Abstract Coastal waters are an aerodynamically unique environment that has been little explored from an air-sea interaction point of view. Consequently, most studies must assume that open ocean-derived parameterizations of the air-sea momentum flux are representative of the nearshore wind forcing. Observations made at the New River Inlet in North Carolina, during the Riverine and Estuarine Transport experiment (RIVET), were used to evaluate the suitability of wind speed-dependent, wind stress parameterizations in coastal waters. As part of the field campaign, a small, agile research vessel was deployed to make high-resolution wind velocity measurements in and around the tidal inlet. The eddy covariance method was employed to recover direct estimates of the 10 m neutral atmospheric drag coefficient from the three-dimensional winds. Observations of wind stress angle, near-surface currents, and heat flux were used to analyze the cross-shore variability of wind stress steering off the mean wind azimuth. In general, for onshore winds above 5 m/s, the drag coefficient was observed to be two and a half times the predicted open ocean value. Significant wind stress steering is observed within 2 km of the inlet mouth, which is observed to be correlated with the horizontal current shear. Other mechanisms such as the reduction in wave celerity or depth-limited breaking could also play a role. It was determined that outside the influence of these typical coastal processes, the open ocean parameterizations generally represent the wind stress field. The nearshore stress variability has significant implications for observations and simulations of coastal transport, circulation, mixing, and general surf-zone dynamics.