Angling Alone

By Michael Vatalaro

Solo anglers face a unique risk when it comes to going overboard. The statistics are not in your favor.

When Shawn Kimbro stops the boat at a fishing spot, he makes a mental note of what he’ll swim for if he falls overboard — such as a nearby buoy. (Photo: Shawn Kimbro)

The joys of an early morning fishing trip, particularly solo, can be hard to capture in words. Solitude, the stillness of nature, focus of purpose — each is an appealing sensation in its own right, but when combined, they offer a glimpse into why Thoreau ran off to that pond in the first place. It’s just you and Mother Nature, connecting one-on-one.

I’m addicted to this combination, but until we added a paddleboard to our fleet, I had little practical way to satisfy my need. I’m up hours before the rest of my household on summer weekends. So a paddleboard seemed like an ideal way to get both a bit of exercise and some fishing in at the same time. A board, a rod, a smattering of tackle, a belt-pack life jacket, and a paddle would be all I’d need. I thought myself fully self-sufficient. But I wasn’t. What I lacked was a plan.

The first time out, I capsized. It was a moment of stupidity. Aren’t most accidents? The paddle popped out of the paddle keeper mounted on the cooler I use to hold my tackle, itself affixed to the board. When it happened, I just reacted, not thinking: I grabbed for the paddle, and over I went.

In addition to safety, wearing a life jacket will float you higher in the water column, giving you an extra “leg up,” both literally and figuratively.

The water in the Chesapeake in May is still chilly. I had on a long-sleeved T-shirt and shorts, so my movement wasn’t impaired, at least by my clothing. But I was clutching a fishing rod in one hand and a paddle in the other. And my board, which had scooted away from me, was being pushed before the wind, leaving me behind. What had started as an ideal morning had become a situation.

Have you ever tried to swim while holding a rod in your hand, or a paddle, for that matter? It’s awkward. Eventually, I caught the board, and with the rod and paddle back above water, I could concentrate on getting back on. Except I had no clue how to do it. While stable, my board has higher-than-average sides, designed to shed water around the deck. And the cooler is bolted down on the rear third, leaving little room to belly on. I didn’t appreciate any of this until I was looking at it from the water.

And there, in a microcosm, are the issues that other solo anglers face — no matter the vessel — when venturing forth. Stopping the boat, catching the boat, and reboarding are the keys to self-rescue. Along with staying on board in the first place (see “Every Step Needs To Have A Purpose”), having a plan for each of these stages of recovery can make the difference between a funny story and a funeral.

One-third of the 610 recreational boating fatalities reported in 2014 were fishermen, accounting for more than 200 lives lost. The statistics don’t state how many solo anglers are represented in this group, but when you think about when, where, and in which seasons we like to fish, the potential hazards quickly reveal themselves. Anglers often venture out early, stay out late, and sometimes do so in weather that keeps other “pleasure” boaters at home. This also means help may be farther away in the event of an emergency. All the more reason to have a plan.

“I fish by myself, probably more than I should,” says Shawn Kimbro, a fishing expert and the author of Chesapeake Light-Tackle Fishing. “It’s not a matter of if you’ll go in, but when. You’ve got to have a plan to get back aboard.”

Stopping The Boat

A boat that’s motoring away from you, even at trolling speeds, might as well be on the moon. Stopping the motor is paramount. “When I’m by myself, I’m always tethered,” says Kimbro, referring to the engine cut-off switch and its line. “But a short coiled tether is almost more dangerous than none at all. Cutting engines at speed will get you hurt. I like a 6-foot tether, 10 if I need to move around the cockpit.” For those who prefer not to worry about a physical connection to the switch, a lanyard-free wireless switch, like Autotether, that kills the engine if you go overboard, is a good alternative.

Catching The Boat

An Olympian in a Speedo can swim at around 4 knots. A middle-aged fishermen in cargo shorts or, worse, foul-weather gear shouldn’t expect to go even half as fast. So if there’s a 2-knot current where you’re fishing, and often we fishermen deliberately target times and tides associated with flow, there’s a pretty good chance that the boat will drift faster than you can swim. Then what?

