Staying Safe Offshore
By Frank Sargeant, Editor
from The Fishing Wire
The death of a young angler off the Louisiana coast this week reminds all of us yet again of what each of should remember every time we step into a boat: you are responsible for your own safety once that vessel leaves the dock. No matter whether you’re within cell phone range of 911 or many miles offshore in SSB range only, the brave folks charged with coming to get you often cannot get there in time to save you from your own mistakes.
Not to say that most of us don’t make those mistakes early on–and fortunately, most of us survive none the worse for them. I well remember heading offshore on Florida’s west coast to capture kingfish in a 15-foot jonboat with a single 10-horse outboard that only started when it felt like it, and without a sign of a radio aboard–and this was well before the age of the cell phone. I had 25 feet of anchor line on board, one gas-station sandwich and a gallon jug of water. It seemed enough to get out there two or three miles, catch fish and come home, and I did.
That sort of youthful impulsiveness can get you killed, of course, but somehow it did not. That was not the case in Louisiana, and a 19-year-old who loved fishing as much as most of us who read these words do is gone. We can never remind ourselves or our loved ones often enough that the sea is unforgiving. Here are just a few of the most basic reminders that help to keep us safe:
Never leave the dock without filing at least an informal float plan with someone who will know immediately if you don’t come back when you planned.
Never leave the dock without a dependable communications device. A cell phone can work if you’re headed a mile or two offshore or into the backcountry–but remember that cell phones are not waterproof. Get it wet and you’ve got nothing. Otherwise, you’ll need at least a VHF, which typically has a 25-mile range. Any farther, you’ll need a sat phone or SSB to have any hope of reaching someone.
An EPIRB is an essential piece of equipment today for offshore boating. Push the emergency button and the first-responders know you need help and exactly where to find you–it’s incomparable insurance at a modest price.
Never head offshore in a single-engine boat unless you’re accompanied by another boat. Every mechanical contrivance can break down. Even new engines sometimes get the hiccups. At least carry a “kicker” of 10-horses or better that can get you home slowly but surely if necessary. Twin engines add a big get-home factor.
Remember that fuel economy varies with fuel conditions. Burn no more than 1/3 of your fuel going out, 1/4 trolling, and 1/3 returning–always plan on some reserve because if a strong wind or rough seas come up, it can take far more fuel to get home than it took going out.
Both by law and by common sense, you need a quality life preserver on board of the right size to fit every passenger. Put ’em where you can reach ’em fast–you may have only seconds if a wave comes over the transom. In iffy conditions, wear the preservers.
Carry a lot more drinking water than you ever expect to need. At least a half-gallon per person per day is a must–and you’ll want twice that if you’re out there in hot weather. It’s wise to take enough for three days anytime you go offshore. Ditto for food, in waterproof packaging.
Rain gear keeps you comfortable in a shower, and if you’re adrift, it can keep you warm overnight. Buy good raingear for everyone aboard and keep it where you can get it fast.
Last but not least, remember the oceans are deep and wide–and your boat should be, also. Lots of freeboard, lots of beam, and the more length the better keeps you safe. These days, I’d consider a 25-footer with an 8’6″ beam my personal minimum, though I ran a 23 and picked my days for a good while without problems.
There’s no boat and no preparation that will absolutely keep you safe in all conditions. But following the basics of good seamanship and common sense can go a long way in the right direction.