Wandering the waterways

Doug King | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 3

Inland waterways come with their own set of challenges and, just as for coastal waters, preparation and safety are paramount.

During my years working as a water policeman I was fortunate to travel the length and breadth of Victoria patrolling waterways. I’d always looked forward to inland patrols … the stunning settings, varied waters, coupled with the feeling of getting away from it all were fantastic. It is these highlights that attract people to inland waterways right across Australia.

The beauty of our rivers and lakes provides the ideal setting for relaxing water activities, camping, and good times. Most boaties understand the dangers of going offshore and boating in coastal waters, but inland waters present additional safety challenges. I mentioned the enjoyable aspect of patrolling inland waters, but I also saw a fair share of incidents, some minor, but some potentially catastrophic and some tragic. On reflection, all were most likely avoidable. In fact, despite the huge boating activity on coastal waters, statistics show inland waterways rank in the top 10 for boating incidents.

I was called out one evening at Lake Eildon, a large inland waterway in Victoria’s alpine region, to search for three missing fishermen. It was a moonless night and they were found in a blind bay, tied up to a tree after becoming disoriented and lost in the dark. Checking that they were all okay, we advised them to follow us back to the boat ramp – a 15 minute trip. They stayed behind us until the relative safety of the main arm of the lake. The skipper said he knew exactly where they were and they would be fine. They headed off into the night with us following. A short time later there was a loud crash, followed by a splash.

They had collided with a dead tree after becoming disoriented again. No one was hurt, no damage done to the boat, but it was a salient lesson in the dangers of operating on inland waters.


The unique nature of inland waters requires good planning and research before setting out. Even if you’re familiar with a waterway, keeping up to date is vital.

While the normal boating regulations apply, inland waters can have special local regulations designed to cater for the waterway limitations and various activities that may be conducted there. Check your boating authority’s website for inland water zoning information or check with the waterway authority.

Most boat ramps will have signage outlining the rules, but don’t just turn up expecting to find detailed information. Typical local rules might dictate things such as direction of travel on confined waterways, zoning areas for different activities and prohibited areas such as dam spillways or swimming zones. Quite often, activities such as towed watersports may be permitted in confined areas where normally they would not be.

Always remember the overriding rule: all vessels must travel at a safe speed – that is, a speed that will allow you time to assess situations and avoid collisions.


It’s easy for calm sparkling waters and picture-perfect views to divert your attention from potential dangers. Take time to thoroughly check out the area where you will be boating.

In most cases, inland waterways do not have navigation marks or beacons, so dangers may not be evident and navigating can therefore be confusing. It is common for boaters to place temporary marks on dangers. These are often empty plastic milk bottles or some other floating container attached to the danger with a cord. Treat these with caution and, if you are not certain about them, check the area thoroughly.

A handheld GPS is a handy tool to carry with you and take note of prominent land marks. If you do get lost, stay put. You should have advised a friend or relative of your boating plans, so searchers will come looking for you once you have been reported overdue. It’s not recommended to travel at night due to the lack of navigational aids and unlit dangers.

Early last year, a fisherman on one of Victoria’s lakes had an engine failure. He attempted to swim the 1.5km distance to shore, but turned around when he struck difficulty after 50m. He was not seen again. Police reported a strong current in the reservoir because of water being pumped in and out of the catchment.


Boat ramps on inland waterways can vary considerably. The surface and gradients may not always be the best and the ramp length will vary depending on the water level. Inspect the ramp before committing to launching, even if you have been there before. If you wade in to check it, wear a PFD as drop-offs and holes are not uncommon.

On steeper ramps, boaters often place a rock or brick behind the trailer wheel to secure it while launching and forget to remove it. Look out for these as they can damage propellers. If you are launching a sailboat, look up and around for power lines.

Take a wider look around the ramp and check for a safe beaching location to use after you launch. On the subject of beaching: be aware that continual beaching up on the shoreline will wear away the boat’s gelcoat over time. In semipermanent situations like camping grounds, some people use carpet or an old tyre to protect the bow when beaching.


