Look out for unbroken water when crosing bars
Coastal bars are where you will run into dangerous situations constantly. Ocean swells, fresh water running out of estuaries and wind over tide and current all combine to make them a serious challenge for boaties looking to get offshore for a feed of fish.
They can dead calm sometimes but are always potentially dangerous and tricky to handle.
No written article can fully prepare you for the noise, sensation and sobering experience of crossing a bar when the seas are working. This article will discuss crossing bars and should be treated as a guide only to the fundamentals of crossing bars.
What are Bars?
Bars are a build up of sand, outgoing silt and sediments at river and coastal lake entrances. There are many around the country and most have a reputation for being dangerous. As with all things relating to the sea, a healthy dose of respect should be kept aside for bars.
Bars are caused as the sand is moved along the coast by wave actions. Because wave direction changes, so does sand movement and consequently the underwater nature of an entrance. Strong winds, storms and large amounts of outgoing fresh water can all alter the character of a bar. The depths and safe passage areas can move. The entrance you used last week may be entirely different this week. Some change quite regularly and long onshore winds and waves or heavy inland rainfall are signs that changes are likely.
With different wind water flow and tide directions, short, sharp, steep and powerful waves are common. Confused seas can occur and waves from different directions may be encountered.
Where Do You Start?
Local Knowledge is a must. Most bars have a vantage point from where you can study them and watch how others negotiate it. Finding this spot will usually bring you into contact with other boaties watching how the bar is working and where the safe channels and passages are. Talk to them and gain knowledge from those who are experienced.
Local Volunteer Marine Rescue Services, Water Police and similar organisations can give you a good idea as to whether it is safe to negotiate the bar under present conditions and if so may give directions on the best passage. Watch how others are tracking in and out.
Find out about leading marks and any navigation aids that will help you keep your line going in and out. I personally do not encourage the use of GPS Navigation to negotiate bars. They rely on “eyes out the window” and the visual use of any navigation aids available.
Observe the bar and look for deep water which is usually indicated by a darker colour and smoother water. Under clear water conditions, polarised sunglasses can accentuate the difference between shallow and dark water.
Have a good understanding of how the weather affects the local area and if there is anything unique to the area such as predictable sea breezes, funnelling winds from onshore or unusual tidal streams.
Have an awareness of how tides work. They don’t rise and fall at a constant rate. They start off slowly and increase to half tide (approx three hours after high or low) and then start decreasing. Some areas have a significant period of “slack” water when there may be little or no tidal flow.
The basic preparation is the same as that for rough water handling.
· Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.
· Have a good plan for the day including attention to fuel, weather, alternative ports, clothing, food and emergency actions.
· Re check your safety gear. Be aware that extra safety equipment is required when going offshore.
· The boat should be serviceable with steering and motor checked.
· Loose objects and the anchor should be secured and the boat as watertight. as possible.
· Wear your PFD’s if on an open deck. In most recreational boats this is a requirement by law.
· Check the weather and tide. Try and co ordinate your crossings when tide/current and wind are going in the same direction. (remember the discussion about wind and waves against tide in my Heavy Weather Handling article?)
· Brief your crew to hold on and arrange them in the boat to ensure good stability.
· If the area has radio coverage, make outgoing and incoming calls to the radio base. This provides a Search and Rescue watch over you when crossing the bar.
· Trim the boat for head or following seas - whichever applies.
From inside the bar watch and wait for a break in the waves. Most bars have short periods of relative calmness. If one occurs apply power and head out through the bar.
The boat should be trimmed for head seas. (Bow down slightly - this will vary depending on the design of your boat)
If the bar is working continually, head out under medium power and into the broken water. Here you find buffeting of the boat and significant noise. Continue on using the techniques of motoring over the wave, reducing power as you are running up the wave and then accelerating as you break through to the next wave. Repeat the process until you are in open water.
CONSTANT POWER MANAGEMENT AND SENSIBLE SPEED ARE REQUIRED. TOO FAST AND YOU MAY BECOME AIRBORNE LOSING CONTROL, THROWING PEOIPLE AROUND OR EVEN FLIPPING OVER.
As the lowest part of a wave breaks last, if possible head towards that part of each wave.
DO NOT TURN AROUND OR DEVIATE FROM YOUR COURSE BY MORE THAN ABOUT 10 DEGREES. BUT – BE MINDFUL OF THE WIDTH OF NAVIGABLE WATER. (Remember I discussed this technique called quartering in Heavy Weather Handling) TURNING AROUND HALFWAY MAY RESULT IN YOUR BOAT BEING CAPSIZED IN THE TURBULENT BAR WATERS.
Entry from seaward is usually a much calmer and easier process. When you are entering again, wait outside and observe what is happening. Look for the calm area and head toward it.
Trim for following seas. (Bow up slightly - dependant of your boat design)
Select a set of rollers coming in and get onto the back of a wave and hold position. Keep a lookout for following waves that may break behind you. Keep on the back of your selected wave and using good power management stay there.
When approaching any rough or broken water near the bar entrance be careful - it may be necessary to power through this to avoid being buffeted around or losing control of the boat.
Some Further Hints.
If you are not experienced, go with someone who is - and learn from them.
Know your boats limitations. There are boats that are just not suitable for handling bars and rough open waters.
Don’t hit waves under excess power. You could become airborne and create a dangerous situation.
Be aware of propeller cavitation – where the prop loses grip in disturbed water. If this happens quick is needed to regain steerage. Reduce to idle then power up again slowly.
Remember - once you have decided to go, turning back halfway can be deadly.
Observe and understand and appreciate the weather, tides, current and the waves.
The Human Element
Your approach to crossing a bar will be influenced by human factors.
Fatigue, particularly after a long day fishing in the ocean swell exposed to the elements is a real issue. Tiredness reduces you ability to make good decisions, react to constantly changing environment.
Alcohol and Drugs impair your decision making processes. Save the beer for back at the camp and be aware that some prescription drugs may affect you.
Good Situational Awareness is a must. It is about the continual collection and judging of information. It goes far beyond mere perception and encompasses how people combine, interpret, store and retain information.
Having good Situational Awareness allows you to respond faster to changing events – by know what is going on and PREDICTING HOW THINGS WILL CHANGE.
Crossing bars requires constant Decision Making. Once you have made a decision to take a particular course of action, make sure what you decided to do is happening by monitoring your progress. You may be able to modify what you are doing if it’s not working.
Communication and Teamwork enhance your safety. Letting other know what’s going on and listening to your crew enhances safety. Don’t forget that the person you let know where you were going is also an important part of the team.
Managing Threats and Errors. Knowing how to deal with things that go wrong is vital. This is where; experience, knowledge and expertise come together with a clear head, good situational awareness and good decision making skills to safely sort things out. Little things like changing over to the fullest fuel tank before bar crossings is a good example top managing a possible threat.
Strive for good Seamanship. Seamanship is more than just skill and technique. It includes and awareness of the boat, the environment in which it is operating and their own capabilities. (Physical skill, wise decision making, skills and attitude required to perform the task and elevated sense of self discipline.)
All of these Human Factors affect the way you handle your boat and how you deal with crossing a bar. Give them some thought before you go and a lot of things fall into place.
ONE LAST COMMENT.
If you are not completely certain that you are up to the task of handling a bar, don’t go. Remember you are responsible for the people on your boat. You do not want to be responsible for their injury or worse - it is just not worth it.
Having said that, thousands of well prepared, well trained and careful boaties negotiate bars every year all around Australia - without incident - simply by following the rules of careful and prudent seamanship.
Have a great break over the festive season and be careful, courteous, patient and above all safe when on the water.