Checking Local Hazards
When you are boating for the first time in unfamiliar waters, study local maps, charts, and tide tables. Find out about the local weather patterns. You can talk to the local harbormaster, public safety officer, or local boaters to get more information. Hazards you should ask about include rapids, sudden winds, tides, currents, white water, overhead cables, bridges, waves, and heavy boating traffic.
If you are entering a new inlet or narrow channel, take your time and enter very slowly. Before entering, note the direction and strength of the current. When possible, the best time to enter a new unknown channel is at slack high tide because the water is generally calmer. The current may be more important than the wind direction to the actual course traveled by your vessel.
Whenever possible, watch other boats to see how they are entering, the effect the wind and current are having on their actual course, and if they enter without any problems. Look for signs of shallow water or sand bars. Charts and navigational buoys can be wrong due to rapidly shifting currents that move sandbars around. If in doubt, make a radio call to a local marina or nearby boaters for local information.
Another hazard you need to avoid is low-head dams, which are man-made structures that back up water, usually in a reservoir. Although most of the water is stopped, some water flows over the top and drops to the lower level on the other side. The hazard with low-head dams is that they are difficult to see and avoid in time from upstream. And if your boat goes over the top, you can be caught in a backwash that could pull you under the water. Once you are pulled under, it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape, because the water creates a circular pull toward the bottom of the dam.
Even if you have boated in an area before, check for updates, because hazards are ever changing in every type of water system, whether it's a lake, pond, river, or ocean.