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Chiller killer: The hazards of boating on alpine lakes
  |  First Published: July 2003



As I write this article, the winds outside are gusting to over 100kmh. I look over Lake Jindabyne and there are mini-waterspouts 30 metres high as the gusts lift the water from the lake.

The trees on the foreshore are almost bent over almost horizontal – yes it is a very dangerous day to be on the water. I listen to the news on the radio and there is a rescue effort on the South Coast that has to be abandoned because of bad weather. A yacht had capsized, possibly due to hitting a submerged object. Two people have been rescued, one body has been pulled from the sea and three people are still missing.

While all this is going on, there are at least three boats still out on Lake Jindabyne, one only a 3.7-metre tinny. I worry about their safety and just hope they pull into the bank and wait out the bad weather.

Only yesterday I salvaged a boat that had to be abandoned due to similar conditions that occurred the day previous. Two guys had been camping up at the Eucumbene end of the lake. They loaded all their gear into their boat and started to head back to Waste Point, where they had left the car and trailer.

As they were returning, the winds came up and, as they turned into the Snowy Arm of the lake, the boat started to take water with the waves, nearly a metre high by now, crashing over the gunwales. They at least had the common sense to head to the bank. By the time they reached the bank, the waves had swamped the vessel and there was no way they were going to get the boat afloat and running again, even if the weather did dissipate.

They were lucky: The day was warm and the guys had a mobile phone. They called the police but then had to wait a couple of hours for the police to launch their boat and then find the guys on what is a very large lake. The police also put their own lives in danger to rescue these guys in what were very dangerous conditions. Remember, the local police do not always have a rescue boat on every inland lake.

If we were to look at Lake Eucumbene, neither the police or NSW Waterways have a boat on that lake and it could take up to an hour to drive over there and launch a boat.

Somebody dies on Lake Eucumbene almost every year due to drowning or hypothermia.

Alpine lakes are not for inexperienced boat handlers and even those, including myself, who have had a great deal of boating experience can often get caught out when the weather unexpectedly changes for the worse. Given that people die on our alpine lakes each year and given that I don’t like to see it happen, I have taken the time to write this article on what to look for as you head out for a day’s fishing.

I will assume that the boat is well-equipped with all safety equipment, of course.

Watch the weather

I am a charter boat operator and a person who knows the local weather well. I have even been trained in meteorology as a professional skipper charter but if I go to a new location, freshwater or saltwater, I always check the weather forecast before heading out too far. Every day I log onto the internet. I have a look at the four-day forecast at http://www.bom.gov.au/products/IDG00074.shtml and I get an idea of what weather is heading our way.

That’s easy for me but what about you when you are on holidays? You often don’t even read the paper, let alone go on line or listen to the radio and the forecasts. So what can you do to predict the weather if you have no other methods of communication?

Watch the sky: That may sound silly but high, wispy cloud could indicate that there are winds high in the sky. This could indicate a change coming, with those high winds reaching ground level.

• What was yesterdays wind? It may not always be a safe bet in the mountains because the weather can change so quickly, but a bit of an indication of incoming bad weather is to ask yourself, ‘What direction was the wind yesterday?’ In most areas the worst winds come from the north-west, turning west, then south-west, and then to the south. In the alpine areas, north-westerly to westerly winds can be dangerous. So when the wind is from the north, I always know that I need to be on the look-out, because the wind can quickly change to the west and whip the lake into a lather.

Once the wind has gone through to the south and moderated, I know the worst is over.

What is the barometer doing? The handiest bit of gear an angler can have is a barometer. Not only can you watch for the bad weather but the barometer can also have an effect on the fishing conditions, I would say more so than the moon phases. I have a barometer on my watch (a Casio Twin Sensor) and if I see the barometer dropping quickly, I know we are in for a sudden change. You can easily buy an inexpensive barometer you can fix to your boat.

It is true that you often need to set the barometer when you change your altitude, but even when they are set incorrectly they still tell you when the air pressure changes, even if the hectopascal reading is incorrect. As I write this article, my watch barometer is reading 1004Hpa and is falling fast. The pressure had been falling quickly from about midnight, which is the reason I didn’t venture out onto the lake too far this morning, even when the lake was as calm as a millpond.

Ask the locals. Had anybody asked me last night what the weather was going to do today, I would have told them firstly that there was a change coming and not to venture too far down the lake. I would have also told them to stay on the western side of the lake, knowing that if the wind did come up, they would be on the lee side. I would have said that because I am a local and I know the local conditions. Most anglers ask around to see what the fishing has been like lately, so you may well ask about the weather at the same time.

What if the weather does blow up? This is where being prepared comes in handy. I found out later that the small 3.7-metre tinny that was on the lake this morning was OK. The anglers had pulled into the bank and thrown out a bait while they waited for the wind to drop. Very smart! Most of the time the wind will drop as night falls.

You know why many people die every year on the lakes up this way? Simple – they don’t put on a lifejacket when it gets rough. Because it is cold in the mountains, people have a lot of clothing on. You can’t swim once those clothes gets wet. But a life vest will help you float, so put it on and it may save your life. Simple!

The water is very cold in our alpine lakes, sometimes down to almost 0° in the middle of Winter. Even in Summer the water can be cold – add a slight breeze and it’s freezing. If you fall into the water you will die from hypothermia in a very short time.

Be prepared – carry a space blanket or at least a normal blanket sealed in a plastic bag so it will float and it will also stay dry. If you fall into the water and are lucky enough to get to land, take off all your clothes and wrap yourself in the dry blanket.

A mobile phone is great, but place it in a small zip-lock bag and keep it in your pocket – that way it will work when you need it. There are not many places that you can’t get service from your phone but, just in case you are in an area that has no service, ensure that you have a box of matches in that zip-lock bag. You might just be able to at least light a fire to keep you warm and alert people to the rescue.

You can’t always avoid an accident, but you can always be prepared for one. The mountain lakes are dangerous enough in Summer but they are deadly in Winter – be prepared!

captions

1

Looking more like Bass Strait than Lake Jindabyne, this is the sort of day where no craft should be anywhere near the water.

2

Gusts like this tearing across the lake can get even the biggest boat into trouble. The author says this was the ‘calm’ section of the lake on this blustery day.

3

The occupants of this boat were lucky to reach shore before it swamped on a rugged shoreline inaccessible by vehicle. Luckily they were able to phone police on a mobile to be rescued.

4, 5

All the hazards aren’t on the water – check out this angler being enveloped in a dust storm!

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