Boating on open waters

Prepare for the conditions and hazards of open waters when you're out boating. Use our planning checklist, and learn how to handle rough waters.

Preparing for open waters

Open waters are navigable waters that are not enclosed by land or not within a river, bay, harbour or port. They include coastal and ocean waters.

Open waters can be dangerous. You can encounter rough, choppy seas and large waves. Coastal bars can be challenging to cross. You're far more exposed to changes in the weather than on enclosed waters. The risk of your vessel getting swamped or capsizing is much higher. You need to be experienced and know how to handle your vessel in these different conditions.

Make sure you're prepared for the conditions and hazards of open waters.

Before you go

Many open waters start well inshore from the ocean, for example, inside the entrance to ports and rivers. It's recommended that you check whether you're heading into open waters before you go.

Marine Safety Regulation 2016 Schedule 2 and Schedule 3 list boundaries for open waters. They are also marked on Transport for NSW (Maritime) boating maps.

Check your vessel

Vessels designed for enclosed waters are not usually suited for open waters, especially along the coast where waves are larger. The way a vessel handles in open waters depends on many factors – for example, the hull design and strength, engine power, steering, and weight distribution on board.

You should always know the limits of your vessel's capability.

Before you head out on open waters, check your vessel is watertight.

Check your safety equipment

Make sure you have the right safety equipment for your vessel on open waters.

Wear a lifejacket

There's a higher risk of ending up in the water when travelling on open waters or crossing a coastal bar. Everyone must wear a lifejacket when crossing a coastal bar and in heightened risk conditions. A lifejacket can only save someone's life if they're wearing one.

Check the weather

Check the weather before you set out and regularly while you're on the water. Weather conditions can change very quickly on open waters.

While on the water, keep a lookout for signs of squalls – threatening clouds and whitecap waves. If you see these kinds of changes, make sure you and any passengers are wearing a lifejacket and head for shore.

Keep a lookout for shallow areas

Look out for shallow areas, particularly along the coastline and close to the shore. Keep a lookout for bomboras. These are shallow areas – often created by rocks or reefs – that can cause breaking waves.

In good weather, bomboras can be hard to identify because the water may be calm. The waves may only be intermittent, with flat conditions between sets of dangerous waves. Unexpected waves in these areas can capsize your vessel.

Take extra care when anchoring near bomboras. Stay in deep water and beware of currents that can push your vessel in too close.

It's recommended that you check maps and ask locals about the location of bomboras.

Keep in touch

When travelling to open waters, always let someone know where you're going.

It's recommended that you have a minimum of 2 means of communication. For example, a marine radio and a mobile phone.

Check emergency procedures

Review and practise emergency procedures. Make sure everyone on board knows what to do in case of an emergency or incident.

Keep a safe speed

Always travel at a speed that allows you to steer your vessel. Without power to maintain steerage, your vessel can drift side-on or beam-on to the sea. This increases the risk of capsizing.

Be careful in rough or choppy conditions. Slow down or alter the angle of your course to the waves. This minimises pounding and keeps passengers comfortable.

Avoid overloading your vessel

It's recommended that you carry fewer people and less load when on open waters. Check all items are secured to avoid them being thrown around in rough weather. See Loading your vessel.

Handling your vessel on open waters

Open waters can be rough and choppy, and waves can be big. You can experience rough waters caused by the direction of the sea, for example, in head, beam or following seas.

If you get caught in really rough water with big waves, the safest thing you can do is head into them. Going across them or with them can be more dangerous.

Head seas

Generally, the safest way to tackle a head sea – when waves come from directly ahead – is to control the direction and speed of your vessel.

Take big waves bow-on, or up to about 30 degrees off the bow. Too much power can cause the vessel to leap over the crests and crash down into the troughs. Too little power can cause waves to break onto or over the vessel. Use the right amount of power to minimise this slamming action.

It's safer to take bigger waves head-on rather than across the beam.
It's safer to take bigger waves head-on rather than across the beam.

Beam seas

A beam sea – when the water rolls against the side of your vessel at right angles – increases the rolling of your vessel.

You can reduce rolling by varying the angle of your vessel to the sea. The bow is usually the strongest part of a vessel and is designed to take the initial impact of chop and waves.

Keep a lookout for bigger waves. Consider altering course or speed to ride over or with the seas.

Following seas

A following sea – when the sea is moving in the same direction as your vessel – has the greatest potential for disaster. The risk of broaching sideways, swamping or capsizing increases. You have less steering power, and using your throttle to control the vessel is critical.

As with crossing a coastal bar, you should try to maintain a position on the back of waves. Use your throttle to keep ahead of waves breaking behind the vessel.

Rough weather

If you run into rough weather and you're close enough, return to the shore. Otherwise look out for a safe harbour or the lee side of an island – where you're sheltered from the wind and the waves are smaller.

If you doubt your chances of reaching a safe place, ride out the initial onslaught by keeping your bow into the wind and waves. Make sure everyone holds on firmly.

Sudden squalls usually only last for a short period and sometimes come before a change in wind direction. These winds generally blow at much stronger speeds than the wind that follows.

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