Many of our larger dams, like the Vaal or Heyeshope, are affected by wind and high waves. Can you provide advice on how to handle a boat safely in dangerous water?
The death of FLW Tour angler, Nik Kayler in a Florida, USA Okeechobee boating accident makes this a timely and appropriate question. The tragedy has touched everyone in the bass community and prompted much discussion about boating safety.
A complete summary surrounding the fatal boating accident has not yet been released but the brief, official word from FLW officials is that boater William Kaisiah and co-angler Kayler, both experienced anglers/boaters, “encountered rough water and struck a wave.”
A similar tragedy could occur in southern Africa at any time. Boating regulations remain largely unenforced, smaller boats are common, professional rescue and/or fellow boaters can be hard to find, water hazards remain unmarked, dangerous crocs and hippos patrol many dams and the small size of most African lakes provide anglers / boaters very little big water experience.
The SABAA Super Final on Heysope Dam last December occurred during high wind conditions where big white horses swamped at least three boats and each required rescue. Sterkfontein and Vaal dams are rumoured graveyards for storm-sunken boats and every year there are reports countrywide of anglers who capsize. The good news however is that it is not too late to learn specific big water boat handling skills. Of course, it all begins with basic and prudent safety measures. A stowed life vest does no good when danger is afoot and selecting one in bright colours, as The Bass Angler magazine sub-editor Duncan Murfin recently proposed just makes sense. Boaters must also understand the limitations of their skills and equipment and know when to cancel a trip.
Our expert this month is a big water expert who faces the tribulations of big waves and heavy seas on just about every day, Julia “Juls” Davis. She is a Great Lakes charter captain who guides anglers in one of the world’s most dangerous bodies of water from her Ranger 621FS boat of nearly 22 feet, powered with a 300hp G2. Her experienced words of wisdom remain invaluable and could save your life.
JULIA ‘JULS’ DAVIS
-Pro Angler – Pro/Am Walleye
– Journalist/Photographer-Great Lakes Fishing Publications
– Lake Erie Fishing Guide – Juls Walleye Fishing Adventures
– Member – National Professional Anglers Association
– Member – Sandusky Charter Boat Association
Walleye fishing and bass fishing may have little in common, but boat handling skills remain universal. Fact is, walleye fishing occurs in big water and anglers who pursue the toothy American game fish quickly learn how to navigate it.
“Becoming a great boat operator takes a lot of practice.
And, with practice comes confidence. Having confidence to know what to do when the conditions change for the worse, will get you back home safely,” Juls says from her home on the south shore of Lake Erie.
Lake Erie is a huge body of water that spans four USA states and two countries. The Western Basin, where Juls bases her charter business, is the shallowest portion of America’s five Great Lakes. Shallow water creates dangerous wave patterns, called ‘sawtooth chop’
where waves are spaced closely and peak higher with less wind.
The veteran charter captain offers this solid advice: “It’s important to check the weather forecasts, and wave forecasts, before heading out, so you know what is coming in for the rest of the day and prepare accordingly. With today’s advances in technology, there’s no excuse,” she adds.
Juls rarely takes customers out when the wave forecast calls for anything over 3-4 footers because most customers do not have big water experience and will have trouble getting out of their seats.
The experienced captain details the importance of not only skill and preparation, but also running a boat that can handle the conditions. Juls fishes out of a 600 series Ranger, due in part to buoyancy standards. It should be noted that the 600 series Ranger Deep-V boats are a completely different animal than the 500-series bass line.
“I am not as concerned with top end speed as I am with mid-range torque, since due to lake conditions there are few days where I can open it up. Powering up a wave with ease is what I’m most concerned with,” says Juls of her Ranger boat that can top out at speeds in the high 50mph range.
“When I first learned to run big water my mentor told me something that I have never forgotten: ‘If you can feel it in your ass, the boat can too’, she hints of her boat handling philosophy.
Juls offers these tips for running big water and suggests they can help any boater who gets caught in a storm:
- Do not hide behind the windshield.
Get above it where you can “read the waves”. If you can see what’s coming, you can adjust speed to accommodate it. I change out the original driver’s seat pedestal with one that is a little higher. On the days where I need more height, I fold the seat down and sit on the back of the seat.
- Keep your hand on the throttle always, unless you run a hotfoot.
One hand should remain on the steering wheel, and the other on the throttle. Reading waves and maneuvering the boat requires constant on and off throttling. I keep one hand on the throttle, even on calm days, because seconds can mean the difference between safety and tragedy. A submerged log will appear at the last second.
- Use the throttle.
When travelling into the wind a boater must power up a wave
Let off on the throttle near the crest and let that wave go under you, in a way that you don’t drop off the top and fill the boat with water. Then power up the next one and repeat the process. “If you simply pick a speed, you’re going to get into trouble, because not all waves are going to be the same. Now, throw in a few boat wakes from other boats that turn the wave action into a ‘washing machine’ and if you are not reading the waves, and using the throttle for what it was designed to do, then you will find yourself in trouble,” Juls cautions.
- A following sea is the most dangerous but can be easily managed with patience.
Keep the motor trimmed down when running a following sea to keep the prop from blowing out and to maintain a grip on the waves. Power up the backside of the wave in a motion I call ‘surfing’. Once atop the crest, reduce speed and surf it. Allow the wave to set you down gently before repeating the process. “If you run a following sea too fast, you run into the danger of putting the bow of the boat into the backside of a big wave. Not only will it stop the boat in its tracks, but it will fill the boat with water from the bow. Then, all the waves following you will fill your boat from the back. It is imperative that the skipper has a lot of patience and just enjoys the “surf” until he or she is safely back to port.”
- Running the trough, or cross wave travel when the water is rough can provide a smooth ride.
The boat will rock back and forth between the waves but won’t get pounded. Simply, throttle forward in the trough between the waves and when it comes time to crest a wave follow the advice in point #4.
Juls implores anglers to have a game plan for changing weather and wave conditions and to know where to find shelter if necessary. “Always have a plan, and keep safety your number one priority when playing on the big water. Live to fish, and have fun another day!”