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Old 24-09-2005, 06:21   #1
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Crossing a Harbour 'Bar'

Crossing a Harbor Bar ~ by John Kretschmer

One of the most difficult, and dangerous, maneuvers in a sailboat is getting through the break produced by a harbor bar.

I can remember an exhilarating passage south from Annapolis, MD one year. I was conducting an offshore navigation training program aboard a cutter-rigged Stephens 47. My four inexperienced crewmates had done a terrific job of helming and standing watch through four days of challenging conditions. A hurricane east of Bermuda had spawned huge seas while we were bound for the Bahamas. Although the winds we were experiencing were only in the 20 to 30-knot range, the seas, measured in feet, could be accurately described with the same numbers. We were tired and ahead of schedule, so instead of spending another night at sea I decided to detour to Marsh Harbor in the Abacos.

The winds had eased up, although the seas were still quite large as I altered course to approach the North Man of War Channel. I had been through this cut several years before, but just to be safe I turned to the 'Man of War Cay' section of the Yachtman's Guide to the Bahamas for guidance: "This entrance from the ocean through the outer reef to the shelter of the cays is wide, deep, and straightforward, except during very strong onshore winds or during a rage, when the channels are impassable." The thought of a full night's sleep and a cold beer at the Conch Inn temporarily clouded my common sense.

Under power, I approached on the recommended heading of 212 degrees magnetic and searched for the opening in the reef. It was virtually impossible to spot because waves were breaking all across the harbor bar. I knew that what I was doing was not recommended in Seamanship 101, and was possibly dangerous, especially as the boat lifted to a large swell. Two miles from the pass, I suggested to the crew that we might not be able to negotiate the channel. The disappointment was easy to read in their eyes. "Well, we'll proceed a bit further and check things out." I tried to raise somebody, anybody, on Man of War Cay for some advice and to find out the state of the tide, but I suspected that our radio wasn't transmitting. Less than a mile from the pass, what had been large swells farther offshore, were now steep, curling waves. It finally dawned on me that these were classic 'rage' conditions and I knew then that there was no way we could safely navigate the pass. But it was almost too late.

Just as I started to turn the wheel, one of the crew members looked aft and screamed, "Hold on." A wave, much larger and steeper than others, lifted the stern and then broke with a thundering crash. Sixteen tons of boat skidded forward like a toy in a bathtub. Green water washed over the deck. For a horrible second I thought we might pitch-pole, then, I thought surely we would roll over. I steered with all my strength, concentrating on keeping the bow perpendicular to the flow of the wave. At last it overran us. I did an immediate head count, everyone was still aboard, then I looked aft. The huge wave had momentarily disrupted the pattern, there was a break, almost a slick on the water. I yelled, "Hold on!" and quickly spun the boat about. Accelerating, I steamed back toward deep water and started to breath again once we were beyond the breaker line.

When you watch the waves at a harbor bar toss about a 40-foot aluminum Coast Guard vessel, you know these places don't suffer fools lightly.
Bars by their very nature are hazardous, and this has nothing to do with alcohol. Crossing a bar, be it in a river mouth, passing through a break in a reef, or between stone jetties protecting a narrow inlet, is one of the most difficult and potentially dangerous maneuvers sailors can attempt. Sandbars are natural deposits that form where deep and shallow water meet, which of course is the very spot where we find our way into many harbors. Shoal waters dramatically alter wave action. When an incoming wave moves into dangerously shallow water, the wave length first decreases and then increases as the wave breaks. Anyone who has surfed, or even bodysurfed, at the beach can recognize the phenomena. As waves move through the surf zone, the height increases until the waves become completely unstable and dangerous to vessels of all kinds.

Running a harbor bar requires good information, patience, and common sense. I recently delivered a 36-foot sloop from Ft. Lauderdale to Brielle, NJ. We arrived off the Manasquan Inlet with a stiff east wind causing a fearful chop with visible breaking waves. According to the NOAA weather broadcast, the tide was at max ebb. Instead of trying to force our way in over the bar, we hove-to on the offshore tack and had a peaceful lunch. Several hours later, with the tide about halfway into the flood, I climbed up to the spreaders and from well beyond the breaker line, surveyed the inlet again. Although the conditions were much improved, I decided to wait until just before the flood slack to make our entrance. I was unusually cautious because the boat drew almost seven feet and delivering her to her owner, in one piece, was more important than spending a couple extra hours at sea. When we finally made our approach, the wind was still blowing, but the inlet was quite manageable.

