One Saturday morning in July a few years back, I cleared New Jersey’s Manasquan Inlet only to be swallowed in an unpredicted wall of fog a mile off the beach. My radar gave me a good view, so I headed offshore to get away from the numerous bottom-fishing boats that were behind me. I don’t like fishing in a fleet, and I figured I could work some of my hotspots without having to worry about all of those weekend warriors in my boat’s wake. When I had arrived at a good location, my crew got to work coaxing fluke to take interest in hooks sweetened with fresh smelt and squid strip combos. The fog was still present and had blanketed all sound in a curious way. With the Caterpillar diesels turned off and the Northern Lights genset gently hissing out its exhaust, the cockpit was quiet.

Then suddenly, piercing the fog like a punch to the heart, the low whine of an engine and water splashing from a bow became apparent. From the helm on the bridge, I trained my eyes like a magnet toward the direction of the noise. I blew my horn, even though I didn’t see a blip on the radar. Less than a minute later, a 22-foot boat appeared at my stern. It was close enough for me to read the 4-inch-tall registration numbers on its bow. The boat’s operator then swerved away, passing not 50 feet from our rod tips. But it never slowed down. The boat just kept going until it disappeared into the cloying haze.

In the fog, your ears and eyes must always be looking out for your best interests. Small fiberglass boats don’t always show up distinctly on radar, especially when they are close or have been absorbed in screen clutter. Sharp lookout skills can serve a boat operator well. However, unlike navigation rules, you can’t learn how to be an effective lookout by taking a safe boating course. Time on the water is the only way to appreciate the importance of situational awareness.

An hour after that 22-footer disappeared, the breeze picked up, the fog blew away and the ocean was simply beautiful. The fluke were hungry. I found a gully in the sand with my sounder where the flatfish were holding court and kept returning to that hotspot, drifting over it time and again while the crew worked to catch the tasty doormats. In the distance to the north, I noted that a dark blue Hinckley sailboat under power was heading my way.

My drift and his course were becoming friendly, and it was obvious to me he was going to run right into my boat unless he changed his heading or I moved. When the sailboat was 100 yards away, I was convinced it was on autopilot or the operator was asleep. I called out on VHF channels 16 and 68, but never heard a reply. When the boat was 50 yards away, it swerved slightly inshore. As it passed me I could see the operator seated in the cockpit with his hands on his newspaper rather than on the wheel.

On that day, I took seriously my responsibilities as a lookout. As a result, we had a great day on the water. However, there could have been a grossly different outcome had I not been attentive.

I fish solo a lot, which means I serve as operator, angler and lookout at the same time. But I also run slower when I am alone because of the added duties. One day, while out fishing for black sea bass from my small boat, I was anchored when I saw a large-party fishing boat about a half mile away steaming directly toward me. I reeled in my line, started my outboard and pulled the anchor to move out of his way. The wash from the party boat’s stern went right over where I had been fishing minutes before. Tonnage prevails in many instances, rules and regulations notwithstanding, so I was not about to argue that I was there first. Once again, I had no way of knowing whether that operator was paying attention or running his boat on autopilot. I just knew the smart drill was to move.

The truth is, you never know what another boater may be thinking, if anything at all. That’s why you need to rely on yourself as the lookout for the safety of your crew and boat. This is particularly true when boating in a busy fairway or narrow channel. Navigation rules remind you to stay to the right so your starboard side is closest to the edge of the channel, but things can get confusing if the channel is wide and several boats can pass through the thoroughfare at the same time. Here, your challenge is to follow the boat ahead of you or pass it, while reminding your passengers to hold on as you negotiate the roll and wakes. But today it is becoming more common to be overtaken by fast boats operated by skippers who drive their vessels like they drive their cars. For that reason, keeping a careful lookout is more important than ever. It’s dangerous to change your course or drift off your heading without first looking behind you to confirm another boat is not hell bent on catching up to you and then leaving you in its wake.

A good lookout does more than just keep his eyes on boat traffic. When I used to deliver boats south to Florida and then back north, I taught my crew skills that could make the trip as uneventful as possible. On the ICW, I pointed out the need to be aware of the various channel markers and how skinny water can be
anywhere, including in the channel if shoaling was possible. I wanted an extra set of eyes not only to watch for boats and buoys, but also to notice when a channel marker could be missing. I urged crew to watch out for fish trap buoys floating near or in the channel, and to understand that a small branch sticking out of the water could be attached to a wheel-bending submerged tree trunk.

When we docked each evening at an unfamiliar marina, the crew and I would look for burrs or other ragged metal on pilings that could scar the boat’s hullside when we pulled into the slip. Taking on fuel and filling the freshwater tank were critical steps that were not to be rushed or left unattended while the liquids were flowing. On the ocean legs, which could run eight to 10 hours, I required crew to do checks every half hour belowdecks and in the cockpit, lazarette and engineroom. This rule was for our safety and also to reduce boredom for the crew.

According to a report I read recently that was produced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, carelessness and inattention are the leading causes of boating accidents in the state of Florida. I believe this statistic could ring true in many other locations. For that reason, always keep a competent lookout on your boat. That’s the smart way to keep from becoming a statistic. 

This article was originally published in the July 2021 issue.

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