Most bar crossing advice pontificates on the right and wrong ways of crossing a bar, what to look for, what to do and where to go. But as I discovered none of that really prepares you for the real thing – out there in amongst the waves and soup – on a ‘big’ day.

A phone call from a friend who had just done a bar crossing course with Brisbane boating identity Bill Corten, suggesting I do it too, kind of got me a little interested. This course was different from most he claimed, as the boat is your ‘ classroom’ and you are out there right in amongst it, learning first hand what to do and what not to do. The phone call was duly made, I explained my situation to Corten, and a date was organised. A date incidentally at the tail end of a recent cyclone that had whipped the water off the Queensland coast up into a decidedly frenzied state. 

 I got my first indicative hint of the potential severity of this course when we were asked to meet at the Cleveland Boat ramp at 6-00am on the Sunday morning – a time that would give us sufficient latitude Corten explained, to get out to the actual bar and observe the surroundings in perhaps more ‘ mundane’ conditions. I can’ t say I was that impressed either in the choice of boat, or more the size of it. I felt a 6.25m Cruise Craft Explorer albeit fitted with a 200hp HPDI Yamaha outboard, was just a little small to be crossing a bar in this weather, but more on that later in the story.

Sea Of Contrasts

After completing our initial glossary of onboard equipment including the safety gear, the 20-kilometre trip out from Cleveland, up and around the conservation areas off Peel Island, seemingly took but a few minutes in the sublimely calm conditions at that hour of the morning. Hidden previously by the island, upon rounding Amity Point at the Northern tip of Straddie we got our first glimpse of our bar – what appeared to be a veritable wall of white water, right across the entrance.

There we learned valuable lesson number one, for as impenetrable as it appeared, there is always a way through. “The first thing you do is stand off the bar a little, and identify the calmer water, which is always the deeper water,” Corten explained. “A huge volume of water such as this has to get out somehow, so there will always be a channel somewhere.”If you have to cross a bar to get to your favourite fishing spot, your trip should always start at home – long before you leave. “Acquire as much local knowledge as you can, check the weather and sea state on the local Coastal Watch site on the Internet, talk to the local Coast Guard or boating club,” Corten emphasised, “have local charts, establish beforehand where the channels are, what the weather is going to be like, for the whole day, find out what strength the wind will get up to – all these things are just so important.”Once armed with all the right information, the trip is always a lot safer, and easier. If however it is your first time over that particular bar, then wait for a so-called ‘ calmer’ day, and do some practice. Another helpful hint is to just wait at the bar and observe where other boats are going – a pattern will emerge with those who do actually know the right way to go – then you can go and try it for yourself. You will be amazed at the ease with which you can get through, just by knowing where the flatter spots are.”Corten went on to further explain how to acquire a pre-determined course, “You can also get GPS coordinates, just as a rough guide, but for me there is nothing more accurate than lining up two points of land. You must be entirely familiar too with these various steps in your pathway, arranging them clearly in your mind in the appropriate order.” How easy it was later on when we were to try it ourselves, lining up these points of land – and seeing the waves literally part before us! “Bars seldom remain the same either, from one storm to another,” he added. “There are literally hundreds of thousands of tonnes of swirling sand within these ferocious bars, which is moved around by the tides and storms. It is reasonable to assume then that it will not dump in the same place each time.”For Corten, there are seven golden rules, which he explains to you just before you set off for the first time, like a lamb to the slaughter:

1. If new to bars, try to only cross in good conditions, and gain experience gradually. Seek local knowledge and watch how other boats cross the bar.
2. If in doubt, don’t cross a bar unless you think it is safe.
3. Before crossing, check your boat’s operating systems thoroughly – throttle, steering, bilge pump.
4. Secure all hatches and all loose gear.
5. All occupants should wear a lifejacket if crossing breaking waves.
6. Log your trip on and off, with your local volunteer rescue organization.
7. When the crossing is completed, take a back-mark, GPS position, and compass bearing to ‘assist’ in locating and negotiating the entrance on the return trip.