On rivers, look for snags, fallen trees and shallow areas (which are usually on river bends). Check to see if there are any irrigation or water pump pipes extending into the water and if you have a sailboat, look up for power lines.

If there are bridges, be careful of obstructions extending from bridge piers and check for any underwater debris that may have been left if repairs or renovations have been done. Speed limits will apply around structures like bridges, so slow down when approaching them.

Bends and narrow waters create issues for safe navigation, so a safe speed is vital.

You may also come across a mix of boats and activities, all with different needs and abilities to manoeuvre. Waterskiing, fishing, canoeing, and house boating may all be encountered, so be prepared.

Finally, be aware of the current flow. It will affect your speed over the ground. When heading upstream it will take longer to travel the same distance as when going downstream. This will affect your boat’s fuel consumption.


Large inland lakes are usually constructed for irrigation purposes and their water levels will rise and fall depending on the seasons. Each situation causes hazards. Releasing water for downstream irrigation will cause water levels to fall. Fall rates and times will vary. Use websites relevant to the waterway to check water levels and trends.

Falling water levels expose all manner of dangers. Tree stumps and dead trees are the most common, but shallow areas will appear depending on the fall and the underwater topography. An area you waterskied over yesterday may now be exposed or, even worse, have just a small amount of water covering it. The point here is: don’t assume things will stay the same – check for changes regularly.

Rising waters will re-float any wood that was exposed during the falling levels. Floating logs can become a hazard and, as they become waterlogged, they slowly start to sink and may be just under the surface. Keep a good lookout.

If you are fishing, avoid tying up to large dead trees. They have been known to collapse or fall without warning.

Water in lakes can be very cold all year round. During summer, the water’s surface layers may be warmed – however below the surface the story may be very different and this presents dangers to persons diving into the water. The body reacts to sudden immersion into cold water, causing gasping and hyperventilation. If you are underwater when this occurs it can be highly dangerous. It’s a good practice to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times in smaller boats or when alone. This may also be a legal requirement in some states.

Recently, on Lake Borumba in Queensland, a woman was injured when a ‘slingshot’ exit on an inflated tyre tube went horribly wrong. She was catapulted into a stationary boat onshore and suffered serious injuries. Despite being on the Sunshine Coast hinterland, there was no mobile phone coverage and friends had to walk some distance to find a house to telephone 000. Waterskiing, wakeboarding and other on-water sports sometimes result in injury. You should know first aid to manage any injuries initially and know how to get help promptly if a serious incident occurs.

Nobody wants an incident to occur, but good preparation is better than not being able to deal with something if it arises.


Fire is always a risk on boats, so be prepared and check your fire extinguisher is serviced and ready for use. If your boat has an inboard engine, be extra vigilant. If a fault in the fuel system does occur, the confined area of the enclosed engine compartment provides the perfect environment for an explosion.

Correct installation and regular checking of the fuel line, clamps, and carburetion or fuel-injection systems will reduce risk. Check for loose connections or clamps, look for split piping or areas where fuel lines can chafe. Before starting and after shutting down, look for leaks and any liquid in the bottom of the hull and always ventilate the engine area. If in doubt, don’t turn the key – get it checked out.

Be very careful in the water around boat swimplatforms. Exhaust fumes can collect there and cause illness or suffocation.


Being alert to the weather is just as important on inland waters as it is on the coast. Hot inland temperatures can give rise to sudden storms with high winds. These winds can be funnelled between hills or high riverbanks, creating a dangerous short chop. On large lakes in open areas, wind can build up significant waves, which reflect off the downwind bank, causing confused seas. Air temperatures overnight – even in the summer – can be quite cool, so be prepared for it.

Finally, keep in mind that inland waterways may service drinking requirements for small towns or farmhouses. Take rubbish home with you and keep the marine environment clean. Also, be mindful of erosion damage caused by boat wash.

Inland waterways provide great scope for various boating activities. Be well prepared and those activities will be fun and safe.

How to-Safety