Picking your way through a reef passage can be most unnerving. On an expedition that retraced the maritime routes of the Ancient Maya, I became fairly adept at picking my way through thundering reef passages, but never quite came to enjoy it. The most critical element of running a reef is to be certain you know exactly where the pass is before you commit your boat. This is not always an easy task, especially if there is a strong onshore breeze causing waves to break all along the reef. If you are confident of your charts and guidebooks, try to make sense of landmarks ashore. Sail parallel to the reef at a safe distance and look for an obvious change in color where you suspect the pass to be.

Even under the most benign conditions, getting caught in a harbor bar (like this one off Guatemala's Rio Dulce) can bring grave consequences for the boat owner.
I remember once anxiously trying to find the Ranguana Cay Pass in Southern Belize. We had sailed overnight from the Bay Islands of Honduras and onshore winds and seas were building rapidly. I knew that if we didn't find the pass in short order, we might have to sail over one hundred miles north to the main ship channel, which was an unhappy prospect at best. I paralleled the reef while Lesa looked from the ratlines. Once, twice, three times we passed along the break line. Finally we were confident we had the opening scoped out. The charts and guidebooks for the pass were vague. Reef running requires that you use your natural senses and— yes, I am repeating myself—patience. Although there was a lot of wind, I started the diesel and rolled in the yankee. With the main and staysail sheeted flat, we shot through the pass into the surprisingly quiet waters behind the reef. It is important to maintain speed when crossing bars in order to keep steering. More problems are caused by going too slow than too fast. Sometimes, in really wild bar conditions, your only hope is to maintain speed. But these are situations you should avoid at all costs.

Sometimes you can use the wave action caused by bars to help you make an approach. The Rio Dulce is a lovely oasis in Guatemala. A deep, freshwater river, the Rio Dulce slices through a rain forest for more than 20 miles. There are several safe, cheap marinas at the head of the river. Unfortunately, the bar at the mouth carries about six feet at high water. My 44-foot ketch draws seven feet. Usually I am forced to hire a small tug that takes my main halyard aboard, heels the boat over precipitously, and ignominiously escorts me across the bar. Once however, a strong onshore wind and the short chop caused by the initial ebb of the current, was enough to let me bounce over the bar and into the River. You have to use what you can.

Bar Crossing Guidelines (Sidebar)

Before you attempt to cross any bar in rough conditions, know the state of the tide. Even the small one-foot tidal range at Rio Dulce makes a significant difference in the conditions. The best time to cross any bar is just before slack water at high tide. Remember that during spring tides, when the moon and sun are working together and tides are extreme, conditions will be rougher.

Be patient and obtain good information. Don't just charge across the bar, but take the time to survey the situation from a safe vantage point beyond the break line. If you suspect conditions will improve based on tide or weather, don't hesitate to wait. There is no prize for being first over the bar. Contact people ashore on the radio about the conditions. This is one situation where the Coast Guard is usually interested in providing advice. Be wary, however, of advice from amateurs and also be wary of blindly following other boats, especially if they are significantly different than yours. A 30-foot sport fisherman that can run at 20 knots can literally outrun waves into the harbor. You are not likely to do the same in your old Pearson 30.

Be observant. It is a pity that ratlines are completely out of fashion on modern boats, because gaining height of eye can really be helpful. Mast steps perform the same function, but they are not as user-friendly. As a last resort, climb up on the goosneck. Remember, waves always look smaller from behind. In other words, as you proceed forward you are looking at the back of the waves. As you approach a harbor bar, look behind you too, to help get a perspective on the wave height and breaking characteristics.

Know your boat. In general terms, longer, lighter boats can maintain speed, surf more easily and do better in rough bar crossings. Heavy boats respond more slowly and if they don't rise quickly to the steep waves, can be pooped, which is really dangerous. Of course lighter boats can become difficult to steer if the rudder is lifted out of the water.

Once you begin a bar crossing and pass beyond the breaker line, you are committed. At this point concentrate all your energy on steering and watching the wave patterns. You will have plenty of time to talk about the event after the boat is safely tied up or swinging to the anchor. Then you can saunter over to the other bar, where things are usually a little less hectic.

John Kretschmer
From the ‘Sailnet’ Archives: http://www.sailnet.com/collections/seamanship/index.cfm

***

See also:
Crossing the Bar ~ by Andy Galwey
This very important subject is often misrepresented and misunderstood. Australian Andy Galwey provides an in-depth look at how to tackle white water bar crossings (small craft).
http://www.marinews.com.au/boating/b...s/ba_barc.html
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Old 08-10-2005, 12:00   #2
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Russian Roulette ?

