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October 25, 2001

Little Boats On the Big Sea

With the right know-how and precautions, it is possible to run a 17-footer 60 miles offshore.

Knowledge, Ability and Common Sense
"There is no federal regulation saying, 'Thou shalt not take thy boat and go (offshore),' and in fact the Coast Guard has authority in few places to prevent boaters from going where they want," says Capt. Mike McCormack with the U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue Unit in Washington, D.C. As a Coast Guard chopper pilot for 26 years, he's had plenty of experience plucking boaters from harm's way offshore.

To go or not to go is not the question, according to McCormack's philosophy. Rather, he focuses on knowing your small boat, recognizing when to go or not, and with what gear and preparation.

He recounts involvement in cases where small boaters perished before the Coast Guard could reach them, cases where knowing their boat and having the right equipment could have saved them.

When it comes to such small boats, "There's a big difference between a weekend boater and a guy who takes these offshore regularly, — and that's skill," says Potter, "The ocean's nothing for an amateur to fool around with."

Many who skipper such mighty mites far from land tend to be independent by nature. Still, many make it a point to travel offshore with another boat when possible, small or large, which in effect offers a "second engine."The Right Boat: Moderate Vees and Hard Chines

If you're looking for a good boat of 15 to 18 feet for fishing bays, channels or flats, you'll find scores of them. But if you plan to run offshore any chance you get, you'll find that blue-water mighty mites don't come easy when you start figuring the kind of construction, quality and design needed.

Still, there can be no doubt that with the specialized demands of offshore fishing, not all small hulls are created equal. When it comes to hull design, opinions vary — suggesting competent small hulls may come in more than one style.

A modified rather than deep vee comes in as the top choice among experts looking for the optimal small planing hull for big water. While the deeper vee of 21 to 26 degrees at the transom offers the softest ride through waves, "I would opt for a modified vee in the 17- to 20-degree range — for the stability. That way you still get some damping effect from the vee but also get some benefit of side-to-side stability," says veteran boating writer, Joe Skorupa.

Fuel capacity becomes a serious consideration for any small boat intended to go offshore. On the minus side: Many small boats have small built-in tanks and some provide space only for portables. On the plus side: Light boats with small outboards can go all day on amazingly little fuel. Case in point: My Hobie 15 with a Yamaha 50 (two-stroke) can run far offshore, troll all day and return with plenty of fuel to spare in the two 6-gallon portables under the console. Once you pick a boat, know its range and always allow for at least a 10 percent reserve.

A small but important point: battery placement. As boat designer Peter Van Lancker, responsible for many classic Whaler hulls, points out, "Our batteries are up in consoles, not in the transom and low where they can get wet." Keeping the battery astern and belowdecks in a little hull is asking for trouble.

One other essential element of small boat construction that becomes particularly important offshore is flotation. Positive flotation is required by the National Marine Manufacturers Association in boats less than 20 feet, but the best hulls are fully filled with foam, and the reasons should be obvious. In an emergency, water can force air out of a hull or sides but not out of foam. A light hull gains little weight (always a factor) but considerable strength and rigidity from foam.

Water In; Water Out
A small boat's likely to end up taking on spray and, on rough days, some green water as well. At the latter point, the scuppers become critical. (This assumes that no angler without a death wish would be offshore in a boat that's not self-bailing.) The scuppers must be able to get rid of water as fast as it comes into the hull — if not, you'll soon be playing submarine.

Potter says that transom height is another critical aspect for any small hull that will see offshore use. "Early on we learned in building boats that the greatest danger offshore in open-cockpit boats is the danger of capsizing from free surface water coming in — especially with waves coming over the stern," he says.

A small outboard boat offshore faces trouble fast once enough water gets into the boat to run to one side or the other in the seas, Potter says. To help avoid that, look for boats with a full transom. A cut-out transom may work with a really good, generous motorwell. Worst case for offshore: a low, cut-out transom with no well. If that describes your boat, stick to the bay.