Family boating scene Safety On The Water
Email Us Reduce font size Increase font size Print this page
Open waters | Seaplanes | Bar crossings | Inland waterways | Alpine waters | Sydney Harbour | Big ships and small boats | Recreational boat users beware


Special areas

Open waters

Handling a vessel at sea

You're the skipper, you're responsibleThe way a boat handles at sea will depend on:

  • Its hull design and strength.
  • The amount of power used to propel it.
  • Wave direction.
  • The way the boat is steered.
  • Weight distributed in the vessel.


When boating along the coastline, particularly when close to a shoreline, be aware of bomboras. Bomboras are shallow areas such as those created by rocks or reefs that cause waves to break.

It is advisable to check maps and charts, talk to locals and be aware of the existence of bomboras. The danger posed by these formations can be higher in good weather, as a bombora may not be identifiable because it may not always have breaking waves.

Boaters need to be cautious anywhere bomboras may exist.

Head seas

Generally, the best way to tackle bigger waves is to take them bow on or about 30 degrees off each bow.

Too much power will result in the boat leaping over the crests and crashing down into troughs. This slamming action is not good for either the boat or the people on board.

Too little power may mean that the waves break onto or over the vessel.

Control the speed and direction steered to achieve the most comfortable and safest ride.

Beam seas

The danger from travelling beam on to waves is that rolling is increased. The amount of rolling can be reduced by varying the angle to the seas.


The bow is the strongest part for taking on waves. Make sure everyone is wearing lifejackets

Watch out for waves that are larger than others and consider changing course or speed to ride over or with it.

Following seas

Travelling with a following sea has the greatest potential for disaster, with broaching sideways and swamping/capsize a real possibility. Steering power is reduced by following seas and judicial use of the throttle controls is critical.

As in crossing a bar, you should attempt to maintain a position on the back of waves, using throttle to keep ahead of waves breaking behind the boat.

Remember when conditions worsen

  • Ensure all persons are wearing lifejackets.
  • Ensure the boat is as watertight as possible.
  • Use throttle control and steering to reduce the impact of waves.
  • The bow of a boat is the strongest part for taking on waves.
  • If caught in rough weather, report your situation to rescue authorities.
  • Secure all moveable items in the boat so that they do not become missiles.
  • Ensure all people are holding on firmly.
  • Have an EPIRB ready for use in case of capsize.
  • Stay with the capsized boat unless you are very close to shore.

Handling a vessel in rough weather/hazards

wear itLike other hazards on the water, rough weather can generally be avoided by obtaining a weather forecast prior to setting out.

A sudden unpredicted squall, however, can catch even the most careful boater, so you should always prepare and plan for the worst and keep a good lookout for telltale clouds and white cap waves.

If you are close enough, run for the shore, a safe harbour or the lee of an island, where the wind cannot generate large waves.

Sudden squalls usually only last for a short period and sometimes precede a change in wind direction, usually blowing at much stronger speeds than the wind that will follow.

Note If you doubt your chances of safely running back to harbour you may prefer to ride out the initial onslaught by keeping your bow into the wind and waves.

The main thing is to keep a speed sufficient to allow you to steer the vessel, but no faster. Without power to maintain steerage, a vessel will drift side on (beam on) to the sea and be vulnerable to capsize.

A sea anchor or a strong bucket tied to the bows will help to keep you pointing into the waves should your engine fail.

Note Always wear your lifejacket at times of heightened risk.


When on the water, seaplanes are just like any other vessel. They are subject to all the restrictions and privileges of other boats and conduct their operations accordingly.

Don’t be alarmed if a small seaplane alights or takes off in the waterways near you. Seaplane pilots are specially trained and qualified to operate upon the water. Like other boat operators, they hold marine boating licences to operate a vessel at speeds in excess of 10 knots.

Avoid making sudden changes of direction which might confuse the pilot or obstruct the seaplane’s path.

