Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Stay safe offshore during amberjack season

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.

Stay safe offshore during amberjack season 03/07/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 1:09am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays journal: Alex Cobb brilliant, Alex Colome worrying in 10-inning victory (w/video)

    The Heater

    PITTSBURGH — RHP Alex Cobb couldn't have been much better for the Rays on Tuesday, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning while working eight solid. And Alex Colome couldn't have been much worse, blowing a two-run ninth-inning lead.

    Rays starter Alex Cobb carries a no-hitter into the seventh and pitches eight shutout innings in his best outing of the season.
  2. Marc Topkin's takeaways from Tuesday's Rays-Pirates game

    The Heater

    RHP Alex Cobb continues to look better and better, which could make the decision whether to trade him tougher. Cobb had a no-hitter through six and threw his biggest pitch with a 1-0 lead in the seventh, getting Josh Bell to roll into a double play.

  3. For good of the Rays, Tim Beckham should embrace move to second

    The Heater

    PITTSBURGH — The acquisition of slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria said a lot of things, most notably that the Rays are serious about making in-season moves to bolster their chances to make the playoffs, with a reliever, or two, next on the shopping list.

    PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 27:  Tim Beckham #1 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates with teammates after scoring during the eighth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on June 27, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images) 700011399
  4. Rays at Pirates, 7:05 p.m. Wednesday, Pittsburgh

    The Heater

    Tonight: at Pirates

    7:05, PNC Park, Pittsburgh

    TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 620-AM, 680-AM (Spanish)

    PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays photo day on February 18, 2017 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Floida.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
  5. Rays sign first-round pick Brendan McKay to record bonus

    The Heater

    PITTSBURGH — Determining whether top draft pick Brendan McKay will be more productive as a pitcher or a hitter or can handle the demands of doing both professionally will be a long endeavor that could take years.

    Louisville pitcher Brendan McKay  connects for a grand slam home run during the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament against Notre Dame in May in Louisville, Ky. [Timothy D. Easley/ via AP]