Better Off Safe

10 tips from veteran skippers to help prevent injury on the water.

April 4, 2014
Capt. Terry Nugent and his fishing crew sidetracked their homebound run about 70 miles southeast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to help tow in a disabled vessel. Their good deed turned into a life-threatening event when nasty thunderstorms caught the two-boat caravan. “Winds instantly jumped to 35 knots and the seas grew 4 to 5 feet,” said Nugent. Right in the middle of the storm, the towline snapped. Nearby, lightning connected with the water in a blinding flash and a loud crack. Nugent reattached the tow line, and the storm eventually subsided enough to allow both boats to safe harbor. Nugent’s harrowing experience is proof that fishermen never want to feel vulnerable in the boat. Had Nugent known he’d be towing a vessel, he might have brought heavier towing rope. From lifesavers to simple fishing “hacks,” I surveyed 10 captains for tips to help prevent injuries on your next fishing trip. At left: In 2013, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued a Hawaiian fisherman, pulled overboard by a tuna, after he called on his cellphone (in a dry bag). Courtesy US Coast Guard

Situational Awareness

Anglers must recognize the inherent risks in the marine environment, says Capt. Tim Ekstrom, a skipper aboard Royal Star out of San Diego. “Consider when a fish is reeled to the surface with a loosely hooked lure in its mouth,” he says. For anyone on the boat not paying attention, a heavy-lure slingshot to the face or body can be a day-wrecker. The best way to minimize the danger is to lower the tip, or even point the tip straight at the fish, he says. That way, if the lure does come loose, it will aim directly toward the hull. Sam Hudson


“I always de-rig all of my tackle at the end of a fishing trip,” says Capt. Greg Hildreth, of Brunswick, Georgia. “That means removing the hooks, weights, wire and lures all down to the swivel.” But is it worth the effort to de-rig? “I know it’s a pain, but I’ve been fishing ­charters for 20 years, and doing this for 18 of them,” he says. “I’d grab a bunch of rods and throw them over my shoulder. I’ve hooked my shirt, my pants and even my hand.” Sam Hudson

Wayward Waves

Captains with boats capable of high speeds, especially in choppy conditions, must be aware of anglers’ positions in the boat. “Last year, a customer got hurt walking to the bow en route to a spot,” says Capt. Tommy Pellegrin, of Houma, Louisiana. “He walked around the front, and an errant wave tossed him.” The experienced fisherman received fractured ribs from a single lapse in good judgment. “Now I add a safety statement in the morning,” he says. “One wrong wave, and you could be kissing the deck.” Capt. Vincent Daniello

Be Audible and Visible

While boaters should never rely solely on mobile phones for safety, they can serve as a good backup to the ­essential VHF radio. But keep your cell dry: “I remember saving a couple several years back because their boat sank,” says Capt. Brian Cone, of Islamorada, Florida. “Their cellphones had gotten wet before they could call for help.” Also, make yourself visible to rescuers. “The best thing a person can hold onto in the ocean, other than a life preserver, is a white cooler,” he says. LifeProof

Stay in School

Capt. Terry Nugent, of Bourne, Massachusetts, recommends fishermen take a safety-training course. “My crew takes advantage of a free program put on by the Fishing Partnership,” he says. “It offers free survival training programs.” Check in your area to see where safety training is available; chances are it’s free or inexpensive to participate. Training often includes man-­overboard ­procedures, fire fighting, flares and EPIRBs, survival suits, life-raft ­equipment, helicopter hoist procedures, and basic first aid and CPR, says Nugent. Capt. Terry Nugent

Unhook Yourself

Mark Henderson, a captain from Cape Carteret, North Carolina, explains the hook-removal technique when the barb is buried beneath the skin. “Tie a surgeon’s loop in the end of a piece of monofilament of at least 20-pound-test,” says Henderson. “Slip the loop over the eye of the hook and down to the bend of the hook.” Press down on the eye of the hook, and hold it firmly with your opposite hand. While still pressing the eye to your skin, quickly yank the loop of monofilament away from the hook eye. Andy Steer

Pump it Up

“One vital piece of equipment is your bilge pump,” says Capt. Ray Markham, of Terra Ceia, Florida. Bilge pumps commonly have an automatic setting, with a float switch, for when bilge water reaches a certain level. If you’re unsure of the bilge pump, it’s worthwhile to fill the bilge with hose water while the boat is on a trailer to see if the pump kicks on. “It’s vital to know it’s working before leaving the dock,” Markham says. “On my next boat, regardless of the size, I’ll install a back-up bilge pump.” SHURflo

A Brush with Billfish

“We have to be careful with the clients when billfishing,” says Capt. Walton Smith, of Los Sueños, Costa Rica. The less tired the billfish is — or the faster it’s fought to the boat — the better the chances it could jump on board or pull the leader man overboard. “Be extra cautious with big fish because the angler is tied to the fighting chair with little chance to escape,” he says. Smith’s clients are not allowed to jump into the water with the fish. Doug Olander

No Room for a Lifeboat

Anglers with smaller center-consoles who fish offshore don’t always have room for an inflatable life raft, but Capt. Eugene Hensley of Galveston, Texas, came up with a unique solution when he owned a 25-footer. “Smaller boats can carry truck inner tubes, rope and Co2 cartridges in a small dry box with your ditch bag,” he says. “In case of an emergency, three or four inflated inner tubes tied together make a great, inexpensive life raft.” Inner tubes are easy to fill up, especially with help from cartridges made for paintball guns or even a bike pump. Winslow

Keep Your Wits

Consider these tips from SKA ­tournament-winner Capt. Vaughn Ford when the boat’s rocking-and-rolling. “Moving from spot to spot, make sure that you secure sinkers, hooks and leaders on rods for safety,” says Ford, of Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Ford requires his team to wear belt-pack PFDs when underway. “There’s no reason not to wear them,” he says. Keep knives placed so the sharp side can’t be fallen against, he advises, and make sure everyone is out of the way before the gaff comes out.

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