Offshore boating is challenging, fun and offers great rewards, but it comes with its own set of risks and, as the following accounts show, can be unforgiving.
At the time of writing, four recreational boaters had lost their lives on the South West Victorian coast over the previous six months. The causes will, no doubt, be discovered in subsequent inquiries and hopefully lessons will be learned from the tragedies. And just last weekend, two people were rescued after their boat capsized on the Evans Head Bar, NSW. It is reported that they had taken all the normal precautions – and yet things still turned nasty.
Many places along the coast only have access to offshore waters, while others may have sheltered water options with bar crossings to open seas. In either case, the potential for incidents and accidents lurk nearby.
Deciding to take your boat offshore is a decision that should not be taken lightly and, with the right approach, you can make going offshore safe and enjoyable.
PLAN EVERY DETAIL
On a recent trip to Mackay, I spent a morning at the marina watching trailerboats launch. The anglers were a varied lot, with some heading to the nearby shoals and patches, while others were heading to the outer reef some 80nm offshore. Apart from the occasional tinny that was going to hang around the breakwater entrance, the boats were very well set up for offshore operations.
It was obvious that these operators were experienced and had thought about the open-water challenges carefully. Most of the boats were around six to seven metres in length and were designed specifically for offshore and open water.
The right type of boat is vital. In open water, trailerboats in particular are susceptible to heavy seas and bad weather, and operators should ensure their boat is equipped to handle the conditions they might encounter. Trailerboats should have a deep-vee hull with relatively high freeboard, and a cabin – a windscreen and cabin canopy are highly recommended. These design features enhance seaworthiness and comfort. Seek advice from a reputable boat dealer if you’re uncertain about the suitability of your boat.
Planning for open water starts well before hooking the boat up to the trailer or leaving the marina pen. Considerations about the length of your trip, mechanical and fuel matters, weather and sea conditions and navigation operations should be started well before your departure.
Check your boat for seaworthiness and safety equipment. Pay attention to any through-hull fittings and especially the bungs. Ensure the anchor line is secured to the boat and stowed so it cannot fly around if waves are encountered. Consider using RainX or other suitable water repellent treatment on the windscreen.
Extra safety equipment is mandatory and varies from state to state – a marine radio, compass, EPIRB and extra flares are a minimum, but consider other items such as a GPS, charts, freshwater and protective clothing. A sea anchor is another good addition – in case of a breakdown, it can slow the boat’s drift and keeps the bow into the waves. A basic first aid kit is also a good idea.
Regular servicing and a check of steering, fuel and electrical systems should be done. If you’re running GPS, radios, lights, bait-tank pumps and so on, consider fitting a dual battery system, which enables you to run your accessories off one battery and leave the other fully charged to start the engine. Inspect your engine for any leaks or loose piping or wiring. Inspect the steering systems, looking for free running in mechanical systems and leaks in hydraulic systems.
Test the lights – even if you do not plan night operations – and the radio for power and antenna connection integrity.
A simple toolbox and spares must be carried, containing screw drivers, a hammer, pliers, scissors, an adjustable spanner, cable ties, spare fuses, spare fuel filter (if applicable), a good knife, de-watering fluid such as CRC, silicone amalgamation tape and electrical tape.
Prepare clothing and personal comfort needs for the conditions. Basic food and water supplies are essential, even for short trips.
Before you head out, lay out a basic navigation plan. Using a chart to plan your trip will also enable distance calculations, which will dictate the fuel requirements. Look for potential dangers such as reefs, rocks, bomboras or rips. Also check shipping areas, marine park limits and any restricted areas, which are all shown on official charts. Mark positions for GPS waypoints and identify any conspicuous landmarks that may be helpful to you. And check for alternative havens should you not be able to return to your base. When done, write down distances and compass courses for reference during the trip and to calculate the fuel needed.