Bar crossings

Shallow sand bars which can form at the point where rivers, creeks, lakes or harbours meet the sea are locations for experienced vessel drivers only. Any channel through such bars can change frequently. Even in apparently calm conditions vessels can be swamped, damaged or wrecked on bars and lives have been lost.

Avoid crossing a bar on a run-out tide as this is when dangerous waves are most likely to occur.

Knowledge and experience

Do not attempt to cross any bar without experience and local knowledge. You should:

  • Spend considerable time watching the bar conditions in all combinations of weather and tide.
  • Cross the bar with other experienced skippers before trying it yourself.
  • Obtain and read a copy of the bar crossing brochure from Roads and Maritime Services.

Preparation & planning

Prior to crossing any bar it is recommended that the following checks should be made.

  • Know the times of the tide and obtain an up­to-date weather forecast (especially expected wind conditions).
  • Observe the bar conditions – be prepared to cancel or delay the crossing.
  • If unfamiliar with the bar, obtain local advice, e.g. from the local Marine Rescue NSW unit.
  • Check the vessel – especially steering and throttle controls, watertight hatches and drains. The vessel must be seaworthy, suitable for the conditions and able to take some impact from waves.
  • Ensure that all loose items can be stowed away in lockers or tied down to prevent movement.
  • Check that all watertight hatches can be closed and sealed properly, drain holes are free and bilge pumps work.

On the water prior to crossing

Secure all loose gear and equipment. Brief your passengers/crew about the dangers – put on a lifejacket type 1.

Check all watertight hatches are closed and secured but not locked.

Assess the bar conditions – have they changed since your last inspection?

When crossing coastal bars, you should not lose your nerve in the white water. Once committed, keep going.

Trying to turn around in the middle of a bar entrance can be disastrous. Try to take waves as close to head on as possible.

Going out

The outgoing vessel must meet the incoming wave energy. Do not hit waves at high speed – an airborne vessel is out of control and can cause damage and injury. Do not allow waves to break onto your vessel.

As a guide:

  • Idle towards the breaking waves watching for any lulls.
  • If a flat spot occurs 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, heading for the lowest part (the saddle) if possible because this is the last part to break.
  • Back off the power just before meeting the next swell.
  • Pass slowly through the wave and accelerate again to the next wave.
  • Repeat the process until through the
    break zone.

Coming in

Be aware the conditions may have changed.

If dangerous, consider alternatives:

  • Wait for conditions to abate.
  • Wait for change of tide.
  • Seek alternate safe harbour.

The vessel should travel at the same speed as the waves. The aim is to travel in on the back of a swell, staying ahead of waves breaking behind the vessel.

You should:

  • Approach the break zone and try to pick the spot with the least activity.
  • Keep any leads in transit; breakers 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, ensuring that:
    • You do not overtake the wave and run down its face.
    • You stay ahead of any wave behind you.
    • When the wave ahead of you has broken, accelerate through the white water.
    • Beware of steep pressure waves bouncing back off the entrance or shore.
    • Adjust speed to counter any pressure waves or any outgoing current.

Roads and Maritime Services has a number of initiatives on bar crossings including the brochure Bars ‘n’ Boats – A Safety Guide, a list of coastal bars and a bar crossing safety checklist sticker.

Roads and Maritime Services also has a network of web cameras to assist in trip preparation. Check the RMS website for up-to-date information at 15 locations along the NSW coast and in the alpine area.

bar crossing
Check the conditions before you cross ... this skipper made it, just.

Inland waterways

Boating on inland waterways such as rivers, creeks and dams demands special care. Many of these areas present issues not encountered in coastal waters, including submerged trees and other snags.

Inland waterways are often murky and constantly changing; if you don’t have a depth finder play it safe and reduce speed.

Familiarise yourself with the area using maps and wherever you can, talk to local operators. They can often provide valuable knowledge such as how the current runs after rain and water depth following drought.

Keep a good lookout for objects ahead or above you, such as overhead powerlines and low level bridges.

