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Safely Crossing A Bar

They say that there are only three types of bar crossings; a dangerous one, a very dangerous one and an extremely dangerous one. This adage isn’t meant to discourage you from crossing a bar however, attempting a bar crossing is a situation that should be approached with patience and preparation, even by the most skilled mariner.

What is a bar?

In nautical terms a bar is a build up of sand and silt where an inlet, river or harbour meets the open ocean. Similar to a bottleneck in traffic terms, this convergence of water causes changes in the bottom contour. All bars differ in width, length and depth but the one thing they have in common is that they are constantly shifting and changing shape. Affected by weather, tide and current conditions, the bottom contours at a bar can cause unmarked shoal patches, strong current lines and erratic breaking waves. Now you can see why crossing a bar is a bit of a challenge.

Photo by Pok Rie from Pexels

Photo by Pok Rie from Pexels

Planning Is Key

When preparing to cross a bar the first phase of planning begins on dry land. Because the conditions at a bar are heavily influenced by wind, swell and tides it is important to check the local weather and tide forecast to see what kind of conditions you are expecting to encounter. Be sure to used weather forecasting that is specific to the marine area that you will be sailing in, as local land-based weather forecasts will not give you sufficient information. For a complete guide to marine weather apps and programs check out our Storm Safety article.

Knowing the tide is critical when crossing a bar. The very best conditions over a bar are usually found at high tide when there is no wind or swell running. However, most mariners know that you rarely get text book conditions when it comes to difficult navigation. There are optimal times to cross and a bar, and it is highly recommended that you plan your trip based on the tides.
The best time to attempt a bar crossing, either going out or coming in, in during an incoming tide or at slack water just after high tide. The most dangerous tide to cross a bar is a dead low as this is when there will be the least amount of water over the bar so your chances of running aground or running into a submerged object are much higher. It is important to plan you bar crossing according to the local tide times.

Also, many harbours and inlets have marked channels that provide mariners with a safe, deep water path to follow. There may be channel markers, special danger markers or lead markers that will show the recommended track to follow over the bar. Consult an up-to-date chart of the area and identify any navigational aides that will assist you in safely crossing the bar.

Local knowledge is also important when it comes to a safe bar crossing. Talk to boaters who have recently crossed the bar and find out if they had any problems. They should also be able to tell you if there are new hazards to look out for. If you are heading out of or going into a harbour to access a marina you can contact the marina office as they should be able to provide information about how to cross their bar safely. As well, many marinas will offer a guide boat service that will lead you through the bar crossing.
Finally, you can contact the local coast guard and inquire about up-to-date conditions at the bar on the day you are planning to cross. On inclement days the coast guard will also be able to tell you if the bar has been closed, and vessels are unable to attempt a crossing, due to conditions being too dangerous. If the weather, tide and conditions look favourable the next thing to prepare is your vessel.

Safety First

Although knowing local conditions is key to a safe bar crossing it is easy for a vessel to get into trouble while crossing a bar over a simple mechanical issue. It is imperative that you make sure that all your equipment is in working order before you leave the dock. Take a few minutes to run through the following safety check list.
Check the bilge pumps �’ Make sure bilges and pumps are clear of debris and functioning properly in case you ship any green water while navigation through heavy seas.

Check all safety equipment- Carry all the required safety equipment for your size of vessel and be sure to have an approved lifejacket for every crew member who is on board with you. Make sure all your crew know how to operate all safety equipment on the vessel and where it is located, in case you become injured.

Check the VHF radio �’ Check that it is functioning properly and tuned to Channel 16, the marine distress channel, or the channel that is monitored by local authorities at the bar you are crossing.
Check the fuel tanks – Use the rule of thirds to estimate fuel consumption for your trip. 1/3 for the trip out, 1/3 for the trip back home and 1/3 in case of emergency. When it doubt, top up the tanks.

Check you outboard is functioning properly – It is good idea to run your engines for 10 minutes or so to ensure that you won’t have any problems while in the middle of the crossing.

It is also important to stow the boat properly. Loose objects can quickly roll under foot or become projectiles in rough seas. Lash down any unnecessary equipment, secure fishing rods and tidy the cockpit and cabin so that no gear or lines can cause trouble while crossing the bar.

Many bar crossings happen at a busy harbour or inlet, and during peak times there may be several boats that are wanting to exit or enter the harbour. However, since conditions are unpredictable across a bar it is always a good idea to give other vessels plenty of time and space to safely navigate the conditions. For maximum safety only one vessel at a time should attempt a bar crossing.