That last point is particularly moot, for as Corten so correctly pointed out at the time, and which was graphically illustrated during the course of our trip that day, conditions can change dramatically in the course of a tide change, water action (swell height), different channel depth, or wind. Simply, there are no hard and fast rules, but you still need to know where the actual channels are!  Having made the trip back in through the south entrance then back up through the northern side of the bar, it was my turn to take over the handlebars.

Sitting facing the forming waves (never he says, sit with your back to it, in case you have to run to the shoulder of the crest) it was my job description to pick a wave that looked like it had potential, a bit like a surfer, then accelerate and turn aggressively so I traversed the top of the wave and clung to the back – simple! Actually, it was quite simple, as Corten had prepared us for what to do, not with words, but with deeds as examples. There I was clinging to the back of a swell that at around 15-20 knots quickly gathered momentum into what ultimately became a raging torrent of foam. The trick though was to stick with it all the way, staying just off the fringe of the face – for as the saying goes, “it ain’ t finished till it’ s over”. Another lesson, for no sooner had it broken into froth (and I somehow found traction despite all the cavitation that occurred in this broken water), than it formed again and was off yet again – equally as ferocious. This bar probably ran for nearly two kilometres, and I have to say once I had overcome the fear factor (it was bloody big water, and I was in an unfamiliar boat) and relaxed, it was one hell of a buzz, knowing I was doing it right. I really began to appreciate the words of Corten, trim up slightly and work the throttle aggressively enough to stay on the back of the wave at all costs, don’ t fall off, and don’ t ever over-run it, unless the wave has petered out completely and you can see the whole face of the wave in front. I didn’ t have to ask what would happen if I didn’t!

Turn and Face It

Once inside the bar, and feeling most happy with my effort, it was time to turn round and proceed back out – through these veritable mountains of blue and white water that eclipsed the ocean proper. This is where it gets tricky, for a moment’ s hesitation or indecision, and you end up swimming. It is perhaps pertinent to suggest that in an ideal world the best time to cross a bar is on a making tide (just after the point of turn), or at the very least, during an incoming tide.

My first two trips back out were on an incoming tide, and at the time the wave action was nowhere near as violent. Big, yes, but the swells/waves in this instance took a lot longer to break, and they invariably rose to virtually a point in the centre and had a lower shoulder at each end, which was the last part of the wave to break. Trimmed in for this part of the exercise, the trick was to pick which end of the shoulder to run to, so if possible have a quick look at the wave following, to make sure you are not driving yourself into a ‘ dead-end street’ . “Don’ t ever follow or sit alongside another boat through a bar, either when going in or out,” Corten added. “There is potential danger in two boats heading for the same piece of water at the same time. Stagger your position, maybe one or two waves apart, so as to diminish the potential for collision. And of course, never ever lose your nerve and try and turn round in the face of an oncoming wave. Once you are committed to the wave, there is no turning back – period!”By veering over the ocean, sometimes aggressively, sometimes with all the time in the world, you can pick and choose your path so all you have to do is power up to the face, throttle back just before the top of the wave (you’ ll head skywards if you don’ t, even though you are trimmed in), then simply ‘ flop’ over the other side. Quickly get up to speed again though, for you might have a way to go before you find the next ‘ shoulder to cry on’ . Then do it all again, and again, and again – practice makes perfect, they say! When a wave is unbroken, approaching the wave at about a 15-degree angle will take some of the power out of the wave, allowing you to drop harmlessly over the back of it virtually without any pounding whatsoever; the trick of it though is to get to the wave, on the shoulder of it and not in the middle, before it breaks. If you can’ t get to the next wave in time, and it is starting to break, then it is a whole new ball-game and a potentially very dangerous one at that. Breaking white-water waves must be approached absolutely square on, and the trick is to get the boat up onto the plane, so less boat is in the water, then immediately at the point of impact with the first of the broken water, reduce power immediately. Because the boat is higher out of the water when on the plane, and because there is no power on to send the boat skywards the boat virtually stops, suspended in the aerated water, then drops down the back of the wave. Easier said than done definitely, and you should be practising that one on the relatively calmer days first, again and again ’til you get the actual timing of the exercise spot on.

