Planning and preparedness at the forefront for any offshore trip.
MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY!
Absolutely the last thing any captain wants to ever hear, or say, across a VHF radio. The decisions he or she has made up until that very instant, going back months, weeks, days, minutes, even seconds, could very well mean the difference between life or death for their crew and themselves.
In light of recent high-profile U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue (SAR) missions, we are going to dive into the topic of boater safety and preparedness. I must preface this article by saying I am not a licensed captain. However, I have spent more than 20 years on the water fishing fresh and saltwater, inshore and offshore. I have fortunately never been in a life-or-death scenario, but I have found myself in some hair-raising situations. I will also add that each person should research the minimum USCG safety requirements for their own vessel.
In this article, we will discuss boat setup, storage, planning, equipment and various procedures that will make you prepared to handle a crisis on the water.
My dad has always told me, “There are no mulligans on the water.” He’s right. You don’t get a do-over once something bad takes place, or a poor choice is made. Mother Nature is unforgiving and undiscriminating. She does not care how many decades of experience you have, what type of boat you are on, what equipment you brought or how prepared you think you are. Even the most salty and seasoned can have a tragic accident when they have made every decision “by the book.”
It starts in the off-season keeping up with boat maintenance and making sure everything is functioning on the boat. When I say everything, that’s what it means. Check all switches, pumps, lights, breakers, electronics and the like. Turn the engine keys to the “on” position and make sure you hear an audible alarm. This lets you know that the engine alarm system is functioning should you have a motor problem. Take the time to replace bulbs, fuses and switches that are not functioning correctly. This is also a great time to perform yearly engine services. Take care of what takes care of you.
I strongly encourage anyone planning on venturing into the ocean to have more than one bilge pump. I have two in my boat, with both having float switches and manual switches. I have one mounted higher in the bilge that also has an audible alarm.
If that pump ever turns on, it sounds a high water alarm. Some captains I know keep an extra bilge pump stowed away on board in the event they take on water and the existing pumps can’t keep up.
Capt. Richard Bloom, of Northeast Florida Fishing Charters, recommends an 800GPH pump, rigged with an 8-foot hose and 12 feet of wire with alligator clips. He can hook it up directly to the terminal posts on the battery. It’s wise to keep an extra 5-gallon bucket or two on board to help bail water if needed. It’s rudimentary, but it can buy time for rescue to arrive or gather all of your survival and rescue gear.
A functioning VHF radio is an absolute necessity. It’s become common place to have two on most offshore center consoles now. However, while this is certainly not a bad idea, having one mounted radio and then a handheld as back up in a ditch bag will also suffice. It’s wise to have a hand-held radio regardless if you have one or two mounted in the console.
Prior to leaving the dock, always perform a radio check. You can hail the USCG on channel 16. If you are a new boater and have never asked for a radio check, it should sound something like: “(Boat name) requesting radio check.” You should receive a response to the effect of: “(Boat name) radio check, loud and clear.”
Other Forms of Communication
Technology is a beautiful thing. The advancements made in satellite communication devices in recent years have made such devices affordable. There is no excuse to not have some type of satellite communication device. There are various brands and models that fill the price spectrum. Garmin In-Reach, Spot, Irodium SAT Phones, PLBs and EPIRBs are all well worth their weight in gold. They are so affordable now, it’s my opinion the USCG should mandate their use on all vessels as a part of the minimum safety gear required.
I use and keep two devices on board. The first is a SPOT Gen 3 device. This is a simple device that requires a yearly subscription. Amazon has the device for $150 with free shipping. The annual subscription costs about $150 per year. You also have the option of purchasing an insurance policy should you ever require rescue, for a few extra dollars.
SPOT Gen3 is a one-way text messaging device. When you set up your account, you chose three contacts with phone numbers and emails. On the face of the device, there are four buttons. Each button gets its own custom message that you make on your account. I have mine set up in the following fashion:
- Check-in message: “Checking in, everything is fine.”
- Headed home: “We are headed home, call when we have service.”
- Need help, not life threatening: “Can’t get home, need assistance, not life threatening.”
- SOS: (This is a standard non-customizable message that goes directly to SAR.)
Each time I send a message, the contacts I have chosen receive both a text message and an email with the message, as well as our current GPS coordinates. The device also features a tracking function, where any of the three contacts can go online and see exactly where we have been and where we are. Should you ever press either the Need Help or SOS buttons, the device remains on and active updating the GPS location every few minutes until the batteries die.
The second device we keep on board is a PLB (personal locator beacon). This device functions nearly identical to an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon), but it is more mobile. This device does not have a communicative function, only an SOS button. The device is registered with the USCG once purchased and is usable anywhere in the world. I prefer the PLB over an EPIRB because I can take it with me on other people’s boats, whereas an EPIRB is a stationary item mounted in the console or on the T-Top. The PLB I have is the ACR ResQLink 400. It’s about the size of one’s hand and is buoyant. The MSRP on that model is about $310.
