Special areas

This page outlines different special areas on the water and helps you determine whether your vessel is suitable for that area.

Open waters

Handling a vessel at sea

The 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 and is typically designed to take the initial impact of chop and waves. Vessel design however is extremely varied and it essential you know the limits of your boat's capability.

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 with 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

Like 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.

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.


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.

Two photos, showing a boat about to cross a bar, and then during the crossing with the boat almost entirely swamped by the surf.
Check the conditions before you cross ... this skipper made it, just!

Knowledge and experience

If in doubt, don't go out.

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
  • Read the Bars 'N' Boats - A Safety Guide brochure.

Preparation and 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 up-­to-date weather forecast, especially expected wind conditions
  • Observe the bar conditions, either in persdon or via the network of web cameras and be prepared to cancel or delay the crossing
  • If unfamiliar with the bar, obtain local advice, eg 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
  • Make sure all people onboard have their Level 100+ lifejacket on
  • 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 has a number of initiatives on bar crossings including a list of coastal bars in NSW, the brochure Bars ‘n’ Boats – A Safety Guide and a bar crossing safety checklist sticker

Roads and Maritime also has a network of web cameras to assist in trip preparation.

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.

Submerged trees and other snags can pose danger on inland waterways.

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 and once out on the water, 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 refers to:

  • Lake Burrinjuck
  • Lake Eucumbene
  • Lake Jindabyne
  • Khancoban Pondage
  • Swampy Plains River
  • Mannus Lake
  • Googong Reservoir
  • Blowering Reservoir
  • Pejar Dam
  • Yass River
  • Lake Oberon
  • All navigable waters within Kosciuszko National Park.

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 in most situations on alpine waters. For full details refer to the ‘Which lifejacket’ table on the lifejackets page.

Alpine weather

Alpine lakes are often subject to very cold and windy weather. Many of these lakes commonly experience snow in winter. The higher altitude means weather often changes quickly, so proper trip preparation and continuous monitoring of the weather when you are out are essential. Watch for any warnings and be prepared to change your plans if necessary.

When boating in alpine waters check the weather with the Bureau of Meteorology’s graphical forecasts and zoom into your location. You can also use the BoM mobile site on your mobile device and type in the nearest location.

Cold water

Winter brings a greater risk of hypothermia to boaters exposed to the elements. Capsizing in cold water can also be life-threatening. ‘Cold shock’ can incapacitate almost instantly. So plan and prepare to avoid cold shock and 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 unless extremely close to the shore. Remain with your craft in the ‘HELP’ or ‘Huddle’ position
  • Remember, alcohol increases the body’s heat loss.

See Hypothermia for more information.

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 eg people sailing in organised events and commercial vessels operating to timetables.

Sydney Harbour Bridge transit zone

Roads and Maritime 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.

Map of the Sydney Harbour Bridge transit zone, as described in the text.
Diagram of a ferry displaying an orange diamond, which indicates priority over sail.

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.

Diagram of a ferry side-on showing a red port-side light, a white light on top and a yellow flashing light, indicating high speed.

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.

Sydney Harbour Control

Channel 16/13 (24 hours). Details of large vessel movements, navigation warnings and meteorological forecasts are broadcast on VHF Channel 13 from approximately 1.05am, every second hour. Unless otherwise directed, sailing vessels and motor vessels are not to impede the passage of commercial shipping/naval vessels inside the shipping channels.

See Big ships small boats for more information.

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