Going Offshore? What You Need to Know - Part 1

There’s something at once thrilling and intimidating about venturing out of sight of land in your own boat for the first time. You know in your head that with modern electronics and communications, the line between where you can see the coast and where you can’t is mostly meaningless. After all, in most areas of North America, you probably still have cell service when you cross it. It’s not as if you’re alone in the middle of the ocean. But your gut says different.

With some planning and preparation, though, your first trip offshore can be safe and fun. In this first of three parts, we’ll discuss boat concerns and pre-planning.

Can My Boat Go Offshore?

Heated discussions about minimum boat requirements for going X miles offshore are a staple of online boating forums. Ultimately, such discussions are mostly meaningless, since the answer is almost completely dependent on conditions. There are days when you can get away with running a 14-foot jon boat 50 miles out in the Pacific or crossing to the Bahamas in a poling skiff. Risky? Sure, but entirely possible. And then there are days when you’re going to get beat up before you clear the jetties in a 50-foot sportfisher.

So let’s take boat length out of the discussion for the time being and look at a few less arbitrary requirements for any offshore-ready boat.

Self-bailing cockpit

No open boat that doesn’t effectively self bail belongs offshore. Sure, you see flats skiffs that don’t self bail running the beach for tarpon in the southeast and aluminum car-toppers trolling for salmon in relatively protected waters in the northwest, but for going more than a couple miles out, self bailing is a must. Your boat’s deck should also be reasonably watertight. Water on deck should run out the scuppers, not drain into the bilge.

Reliable, well-maintained engine(s) and systems

Many of those online discussions about minimum size for offshore boats veer off into arguments over whether going offshore with a single engine is safe or not. Today’s outboards — at least when they’re well-maintained — are extremely reliable. Plus, many of the issues that most commonly leave boaters stranded aren’t engine issues at all; rather, they’re electrical and fuel delivery issues, most of which are just as crippling with two engines as with one. Are twins (or trips or quads) safer? Of course, but there’s nothing unreasonable anymore about venturing offshore with a single.

"many of the issues that most commonly leave boaters stranded aren’t engine issues at all; rather, they’re electrical and fuel delivery issues "

More important than the number of engines is their condition. Never go offshore with an engine you don’t have absolute confidence in. The same goes for other systems — electrical, steering, fuel and plumbing. Make sure before heading offshore that everything works as it should, even if it requires a pre-trip shakedown on the lake or bay. Pay particular attention to bilge pumps, VHF radios, GPS/chartplotters, fuel flow/consumption meters, navigation lights and scuppers (which can become clogged on some boats).

Seaworthy hull shape

It’s tough to quantify this, but common sense dictates that even in perfect working order, some boats simply don’t belong offshore. The most obvious requirement of an offshore-capable boat is a bow that’s high enough to ride up and over waves. Pontoon boats are dangerously susceptible to taking waves over the bow, as are many lake-oriented runabouts, tow sports boats and jet boats. To understand the importance of bow height and shape, just spend a few minutes watching the popular YouTube videos of various boats transiting Miami’s Haulover Inlet.

Planning Your Offshore Trip

All boating requires some level of planning, but to safely go offshore you’ll want to take some additional steps beyond just charging your phone and making sure you’ve got enough potato chips and sunscreen.

Calculate your range

The rule of thumb for offshore trips is to use no more than one-third of your fuel going out, no more than one-third coming back, and reserve the last third for the unexpected. Translating that to actual distances requires knowing your mileage at various speeds, either by using a fuel flow meter or careful observation over time.

Here’s an example: If you have a 90-gallon fuel tank, that means you can safely burn 30 gallons on your “outbound” leg. If you cruise at around 3 mpg, you’d multiply 30 gallons by 3 mpg to get 90 miles. But that’s if you cruise smoothly the whole way and don’t stop to catch bait, detour to check out mystery splashes or slow down for rougher conditions. Figure you’ve got 75 miles or so before you need to start heading back.