Man Gord,

That sounds like Russian Roulette!!

Talking about taking extreme risks. But, in certain situations. I suppose if there's a hurricane approaching towards your area. Yeah, I would take a chance to do just that.

But, if I'm too tired after alot of sailing. And there's land up ahead. I'd just say, "the hell with makingport." I'd anchor the night. And go in early the next day.

That's just me.


Regards,

Kevin
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Old 09-10-2005, 14:34   #3
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with most of these bars, anchoring outside them is not feasible - especially as you would be on a lee shore.

I seem to remember from my early seamanship 101 (about when Noah was getting his ticket) the use of drogues as a means of crossing a bar. The theory being that the real danger is that as the wave catches up astern, the rudder stalls, the boat broaches and rolls over. A drogue stops that happening, and will also help to prevent a pitch pole, however a large number of yachts today would be unable to deploy such a tactic due to the damage they would sustain from a breaking wave. There is also a risk of rudder damage.

The biggest risk of all when crossing a bar is that you will fall into a trough at the shallowest point and hit the ground. This alone can be hard enough to wreck the boat, break bones and thoroughly ruin your day.
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Old 10-10-2005, 02:39   #4
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Someone say crossing a bar? I have just lifted a photo to the Gallery. But if you want to go direct to it, then take a look here.
http://www.boatdesign.net/forums/att...2&d=1106980857
That's a mouthful, Hope it worked
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Old 10-10-2005, 05:47   #5
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Whats behind the bar

One issues that does not appear to figure in the discussion is what water way is behind the bar. To put it simply one of the differences between the bars is the water that flows out in each tide cycle. The bottom line is that crossing the bar when the "river tide" and ocean tide are flowing in opposite directions is not a lot of fun. The Foster Bar in NSW had close to a 2 hour lag because of the amount of water in the system and the narrow bar. So the highs and lows on the bar do not match the highs and lows on the beach. Local knowledge is what is required to negotiate these bars safely, radio calls to fishermen's co-ops or coast guides, yacht clubs are the best idea.

Waiting for daylight as the tides may be wrong and the tendency for winds to be higher in the day is not always a good tatic.

As far as crossing the bars in less than ideal situations our tactic was to trail all the anchor ropes we could muster. A sail bag filled with cloth tied to the bitter end will assist in creating drag. Obviously this will not keep you on a wave but may stop you from broaching

Paul
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Old 11-10-2005, 23:45   #6
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I suppose tidal charts, for that regional area could help. As well having contacts with some of the locals.

What hurts some people, I think they just go sailing away. With no worry on their minds. Thinking all will be well. Then...BLAM !!

Yeah, just like what Talbot & boredinthecity said. Need to know what's behind the bar?

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Kevin
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Old 11-07-2012, 07:49   #7
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Re: Russian Roulette ?

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Originally Posted by CaptainK View Post
Man Gord,

That sounds like Russian Roulette!!

Talking about taking extreme risks. But, in certain situations. I suppose if there's a hurricane approaching towards your area. Yeah, I would take a chance to do just that.

But, if I'm too tired after alot of sailing. And there's land up ahead. I'd just say, "the hell with makingport." I'd anchor the night. And go in early the next day.

That's just me.


Regards,

Kevin
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Anchor?? Where?? That's usually why you need to cross the bar...to get to an anchorage
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Old 11-07-2012, 08:30   #8
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Re: Crossing a Harbour 'Bar'

Usually when they close a bar it is because of strong onshore winds and a strong ebb current. Makes for very steep choppy waves.
So pending on where you are at, you may need only to wait for six to twelve hours for slack water. You need to carry tide/current tables or pay attention to your GPS tidal app.
So be sure that your fuel & water tanks are topped off and that you have plenty of food & bedding for all of those on board. Plus all of the safety equipage you are required to carry.
Why I stated the latter? Because I've seen boats where the owner didn't have enough life jackets to go around and his reasoning was; Because this is a one time trip, he didn't want to go to the expense of buying more...This put him in the catagory of STUPID, IDIOCY, and an IQ lower than the number of eyelets on his shoes.
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Old 11-07-2012, 09:19   #9
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Re: Crossing a Harbour 'Bar'

We bought a Sea Brake drogue for situations like this, but haven't tried it. When we do try it, I hopefully will be alive and able to respond back here.
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Old 12-07-2012, 02:18   #10
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Re: Crossing a Harbour 'Bar'

While the practice of towing a drogue whilst bar crossing is often mentioned, I wonder if, for low powered sailboats, the loss of speed does not cause enough additional exposure to make things worse.