Finally, you should have a Plan B. This exit strategy might include cancelling your day out altogether because conditions are unfavourable. Remember the most important part of a skipper’s job is to make decisions that will get everyone home safe.

Going Out

Going out and against the waves is general considered the most difficult and dangerous direction across a bar. Navigating your way safely out of a harbour and across a bar requires a keen eye and a bit of patience, but not any special skills. Here are the top tips for safely departing a harbour or inlet and crossing a bar.
Approach the bar and stand off to watch and assess the conditions for 15-20minutes. Look for any floating objects that may be hazards to navigation such as logs, surfers, other boats or navigation beacons.

Watch the waves sets like a surfer. Waves usually come in sets and have a lull in between the sets. This lull is when you want to proceed.

Look for breaking waves. You want to cross over the calmest water, so identify any areas where there are breaking or standing waves, this will indicate shallow patches that should be avoided. NEVER cross a bar that has a wall of breaking waves as there may not be enough water to safely pass over the bar. This is especially important in a keel boat.

Watch other vessels that are crossing the bar. If there are other vessels in the area watch how and where they cross the bar. However, bear in mind that the skipper may not have enough knowledge to safely cross the bar, and therefore do not assume what they are doing is correct. Also, do not follow another vessels GPS waypoints over a bar as conditions are constantly changing and this may not longer be the safest track over the bar.

Ask the crew to don lifejackets, choose a safe spot, hold on and stay still. The maneuverability of a small vessel can easily be affected by people moving about the boat. It is important that all crew are out of harms way and are able to safely hold onto the vessel as things may get bumpy.

Identify and line up any navigational aides that mark the safe water channel so that you are ready for your final approach.

When you are confident that you, your vessel and your crew are ready to cross the bar make way into the waves and swell with enough speed to make reasonable headway but do not try to run full speed. As you approach a wave decelerate slightly so that the bow gently lifts up and over the wave, then accelerate slightly as you slide down the back of the waves. When steering over a wave keep the bow directly pointing at the waves, or at no more than 10° angle to the on coming waves. Trying to cut across a wave puts the vessel in danger of broaching or being rolled over by the force of the wave.

Once out and over the bar you will notice that the sea will smooth, and the depth of water will increase. It is only once you meet these calmer conditions that you should consider it safe to bear away. It is a smart idea to drop a GPS waypoint at this time to aide you in your approach when you return.

The most important thing to remember when going out across a bar is that once you are out in the waves and closely approaching the bar you are committed. Turning around while maneuvering in rough water is the easiest way to capsize your vessel. So, waiting until you can read and understand the conditions is essential to a smooth trip across a bar.

Coming In

Although coming in and going with the waves is considered easier when crossing a bar, it does not mean that you are out of danger. Remember no matter what, the tide will be different than when you left the harbor, so therefore the conditions across the bar will be different too.

If you have a GPS waypoint for the approach navigate to that mark and assess the conditions. Identify and line up and leads or channel markers that mark the safe, deep water passage into the harbour as you approach. Again, it is a good idea to stand off and, if necessary, wait until conditions improve before attempting to cross the bar. Also, make sure all equipment and gear that was used while at sea is securely stowed and crew are prepared.

The best piece of advice for going into a harbour and across a bar is you must pick a wave and maintain the speed of the vessel to match the wave. As when going out, once you have started to cross the bar you are committed, and it is important to keep the vessel moving forward at the speed of the swell.

When you feel comfortable that you have a sweet spot to cross to the bar pick a wave and bring the vessel up to speed so that you are riding the back of the wave behind the crest. It is important to maintain this position on the wave ALL THE WAY in. The two most dangerous things you can do when maneuvering with the swell is to accelerate and over take the wave you are riding, or to decelerate and let the following wave over take you. Either of these situations can quickly result in the vessel being swamped or capsized.

When you have safely crossed the bar and are navigating the channel into the harbour or inlet be mindful of other vessels that are waiting to exit and other traffic or hazards that may be constricting the area. Also be sure to maintain speed restrictions and heed no wake zones.

Bar crossings can be intimidating but with some preparation and patience any skipper can safely execute a bar crossing. As with any situation at sea it is important to take time to make a plan, keep an eye on the weather and to maintain the safety of the vessel and the crew at all times.

Since a bar is constantly shifting and conditions are constantly changing it is imperative to remember that no two bar crossings are the same. No matter how experienced the skipper every bar crossing should be approached with the same vigilance and mindfulness.