“When I stop the boat at a fishing spot, I make a mental note of what I’m going to swim for if I fall in and the boat starts drifting,” says Kimbro. “I fish in high-current areas of the Chesapeake, so I’m looking for a bridge piling or shoreline I can get to if necessary. I always have a belt pack on and carry my waterproof cellphone in my pocket. I’ll worry about the boat later.” But if the current or wind isn’t pushing the boat away, or you’re able to grab on before you get separated from it, what then? You don’t want your first time examining your boat from the waterline to be after a fall overboard, like mine was.

Getting Back Aboard

“The first thing I did when I got my new boat was add a swim platform and ladder,” says Kimbro. “But even then, you need a handle or some sort of handhold to grab to help you out of the water. Most of us don’t have the same upper-body strength we did when we were young.” If you’re not already in the habit of swimming from your boat, you owe it to yourself to jump off, preferably on a summer day with someone else aboard to help you back on. After all, you’re testing to see how hard it is to reboard your boat without assistance. If your boat is like my center-console, which features a ladder stored separately from where it mounts to the transom, this may prove difficult, if not impossible. In that case, think about adding or modifying your ladder or swim platform. “I’ve heard people say they would hug the lower unit, and then ride it up using the trim button on the outboard,” says Kimbro. “But where do you go from there?”

Use The Head, Or Wind Up Dead

It’s a well-worn cliché that fishermen drown with their zippers down. But there’s truth to it. Moving to the rail, leaning outboard, and tying up one hand — each of these puts you in a compromised position. Combined with a bit of bad luck, a routine exercise can become a final act.

Ali Hussainy rarely fishes alone any more after nearly falling overboard miles off San Diego. I  was alone, trolling, and leaning outboard 45 miles offshore when the boat rolled funny,” says Ali Hussainy, co-host of the popular fishing show “Local Knowledge” and president of “I fell out between the rails where there was a gap in the corner by the transom. I caught one hand and one leg in the rail. My backside was dragging in the water. I was that close to going all the way over and dying. No question. It was a weekday in the middle of nowhere, not at peak fishing season. Nobody would’ve ever found me.”

Since that harrowing incident, Hussainy has stopped fishing alone, purchased a larger boat, and instituted some unusual rules on board his vessel. To reach the fishing grounds offshore from his home port of San Diego, Hussainy and crew often leave the night before, motoring slowly overnight to be well offshore at dawn. “No one’s allowed on deck after dark. If you went overboard, we’d never hear you over the rumble of the twin diesels,” explains Hussainy. “If a crewmember has to go, he can either use the head or open the doors to the cockpit and go right on the deck. I’m not kidding. I don’t want anyone near the rail at night.”

Make Your Plan

If you fish alone, you owe it to yourself and your family to think through each problem a fall overboard presents and consider how you would deal with each on your boat. If you can’t come up with a realistic plan, modifying your boat or your habits is in order. For me and my paddleboard, adding a surf leash solves my biggest issue — stopping the board. But my center-console’s ladder issue is tougher to resolve. I could stand on a trim tab perhaps, but I’ve never tried it. My plan needs work, and I’m going to practice next chance I get. 

Every Step Needs To Have A Purpose

Many would argue that the best way not to drown is to stay aboard in the first place, including Francis Zell of Hyattsville, Maryland, a schoolteacher, commercial crabber, and recreational fisherman, depending on the day of the week and time of year. “I’ve got about 3,000 hours on my outboard, and during probably 2,800 of those, I was alone on the boat,” says Zell. “I crab all summer long by myself. In the winter, I head out to chase stripers, usually alone.”

For Zell, safety is a matter of technique and long habit.

“I always walk the center of the boat, or have my knees against the washboard or gunwales,” says Zell. “I’ve never dropped anything overboard because I’m always in the middle of the boat.” When headed out for winter fishing, he takes this practice to the extreme. “I assume that if I go overboard in the winter, I’m dead,” says Zell. “I have a spot that I fish on my center-console, and I stay wedged between the console and the leaning post. It’s comfortable, and I have access to the controls. I never get up on the bow platform to fish. I’m on the floor. For me, it’s about making motions deliberate. I put myself through college working a charter boat, and I learned then never to take a step without having a purpose.”

— Published: February/March 2017

Getting a crewmember back aboard after falling overboard is harder than you think.