With the grouper fishery shut down for the winter, many offshore anglers are targeting amberjack, which means a long run to deep water, often in challenging seas.
With cold fronts rolling down the Florida peninsula every couple of days, it can be hard to find a safe window of weather. And even if you plan properly, the ocean is still a fickle mistress as some friends found out during a trip off Clearwater last month.
The anglers, who asked that their names not be used because the incident is still under investigation, were about 50 miles offshore fishing for amberjack on a freshwater spring when the boat sprung a leak.
The seasoned skipper had just minutes to make a distress call and trigger the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon before the five friends found themselves in the water. Fortunately, a commercial fishing boat picked up the anglers after a half hour in the water.
But some of these situations don't have such happy endings. In March 2009, in what would become one of the most highly publicized search-and-rescue missions in the state's history, three football players died after their boat capsized in the Gulf of Mexico. Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith and Will Bleakley had been fishing for amberjack when they got caught by an all-too-common late-season cold front. The 2-foot seas built quickly to 4 feet, then 6 feet. All it takes is one wave over the stern to swamp a boat.
Offshore in the gulf this time of year, the water temperature usually hovers in the low 60s. Even if a person in the water is wearing a personal flotation device, the cold can still kill.
Hypothermia, low body temperature that occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, creeps up slowly. By the time a person realizes he is in trouble, it's usually too late. Judgment is the first thing to go, then motor skills. A strong person may survive for four or five hours, but unless he get out of the cold water, he is still on the losing end of a mathematical equation.
That's why experienced mariners don't call them "life jackets." They know that a PFD will keep you afloat, but it won't save your life.
The key to open-ocean survival is getting rescued as quickly as possible. Most recreational anglers don't carry commercial-grade lifeboats aboard their vessels (although those who have had them and needed them will tell you that it was the best money they ever spent). So salvation often lies in getting a signal to authorities as quickly as possible. That means buying the best VHF radio (and antenna) you can afford.
Even if you manage to get a message off to the Coast Guard, finding an overturned fishing boat in the gulf is literally like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
That's why smart boaters file a "float plan" with a trusted friend or relative detailing where they are going (including GPS coordinates) and when they plan to be back. That way if your boat goes down in seconds, instead of minutes, and you can't send an S.O.S., you still stand a chance of being found before it is too late.
The best advice, however, is to invest in an EPIRB, which sends a distress signal to an orbiting satellite so the Coast Guard will know exactly where to find you. At one point, these lifesavers were cost prohibitive to most recreational anglers. But technological advances have made EPIRBs smaller, lighter and less expensive. It's now possible to go to a local boating supply store and pick up a "personal" locator beacon for under $500.
But all the technology in the world still doesn't replace good, old-fashioned common sense. In many cases, tragedy could have been averted if the boaters/divers/anglers in question had learned and followed the basics of boating safety from a qualified instructor and done something as simple as checking the weather before heading offshore.
Take the time to know your boat. Don't overload it with people or gear (check the capacity plate). Make sure your safety equipment — flares, fire extinguisher, horn, signaling mirror — are in working order.
And if the seas start getting rough, put on a PFD. State records show that more than 80 percent of boating-related deaths could have been avoided if the victims were wearing PFDs.
The bottom line: It doesn't matter if you're heading offshore, down a river or into the woods, if conditions look sketchy, stay home. There is always tomorrow.