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Rule the waves

By Ron Orr

Ron Orr advises

Running before the storm: with high winds and waves care must be taken when running the boat.
Running before the storm: with high winds and waves care must be taken when running the boat.

The rise came on late in the competition day. Few fish had been caught by other b oats and the temptation was to stretch it out as long as possible. We were catching, and there was a following wind and wave to help us on the way home. Sensing victory, we motored at full speed, our 4hp flat out, the boat surging through the waves. We were in high spirits and exhilarated as we surged homeward. In waves only three to three-and-half feet high, surfing down the occasional wave and enjoying a dram, disaster almost overcame us. It all happened very quickly – the 15ft boat surfed and then surged broadside to the wave, despite the tiller being hard over the other way. Suddenly broadside to the cresting wave, the moment of thrust from the engine assisted the threatened capsize. The downwind side of the boat dipped under the surface. We both threw ourselves desperately upwind and prevented a capsize – but only just. We shipped gallons of water over the downwind gunnel.

What went wrong? How could it have been avoided?

Back on terra firma and having recounted the incident to those with more experience and analysed what had gone wrong, the advice should be passed on and heeded by others. We had been travelling at just about the same speed as the following wave which gave a lack of control, slower or faster would have restored control. Given that we were already on full throttle, slower should have been our choice which would have reduced the tendency of the boat to surf. In writing this cautionary tale, various other aspects of boat handling can be highlighted.

Another salutory lesson
On Lake of Menteith another near miss. An experienced, professional angler and guest ended up in the water. Two thwart-board-type boat seats were in use, resting across the gunnels, both seats offset to one side. Crossing the waves side on, one seat slipped off and deposited its angler into the bottom of the boat – the wave, the height of the remaining angler, and the impact of all the weight on one side of the boat was sufficient to capsize it.

As if this wasn’t enough, after plunging into the icy water one of the anglers was too cold and his fingers too numb to inflate his lifejacket. The other was wearing his self-inflating lifejacket under his waterproofs, where it failed to inflate properly – just as well it eventually transpired both were foundering in water shallow enough to allow them to stand up!

Keys to safety afloat
1. Lower your centre of gravity when crossing waves.
2. Ensure seats are properly fitted and can’t slide off the gunnel.
3. Sit midships when making passage across waves.
4. Wear your lifejacket outside clothing.
5. Self-inflating jackets are preferable to oral inflating – either due to cold, or, worse still, unconsciousness.
6. Don’t carry your lifejacket into the boat, wear it!

Seeking shelter
Fishing in North Uist, we were well downwind again with a rising wind. The dinghy was small and light in construction. Although we wished to cross the loch, this would have meant being broadside to the wave, and thus liable to capsize. If the wind continued to strengthen, we would have been very exposed. The idea was therefore to motor upwind into the waves, make the shelter of the hills, and then cross the loch in the calmer, sheltered water. Indeed the wind did increase, along with the size of the wave. Motoring too fast would have buried the bow and even if it rose out through the wave we would still ship water, lowering our freeboard. We ended up nudging into the wind at half throttle, getting a fair pounding from the waves – hardly moving for ten minutes - before a lull in the waves permitted some momentum to be gained, which allowed us to claw back some ground, gradually increasing our speed as we neared the shelter of the land, and the waves receded.

Safety extras
Consider putting a compass into your engine spares kit; it is surprising how disorientating a fog or mist can be when there are no landmarks visible. A few years ago in an descending mist, although we kept a straight wash astern, we managed to sail 90° off course in a very short time before we caught a lucky glimpse of the sun and corrected our course.

Another item worth packing is small flares; these are also readily available and can be useful in summoning help. They need not be the expensive types used in yachting nor of the aerial parachute type – a hand-held smoke flare will give the most accurate fix and can be easily seen on the largest of reservoirs. If you are going to remote areas, do as the hillwalkers do – ensure someone knows where you are and when you plan to return. Take your flares, too.

Engines and safety
These days the water authorities throughout England tend to hire boats complete with outboards but elsewhere anglers take their own outboards along, mostly just clamping them on to the transom with no further adjustment. Remember to trim your engine properly to the transom of the boat. All too often anglers drop their outboards onto hired boats and don’t adjust the bracket by moving the drop-nose pin so that the shaft enters the water at right angles. This helps drive the boat at the right attitude, is fast, and and more fuel efficient. Transom angles on dinghies vary and so should your bracket angle. Adjust the shaft and have it enter the water at right angles when under power. This will have the propellor thrusting straight astern, neither lifting nor burying the bow. This gives best efficiency for fuel and best speed through the water. My four-horse has kept pace with a badly aligned five horse-power, giving me a good chance of being first over the drift on competition days!

