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October 26, 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 challenge and economy are the two biggest reasons for taking small boats offshore. Many cite the unique satisfaction of taking on the ocean to fish it on their own terms, knowing they have the boat, the knowledge and the ability to get out there, catch some good fish and get back.

"There's definitely the excitement of being out there in a small boat where you're in control and doing your own thing," says Angelo Cuanang, West Coast offshore fishing writer and expert who regularly runs out as much as 50 to 60 miles to fish off San Francisco Bay. He's done so for many years — all in a 17-foot Whaler.

One school of thought from skilled mariners actually considers a smaller hull advantageous in large swells. Tom King, a professional mate in Massachusetts, for years made the 20-plus-mile run to fish Stellwagen Bank from his 19-foot Midland ("a Nova Scotia-style hull," he says, with a very high bow and very low freeboard). "We came home riding on top of the big seas like an eggshell, while much bigger sport-fishing boats were having a tough time rolling in the swells."

In the right hands, a small boat does have an element of safety that much larger hulls lose: responsiveness. Bill Potter, boat builder and designer of the original Sea Craft and Hobie Power Skiff hulls, agrees, "A smaller boat can respond much more quickly to the motion of the seas."

Economy of Size
Besides the challenge, downsized boats are relatively cheap and easy. Start comparing costs of purchase, insurance, moorage or storage, maintenance and so on for a 25-foot center-console with those of a 17-footer. Then of course there are fuel costs. A day fishing a brutally seaworthy 25 with twin 175s can easily set you back a figure topping three digits — and that's not counting oil. But you can run out and troll all day in a 17 with a 75 for no more than 20 or 30 bucks.

Lots of fishermen will trailer their boats 50 to 100 miles at the drop of a hat. Let's see ... double-axle trailer behind a full-size V-8 pickup — versus a light single-axle trailer pulled by a little four-cylinder pickup: There's still more economy.