There’s a noticeable theme amongst the topics discussed thus far: redundancy. It’s crucial to have backups to as many life-saving items as possible. As we continue to discuss other items and procedures, take note of the items on your own vessel you need to check on and possibly purchase a backup to.
The obvious requirement is to have life jackets for each person on board. Many large center-console boats are now taking four or six-person inflatable life rafts. While this is above and beyond the USCG requirements, it certainly is not a bad idea if you have the space and budget to invest in one. It’s worthy of note that these rafts do require biannual servicing. Many boats do not have the space to carry a large inflatable raft on board. An alternative to that are inflatable pool toys. They are cheap, light, take up very little space, and should you ever find yourself abandoning ship, you could easily blow them up while in the water. They make the perfect addition to any ditch bag.
A common problem I’ve seen is how to store life jackets in a way they can be accessed quickly, as well as from under water should the boat capsize. On our boat, a 28-foot Contender, we keep our life jackets in an aft fish box. I make sure that the latch is never locked. Should the boat capsize unexpectedly, the lid on that box will open from gravity and be accessible from under water. Capt. Jeremy Thurne, of the Reel Hazardous YouTube channel, recommends writing the boat name on all life jackets and other floatable items. In the event debris are found, SAR crews can quickly identify origin. Be careful storing your jackets in a T-Bag. The zippers corrode, and you will have a tough time opening it in an emergency.
For those unaware of what a ditch bag is or its function, this is a bag readily available in an emergency that contains crucial survival and rescue gear all in one location. The contents of said bag varies widely person to person. Here is a list of all the items I keep in my ditch bag. My bag is geared toward rescue as opposed to survival. I intend to be found and found quickly.
- Two bottles of water
- Propel flavored water packets
- One small bottle of 100 SPF sunscreen (sunburn changes your core temp and leads to dehydration.)
- Signal mirror
- Air horn
- Dye canisters
- Blow up pool raft
- One package of handheld flares (I keep additional flares in a dry-box in console.)
- ACR strobe light
- Energy bars (typically Cliff or Granola)
- Small first aid kit (I also keep a larger more complete kit in the console.)
- Small amount of para-cord (staying together increases find-ability.)
- Handheld VHF
The contents of this bag are 100% customizable to each person. If you have medication you have to take, it’s encouraged to keep several days worth in your bag.
I use the ACR RapidExpress Ditch Bag (MSRP $65.99). The bag itself is buoyant up to 15 pounds. It is lime green in color, making it extremely visible. There are pockets and pouches to help keep things organized inside, and the straps double as harnesses and tethers. ACR has complete ditch-bag kits between $560 and $810, depending on which configuration you purchase. If you are just starting out, this is a great option to get the basic contents in one purchase.
As we transition from safety to preparedness, it’s important to keep in mind that these ideas and topics are not a “one size fits all.” Implement them on your own vessel in a way that fits you and your needs.
Preparedness is similar to safety. However, they differ in that preparedness has the ability to prevent a situation requiring safety.
Tools and Supplies
On board, I keep a full wrench and socket set, a prop wrench, wire strippers, zip ties, PB Blaster to bust loose rusted or frozen parts, 3M 5200 adhesive seal, various electrical connectors and components, fuel filters, filter wrench and an extra set of props.
Sometimes a relatively minor mechanical failure can be fixed on the water. We routinely fish 50+ miles offshore. At those distances, we leave nothing to chance. If you end up with line in the prop, you can easily spin a hub or lose a lower unit. Being able to remove a prop on the water and clear it, or replace it, is essential. This also means having spare props on board. If you have twin or triple outboards, remember that you need one of the spares to be counter rotating. If you ever have to remove a prop on the water, tie fishing line to your tools and loop it to your wrist. Also, keep spare cotter pins and castle nuts in a drybox in case you drop them.
Two-stroke engines are still a common sight on many boats. Regardless of what oil you prefer, always keep one full gallon of oil stowed away for backup. You could run low, lose a pump, have a faulty sending unit, or any combination of them, requiring you to put oil directly into the bowl on the engine. If you’ve poured all your oil into the remote tanks, you won’t be able to get it out. In the same hatch that I keep oil on our boat, I also keep a fire extinguisher. Staying with the theme of redundancy, I keep a second fire extinguisher in the console.
A lot of these items are things we keep hidden in the boat, and they never see the light of day. I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Another example of that would be stowing away a half case of bottled water and a first aid kit. If you fish long enough, somebody will eventually get hurt. From my experiences, focus your first-aid kit on blood clotting and infection prevention.
Keeping bottled water hidden comes in handy. On hot summer days, it doesn’t take much to start feeling the effects of dehydration. In late July and early August, it can be downright sweltering trolling for kingfish on the beach. Having a way to cool off, rinse sweat off your face and replenish fluids is vital to an enjoyable day as well as stave off the effects of heat exhaustion.
