By Jeff Megahan

In July of this year, Joe Tripoldi, NSW Minister for Ports and Waterways, announced that NSW Maritime had turned to the Coastalwatch.com website for help in reducing the number of accidents that occur when boaters cross the notorious Narooma bar. Three remote-operated cameras overlooking the bar were installed, two of which allow the Narooma Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol and NSW Maritime to monitor sea conditions. Video feed from the third camera, which offers the public a wider view of the bay, can be seen on Coastalwatch’s website.

Before it installed the cameras from Coastalwatch, the NSW Department of Public Works tried a variety of measures to keep boaters from harming themselves as they negotiated Narooma’s treacherous bar at the exit from Wagonga Inlet. Back in 2003, in recognition of the long history of incidents at the Narooma bar, including six fatalities, NSW passed a law making it compulsory to wear a lifejacket when approaching a coastal surf bar. The Government also saw to it that warning signs near dangerous bars were improved, water patrols were increased and boating-safety courses, reinforcing bar safety messages, were made mandatory.

Ultimately, safety regulators at NSW Maritime discovered that, although they can’t change conditions on the water, they can change the attitude of the boaters they are trying to protect.

Crossing the bar at Narooma can be risky, and many times skippers are prepared to take the chance when common sense and prevailing conditions should dictate otherwise. The decision was made to provide the boating community with more information, trusting that the more informed the boating public is, the better its choices will be.

Every skipper likes to think that they would be sensible enough to call off a boating trip when confronted with dangerous sea conditions. But the reality is that, after spending the better part of the morning packing up your boat, hitching it to your car, fuelling it up and driving all the way to the coast, some are tempted to ignore unfavourable conditions and tempt fate on the basis that their experience and skill will get them through. Unfortunately, it’s a decision many come to regret.

IF IN DOUBT

“Coastal bars can be tricky to negotiate and cross safely, even for the most experienced boaters,” Minister Tripoldi says. “When considering crossing a bar, the best catch phrase for skippers ­– who are ultimately responsible for the safety of all on board ­– is ‘if in doubt, don’t go out.’”

 

Coastalwatch business development officer, Chris Tola says that the focus is the information; it’s up to the boater to make up his own mind what he does with it. “We don’t want to tell anybody whether they should go boating,” he says. “We just want to give them some tools to help them make their own decisions.”

Curiously, even though it has operated a network of web cameras at beaches around Australia for almost a decade, only recently has Coastalwatch.com recognised that the information it collects and displays can be useful to Australia’s boaters. The discovery could be a boon for Australian recreational boating. Apart from the new cameras set up in Narooma, additional locations will soon include Seaway Spit, Duranbah and Port Macquarie, due to their popularity with boaters.

SURF BEGINNINGS

It’s been nine years since the founder of Coastalwatch, Chris Lane, mounted his first streaming webcam on the beach at Burleigh Heads, near Surfers Paradise. Like most surfers, Chris just wanted to share his passion for his sport with his mates. But unlike most surfers, Chris drew on his health science degree, a master’s in IT and a diploma in electronic engineering to do it. By the end of 1998, he had a website that he and his friends could use to check surf conditions before they left their homes. Since then, it has evolved into an informative and user-friendly site, popular with an increasing range of coastal user groups around the country and overseas.

Today, Coastalwatch.com draws on live-feeds from 84 cameras throughout Australia. A team of 32 surf reporters, swell forecasters and PhD students around the country combines the information provided by the webcams with weather and surf data from the Bureau of Meteorology. The result is a site visited daily by surf lifesavers, marine rescue organisations, beach-goers, overseas tourists and, increasingly, Australia’s boaters. Coastalwatch.com is now Australia’s premier web-based coastal viewing site. In recent times, its Nobbys Beach camera was extremely popular with viewers keen to watch the progress of the Pasha Bulker salvage.

Curious boaters logging on to the site will find that, although biased towards surfing and the surf lifestyle, Coastalwatch.com is full of useful information for boaters. Amidst the surfing news, there is a great deal of well-organised facts and figures. In addition to live video, there’s a surf and weather report that includes minutiae such as UV index, wind speed and water temperature. Following the ‘full forecast’ link on the site will take you to a bewildering array of charts, graphs and analysis and reveal the serious science behind Coastalwatch.com.

COASTALCOMS

The surf-enthusiast founders of the website soon realised that, with all the information they were gathering on the weather and tide conditions, they were also compiling one of the most extensive catalogues of marine data in the world. That’s when they developed the Coastal Conditions Monitoring System (‘CoastalCOMS’).

While the average boater and surfer uses the daily weather updates from Coastalwatch.com to decide when and where to hit the water, the information from CoastalCOMS goes to coastal management authorities to decide how to develop long-range plans to support local beach maintenance.

CoastalCOMS is all science. It gathers all the data from the Coastalwatch website and uses it to make weather predictions and identify broad trends and how they affect various beaches. To do this, Coastalwatch computer techs developed the most complex swell forecasting computer model in the world ­– ANNA (Artificial Neural Network for Australia). Basically, ANNA learns an enormous amount about the weather and geography of a region and then makes long-range predictions about beach, surf and harbour conditions.

It remains to be seen how instant access to so much information will affect the boating scene in Australia. Certainly, it has the potential to save lives. But is there a downside? Local tourism business owners in Narooma have already expressed some concern that, while streaming video of Narooma Bay could boost tourism, it may also scare potential tourists away.

Fundamentally, though, having more information at your disposal means you can make more informed decisions about your recreational boating time. It has the potential to improve the boating experience and certainly to enhance marine safety. Admittedly, there is no teacher like the sea, and the real test of knowledge comes only when you are out on the boat. But the information you get from Coastalwatch.com could, at least, put you at the head of the class come test time.

 

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