Planning your navigation will also help determine the amount of fuel needed for the trip. You’ll also need your boat’s fuel consumption data – this can be based on previous experience, information from the engine manufacturer or data from an engine monitoring system. Remember that the actual fuel consumption will depend on the boat’s load and speed, and the sea conditions. For example, carrying more weight or travelling through waves can increase fuel consumption by up to 25 per cent.
Don’t forget to take into account your trolling activity and, if you’re going fishing, account for the weight of your catch.
It’s good practice to use the rule of thirds: one third of your fuel to get there, one third to get back and one third in reserve.
While it’s not recommended you carry spare jerry cans (if you do, this begs the question whether your boat is really suitable), but if by necessity you must, use containers that are rated for fuel, keep them well secured and ventilated, and use a hand pump or jiggle syphon to transfer fuel.
Weather conditions are an important factor in offshore operations and can be very different to enclosed water conditions.
The wind dictates wave height and direction – add to that coastal tidal flows and currents, and ocean swells that may come from a completely different direction to the waves and can be generated by weather systems thousands of miles away.
Watching weather trends before you go can assist in assessing conditions. The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has specialised maritime forecasts and an interactive forecast tool called MetEye. Using these tools can help decide the best time to go, but keep in mind that weather system movement can speed up or slow down over short periods. My experience with MetEye has been positive, with accurate forecasts and timings of fronts and changes.
Times of low and high tides are important, particularly if you have to cross a bar. Recently, an inexperienced sailor missed his ramp on return by 25 miles due to the current and tide over the day. He eventually ran out of fuel and had to be rescued.
If you’re not sure, ask the Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR) for local knowledge on weather and familiarise yourself with trends in the area you operate in.
BE PREPARED FOR EMERGENCIES
Preparations for going offshore should include a Search and Rescue (SAR) plan.
It’s always best practice to advise someone where you are going and when you will be back – this is critical for offshore operations and a layered approach will better the prospect of location and rescue. Advise a friend or relative and also log in to the local VMR group. Should anything go wrong, the information that friends or relatives can provide, along with the VMR resources and your EPIRB location, will maximise your chances of early and effective response.
While breakdown is the most common problem offshore, be prepared for other emergencies, too. Knowledge of recognised survival techniques is a must – you must be able to deal with emergencies should they arise.
Knowing your radio repeater networks and how flares and EPIRBs are activated will save time if something goes wrong.
ON THE WATER
Brief your passengers on what you expect them to do – such as where to stand, how to hold on, and so on. Those prone to seasickness should be encouraged to take suitable medication.
Have everything in the boat packed and secured. If you have to cross a bar to get outside, use recognised bar crossing techniques, wear PFDs, and err on the side of safety.
Radio the local VMR with your trip details and expected return time. Once safely in open water, it’s a good idea to place a landfall GPS waypoint to return to. Follow and monitor your trip plan to check all is going along as expected. Despite being in open water, keep a good look out.
Good trimming will give the most comfortable ride through waves and swell – bow down into the waves and bow up running with them. How much trim will vary from boat to boat, so trim for a comfortable ride. Bow down trim will increase fuel consumption slightly, but does reduce slamming.
Be prepared to encounter the occasional large wave – statistically, you will encounter waves twice the forecast height around four times a day.
Keep an eye on the weather and look for any visual clues of change. Dark water, developing whitecaps and lowering dark clouds are all signs of changing weather.
If heavy weather is encountered going into waves, a quartering technique helps. This involves meeting the waves about 10 to 15 degrees off head-on. This may mean you’ll zig zag your way to your destination, so watch fuel consumption, manage power and maintain situational awareness. Use medium power up the wave face and reduce at the top of the wave. When running with heavy seas, coordinate your speed with the waves.
Don’t forget the environment – discarded plastics and fishing line have a devastating effect on marine life, so take all your rubbish home.
You need the right temperament for offshore boating – leadership, patience and a sound approach to safety are key requirements. Maintenance, preparation and planning will reduce the chances of things going wrong, but the ability to deal with unexpected situations and emergencies is also required.
The majority of boaters enjoy their offshore activities because they are well prepared, have the right vessel and respect the sea.