Think before heading offshore alone

Heading offshore alone, even with all the advancements in today’s equipment, is a dangerous game. (Picture by Chris Burrows)

On April 6, 2024, Jeff Kale, of Clover, SC, launched his center console from the Wildlife Ramp in Southport, NC, and headed offshore by himself. Later that same night, his family contacted the Coast Guard after they had become well past worried about not hearing from him.

Kale’s boat was found three days later, 83 miles east of Wrightsville Beach, with lines in the water. By the time it was called off, the Coast Guard search that ensued had covered nearly 8000 square miles, with no sign of Kale.

My thoughts and prayers have been with the Kale family ever since this happened. For his family, the pain they are feeling must be unspeakable. For me personally, I had only been acquainted with Kale a few times, since I live in the general area that he fished out of. Unfortunately, though, this is not the only time this has happened. I hate to have to say that I have lost two acquaintances and a close friend to the sea. All went offshore solo.

Great risk

Anything you do in life carries with it a risk. Let that be stated before anything else. Greater risk often equates to greater gain, not just in life but in fishing. So often, it’s the boat that runs the farthest, or on the least comfortable heading, that comes home with the tournament winner or a full box of fish. As offshore anglers, we not only deal with marginal (or worse) ocean conditions, but also balky motors, angry fish with big teeth, a whole host of equipment that can fail or hurt you, and the possibility of a freak occurrence. When you are by yourself, the chance that a minor issue can develop into a major one is exponentially greater than if you had someone else on your vessel.

Once upon a time, on a charter, I blew a fuel pump fuse which required me to remove an engine cowl and get all the way almost to the back of the outboard to change it. Not a big deal, except it was late in the day, and the seas were probably 6 feet and continuing to build. My mate was able to keep things fairly under control by tapping the other motor in and out of gear to keep us pointed down sea. I replaced the fuse, got everything back together, and we were underway. By myself, that would have been nearly impossible.

We all must draw our own lines with what our acceptable risk level is. Is there ever a situation where I would go offshore alone? I can’t say “no” outright, because if someone radioed me for assistance, and I was within range, I’d head that way. Would I go offshore alone to fish? I would not. For me personally, my line is drawn short of that.

I have no problem fishing solo inshore, but going out of sight of land by myself no longer has any appeal to me. I know a lot of people who do it regularly, without question, but it’s not for me. Elevated risk aside, fishing for me is a lot more fun with someone to talk to anyway.

Is it worth it?

I understand the appeal of the tranquility of the ocean, but I guess it gets outweighed by the fact that I am kind of a social being. I don’t like going that far out of my comfort zone, and we can be a lot more effective and efficient as fishermen with at least one extra set of hands.

If you do make the call to go offshore by yourself, at the very least, please make every effort to mitigate the risks the best you can.

A personal flotation device needs to be worn at all times if you’re on the boat by yourself. Some of the self-inflating ones are tiny, and you even forget you are wearing them. They fit under jackets or bibs just fine. Your kill switch needs to be working and attached as well. This is the very reason that boats come with kill switches. If you hit a submerged object and get thrown out, you don’t get left by your boat.

Newer boats and engines are starting to show up more and more with remote kill switches. These are great, but the same general rule applies. They only work if you take the time to set them up and actually use them.

Be prepared

Always have a personal EPIRB attached to you. If you do go over the side, activating it will immediately start a rescue operation, and the Coast Guard will know exactly where you are. If you’re in the boat and bury a gaff in your thigh, the same applies. Even if you can’t get to the VHF to fire out a mayday call, you still have a way of getting help to the scene as quickly as possible.

Speaking of the VHF, it is often your best friend out there as well. You may not be able to reach all the way back to shore, depending on where you are, but chances are someone else is in the vicinity that you can talk to. Scan the channels and see where the activity is. If it’s someone you know, hail them, and let them know where you are, where you are going, and what your plans are. If you don’t know the voice on the other end, it’s a good time to make a friend.

Most of us in the offshore world will drop whatever we are doing to help another fisherman if it’s an emergency. Introductions are better made sooner rather than later.

I think we all must concede that dangers exist when it comes to offshore fishing. Rather than give commands and state absolutes, I would just beg everyone to think about what they’re doing for a bit before they put themselves in a bad position. Do the potential rewards outweigh the risks?

Above all else, be prepared for what’s in front of you out there if you do venture out alone. The best tackle, rigging, and baits in the world mean nothing if we don’t come home to share our stories with our loved ones.

Reward, or tragedy?

Going it alone carries great risk, and with great risk, comes great rewards — sometimes. But the potential for trouble offshore is compounded when doing it alone. Every adventure has a risk, and sometimes, the potential reward just isn’t worth it.

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