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Heading Off, Holding On

Before casting off for the first fishing trip of the season, get these things in order
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ost anglers who look forward to fishing in the early spring waste no time prepping their gear. They’ll put fresh line on the reels, set drags and sharpen hooks. But whether you are aiming to brawl with bluefish or hunt striped bass with mossbunker, one of the most critical factors for success is a seaworthy boat. It too needs to be prepped to ensure it can get you out there and back safely.

Admittedly, when the call comes in that the fish are chomping, an angler’s enthusiasm for a bent rod may take precedence over finishing those remaining maintenance jobs on the boat. Cosmetic chores—like a final coat of wax for the stainless-steel bowrail—can wait, but that’s not true for important safety procedures, like making sure the boat’s navigation electronics are all in good working order.

I learned that lesson the hard way years ago, on a sunny morning in May, when a friend called wanting to troll a few hours for bluefish. He had heard reports that the racer blues were stacked up on Manasquan Ridge just a few easy miles from Manasquan Inlet in New Jersey. We arrived at the fleet, got our lines in the water and enjoyed a steady bite for a good hour. The action slowed as it frequently does when too many boats crisscross over the sandy hill, scattering the sand eels and other baitfish the blues dine on. So, I pointed the bow to the east and trolled toward the Southeast Lump to finish the morning.

A warm, southerly breeze changed everything in a hurry as the steady wind passed over the cool water. Suddenly, a curtain of fog was the next and only thing I saw. The fleet astern on the Ridge evaporated instantly. Worse, my stomach knotted when I realized my radar was inoperable.

I should have checked it out before leaving the dock, but I didn’t think I would need it because the weather looked fine and it was going to be a short trip. That was a great excuse, but truly inexcusable because I should have run the radar as soon as I left the marina to confirm its operation. All I could do at this point was blow the horn for one prolonged five-second blast every couple of minutes as I eased the boat toward the barn, hoping any boats on my course home would hear the signal and respond. None did. Still, I couldn’t be sure the coast was clear, or if other boaters fishing nearby simply did not know or understand sound signals in conditions of restricted visibility. There was one thing I was certain about: It would be a slow, white-knuckle ride back to the inlet.

Fortunately, visibility improved somewhat, and by the time I was 2 miles off the beach the fog was nothing more than a light haze. The rest of the fishing trip was uneventful, but I was frustrated by my experience and found an electronics tech to inspect my radar back at the dock. The old Furuno magnetron was shot and it was time to order a new unit. A week later I was back in business. The new radar’s ability to discriminate what I could not see in the fog reminded me to appreciate how safety is all about having equipment that works properly and knowing how to use it.

The more you use your boat, the more you learn about how fast things can go awry. Years ago, on a trip in the Out Islands of the Bahamas, a friend who served as mate on the 55-foot convertible berthed in the slip next to me called on the radio as he was headed back to port. He reported a super day bottom-fishing, having loaded up on grouper and snapper. This mate could rig a dead balao to swim better than it ever did when it was alive. He always caught fish and handled deck duties like a pro. By the time he was finished filleting a fish, you could read a book through its rack of bones.

I backed into my slip that afternoon, anxious to catch up with my friend, but no one was on the boat. I learned from the dockmaster that the mate had to be flown off the island because he had practically severed a finger while cleaning fish on the way in. The boat had been steaming home at 35 knots while he was busy filleting the catch when the convertible hit a swell. The mate then lost his balance, skidding on the wet deck. The fish he was cleaning and the knife he was using went flying.

That was an unusual situation, but it offers a lesson. The operator has to keep track of his passengers, and passengers must pay attention to their surroundings to keep things on an even keel.

Recently I was fishing with a friend in Florida. While unhooking a small bonefish from a rig with a pink jig and a trailer hook, he lost his grip. The hook whipped around and snagged deeply into his thumb. This happened while the bonefish was still flopping about. I got the fish off the jig, relieving the weight and pressure on his finger, and cut the line. But our day was over because my friend
appeared ready to pass out. I brought the boat back and we headed for the local urgent care to have the hook removed. We had to pull in our lines early that day, but no fish is worth an injury.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a number of new high-performance center console boats with triple, quad and even five outboards on the transom. They get me thinking about safety. In this type of boat, the skipper will have no trouble getting to the deep in record time so the crew can get lines in the water quickly. But to run the boat safely, particularly at high speeds, the operator needs to do what he or she can to keep visibility unobstructed. You need a good line of sight to be able to maneuver through big seas and avoid the floating debris that can appear as quickly as lightning. That’s important to remember, as steering this type of boat from sea level is very different from running a flybridge, which affords good visibility. Even in flat seas, the massive forward deck of a big center console boat can challenge the operator’s ability to see over the bow at high speeds or when coming up on plane. And it might be more challenging to judge the size and height of oncoming waves.

Many of these big center console boats feature rows of seating abaft the helm, where passengers can stay comfortable while the boat is underway. Before heading offshore in one of these powerful center console boats, make sure each passenger knows what to hold on to when underway. It can’t hurt to ensure your passengers will be comfortable before you leave the dock. For instance, make sure they feel okay walking around on a wet deck, especially if the sole is designed with molded steps leading to the bow. And don’t hesitate to add a few grabrails if the current setup is lacking in this department.

The first fishing trip of the season is always a milestone. To make it a good memory, watch the weather and be sure you leave the dock, ready for the mission.

This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.

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