Strong currents in major rivers and creeks can flow at fast rates and affect the manoeuvrability of vessels. Never underestimate the power of even a moderate current, which can exert a strong force that may trap vessels such as canoes against rocks. Extra caution is required following heavy rain or flooding.

Be careful in dams subject to water releases and stay well clear of spillways. These can be extremely dangerous due to turbulence as the water flows through spillway gates. Boats can easily become caught in the turbulence and trapped.

Also remember that during release periods the foreshore can become soft, trapping vehicles during launch and retrieval.

Rivers and dams may look peaceful, but low water temperature and remote locations could prove risky should trouble occur.

Remember not to overload your vessel.

Wind and waves

The surface of the water in shallow dams and storage areas can become extremely rough in windy conditions. Waves are generally short and steep, and can be as high as those encountered in coastal areas.

  • Always get a wind/weather report before boating.
  • Keep a constant lookout for signs of:
    • changing weather
    • white caps/disturbance on the water
    • cloud development.

If the conditions deteriorate, put on your lifejacket and head for shore. Remember it is better to be on the shore a long way from home, than a long way from shore in such conditions.


If you are going to go boating in remote locations, have a good reporting plan in place. Always tell someone where you will be launching from and going, how many people are with you and when you intend to return.

Phone or radio coverage is not always possible, making assistance difficult if problems occur.

Alpine waters

Alpine waters mean Lake Burrinjuck, Lake Eucumbene, Lake Jindabyne, Khancoban Pondage, Swampy Plains River, Mannus Lake, Pejor Dam, Yass River, Googong Reservoir and navigable waters within Kosciuszko National Park (including Blowering and Talbingo Reservoirs).

Alpine waters present their own unique boating challenges. As with other inland waters, many hazards are not marked and as water levels fluctuate, more hazards may develop just under the surface.

The most common vessel operated in these areas is the small open runabout which is reasonably inexpensive to buy, easy to tow and used as a fishing platform. The majority of these vessels, however, are designed for calm water conditions only.

Wearing a lifejacket is compulsory for all persons in a vessel less than 4.8 metres in length. For other situations refer to page 20.

Alpine weather

There is no specific boating forecast provided by the Bureau of Meteorology for alpine waters. Any person boating in those areas needs to review the available general weather conditions and forecasts and determine how they may affect the waterway they propose to operate on.

Remember that weather conditions in high altitudes can change dramatically within a matter of minutes and proper trip preparation is essential.

Cold water

Winter brings a greater risk of hypothermia to boaters exposed to the elements. Capsizing in cold water can be life-threatening. So plan and prepare to avoid hypothermia:

  • Minimise your capsize risk.
  • Check the weather. If in doubt, don’t go out.
  • Wear warm and wet weather gear.
  • Wear a lifejacket.
  • In the water, don’t swim. Remain with your craft in the “huddle” position.
  • Remember, alcohol increases the body’s heat loss.

Sydney Harbour

Sydney Harbour is a unique waterway that is used extensively by a diverse range of recreational and commercial boats including large ships, ferries, charter boats, cruisers, yachts, runabouts, sailing skiffs, dinghies, sailboards, rowing shells, kayaks and dragon boats.

The Harbour is an extremely busy waterway that requires you to be aware of your responsibilities and to take care when boating, especially in busy navigational channels, and make allowances for commercial activity.

There is a need to consider paddlers, rowers and sailors as well as accommodating the needs of commercial operators and those wishing to cruise, ski and fish on the Harbour.

The number of vessels on the Harbour is increasing each year, providing a greater challenge in managing the potential for additional conflict and incidents to ensure safety on the waterway.

There is a continuing need for an understanding and commitment to water safety by all people using the Harbour. The different types of boating may not always be compatible and can lead to potential conflicts: for example, people sailing in organised events and commercial vessels operating to timetables.

