It is the extremes in conditions of river bars that highlight the need for good rough water boat handling skills. Once learnt, the same principles can be applied to any situation where there’s white water, large swells, strong currents, strong winds and generally poor conditions.
There are few set rules for bar crossing. Each situation has its own unique set of circumstances and the skipper must be prepared to vary his approach to suit the situation. And there are many factors to consider, including having a suitable craft, local knowledge and the experience and mental preparation should a mistake happen.
Before covering these topics let’s take a look at the dynamics of a bar.
Most ocean outlets have strong tidal movements that affect the shape and pattern of the waves, and the handling characteristics of the boat.
Break walls and structures are designed and constructed to direct water flow as a scouring agent to wash sand away, and maintain a deep channel at the entrance to many rivers. When the tide is at its strongest, mid to three quarters of the tide, the greatest volume of water is being moved. Surprisingly, on the surface this volume of water movement won’t be very noticeable. However, it is at this time that pressure waves, (waves that run at an angle across the general flow) can come into play.
The ebb tide (outgoing) is usually the most dangerous. The fast flowing water hitting the incoming wave, forces a menacing face, or curl on the wave. The ebb tide can close the gap between each wave, making it difficult to manoeuvre or position your boat. Added to this is the problem of water getting shallower as the tide drops and creating a more dangerous situation.
A making tide (incoming) can be kinder to the bar crossing skipper. It tends to aid in the filling of waves, making them rounder and thicker.
It also increases depth as it continues to provide cleaner water for visibility and a reduction in floating debris. However, pressure waves can remain a problem and should be treated with total respect.
Tide charts are invaluable if undertaking any bar crossing. They not only indicate tidal height, but also give some indication of water movement. Localised conditions such as heavy rain and flooding can also alter the stated figures quite drastically. With vast volumes of water rushing down swollen rivers there may be the added problem of floating debris, logs and whole trees being swept out to sea over the bar.
You should also be aware a boat is less buoyant in freshwater and will handle a little differently in these ‘fresh’ conditions.
Keep in mind how a bar is affected by wind directions. For example, an onshore wind can have a calming effect on a making tide as it tends to flatten the incoming swell. An offshore wind will have the same effect on the ebb tide – however, it can make for a dangerous wave face on a making tide. This is less of a problem if you are ashore, however, it’s a different story if you are already at sea and hit unfavourable conditions on your return.
Fishing boats come in all shapes and sizes and not all of these are suited to white water bar crossings. If your boat is not designed to cross a bar, don’t!
Open deck runabouts have no forward protection from incoming water; however, that’s not to say they shouldn’t be taken to sea, just they won’t be suitable in certain conditions.
Most cuddy cabin type boats have a terrific water shedding design up front. They also have high windscreens with excellent bracing to withhold the pressures of water, should things go that far. Conversely, centre consoles are not good for this type of work, they lack protection and generally less well placed grab rails for passengers.
Admittedly, as centre console boats get better suited to bars as they get bigger, but under six metres they are not so ideal.
In terms of interior design self-draining cockpits are definitely better, however, not if the boat is under 5.5 metres. Lifting the cockpit floor above the waterline actually makes the smaller boat less stable, a trait you do not want in a rough bar.
What you do need is plenty of power to cross any bar. The boat should be able to get up on the plane quickly and cover distance in quick time. Power is also required at times to push a boat through a heavy wall of water so an underpowered boat has no place in a white water bar.
When unfamiliar with a bar it’s a good idea to seek out the professionals who use it regularly. Dive shops are a good starting point; they often operate similar boats to recreational anglers and are happy to pass on their knowledge.
Local volunteer sea rescue organisations are another good source, along with the Water Police or Waterways Authority officers. Give the local pub a miss and be wary of advice given by amateur fisherman, unless they are well experienced.
Local knowledge is crucial because the sea can hide many dangers. A wreck or boulder in the middle of the channel can go undetected even after hours of study from the shore. Neglect also can mean some navigation markers are poorly positioned.
Sandbanks and channels can vary overnight on some bars. Bearing this in mind, differing conditions can require different approaches on a daily basis. What worked for you yesterday can be a recipe for disaster today.