Talking of fuel, remember to refill your engine before setting on a long return journey whilst you are still in sheltered water. Running out of fuel in the middle of an exposed water trying not to spill fuel or, worse still, falling overboard can be easily avoided with a little forethought.

A drogue can be used over the bow as a sea anchor to prevent the boat from broadsiding during filling or at other times during loss of power, eg during a squall with engine failure. Remember to tie your outboard on - a small snap-shackle on your engine safety rope is a good investment. Buy one for your drogue too, available from most yacht chandlers.

If the oars are held in traditional rowlocks, use bangles to hold them in place to stop them sliding overboard. My own preference is for pintels with oar-mounted swivelling sockets for ease of use, but this is only a personal observation.

Most outboard owners change the spark plugs and the gear oil as a matter of routine (and if they don’t, they should) but how many change the water impeller on a regular basis? These wear out, or corrode, sometimes losing one or two flaps that drive the cooling water round the engine. When you start your engine, particularly at the start of the season, look back to ensure a steady flow of cooling water at the rear of the engine. An uneven flow – or worse still, steam emanating from the vent - is an indication of impeller problems. Eventually no flow, no steam and a seized engine are the result. Some impellers are easy to change – two screws on a cover plate, whilst others require the bottom half drive and gearbox to be lowered to give access. Not expensive to replace, but expensive if not replaced on time.

If your engine has a shear pin, learn how to replace it - I am amazed at how often I have had to perform this operation for others who carry the spares kit but have no knowledge of how to do it. Don’t perform this operation over the back of the boat in open water. Apart from falling overboard, parts can fall off into the depths. Better to lift the engine inboard or - better still - do it onshore. Many new engines no longer use shear pins - inspect the rubber bush/splines and propellor annually.

A set of multi-tool pliers of the folding variety comes in handy – from changing shear pins to removing hooks – for cutting point and barb off before gripping and reversing the hook.

Even though you may have a pump for draining the bilges always take a bailer; pumps can fail – but are impossible to use to ‘pour the potatoes’.

And if you try to kneel on the gunnel to ‘perform’ overboard there is a real chance of follow-through and falling in – the bailer is the safest way.

Lifejackets are becoming compulsory at more and more fisheries, many of them loaning them out. They are often abused and of ‘pull to inflate’ stylings. Many of us are fine swimmers and think them unnecessary. Consider what happens if you are knocked out as you fall overboard, or if you lose consciousness in cold, early season water. For this reason, I would advise the purchase of a self-inflating lifejacket which you can ensure is properly maintained.

To summarise, load your boat safely and evenly, don’t go into or with the waves too fast. Take advice from those with experience – it will be freely given. Don’t do as we did on that near fateful day and compromise safety for the sake of another fish. There is always another day.

Safe and happy fishing.

A question of balance
There is a conflict of interests between fishery managers and fishermen. The priority of managers must be one of safety, whilst anglers prefer slow-drifting boats. For the former, a good freeboard and floatability, even when swamped, are the priority, whilst anglers want a slow drifting boat which can be achieved with low freeboard and, perhaps, flooded hulls. Low freeboard, as we anglers prefer, can cause problems when it comes to balancing out the weight in the boat.

A couple of years ago two accidents occurred and in both cases badly balanced boats were part of the cause. Heavy occupants too far forward in the bow caused the boat to capsize when it hit a big wave. The solution is simple: balance the boat so that it sits neither bow down nor bow up – both court disaster.

Nothing changes: incorrect loading and distribution of weight caused a capsize on two occasions last season to my knowledge, one unfortunately incurring a casualty.

With two heavy occupants sitting too far forward and a person of slight build on the engine, a boat set off from the jetty at the start of the day. The dinghy was obviously in a bow-down attitude with too little freeboard and when another boat crossed their path, throwing a fair wake, the bow buried in the wave and the boat capsized. All three on board were experienced, quality anglers.

On another occasion two anglers took shelter in the forward cuddy from the driving rain, leaving only one outside, on the tiller. On rounding the headland into a heavy wave, the boat did not throttle back with fatal consequences. We can all learn from this – load boats evenly. Not only is this safer, but they handle more easily and drift better when fishing.

It may sound basic, but when changing places in a boat, eg to take your turn on the oars, only move one at a time. I have seen two hips collide and as a result one angler exit the boat.

Long, narrow boats travel fast through the water but are far more ‘tender’, and this should be borne in mind when changing positions, i.e. stay low, and keep the centre of gravity low.

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