I have fished 'offshore' enough to know that 'offshore' is plenty far! Whether you go 12 (one horizon) or 120 miles you have to be self sufficiently prepared. The first and foremost prep is making sure your boat is seaworthy. The most common definition of the term is "fit to traverse the seas!" And we're not talking setting off for Cancun, just fishing 30 miles out, just beyond cell phone range, in the gray area of VHF communications and outside the shrimping fleet's range.
Not to worry, there will be a commercial fishing boat by any hour and you can VHF them, right? Sorry, all that Basa (Vietnamese catfish) you've been buying, has severely limited the commercial fishing in the Gulf. There is a slight chance that one of the Fish Monger Restaurant's five-day fishing vessels might show up. "My name is Captain Trigger, do you need help?"
If you had the foresight to fish south and west of the Fort Myers Beach sea buoy then you have a pretty good chance of hailing the Key West Express on the down or back leg. Or maybe you can hail one of the few commercial fishing vessels heading for the Dry Tortugas or returning. If you are still afloat, you have a pretty good chance of rescue.
Engine problems are very common on sparingly used boats but who can afford to run them all the time. The engines started at the ramp. They started when you moved to a better fishing spot but they won't start, now. But it's okay! None of your fishing buddies are diabetic without their medicine. You have plenty of water aboard; you did bring water not just beer? And you have a ready-made supply of Sushi; you did catch fish?
As you drift south your entire cell phone batteries die and you crank the engines until the ships batteries are just as dead. Then you remember the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon that your wife splurged all your money on last Christmas. There it is in the life jacket compartment still in its packaging. You'd intended to take it back; who spends $700 on such frivolity.
Your techie buddy reads the simple directions and does a test to make sure the batteries are installed properly. "It's working," he says before he pushes the button. And you wait and argue about whether that little yellow box will work and wait about two hours. After a while nobody says much until they see the light from the helicopter approaching and then they cheer the skipper's brilliance. He never tells them that he was going to take it back, never!
I love happy endings, don't you? I am not trying to scare you out of boating because there are just a few simple precautions that you can take to ensure your safety. I recommend spending the $700 on the EPIRB. It isn't even the price of a decent flat screen TV. These little jewels emit a signal that the satellites can read and will give the Coast Guard your position within 50 feet. So you drifted a little further, closer to your demise but there they are, less than a quarter mile away!
How far do you think you drifted? Ever hear of 'Little Shark River' or 'East Cape light'? It's pretty far and beyond the Keys but you'd have swung west of them and around Key West into the ocean. Oh yeah, your fishing buddies are really mad that you kept them out there for 14 hours. "Why didn't you activate it sooner?"
Do they all end up like this scenario? Not very often. More often his wife bought a new couch and end tables with the $700 or our 'braniac skipper' returned the EPIRB and bought several expensive rod-and-reel combos that can't catch sushi.
The other day two lifelong friends were fishing 'offshore' in the Gulf of Mexico south of Texas. A pleasant interlude became a life-and-death struggle. According to the skipper, the boat started to take on water as they were tied to an oil and gas well. All four bilge pumps were activated but water sprayed everywhere. It isn't supposed to spray everywhere but overboard. Clue number one.
Engines started and then died, Mayday over VHF radio drew no response, and they were out of cell phone range. A lot like the first scenario. The friend released the line to one of the many wells nearby and the boat went bow high, rolled over and sank quickly.
For 30 hours they were strapped together in the bitterly cold water as they tried to swim to a nearby manned well, but the buddy became hypothermic and couldn't kick anymore. The skipper made a decision to go for help and his buddy wished him luck and said, "Kiss them babies for me!"
The skipper left his best friend and swam for hours before arriving at an unmanned rig. It had food and water and a telephone so he called his wife and told her where the boat went down. (Clue Two). Three hours later he was sitting in Coast Guard station relating the story when a radio message said a fishing boat had found a body wearing a life jacket.
Clue 1: water spraying everywhere indicates a broken or leaking bilge pump hose. The device that could have saved them, sunk them. Pull on your bilge hoses to make sure they aren't loose or cracked while you're still at the dock. Clue Two, EPIRB's float and are activated when they get wet if set properly!
Boatguy Ed is a retired marine professional who used to make the world's best bottom paint but now his wife does, www.supershipbottom.com. He is a passed Commodore of Fort Myers Beach, 'Dead End Canal Yacht Club' and is still active in their social pub-crawls. Go to their Facebook page and comment on any and all of his writings; I dare you, boatguiEd@aol