Study the bars movements and behaviour from a high vantage point. Observe wave patterns that tend to come in set patterns at regular intervals. Sets may comprise of three, five, seven or more waves.
Observing the bar this way should reveal the size of the waves and their frequency. Mentally count the time spacing between waves and lulls between sets.
Also note the gap between each wave. If the distance is extremely narrow you may not get much time from clearing one wave before the next wave is upon you. If this is the case, maybe you shouldn’t go to sea.
Look closely at the wave break and mentally note from which side of the bar it starts. This should determine the track to take, or the side of the channel to approach from.
And don’t forget to cast your eyes to the far horizon and look closely for a waterline bump, meaning rough water offshore. Experience will quickly tell you whether it’s worth fighting the bar only to find it’s too rough offshore.
Having decided to go to sea, make sure equipment is securely in place. The crew should all be wearing life jackets and be given a position in the boat, which maintains its balance and provides them with adequate grab rails to hold onto.
A radio call should be made to the local coast guard base giving your intentions, the number of persons on board and the time of your return.
When conditions are not perfect or when crossing a bar at night, it is a good practice to call the base station and let them know when you are about to cross the bar and then call again when safely through.
On the way to the bar you may consider turning from starboard to port to check the steering. Also, have the motor warmed up and check that it is idling well.
Once at the bar, sit back and study the break and wave pattern again. Double check what was learnt from the shore and mentally go through the planned run.
The Seaward Crossing
Once the decision has been made to go, throw the bilge pump into action, trim the motor for a bow up attitude and warn the crew to hold on. Edge closer, counting the wave break pattern.
If possible stay to the side the waves first break on. Once the pattern fits the plan and the decision is made to go, there can be no turning back.
On first entering the bar it may be necessary to go up over a few waves, which have depleted to running white water. These waves generally give the boat little trouble and anything below 45 cm can be crossed with power, and at angles ranging up to 45 degrees.
The run should be timed to meet the first of the serious waves just after it has broken. Once the bounding wave has collapsed and converted into rolling white water and the bow height is at least equal to, or greater in height to the wave top, head directly into it. The boat will lift up and over it. Bow height is achieved by a direct-on approach and constant power. And remember, it’s not a matter of speed; in fact speeding is not on. As the white water is reaching the bow, apply power, forcing the boat up and over the wave.
For the uninitiated the bar crossing experience can be quite daunting the first time. The white water face may be a metre or more in height, but if timed correctly, the boat should effortlessly ride over it.
The main points here are; don’t take on a white water face higher than the bow as this may cause the bow to bury and cause loss of directional control.
Secondly, maintain a direct-on attitude to the wave. There will be very little ‘back’ to this type of wave, and if done correctly the boat should not leave the water and have a long fall off on the back of the wave.
The third point to watch is power. Once up on the wave, the white water the boat is sitting upon is full of air and prop ventilation can stop forward motion. If power is applied correctly prior to reaching this point there should be sufficient momentum to get the prop into clear water and bite.
You have now got through the easy bit! You’re now in the position where the wave can break into the boat. That can be a frightening event and one which makes it extremely difficult to control the boat.
As mentioned earlier, you should, if possible, enter the bar from the side the waves first break on. As the boat levels out from the lift up and over that first wave, the reasons for picking this side of the channel become obvious. Chances are that some metres up in front another wave will come in a menacing breaking position. However, steering the boat in the direction of where the wave last breaks, gives you breathing space and time to reach the oncoming wave before it breaks.
Boats with a planing speed of less than 20 knots should not attempt to do this.
Having reached this point, ensure the boat is pointing directly into the on-coming wave. Unless you are extremely competent, fit and have super reflexes, forget about 10 degree and certainly 45 degree angle of attack. Once the breaking wave is met, things happen fast. There can be no hesitation, second thoughts or misjudgment. The force of even a one-metre wave is awesome and it’s definitely better to have that force running directly fore and aft.
The slightest variance or movement to athwartships (across) the boat of that force can see a breaking wave really do a lot of damage.
