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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.

The Right Equipment
No hull, however seaworthy and stable it may be, belongs offshore — ever — if it's not properly equipped. The most major piece of "equipment" is your outboard. A traditional preference among blue-water anglers has been twin outboards for safety. However, adding a second engine for the small boater may be either cost- or weight-prohibitive.

For an amount of horses similar to a single engine, twins add weight, and smart offshore small boaters make an effort to keep their transoms as high as possible. When feasible, a kicker is a great addition since it can get you home in a pinch — but, again, it may not be worth the additional weight on the stern of a 16- or 17-footer.

When the day is right, I fish 10 or 15 miles offshore in my 15-footer, but wouldn't consider doing so without having each of the following with me:

  • VHF — Fundamental and essential. The Coast Guard monitors channel 16 nearly everywhere around the U.S., and its choppers can find direction from VHF signals. Cellular phones have become popular everywhere, including offshore, and offer good backup. But McCormack warns not to assume these can substitute for VHF in a pinch since, he says, users may not find coverage in all areas offshore. Also, the Coast Guard is equipped to home in on VHF signals in an emergency.
  • Since small boats like mine lack towers and since VHF is limited to line-of-sight distance, I stick to a tall (8-foot) whip antenna rather than opt for a shorter, less obtrusive one.
  • GPS Plotter/Sounder — As critical for navigation as for fishing. Separate units are fine, but I prefer a single unit (capable of showing both chart plotter and sounder reading on screen simultaneously) to maximize limited space on small consoles.
  • Compass — With a good nautical chart, this will keep you headed in the right direction if your GPS fails. Amazingly, some small boaters venture far offshore with neither radio nor compass, according to the Coast Guard.
  • Extra Battery — With space limited and weight critical, I carry a compact, high-quality motorcycle battery and keep it charged up. If my main battery goes out, I can pull-start my small outboard and save the smaller battery to power my VHF, lights and electronics for many hours.
  • EPIRB — Again, I go small: A mini-EPIRB will set you back $200 or so, but that's cheap insurance in a real emergency. When activated, this cigarette-size homing device sends out signals at frequencies reserved and monitored for distress calls. (Says McCormack, "If I'm out there floating around and I turn on a mini-Epirb, how sure am I it will be heard and someone will come looking for me? I'd say 90 to 100 percent.")
  • Life Vests — Going offshore without them would not only be illegal but insane. Inflatables are now legal, making vests easier and less cumbersome than ever to wear.
  • Emergency Kit — including flare gun and flares, cyalume sticks and waterproof strobe lights. (I also make sure my boat's running lights are in good working order.) Don't forget a good flashlight and extra sunscreen.
  • Emergency Food and Water — At least a half-gallon of water8 some granola bars and beef jerky or canned meat can get you through a day or two.
  • Anchor and Lots of Rope — Even if you don't anchor to fish, you may find an anchor valuable, and plenty of heavy rope's a must if you need to be towed.
  • Sea Anchor — Space may preclude stowing a small sea anchor, but make sure you have at least a bucket or, in a pinch, even a spare life vest. Most boats tend to drift stern-to — the worst situation in a building sea. Your odds of staying afloat when broken down and adrift go up by a big chunk if you can keep the bow into the waves, and any sort of sea anchor will help accomplish this.

The Right Days
Given a seaworthy boat, properly equipped, everything else comes down to common sense. And nowhere can the small boater better demonstrate that than by reading the weather before and during a trip.

Starting out the morning in a 3-foot sea is a mere irritant to a 25-footer, but for the mini-boater who has his head screwed on right, it means a canceled trip. Many mornings I've arisen to find the small-boat forecast revised from the previous evening's 5- to 10-knot wind forecast to one of 10 to 20 knots. Anyone hoping to go offshore in a 16-footer has to realize his fishing days will be limited.

Look for periods between frontal systems, particularly fall, winter and spring when dead-calm days sneak in between blows. During the summer, high pressure systems often bring many successive days of calm weather, particularly in the morning. The run home in many regions may mean a moderate but manageable following chop thanks to afternoon sea breezes.

Just be sure you know the marine forecast for the day before you head out. When the forecast calls for light breezes all day and into the night, small boaters can usually venture forth with peace of mind. Otherwise, the best rule of thumb is a simple one: When in doubt — don't go out.