It doesn’t matter if your boat is three metres long or 30, the safety of the crew and the vessel is paramount. Respected international captain and charter guide Tony Orton shares some idea on setting up a vessel at the smaller end of the range for safe operation…
I have pretty much run boats over eight metres in length for the last 20 years but three years ago I started looking for a second smaller boat – something that was easy to tow, easy to clean and would give me and my family heaps of options for estuary, lake and coastal fishing. We bought a six-metre centre console thinking this would give us our “small boat” fix, but in reality, this boat still has that big boat feel. So just a few weeks ago, we finally got our “small boat” – a 4.5 metre tiller steer from Extreme Boats.
During the setup process, I could safely say I was nervous and a little anxious about running a “small boat” and making it as safe as possible for my family and I. Knowing space was at a premium and I did not have the storage I have on my eight-metre charter boat, I was going to have to get creative and I in no way wanted to compromise on safety.
Before I got the boat, I made a list of what possible scenarios could happen and the safety gear that would be required in a small craft, keeping in mind the lack of dry storage I would have in a small open boat.
As the new boat is a vessel under six-metres, everyone should be wearing a life jacket all the time. The first thing we did was go and fit the entire family up in brand new, New Zealand made Hutchwilco life jackets. The kids got quality foam life jackets and Bea and I opted for inflatable life jackets. I personally went with the new Hutchwilco Fisher 150N as it’s got heaps of pockets for tackle and pliers etc, and it has a buckle that my ACR personal locator beacon fits on to.
A Hutchwilco fisher 150N life jacket with PLB attached is a great option for a small boat.
The 450 Extreme has duckbill scuppers, so it gets rid of the water while underway. I did think about putting in a bilge pump but went back to the KISS theory (Keep It Simple Stupid) and opted for a good quality bucket with a rope as a handle. It is surprising how much water a frightened crew member and a bucket can move! The bucket also acts as a toilet, rubbish bin, holds the berley bomb, makes a great bait board when upside down, and if you’re on a beach with the kids, makes the perfect sandcastle mould.
I did think about putting a fire extinguisher on the boat but realised it would rust and would be at risk of getting stolen. I also had limited space for it so went back to the KISS theory and realised my bucket with a rope handle would do the same job!
I am a big fan of having two plus forms of communication, so this is what I have on board.
Our two main forms of communication are a cell phone and a handheld VHF. For trip reports, I can either call Coastguard on my VHF or *500 on the cell phone. I also have a ScanStrut waterproof USB charger to keep both the VHF and mobile phone charged.
Other forms of communication we have on board are flares and a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) for an emergency.
A Waterproof USB charger keeps phone batteries and the handheld VHF topped up.
We have installed a 9” Garmin plotter/sounder to help us safely navigate and I also have the Garmin “Active Captain” app on my mobile phone that has all my charts and waypoints etc backed up. It is a nice feeling knowing you have two forms of navigation, and it’s also great to be able to have all your waypoints backed up online.
It is highly unlikely that this will happen as we have a brand-new Mercury four stroke engine, but with all things safety, it is better to plan for the worst-case scenario.
If we lost our main form of propulsion, I have factored in a few options that may be able to get us home or, worst case scenario, slow our drift while we wait for help.
MinnKota trolling motor: This is a great unit for either holding you in one spot until help arrives or for setting a course and slowly limping home at 1-2 knots.
Sea anchor or drogue: Drogues are great for slowing the drift or keeping the bow facing into the sea if you’re waiting for help. The sea anchor is primarily used to slow the drift when fishing but is also a great safety device.
The sea anchor, or drogue, is useful for slowing down the drift or holding the nose of the boat into the weather should the motor fail.
Anchor: We set up the boat with a 3.2kg galvanised collapsible grapnel anchor, 6m of chain (approximately 1.5 times the length of the boat) and 70m of rope. This style of grapnel also works in sand and mud, as well as on foul ground.
A folding grapnel anchor attached to six metres of chain and 70 metres of warp will stop your drift in most situations.
PLB: I went with the small and compact ACR PLB. In a small boat, you have more chance of falling overboard so it far better to have a beacon on you at all times than a fixed EPIRB. The Hutchwilco Fisher 150N life jackets have an area where the beacon can be secured with a strap, ensuring it’s always within reach. The beacon has been registered with all our contact details to aid the emergency centre if it gets activated.
Flares: I have put two red hand flares and two orange hand smokes in a compact watertight container, which sits in our grab bag. Even if you’re going up the harbour and five minutes from the ramp, a smoke flare is going to direct people to an emergency very quickly!
VHF/Cell Phone: Two forms of communication, both stored in a waterproof container, are always ready to go. Make sure you know the VHF channel for the local Coastguard in the area you are fishing and have the *500 Coastguard number pre logged into your phone’s favourites file.
First Aid Kit: I have a small first aid kit in the grab bag that will cover most cuts, sprains and bruising. In a small boat, you are exposed to the elements, so dress appropriately to protect yourself from the sun, wind and the cold, including having sun- and lip-screen onboard.
When setting up the boat, I wanted something waterproof to keep my safety gear in. I looked at both hard cases and conventional grab bags, but most are not designed for small boats. I then found the 70 litre Kai Cooler fish bag. It is waterproof, hard wearing, and has foam in it to protect whatever is in the bag. A big plus is that it doubles as a great flotation device that could keep three people afloat.
The Kai Cooler, as the name suggests, is designed primarily as a fish cooler, so is useful as a backup if I get a few bigger fish. I keep all my safety gear in it, including my VHF, flares, spare life jacket, first aid kit and the like so they are ready to go if we have to get off the boat.
The Kai Cooler bag is a true multi-tasker, doubling as a grab bag for essential items and a catch bag.
While you might not specifically think of it as a safety device, most flat surfaces in the vessel, including the deck space, casting platform and gunwales, are covered with SeaDek, which offers great grip underfoot as well as helping to deaden the noise when underway.
So, after six trips in the new rig, including estuary and coastal fishing, along with harbour cruises, I can safely say this is the boat we have been looking for and the family are loving it. We feel safe and know we are going to be ready if the unthinkable happens.
Safe boating folks and stay tuned for a future article on how this great little rig has been set up for fishing – which is currently a work in progress.
May 2021 - Tony Orton
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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