Boating 101: Navigating a Strong Current

By BoatUS.

Whether you’re docking your boat, in a crossing or passing situation, or you’re at the boat ramp, if the waters you’re in have a current, the job before you can seem challenging. Currents can knock you askew, hit the hull when you least expect it, and turn a maneuver par excellence into an unmitigated disaster. If, that is, you aren’t aware of how to handle the current — or better yet, how to use it to your advantage.

Currents can have a wide range of effects on virtually any and every aspect of boat handling. And these affects can differ depending on your type of boat. A deep-keeled sailboat, for example, will experience very different current-induced influences compared to a flat-bottom jon boat. It’s impossible to catalog each and every potential event, but we can at least take an in-depth look at some of the most common current events, how the average boater can handle them, and learn from the examples.

Important Note: No matter what situation you may be dealing with, there’s one overriding fact you must always be aware of when you’re in a current: You have more control heading into it than you do when it’s pushing against your transom. Heading into the current, the water is flowing faster across your rudder or outdrive, so steering maneuvers have a greater effect. At the same time, having a current against the hull’s forward motion acts as a brake to slow you down. It’s not very different from why airplanes always land and take off going into the wind.

Docking Dilemmas

When you’re trying to dock in a current, in all likelihood you’ll either be entering a slip with a cross-current or pulling alongside a pier with the current running along it. These two situations require different approaches but a similar frame of mind. In both cases, planning ahead is key. Before even approaching the dock or slip, shift into neutral, allow your boat to drift in the current for a few moments, and try to get a feel for how it will affect the boat long before you actually approach the pilings and planks.

In the case of entering a slip with a cross-current, don’t try to fight a battle against the moving water because you’ll lose. Instead, line up the boat for entry well up-current from the slip (see Fig. 1), and allow the current to do the work of moving the boat sideways and in line with the opening while you regulate forward and aft movement. Remember that getting the transom between the pilings is what really counts; once the aft end of the boat is in the slip the current may still try to shove your bow out of kilter, but if need be you can allow the side of the boat to kiss the down-current piling and apply (gentle!) reverse power to port or starboard, as appropriate, to pivot against it and regain alignment.

Note that whenever you’re approaching a slip subject to current, look at the pilings to make sure there aren’t any lines drooping into the water. If mooring lines aren’t hung up properly and are sitting in the water, current can stretch them across the slip where they can foul your prop(s).

When approaching a dock on the beam, current can actually be a tremendous help. If, that is, you remember the earlier recommendation to operate your boat into it rather than with it. Simply pull parallel to the dock (see Fig. 2), and match the current’s speed so you’re making no headway. Then you can turn the wheel ever so slightly to port or starboard as appropriate, and glide in toward the dock. Recenter the wheel to stop your sideways travel and reapply it to slide in closer, and you can move your boat right up next to the pilings slowly and safely. As you do so, if need be, you can apply a bit more or less power to move up or slide back along the pier and place your boat in the perfect spot.