During my training sessions, people often ask about bar crossings. Crossing a bar can be the most dangerous thing we will do in our recreational boat. Bars located throughout Victoria include Port Phillip Heads, Lakes Entrance, Patterson River, Anderson’s Inlet, Barwon Heads, McLaughlin’s Beach and Port Albert.

My experience crossing The Heads is that it can be smooth as silk or one of the most dangerous and frightening places you will ever be in your life. It’s all a matter of timing and watching the weather. There are many examples of large commercial vessels that have capsized at Port Phillip Heads with multiple loss of life. No bar should be taken lightly.

A bar may be a narrow entrance to the Coast or simply a build up of sand or silt at the entrance of a river, creek, lake or harbour.

Prevailing conditions on a bar can cause steep and breaking seas. Conditions can change quickly and without warning. Crossing a bar is a job for practiced and experienced skippers so go a few times with someone who knows what they are doing before you try it.

A tide chart is essential with an understanding of how tides work and the massive forces that can occur through a narrow and shallow entrance. Ebb or run out tides are to be avoided as they cause opposing forces that will roll a boat if it goes beam on to the sea. Slack water is the best time to cross or maybe entering at the beginning or end of a flood tide.

Wind can also increase the danger, in particular wind against tide where the waves will stand up and be closer together. It is also possible to get waves running in a different direction to the swell. This is known as a confused sea.

Preparation is the key to all safe boating and bar crossings is no different.

  • Learn about tides and the rule of 12ths.
  • Have an accurate and current weather forecast.
  • Understand if the stream times are different from the actual tide.
  • Talk to locals and get some experience with someone trustworthy.
  • Watch the entrance from the shoreline and see others doing the crossing.
  • Prepare your boat and yourself.
  • If in doubt, don’t go out!

The video below is your first step to understanding bar crossings.