as it descends to the Gulf of Mexico. A lock associated with lock-and-dam structures includes a water-filled chamber large enough for boats to enter, sometimes several at a time. The chamber features gates at each end that open and close as needed to allow water and boats to enter or leave. Once a boat is in the lock, water is added to the chamber to raise a boat to the level of the upstream pool, or released from the chamber to lower a boat to the downstream pool.

As water is drawn in and discharged from a lock chamber, powerful hydraulic currents are created, and restricted areas are established to protect boaters in the vicinity of locks and dams. For example, along the Mississippi River, boats may not enter the area 600 feet upstream and 150 feet downstream from the dam (including auxiliary locks not in service). Additional restrictions may be posted at each dam or spillway.

When approaching a lock, contact the lockmaster via VHF Channel 14 or look for a signal cord on the lock approach wall and give it a yank to let the tender know you are there. Keep in mind that the chamber may be locking craft through from the other side and you may have to wait until the lock tender opens the gates and signals by hand or green light that it’s your turn to enter.

At that point, proceed slowly into the lock and note the mooring lines spaced along lock wall and designate your “holder(s)” from among your passengers. Make certain they know that their lines should be held by hand to maintain the boat’s position along the wall and normally not tied to the boat while in the lock chamber and the boat is rising or falling with the water levels. Fenders may be deployed and passengers on deck should don life jackets, remain seated (unless they are handling the boat), and keep their hands inside the boat unless necessary for line handling … and then use great caution. Upon completion of the lock-filling or emptying operation, and when the gates are fully open, a signal will be given by the lock operator by hand, voice, or a single blast of a horn when it is safe to depart. — D.A.

Flotsam and Jetsam

After a heavy rain, river water often carries shore debris that can pile up against a hull or anchor rode creating pressure that can compound that of the current alone. Waterborne debris is an even bigger threat to boaters underway. While cruising anywhere it’s important to maintain a lookout for flotsam that needs to be avoided, the threat of submerged logs and their ilk is more common on rivers that are constantly scouring the riverbanks for debris to carry downstream. It’s especially important to maintain a watch after a rain that will swell a river and introduce more obstacles.

Watch your Wake

If the river is narrow, it’s important to be aware of your boat’s wake, the effects of which can be exacerbated when the waves are contained within the banks. Rivers are also popular with shore anglers, who you want to give a wide berth to avoid disrupting their fishing and accidently crossing their lines with your boat’s outdrive. And small boat anglers who may be anchored along the shore are especially susceptible to wakes, which may be not just an inconvenience, but may throw the boat into the shoreside roots and branches.

Radio Rules

Day or night, should something go wrong while navigating a river, remember that VHF Channel 16 is a calling and distress channel monitored by the Coast Guard, and communications should be kept short, limited to initial contact only, unless there is an emergency. VHF Channel 22A is an option for communication with the U.S. Coast Guard and may come in handy when navigational questions arise during a river cruise. — D.A.

Anchoring Advisories

Anchoring in a river offers other challenges. Bottom types can vary greatly and change often with the fluctuating current and the topography. When seeking an anchorage, it pays to study not only up-to-date navigational charts but the shoreline composition as well. The latter can give you an idea of what’s underneath the water adjacent to the shore. When anchoring, do so far off the main channel, especially if you share the waters with commercial craft such as tugs and barges. Their deep drafts limit them to the deeper water, and collision avoidance options may be few.

Watch Other Vessels

While making way, keep in mind that larger vessels, commercial or recreational, may have significant steerage issues because of their size and draft, especially their momentum when going downstream. Offer these craft a wide berth and a sharp eye for sudden changes in direction when approaching shoals, river bends, locks, and bridges, and monitor VHF Channel 13 for bridge-to-bridge communication as needed. Remember, depending on topography and shoreside structures, VHF, which only works line-of-sight, may be sketchy.

Two white boats and two sea doos near a retaining wall.

“Locking through” is a process common on many inland waterways that may call for some advance planning and knowledge. For example, the lines draping the lock walls should normally be held by hand as the water levels rise and recede within the chamber. 

Locks and Bridges

Speaking of locks, which are common on larger inland rivers, if your destination requires a “locking through,” study-up on the local signal rules, right-of-way rules, and the VHF channel(s) to use during the process. The same goes for drawbridges that may need to be opened to accommodate your vessel’s passage. Contact the tender to confirm requests for opening, answer any questions about the procedure, or exchange information. Drawbridges may also have defined opening schedules to reduce traffic backup, which can vary with the hour, day, and time of year, and may be posted on the bridge itself.

Other Water Features

River boaters are advised not to rely solely on buoys for navigation because of their potential unreliability due to removal, relocation, or establishment whenever the U.S. Coast Guard determines a buoy posting is needed for the safety of navigation. Learn to read the water as you proceed, identifying eddies, upwellings, and shallows that may indicate where you may safely proceed. Pay attention to which water features in your area, such as upwellings or eddies, may indicate what lies below. Between maintenance visits by a Coast Guard buoy tender, channels and obstructions can shift and the water depth changes. Sometimes extra-strong current or debris will drag or destroy an aid to navigation.

Even with lighted buoys and markers to guide your route, as a matter of safety, the Coast Guard (and BoatU.S.) strongly advise against any after-dark river cruising. I speak from experience.

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Dan Armitage

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A full-time travel and outdoors writer based in Ohio, Dan is in his 20th season hosting the popular syndicated radio show Buckeye Sportsman. He gets around on a pontoon boat and an Aquasport center-console, which he uses for all his DIY editorial projects and fishing features. A USCG Captain (Master 50-ton), he’s a popular speaker at boat and sport shows.