Small Boats for Offshore Boating

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

boating safety equipment for small boat offshore fishing
Armed with the proper knowledge and safety equipment, small-boat anglers can usually venture offshore with peace of mind.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing Magazine

What is the minimum size boat for offshore fishing? The answer will depend on who you ask. 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 Boston 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."

Offshore Boating Benefits of Small Fishing Boats

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 offshore 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.

Small-Boat 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 portable fuel tanks 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: marine 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.

The Right Offshore Boating 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 water, 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.

Pick the Right Fishing Weather

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.