Avoiding disaster
  |  First Published: November 2004

Many boaters see our waterways as a free-for-all where boats are can venture anywhere, anyhow.

Over the years I have seen terrible incidents that could have been avoided with a different approach and attitude to others, so here are a few pointers that may help you avoid a disaster or an incident that could end up in court. Even if you’re an experienced boater, read over them and ask yourself whether you’re guilty of any.

The main thing to remember is you are responsible for the vessel, its safety equipment and the safety of all on board, and that includes the way you conduct yourself on the water. Rivers and open water are governed much the same as our road systems and suffer from the same driver problems. I have witnessed ‘boat rage’ first-hand. It often involves factors like alcohol, high speed, lack of sleep, poor weather, aggression, negligence, an unsafe boat, poor boating skills, a lack of experience and a general lack of appreciation of the rights of other waterway users. Something small and insignificant can turn very nasty very quickly, just like on our roads.


There are no excuses for not having a safe boat or not carrying the safety gear required by law. If you can’t afford to have enough lifejackets for everyone, buy a cheaper boat.

In an era where litigation is common, next time you take out your friends think about losing your house if something goes wrong and it’s your fault. Know the rules. Make sure the boat is fit for what you expect it to do, and that goes for the trailer, too.


The most difficult prediction any boater can make is what the weather will do. With information available from the Weather Bureau, the internet, marine radio weather updates, TV and commercial radio, there are plenty of ways to gain information. Always err on the side of caution. If conditions change and you don’t like it, make for home. It could save your life and somebody else’s.


If you wanted to film a segment for Funniest Home Videos, the boat ramp is the place to do it, especially during school holidays. If you’re inexperienced, please don’t think I’m having a shot at you. I have seen many experienced boaters fall apart at the seams on the ramp.

The secret to good boat ramp conduct is preparation. Some people just don’t think about what they’re doing until someone gets hot under the collar. Things can often turn very bad on the ramp very quickly.

Unloading a boat requires some simple steps that are often missed by even the best of us. If you haven’t forgotten to put the bung in at some time, you’re either a liar or you just haven’t launched a boat enough yet.

Get into the habit of going through the simple steps that lead to an uneventful launch. Don’t forget to load everything. Take the motor straps or supports off. The ignition key is a big help, as is a rope attached to the bow. Remember to check the ramp if you are new to it.

If the ramp is busy, figure where you’re going to go once in the water.

Don’t succumb to the pressure of a boat ramp. If you’re inexperienced, try to back down the ramp so you get it right. If you don’t, have another go. Try to keep to one lane and keep it straight but, most importantly, take your time so you get it right. If it’s your friend or family member driving and they’re having difficulties, don’t get angry with them and put them in a fluster. Be patient. There’s nothing worse than seeing a wife trying her best to get the trailer down the ramp and an irate husband bellowing instructions.

Wind can be a problem, especially if you have a strong tide racing. In this situation, never place your body on the downcurrent side of a big boat, as it’s likely to run over the top of you. Look at how others are coping and, if needed, throw a rope on a rear cleat so someone can stop the stern from getting away from you. Even if you’re on your own, modern trailers have loops for running ropes.


Treat any bar in any condition with respect. I have seen and heard of dozens of serious bar accidents that would make your hair curl.

In NSW it’s mandatory to wear a PFD-1 lifejacket when crossing a bar or river mouth, and with good reason. I have known people who have crossed the Tweed Bar hundreds of times, and even with their thousands of hours of experience they have been caught out by a wave that just popped up. The results have been life-threatening, and in some instances have led to a boat that resembled a screwed-up aluminium can.

At most centres from the Tweed to Eden there are volunteers who provide coastal support and rescue if you get into trouble, so make sure you log on and off with them when venturing offshore. The most experienced offshore skippers do.

I have sat in the mouth of a river for long periods looking for a break in the swell, eager to go because the fishing outside has been outstanding, and sometimes I have turned back because it was unsafe. There will always be another day’s great fishing and nothing is worth risking your neck for, or anyone else’s.


Believe it or not, I have seen licensed boaters argue with a Waterways officer until they were nearly blue in the face, maintaining that they weren’t on the wrong side of the river. If you’re in doubt about any signals or buoys, slow down and err on the side of caution. If you feel a collision is imminent, stop, even if you are in the right. Your responsibility is to avoid a collision at all costs.

Make sure you know and observe waterway speed restrictions and signals. A charge of negligence is serious. Lastly, drinking and boating don’t mix. I have seen people being breath tested on the water plenty of times, and if you are caught over the limit you’re likely to lose your car licence as well as your boat licence.


Be fair and conduct yourself as you would like to be treated. Whether you’re in a sailboat, jet ski or fishing boat, you simply don’t get dibs on a spot because you were there first.

If you’re getting around in a 15m cruiser at speed, think about the guy with his kids in the little tinny. Whatever the situation, don’t lose your cool; it can end in disaster.


The owner of Tweed River Boat Hire had a mongrel dog whose name was Bosun. Bosun loved to bow ride – until he fell off the front and got nailed by the outboard. The photos adorn the hire office’s walls as a warning to all.

Bosun was lucky to survive, having his stomach, chest and legs opened up by the prop.

I fished two girls out of the water years ago after a half-cab hit a sandbar at speed. One girl had a compound break to the leg and the other was passing in and out of consciousness. Bow riding is not only illegal, it is very risky.


Boating is supposed to be relaxing and as we use the water more during the coming months, I urge all to be careful. Above all, show courtesy to other waterway users.

If you are confronted with a situation where someone behaves poorly, let the authorities deal with it and remain calm.

Lastly, if you have only recently acquired your boat licence, I recommend taking an on-water class on bar crossings.

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