Basic sea knowledge and boat safety
  |  First Published: September 2015

With the number of boats on the water increasing dramatically within the last few years, I constantly see more and more accidents waiting to happen, so I felt compelled to write a few tips that might be of some help to a lot of those new boat owners out there.

Driving a boat is nothing like driving a car. If it breaks down, you can’t call the RACV. If the weather suddenly changes and it gets rough, you can’t just pull into a motel and rest for the rest of the day. Your boat needs to be in good mechanical condition and you need to have a basic knowledge of the sea.

Boat Safety

Firstly, I will start with boats. Rule number one; don’t overload your boat (I see it happening all the time). Just because the sticker on the boat says, ‘maximum carrying capacity 5 people’, doesn’t mean you should go out with 5 people. I have a 5m tinny that can carry 5, but 3 people in the boat is my limit. Once you get to know boats you can tell when a boat starts to lose its buoyancy and seaworthiness. So don’t overload your boat because if you do you could end up in Davy Jones’ locker.

Make sure that your motor is serviced regularly and is in good condition. Change the battery at least every 4 years. I write the date of purchase in big letters on the outside of the battery so I know when to change it over to a new one.

Make sure you have all the safety gear on board and that it’s all up to date. Carry an extra life jacket or two as I do, they are not expensive and you never know when you might need them. I also carry a sea anchor (which is like a small parachute), a distress sheet and an EBIRP. All of which could save your life in an emergency.

Basic Seamanship

Most of the boating activity in Victoria occurs in Port Phillip and Westernport Bays. These two bays are vastly different bodies of water. Most of Port Phillip is like one big open dish. Once you leave shore you can practically run around anywhere without hitting anything whereas Westernport is a maze of channels and mud banks. Port Phillip has very little tide flow with the exception of ‘The Rip’ area whereas Westernport has lots of tide flow.

There are a few basic rules that you need to follow. The wind is your worst enemy. So say if it’s blowing more than 20 knots fishing most of Port Phillip would be a no-no. I say most areas but there are some that you could still fish, for example if the wind is a southerly, Sorrento would be okay. If it’s an easterly, Mornington would be okay. As long as the wind is offshore and you don’t go out too far you could still fish in reasonable comfort.

Westernport is a different kettle of fish; wind and tide play a big part in fishability here. If a 20 knot northerly wind was working in conjunction with a run-out tide; it would be quite fishable however if the tide was running in (i.e. wind against tide) it would be as rough as guts. So you need to know wind direction and tide flow before going to fish Westernport, if one is against the other, don’t bother, stay home.

Boat Handling in the Bays

The weather always dictates how you handle your boat on the water. On a nice calm sunny day it’s just like you are on a highway and you can go any speed that you like. I see lots of boats going flat chat on the water and these boaties must have deep pockets because they use up nearly twice the amount of fuel for the extra few kilometres per hour in speed they are getting. At 4000rpm my boat does 36km/h and at 5600rpm it does 42km/hr. So at 4000rpm my fuel consumption stays low, the motor is not working hard so it lasts longer.

Once the weather changes and it roughs up, going flat chat can see even big boats coming to grief. Normally when the weather changes the strongest winds will happen within the first hour of the change. Depending on which bay you are in usually determines what action to take. Port Phillip being an open dish, you have nowhere to hide and waves can whip up to 2m very quickly. So you have two choices; head for shore or sit it out. If you decide to sit it out on the water, let out all of the anchor rope that you have, this will allow the boat to ride the waves much more safely and lie in the bottom of the boat, which will make the boat more stable. If you decide to head for shore, go at a speed that you feel is safe; usually just on the plane is the safest speed. Too fast and you could smash up your boat as well as yourself. Remember getting back safely and not quickly is what you need to achieve.

If you are running directly into the waves and you are taking water over the bow, try tilting your motor out a little, this will raise your bow and help you cut through the waves rather than ploughing into them. It often helps to zig zag, i.e. take the waves at 3/4 on rather than straight on. This gives the boat ‘more meat’ in the wave so that you get a softer ride and you don’t get back to shore looking like a drowned rat.

If you are heading for shore with a following sea usually the best speed is just on the plane but wave height will dictate if you can go faster. In rough weather you have to constantly work the throttle. As you start to climb a wave you increase throttle pressure to maintain your speed. As you reach the crest you back off a little on the throttle and half way down the wave you increase throttle pressure. If you feel the boat starting to broach, increase the throttle pressure. If you are travelling too fast down a wave it could spear you into the wave in front of you, too slow and the boat could broach. It all comes down to experience so the more time you spend on the water the more experienced you get.

Westernport is completely different. There are plenty of places to duck in out of the weather and when wind and tide are working against one another it can be a lot more dangerous than Port Phillip. So if it blows up bad and the wind is against the tide and you can anchor up in a safe place, your best bet is to sit it out until the tide changes and then head for home.

If you are stuck out in the middle of it you need to work your way towards the edge of the channel and follow the edge back. The reason being that the tide run in the middle of the channel is at it’s strongest causing the biggest waves. Along the edges there’s not much current so you can get home quicker, safer and drier. So if you ever get caught out in bad weather, trust me one day you will, remember to put on your life jackets, always let someone know where you are going and what you are doing, don’t panic – take your time, just like the hare and the tortoise, slow and steady will get you back safely.

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