So point the bows at the wave as it gets close and apply power. This will help lift the bows from the force of the wave trying to push it downwards.
If the wave is curled the bow must be deliberately pushed through the face of the wave. Any wave of medium to large size will have the power to literally sweep a person off their feet and wash them to the back of the boat.
It’s obviously vital to maintain control of the boat and maintain the straight-on angle to the wave. However, as you break through the wave, back off the power so that the boat doesn’t end up in full flight out the back of the wave.
If the second wave has been meet at the time it should have, prior to its breaking, power up the wave face (by power I refer to power only, not undue speed).
As the boat goes over the top of the wave, the throttle can be eased back, again to reduce flight of the boat from the back of the wave.
As your experience grows you’ll learn the skill to turn the boat a slight 10 degrees (no more) to ride down the back of the wave, maintaining water around the prop and reducing a thumping fall from great heights.
Once through this second wave the going usually gets easier. The third wave should be met while it is full bodied and much easier to get over. The same principles apply with each successive wave, until clear from the bar altogether.
Once sitting outside the bar, take a good look at what the boat has just come through. Study the marks, which will be needed to get back in after the fishing trip. At this times switch off the bilge pump once the bilge is dry.
On return take time to study the bar, looking essentially for the same points you needed on the outward trip. From behind the bar it will be extremely difficult to see what is actually going on. In some instances all that will be seen is a mass of rolling water with spray cascading back from it.
However, by moving down the side of the bar a little it should be possible to get a fairly good idea of conditions on the bar itself. Again, it is a good idea to count the wave sequence and picture the run in.
Meanwhile check equipment in the boat and ensure all is securely in place. If there’s a full reserve fuel tank, switch to it to avoid running out while crossing the bar. Don’t forget to throw the bilge pump into action.
Pick the last wave before the lull and get in behind it and ride on its back through the bar. By sitting the boat on the back of the wave, there will be no danger of a wave coming from behind and breaking over the stern of the boat.
The skill in riding the back of a wave is easy to master, however, it is one that does take learning, guts and control to go with it. The throttle has to be worked constantly to keep the boat at the right spot. Power will be required to fight the suck-back effect generated by the massing wave. The boat will then tend to want to race up the back of the wave and power must be quickly eased off. If curling waves are building up behind, resist the urge to power ahead. The wave behind will not catch the one your boat is on.
Shooting over a developing wave is extremely dangerous. The bow will dig in as it reaches the bottom and the boat will be pushed forward by the wave, causing severe broaching, and control will be lost. Chances of rolling in front of the wave are very real at this point. The violent action of the broach will fling equipment and people from the boat, like paper to the wind.
The temptation to ride over the wave in front and catch up to the next will always be there. One of the problems is that from the driver’s position you can’t really gauge the steepness and height of the wave that is being ridden.
Certainly many a skipper has fallen for the old rush ahead trick. It is simply better to bide time and ride the back of the wave in. If this is done, entering a bar will be much more comfortable and safer than going out. That just about covers crossing a bar both ways in reasonably hairy conditions.
However, life is not always that simple. Our scenario didn’t include pressure waves, nor bottoming out. We assumed our motor kept running and the steering cable didn’t break. But these things have happened to others, including myself. I broke a steering cable whilst crossing the river bar at South West Rocks (South West Rocks has both a creek and river bar). At times this bar has strong pressure waves. These waves can go undetected until they hit you and, coming from the side, they play havoc with boat control.
Trying to keep the boat straight in such conditions can place great strain on both the driver and the steering cables. Thankfully, on the day my steering gave way I had a crew aboard to hold the motor straight enough and for long enough to pass the few remaining waves to clear the bar. In this instance we were lucky and I have since put power steering on my boat.
If you cross bars often enough, sooner or later all the skills, which can be mustered will be required as something is bound to happen.
Bars can be notoriously shallow in some areas. This can create hidden problems like sand swirling around in the shallow water. This sand can have a detrimental effect on the water cooling system of the motor. The impellor can be damaged if over time it is continually asked to pump volumes of sand through the system. There is very little that can be done about this, except to be aware of the problem and avoid prolonged use of the motor in these conditions.