Procedures and Routines
If I had to bet, I’d say that weather has been the No. 1 culprit for crises on the water. Having an accurate and reliable forecast can keep captains out of otherwise dangerous situations. I strongly recommend Windfinder Pro and Windy apps for all weather and ocean forecasting. In my opinion, they are far more accurate and reliable than NOAA. Being able to pick good weather days will significantly decrease the likelihood of finding yourself in a bad situation offshore; however, in the summertime it’s very common for severe thunderstorms to pop up out of nowhere. For this reason, we installed the Sirius XM radio module on our boat. This allows us to have satellite FM radio offshore, and we can also see an active weather radar displayed right on our Simrad screen. When we are way offshore, being able to see if there’s any pop-up storms between us and the inlet plays a crucial role in the decisions we make on how and when we plot a course home.
Creating a checklist and routine on the boat is something every captain should do, and it starts on the ramp before launch. Prior to splashing the boat, I am turning on battery switches, taking covers off the electronics, opening the bilge hatch, opening the console door, raising antennas and checking the drain plug. All of these are mundane tasks, but it seems every summer we see pictures on social media of boats sunk at the dock or hear stories of bilge fires from leaking fuel. Simply opening the bilge before launching allows air to dilute any possible gas fumes that could ignite when cranking the engines. It also allows me to do a quick smell check and visual inspection.
Once the boat is in the water, I’m checking to make sure my bilge pumps are functioning, performing radio checks, making sure my electronics are working properly and turning on my navigation lights. If I have guests on board who haven’t fished on my boat before, I do a safety briefing. I give them the rundown on where everything is located, what to do in certain situations, what to do if something happens to me, how to ask for help over the radio, etc.
What Can Go Wrong, And What To Do
Loss of Electronics: Dead Reckoning is an ancient form of navigation perfected centuries ago. In the event you have an electronic failure, having a working compass and an understanding of how to get home is an often-overlooked skill in today’s modern world. At a bare minimum knowing what direction land is, and at a more advanced stage, being able to reverse engineer your position and heading from earlier points in the day to plot a course not only to land, but to the inlet you left from.
Livewell Failure: One of my absolute biggest fears is a malfunction with my livewell. Should you ever find yourself in this situation, get the boat moving and keep it moving. This will buy you time to identify the source and stop it, to hail the USCG, and to get life jackets on and prepare the crew. Pay close attention to the behavior of the boat throughout the day, if it doesn’t feel right, take the time to check. I periodically will run my bilge pumps throughout the day as well. A clear livewell lid can also help you keep an eye on your bait as well as the water level in the livewell. If you know the pump is running but you see the water level dropping, that should be an immediate red flag.
Anchoring: This is probably one of the most overlooked dangers of offshore fishing. I personally do not like to anchor. For starters, it’s a ton of work and can be very frustrating. It can also be extremely dangerous, and most don’t even realize it. If you are anchored, the bow of the boat can only go so high. If a rogue wave or swell comes over the bow, the boat is effectively pinned and it will capsize. On the rare occasions I decide to anchor I will always have a knife at the ready to cut the anchor rope if needed. I don’t mean knowing where one is, I mean have one velcroed to the cleat at the bow of the boat.
Fire: If there’s a fire, put the wet stuff on the hot stuff. Get your ditch bags and survival gear away from the flames. If you have a life raft, be sure to deploy it on the downwind side of the boat.
Capsize: I have never capsized, nor do I plan on it. However, conventional wisdom is to keep everyone together and stay with the boat as long as possible. A boat is much easier to see from a long ways away than a few heads bobbing in the water. Sticking together is crucial, which is why I keep paracord in my ditch bag. If the boat is keel up and floating, get everyone on the hull up and out of the water. Warm water hypothermia is a real thing and has the exact same effects as cold water hypothermia. Getting out of the water will drastically increase your likelihood of survival.
The instant you realize something bad is happening, as the captain you need to take charge of the situation and immediately get on the radio with your MAYDAY calls, giving out your coordinates multiple times if able to. If you aren’t able to get the coordinates but know the name of the location or area (“I’m at XYZ Tug Boat”), that’s just as good. Any kind of description on your exact location is better than none at all or better than an incomplete set of GPS coordinates. Everyone on board should have life jackets on and ditch bags in hand.
This scenario is the worst nightmare for anyone, but by taking the time in the off-season to ensure everything is working properly, making good choices on when to go, having the right gear for survival and rescue, knowing what to do in certain situations, and some good ol’ fashioned common sense to avoid bad situations, you and your family can have peace of mind that when you leave the dock, you’ve done all you can do to ensure a safe return. Even those on tight budgets can afford many of the items I’ve discussed in this article. If it means one less trip a year or one less fishing rod, spend the money on a PLB or EPIRB. The one time in your life you need one, you’ll be glad you have it and so will your loved ones.
Don’t take the water for granted, and never get complacent.
Be a responsible boat owner by having the right equipment on board, and know where it is at and how to use it.
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