Crossing coastal bars

Coastal bars can have strong currents and large breaking waves. Here's how to prepare for a safe bar crossing when you're out boating.

Coastal bar dangers

Coastal bars are shallow, shifting sandbanks at the entrance to rivers and coastal estuaries. They can have strong currents and large breaking waves.

You may need to cross a coastal bar when going out or coming in from open waters. See the list of all coastal bars in NSW.

Crossing coastal bars can be very dangerous. Channels through the bars can change frequently. Waves can change quickly with the tide and weather. Even in apparently calm conditions, vessels can be swamped, damaged or wrecked, which can result in death.

For videos and safety information, see Coastal bars safety resources.

For your safety, never attempt to cross a coastal bar without seeking local knowledge and experience. Check conditions before you go and be prepared to cancel or delay the crossing. It's strongly recommended that you cross a coastal bar with an experienced skipper before you try it yourself. If in doubt, don't go out.

Make sure you're prepared for the conditions on coastal bars.

Check conditions

Monitor coastal bar conditions in different weather and tide combinations. Know the tide times and check the weather. Watch the conditions in person, or via live webcams of coastal bars.

Get current forecasts with expected wind and sea conditions. Get advice from the local Marine Rescue NSW base – see Find you local Marine rescue unit.

Coastal bars can have dangerous conditions, including large breaking waves

Coastal bars can have dangerous conditions, including large breaking waves.

Prepare your vessel

Check your vessel, especially steering and throttle controls, watertight hatches and drains. The vessel must be seaworthy, suitable for the conditions, and designed to take some impact from waves.

Secure loose items and make sure everything is either stowed in lockers or secured to prevent movement.

Check your safety equipment

Make sure everyone on board knows where the safety equipment is and how to use it, and what to do in an emergency or incident.

Wear a lifejacket – everyone on board must wear a lifejacket at all times when crossing coastal bars.

Cross safely

Whether you're going out or coming in:

  • Cross with an incoming tide – it's always safer.
  • Avoid crossing with an outgoing (ebb) tide – this is the most dangerous time to cross because dangerous waves are more likely.
  • Once you start crossing, keep going – trying to turn around in the middle of a bar can be risky, including an increased risk of swamping. Try to stay calm and not panic in difficult conditions.

How to go out safely

Try to take waves as close to head-on as possible. Avoid letting waves break onto your vessel.

Avoid hitting waves at high speed. If your vessel becomes airborne, you lose control and it can cause damage and injury.

If it's safe to go out:

  • Idle towards the breaking waves, watching for any lulls.
  • If you see a flat spot, speed up and run through it.
  • If the waves keep rolling in, motor to the break zone.
  • Gently accelerate over the first part of broken water.
  • Apply more power and run to the next wave. If possible, head for the lowest part of the wave (the saddle). This is the last part to break.
  • Back off the power just before meeting the next wave.
  • Pass slowly through the wave and accelerate again to the next wave.
  • Repeat the process until through the break zone.

How to come in safely

Be aware that conditions may have changed.

If it's too dangerous to come in:

  • Wait for conditions to improve.
  • Wait for the tide to change.
  • Look for safe harbour somewhere else.

If it's safe to come in:

  • Approach the break zone and try to pick the spot with the least activity.
  • Keep any lead marks in transit as breaking waves may obscure your vision of the entrance.
  • Choose a set of waves suitable for your entry.
  • Position the vessel on the back of a swell and maintain speed, making sure:
    • you avoid overtaking the wave and running down its face
    • you stay ahead of any wave behind you.
  • When the wave ahead of you has broken, carefully accelerate through the white water.
  • Beware of steep waves bouncing back off the entrance or shore, and adjust speed to handle these waves and any outgoing current.
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