Another thought is that in the case of rough bar crossings the modern (much despised by REAL SAILORS) yacht design might well be better than the traditional heavy displacement vessel. The ability to surf under control, something practiced by racing skippers all the time, is a big benefit under such conditions.

We cross a fair number of barred entrances here on the East coast of Oz and it can be a stimulating experience. I have always been glad to be in a boat that surfs easily and under control. YMMV, and I'd be interested in others opinions on all of the above.

Cheers,

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Old 21-07-2012, 02:29   #11
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Re: Russian Roulette ?

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Anchor?? Where?? That's usually why you need to cross the bar...to get to an anchorage
Just in case you're not being funny, there is a widespread misapprehension that boats cannot anchor offshore. Many boats can (if the gear and hatches are strong enough), some regularly do, and occasionally not knowing that this is possible costs someone their boat or their lives.
You just need to know where the surf break will be located at different states of the tide so as to stay well outside that zone, and how much further out the occasional "sneaker" breaker might occur.

If you've never had to do this: The motion is not as bad as you'd think, provided you allow maybe 15:1 scope, unless you pick a place where the seas are running at an angle to the wind.

Anchoring off bars, sometimes for days or longer until conditions improved, was regular practice before they built roads to many coastal locations here in NZ.
Most transport of livestock and wool and grain to and from these places was by sailing scows.

We have some ridiculously dangerous bars, but you can still anchor off many of them ... and these guys definitely should have



When abandoning a boat which is not sinking (say in a serious medical emergency) all the strong warps and chains should be combined with one or more heavy anchors, so the boat will (with any luck) anchor itself when it gets into soundings.
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Old 21-07-2012, 02:35   #12
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Re: Crossing a Harbour 'Bar'

It should also be said in case anybody is in any doubt: going out across a bar is five times easier and safer in a given set of conditions than coming in, particularly if you're coming into an unfamiliar entrance.

It's a bit like taking off in a plane: any idiot can do this. The fun comes when it's time to land.

One factor is that you can read waves from the oncoming side very easily and accurately, whereas looking from behind, they all look much the same. But of course the main factor is that (particularly in a sailing boat) you can deal with much bigger breakers head on than stern to.

Breakers on a surf beach or bar are not like what people generally refer to as "breakers" in a storm offshore. Generally the latter look as though they will break like a surf wave, but if you look closely at the crucial moment, they actually spill the majority of their water harmlessly down the back slope.
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Old 21-07-2012, 02:52   #13
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Re: Crossing a Harbour 'Bar'

Anchoring on a lee shore is not automatically bad seamanship, or simply impossible, as an earlier poster seems to imply.

If you're waiting for better conditions, it's much preferable to trying to cross a bar on the same lee shore.

And if that wait may take a while, you're better keeping your diesel in the tanks, and your crew rested (except for one on anchor watch)

Said diesel and said crew can both be ready and available in case your anchor drags, at which point you're no worse off than the guy steaming or hove to at the same location.

On the general topic of anchoring offshore: Even racing yachts, with their pathetic anchors and nonexistent bow fittings, still have to anchor offshore when they're in soundings and the tide is running faster than they can sail, from the opposite direction.
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Old 21-07-2012, 05:50   #14
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Re: Whats behind the bar

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Originally Posted by boredinthecity View Post
One issues that does not appear to figure in the discussion is what water way is behind the bar. To put it simply one of the differences between the bars is the water that flows out in each tide cycle. The bottom line is that crossing the bar when the "river tide" and ocean tide are flowing in opposite directions is not a lot of fun. The Foster Bar in NSW had close to a 2 hour lag because of the amount of water in the system and the narrow bar. So the highs and lows on the bar do not match the highs and lows on the beach. Local knowledge is what is required to negotiate these bars safely, radio calls to fishermen's co-ops or coast guides, yacht clubs are the best idea.
Paul
+110% to that as each bar is differant.
eg the one in vid is Greymouth NZ - its a river bar crossing - If the river is in flood you might have 7 knots of river run from rain...talk to the locals 1st.

I'm not a yachtsman but this drogue idea i don't know about that one,I've crossed that bar in the vid several times & a drogue wrapped around the prop would be game over.
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Old 21-07-2012, 06:28   #15
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Re: Crossing a Harbour 'Bar'

Haveing grown up in the PNW of the usa, Ive crossed many Bars ! far better to have enough horsepower to have control and cross them with you engine then try to use sails! just my 2 cents (I aways over power my boats LOL)
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