Practice Makes Perfect

As already stated, wind, swell and tide change everything, and with the tide change came a very different sea. Out-going tides in bar situations, move at anything up to five knots, and put this up against a swell situation rolling in at 15-20 knots, and you all of a sudden have a steeper wave face that has more potential to break – at any time! Which equates to danger, so it becomes even trickier now, negotiating your way in or out of a bar.

The only saving grace was it was not windy, for this little phenomenon, depending on the ferocity, has the potential to further change dramatically, the shape of the face of the wave. With this new-found vigour in the waves, all the time Corten’s words were reverberating through everyone’ s minds – clearly identify the entrance, check the rhythm of the waves, pick the line of least activity, apply only sufficient throttle to stay on the back of the wave – Geronimo, we’ re off. Again, it was a relatively ‘ easy’ exercise entering through the bar, running ‘ down-hill’ and out the other side; one could even still describe it as (perverse) fun. But turning round and facing the beast – bloody hell, it had got very big, and very confused. Where thedeeper parts in the centre were calm before, now the tide against swell had stood the waves up, and they were breaking everywhere. Plotting a course out through here would be tantamount to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Despite the ‘ confused’ state of the sea, it was however possible to find a faint path through the debris, but in the conditions it was still very easy to get caught out as one of our team found out to his astonishment. With so little room in which to manoeuvre, between waves, a moment’ s hesitation saw our boat hit a breaking wave only very slightly off square, and it certainly gave us a decent side-swipe. Any wider in angle, and we may well have become yet another bar statistic. Not surprisingly, that little experience attracted a unanimous sub-conscious vote to call an end to the lesson, we all felt I am sure that we had learned enough for one seven-hour period – in the most graphic and effective way possible.

With a Little Help From A Friend

As well as we had coped with the overall exercise, I couldn’t help but feel a wealth of appreciation for our rig for the day. Initially as I said earlier, I felt uncomfortable and unsafe in a smaller boat, regardless of make, as we tackled the bar for the first time. But once into the exercise that was very quickly dispelled and once again there was a scenario here to learn from – go boating with appropriate equipment, especially if you are subjecting it on a regular basis, to work of this magnitude. 

The trip back in gave me sufficient time to reflect on what I had learned, and how I had learned it, for it was indeed yet another chapter in the rich tapestry of seamanship. Corten through this lesson had prepared us for all situations, not with words, but with deeds. For me that was the lucid most obvious feature about this course, you actually did it, not talked about it, for no words can ever prepare you for your first run in a genuine bar situation. The human mind usually has to do or say something seven times before it fully comprehends or remembers, so the fact that between the five of us, with two or three trips each both in and out, and in five different locations, we did around 100 actual bar crossings on the day – which sure helped to cement in our minds the appropriate do’ s and don’ ts! We were within a pig’ s twig of going over, even in a controlled situation, which graphically illustrated to all on board the dangers of a bar, and why you must be prepared at all times, for the unexpected – in this instance because of this, we survived without mishap. I may never get to run in a bar situation again in my life, but two things were abundantly clear following this ‘ lesson’ – no matter what state or country I lived in, I would drive/fly a million miles to sit this test again, because secondly, I know have the absolute confidence in my own ability to plan and safely negotiate a bar situation. Something I may add, being perfectly frank (and a little coarse) – the thought of which has genuinely scared me shitless for more years than I care to think about. Sure I’ve been over bars, but like all the ‘ bunnies’ we saw during the course of our lesson who were doing it all wrong, I probably did a few things wrong too – but in sub-dangerous conditions where I got away with it. Next time I might not have been so lucky!

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