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Space Saving Solutions for Living Aboard A Boat Space Saving Solutions for Living Aboard A Boat. Photo: C. Ryan McVinney[/caption]

Soft Storage Sacks

Boat design is all about the carefully conceived curves, so rarely will you find nice, neat square storage space. Using a container that has hard, angular edges can further reduce the volume of an already tight storage area. Opting for a soft sided bin or basket means the container can conform to the odd shape of the hold. In dry compartments, try a soft canvas or mesh bag. For potentially wet storage areas a sturdy roll-top, waterproof gear sack will keep goodies safe.

Collapsible Containers

With the advent of silicon there are now a variety of collapsible storage bins on the market. These pieces are a handy addition, allowing the convenience of having many luxury items onboard without cluttering up cupboards. Full-sized bowls, measuring cups, salad spinners and washtubs all accordion down flat and can be stacked and stowed in small spaces when not in use.

Folding Tables and Chairs

Often times common areas on a boat are multi-use. The cockpit, for instance, needs to be a functional space while underway but it is a favorite hangout spot when on anchor. Having a folding table, whether it is a built in or completely removable, allows you to enjoy a meal under the stars as well as make room for crew to work while the boat is moving. Folding chairs stow easily but accommodate extra guests around the table. The salty, marine environment is harsh, quickly corroding items that may last years on dry land. When buying folding tables and chairs check that the hinges are durable, and the item is made out of high quality stainless, aluminum or plastic.


There is always a spot on the wall, a strange-shaped nook or a cupboard door that could be utilized for storage simply by adding a hook. Hang keys, bags, hats and other everyday items on a hook for quick access. Adding a few hooks in the head makes for a spot to hang a dry towel, and a hook by each bunk is a great spot for an in case of emergency, easy to reach flashlight. If permanently affixing a hook with screws is undesirable, look for heavy duty 3M removable hooks that don’t require tools and won’t damage surfaces.


Popular on boats since boats started floating, small hammocks are a terrific way to store items such as clothing and blankets when not in use. Usually made out of netting these hammocks make the most out of empty spaces. Taking up very little room when not in use they expand and accommodate any shaped items, stowing them safely in a conveniently reached spot. Many people also use net hammocks in the galley to store fresh fruit and vegetables instead of taking up precious fridge space. Net hammocks do allow for more airflow around your produce but softer fruit such as peaches, pears and summer squash may be cut or damaged by the thin net strings.

Hanging Organizers

Usually partitioned and designed for use in a closet to store items such as shoes these handy organizers are great on a boat. Pretty enough to be hung within sight they make a great spot to store towels in the head, a place to stow soft toys in a kid’s cabin or hung in a closet to keep clothing tidy. Hanging organizers are also a neat way to keep the crew items corralled while underway. Simply colour cod or number each nook and every crew person can have a place to put small items when not in use.

Overhead Bags

Trying to maximize storage space means making use of every available nook and cranny, including the ones directly overhead. There are purpose-made bags on the market like the “T-Bag” that are designed to attach to the underside of a t-top or bimini. Large enough to store items like life jackets and safety equipment that are needed in the cockpit, they provide a spot to stow gear out of the weather but within easy reach. If there is head room down below utilizing overhead nets or bags is also a cleaver way to stow light weight items like bed linens or clothing.

Hanging Pockets

Whether it’s on a rail, the wall or over a door, a hanging pocket is a handy way to keep things tidy. Used to keep lines in the cockpit from being dangerously underfoot, the anchor rode from becoming tangled on the bow or a pair of binoculars within reach of the helmsman. Made out of canvas or a weatherized mesh, hanging pockets come in a variety of colors and sizes. Turn the back of a sliding door into a wall of pockets to store shoes, sunscreen, gloves, even fishing lures. Placed in the head, pockets can instantly organize crew toiletries and be a spot to hold precious jewelry items while showering or swimming. Use a hanging pocket in the galley to make frequently reached for condiments, snacks or coffee mugs easily accessible. There are never too many hanging pockets on a boat.


At first glance a pillow doesn’t seem like it belongs in this list, after all pillows can take up a lot of space. However, making a pillow do double duty turns it into a super space saver. Stuff pillow cases with extra or unused bedding, clothes or towels to keep the cabin tidy and give people a soft spot to lean. Choosing pillow cases that accent the décor of the boat will ensure that even the most discerning guest won’t guess your secret storage solution.


Heavy duty or industrial Velcro is an easy way to keep small items from sliding around while underway. Self-adhesive and customizable to any shape Velcro pads can be stuck by the helm to keep small gadgets within sight of the captain or used to secure delicate items down below. Velcro can also be used on vertical surfaces, keeping décor items like photos firmly in place. Strong enough to keep overhead panels stuck in place or chair backs in proper position Velcro is a heavy hitter when it comes to storage solutions onboard.