If a boat does become stranded on a bar in shallow water, the trick is to get the crew out of the boat as quickly as possible to hold the boat straight, facing into the oncoming waves.
This manoeuvre can be extremely difficult, however, it must be done. If the boat is allowed to wash sideways, water will eventually get aboard, increasing the boat’s weight and making the job of getting it off the sandbar even more difficult.
Once the boat is stable, lift the motor and, after having checked the prop condition, wait for a wash or a wave to help move the boat to deeper water.
Again, this task will not be easy in some conditions, but must be performed. Hopefully, the boat can be moved to the lee side of the bank where things should be quieter.
When entering or leaving a bar with known shallow water, the motor should be trimmed up. Speed will generally only cause more trouble in this situation and could result in prop, or lower leg damage on the motor.
The run-in needs to coincide with the water movement over the bar. Quite often it may be necessary to sit on the sandbank waiting for a second, or third rush of water to come under the boat to get through.
Again this situation is not good for the motor’s water cooling system and extreme care should be taken. The crew should be at the ready to jump over the side and hold the boat straight.
If it’s necessary to take on a shallow bar, it is better to do this when going out. In this instance the crew will not be tired and the boat will be facing into the oncoming sea.
Time the return trip to coincide with high tide and life will be much easier and safer.
Night crossing of any white water bar should be only attempted by those fully conversant with the bar in question or those with a heap of bar crossing experience.
On this matter I cannot stress enough the dangers, which lie ahead for the inexperienced. Distance to, or from an object at night can be deceiving. Believe me, it gets no better in the middle of a white water bar. To add to this dilemma, waves and rolling water have an extraordinary ability to look twice as large in the dark. Having gone through the bar at the Rocks some 300 to 400 times at night, I can assure you it doesn’t get much better as time goes on. Once ample daytime experience has been gained, pick a night with a good full moon and plenty of reflective light to practise and gain confidence, but first check the bar. With night crossings, carefully watch distances to oncoming waves.
As an oncoming wave looms near, even with a full moon, things can get frightfully dark. Quite often in these situations you are actually feeling your way through, rather than seeing your way through. It is for this reason extra care should be taken and the slightest concerns regarding the bar’s condition should be heeded.
Being mentally prepared is vitally important when crossing the bar. That goes for both the skipper and the crew. Hopefully, all those on board should be life jackets.
If you are unlucky to be overturned, or swamped you’ll have to make a decision whether to swim, or stay with the boat. Contrary to what you might think, staying with the boat in bar conditions can be extremely dangerous. A capsized boat will be violently pushed about by the waves and become a potential lethal weapon. There is precious little to hold onto and the risk of being knocked unconscious, or tangled up is very real.
If you decide to swim for it, first take time to get your bearings and use the tide to get clear of the rough water. On an ebb tide, this may mean ending up well out to sea! Nevertheless, it’s better to have got clear of the strong currents and turbulent water with some energy to spare, than to have fought the current and died from exhaustion.
With a making tide when choosing an exit site, pick one that is sandy rather than rocky wherever possible.
Visibility is severely hampered once you are swimming in the water, so that study of the layout of the area before venturing to sea will have been well worth it.
It is an extremely difficult job to explain everything on a subject like this in words alone. Like learning to drive a car you need to get on-the-water experience.
Developing a sense of timing and judgment is paramount. Along with this goes the ‘hands-on’ experience of applying the correct speed and power. If halfway through a bar and panic sets in, an attempt to do a 180-degree turn and run back could prove disastrous.
Once the decision has been made to go and regardless of how frightening the view is up front, it is safer to keep the boat facing directly into the oncoming sea.
Feeling nervous is healthy. Once that feeling is lost you’re probably not going to be a good skipper. Flying boats through the air is part of bar crossing, however, the better operator keeps this to a minimum and has better control of the boat.
Practice makes for a better operator and you can do this by practising in waves in deep water before actually testing yourself on a bar. Sadly, there are too few skippers willing to practise this important boat handling skill. Life is precious and it’s far better to have your mates sitting in the pub telling all how well you handled it, rather than reliving a near disaster.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.