Remember that the analog fuel gauges on most boats are almost comically inaccurate. If you plan to spend much time offshore, you’ll want a meter that measures fuel consumption based on actual flow. Many modern outboards have accurate fuel consumption meters “baked in.” A number of aftermarket options are also available. With a reliable, accurate consumption figure, you can simply turn around when you’ve burned a third of your total fuel.

Check the forecast

Like analog fuel gauges, marine weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable. They do give you at least some idea of what to expect, though. To find your local NOAA forecast, start at weather.gov/marine and zero in on your area.

To see real-time conditions, visit the National Data Buoy Center site and zoom in on the map to find buoys in the approximate area you plan to go. Some buoys report only atmospheric conditions like temperature, wind speed, wind direction, etc. Others also report wave height, period and direction. If you’re lucky enough to have a buoy in your area, check it in the morning before you go.

"conditions offshore can — and usually do — differ markedly from conditions at the coast "

Regardless of what the forecast says, keep in mind that conditions offshore can — and usually do — differ markedly from conditions at the coast. Without any obstructions, winds are generally stronger and waves are generally bigger. Currents like the Gulf Stream can make waves larger and steeper. The cooling effect of ocean water can even alter the weather itself. In Southern California, for instance, it’s frequently clear and warm along the coast but gray and cool just a few miles offshore. Along the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, strong thunderstorms can develop quickly offshore.

Make a plan and stick to it

With your fuel calculations and weather forecast in hand, make a basic plan for the day. It doesn’t need to include where you’ll fish and what time you’ll eat lunch, but you should settle on a few things ahead of time.

"Once you’ve made your plan, stick to it, even if it means leaving a hot bite. Don’t risk getting back in the dark, worrying family and friends, or getting caught in dangerous storms. "

Obviously, you should plan to turn back toward home once you’ve burned a third of your fuel. But you might also want to set a maximum distance to go from the inlet or harbor. You’ll of course need to plan on a launch/departure time, but you should also plan a return time — especially in the southeast, where summer afternoon storms are almost a given.

Once you’ve made your plan, stick to it, even if it means leaving a hot bite. Don’t risk getting back in the dark, worrying family and friends, or getting caught in dangerous storms.

File a float plan

Always tell somebody you trust where and when you’re launching or departing, where you’re going and what time you plan to be back. Better yet, leave a written plan that includes that information plus a visual description of your boat, the number of people on board, a list of safety gear and your boat’s name or radio call sign. The Coast Guard Auxiliary provides a very complete downloadable Float Plan form that includes instructions for the holder if you’re overdue.

Go with a buddy boat

If at all possible, planning your trip with a buddy boat dramatically increases your safety. You don’t have to spend all day on top of each other. Just stay within VHF range — typically around 6 miles, but varies widely with antenna height — and check in regularly.

Make sure others on board can operate the boat

The possibility always exists that for some unexpected reason you won’t be able to operate the boat, so it’s important that at least one other person on board — and preferably more — knows how to run the boat, navigation equipment and communications equipment in the event you can’t.

"it’s important that at least one other person on board — and preferably more — knows how to run the boat, navigation equipment and communications equipment in the event you can’t "

 Show them how to start the engine (this sounds obvious, but make sure they know it won’t start unless it’s in neutral and the kill switch is in place), how to call for help with the VHF, how to use the GPS/chartplotter to get home, how to use the EPIRB/PLB/satellite messenger, where the emergency distress signals are and how to use them, where the life jackets are and where the first aid kit is.

Get a towing membership

The Coast Guard will rescue you if your life is in danger. They will not come tow you home if your alternator goes out and leaves you drifting with a dead battery 40 miles offshore but not in immediate danger. That’s where commercial towing companies like SeaTow and TowBoatUS come in. At $150 to $200 per year for unlimited towing, fuel delivery, jump starts and so on, membership is cheap insurance for both inshore and offshore boaters against having to pay full price for towing, which can easily run into the thousands of dollars when you need help offshore.