Vacuum Bags

Need to compress large items like bedding or store seasonal clothes? Vacuum bags to the rescue. Buying provisions in bulk but want to preserve the freshness of half your order? Vacuum bags to the rescue. Need to ensure that items like flares and the emergency medical kit in the ditch bag are waterproof? Vacuum bags to the rescue. Available in sizes ranging from 8” x 10” to suitcase-sized, vacuum bags are an amazing, and extremely versatile, storage solution. Vacuum bags not only compress items by removing air but also seals them in a heavy-duty air-tight, and waterproof, bag. When opened the items like clothes and bedding are dryer-fresh. Foodstuffs that are vacuum packed are not only free of bugs and moisture but removing air prevents spoilage and extends potential shelf time. For the avid fishermen a vacuum packer is the quickest and easiest way to portion and preserve the days catch. Items frozen in vacuum packed bags are less prone to freezer burn.

Magnetic Strips

Perhaps one of the best storage solutions for the galley a magnetic strip is both handy and unobtrusive. Mounted on a bulkhead a magnetic strip is the best way to keep knives out of harms way. Strong enough to keep items secure in a rough seaway magnetic strips are also a convenient place to stow a pair of scissors or a bottle opener. Mount one in the cockpit and keep fishing lures from becoming tangled or falling underfoot, not to mention keep the fileting knife ready for action. Some magnetics strips are sold with a selection of metal canisters which provide a convenient way to sort spices in the galley or keep small items like nuts and bolts tidy in the tool kit.

Bungee Cords

Used to gather and hang lines in a storage hold, tie down odd shaped equipment or keep canvas from flapping in a breeze bungee cords, or shock cords, are indispensable on a boat. One stretched around a storage bin or long a wall makes a spot to tuck flip flops. Use a bungee to hang a roll of paper towel or create a spot to hang sunglasses so they won’t get scratched. Stretch a bungee cord overhead to make an instant clothes line to dry a wet towel after a swim. Fasten a length of shock cord along a wall at regular intervals to create a custom storage solution for hand tools like screwdrivers or a spatula in the galley. A bungee cord never stays idle on a boat.

Hanging Glass Racks & Cup Hooks

Once only found in your favorite local pub, hanging racks are now common place on boats. Used to store drinking glasses these simple metal racks install under cabinets or overheads and add a touch of class to any boat. Hanging stemware not only frees up precious cupboard space but delicate glassware is stored safely in an easy to reach spot. Cup hooks are traditionally mounted on the underside of a shelf or cupboard and are a way to store more durable items like coffee mugs.

Nesting Pots and Dishes

Cupboard space in the galley can quickly get taken over by dishes and cookware. One easy way to maximize galley storage is to invest in dishes that neatly stack and pots that nest inside one another. No need to break the bank at the chandlery, although there are lots of thoughtful products available there. Simply keep storage in mind when you are choosing pots and pans - make sure they stack together neatly, avoid long handles on pans and lids, look for a pot and pan that are the same diameter so one lid can be used on two items. For dishes choose low profile plates and make sure they are small enough to fit inside the cupboard, many galley storage areas are narrower than a typical dinner plate.

Charging Stations

It seems impossible to live without handheld gadgets these days, and it doesn’t take long before there is a tangle of cords clogging up the counter next to the nearest outlet. To avoid an unsightly mess, and to charge as many devices as possible at once consider installing a dedicated charging station. Designed to hold multiple devices while tastefully hiding all those USB cords, charging stations are a cleaver way to stay charged up and clutter free. For an even more boat friendly solution, turn a drawer into a charging station. The stack of devices will be out of sight and won’t fall off the counter while the boat is in motion.

Custom Built Options

Sometimes the best option is one that is tailored to your specific needs, especially when it comes to getting the most out of storage space on a boat. Tables that fold against a bulkhead walls, a sofa that conceals a built-in fridge, a lift away counter top that hides the onboard bar. If you are in the market for a new boat, then exploring what custom storage options each design offer could buy you a few more square feet of usable space. And, for those who are already boat owners, custom modifications can mean the difference between boating in chaos or living clutter-free.

Think Outside the Boat

There has been a trend in recent years to downsize and declutter, to live with less and do more. With an increasing number of people choosing to live in small spaces there are more products and storage ideas for those spaces. Yes, there are a few more obstacles on a boat- items have to be secured for sea and often need to be waterproof – but don’t get stuck at the local marine store. Many of the storage ideas used by RV-ers and Tiny Home owners are perfect fits for boat storage as well, you just have to think outside the boat./>
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