Sydney Harbour Bridge Transit Zone

Roads and Maritime Services has established the Sydney Harbour Bridge Transit Zone. The transit zone has a 15 knot maximum speed limit in the vicinity of the Harbour Bridge, between a line drawn between Bennelong Point, and Kirribilli Point to Millers Point and Blues Point but does not include Walsh Bay, Sydney Cove or Lavender Bay north of a line between Blues Point and the southern extremity of Milsons Point ferry wharf.

Within this zone, anchoring or drifting are prohibited other than in an emergency. This means that vessels may only travel through this area to reach an area alongside or outside of the transit zone.

Sydney Harbour transit zone

Priority Over sail

Some commercial ferries on Sydney Harbour display an orange diamond shape which grants priority (right of way) over sailing vessels. This is an exception to the ‘power gives way to sail’ rule.

Do not attempt to cross the path of an approaching ferry displaying this signal.

Ferry image

High Speed Ferries (on Sydney Harbour)

These craft carry the normal lights for a power driven vessel underway and, in addition, they exhibit an all-round flashing yellow light when they are travelling at speed.

High speed ferry

Sydney Harbour Control

VHF Ch16/13 (24 hrs). Nav warnings/Met broadcast VHF Ch13 (5 min. past the hour). Unless otherwise directed, sailing vessels and motor vessels are not to impede the passage of commercial shipping/naval vessels inside the shipping channels. Navigation Collision Regulations 1983 apply.


Note NOTE: The use of a PWC is prohibited in Sydney Harbour (including all tributaries such as Parramatta River).

Big ships and small boats

Large vessels are restricted to particular channels and cannot deviate from their set course. These vessels are restricted in their ability to alter their course due to their size and need a large area to turn and stop. Their stern swings out wide when negotiating a turn and they lose steerage if they travel too slowly.

The main safety tips for small boats around shipping and ferry channels are:

  • Recreational boats, both power and sail, should keep well clear of large vessels and ferries.
  • Do not cross ahead of large vessels or ferries unless well clear. Even when hundreds of metres away, your boat may disappear from the ship master’s view from the bridge.
  • Remember, large vessels tend to travel much faster than they appear to be – give yourself plenty of room.
  • Do not cross close astern of a large vessel or ferry.
  • Always keep to the starboard side of a channel.
  • Do not cross a channel if you are going to impede a vessel which has to use the channel.

Roads and Maritime Services provides more information regarding big ships and small boats on its website, including map sections showing the shipping channels. Visit the RMS website.

Channel blocked/closed

These signals mean vessels should NOT navigate in that part of the channel.

  • Bridge span blocked
  • Channel is blocked
  • Port closed

Channel blocked 1

channel blocked - night

Active radar reflectors

Active radar reflectors emit a signal to nearby radar receivers. The signal is amplified and returned to the transmitting vessel.

This makes vessels more visible on radar receivers from greater distances and may reduce the chance of being involved in an incident. It may also assist rescue operations in the event of an incident.

Active radar reflectors need to be mounted high enough on a vessel to be effective (e.g. up the mast) and they require a power source. Consequently they may not be suitable for some smaller vessels.

While ARR are not mandatory on NSW navigable waters, they may be a good inclusion to improve your visibility to other vessel operators.

Recreational boat users beware

  • It is important recreational boaters maintain a proper lookout at all times and do not impede any commercial vessel in its navigation.
  • Recreational boaters must make clear their intentions to an approaching vessel well in advance. For the master of a large ship who is unclear of your intentions, you should indicate that you are getting out of the way of a large vessel at least one kilometre in advance of that vessel.
  • It is important that you do not anchor in the navigation channel.
  • Ensure that at all times you can be seen clearly. Dull aluminium tinnies can be difficult to see, especially in overcast and poor conditions. Wear bright clothing and be seen. After sunset and in restricted visibility ensure you have the correct navigation lights fitted and they are in proper working order. Your lights must be bright and must be visible for a distance of kilometres. Lights not only tell the other vessel what sort of vessel you have, but also what you are doing and where you are going. Make sure that if someone ‘interprets’ your lights, they are getting the right message.