When the water turns wicked

Photo: Pilgrim Television and Film

By Shelley Fleming-Wigglesworth
For Points East

When it comes to being on the ocean – whether you’re a commercial fisherman out there making a living, a sport fisherman on the briny blue for a day of rod-and-reel action, or a diehard powerboat cruiser – there is always one factor that plays a crucial role in everything you do: the weather.

Weather can be a seaman’s best friend or worst enemy. The sea can and will change on a dime at times, going from calm and mild to choppy with moderate seas, followed by conditions sufficiently dangerous to call for special tactics. Wind gusts can come on fast and strong. A quick shower can turn into torrential rains with unexpected thunder, lightning and fog. Freezing rain and snow and massive ocean swells can hammer a boat.

When the weather kicks up, it’s an unforgiving force to be reckoned with. And it’s up to each individual captain to decide how and when to maneuver his vessel when caught out in nasty weather. It’s the sole responsibility of the skipper to decide which conditions are worth taking a risk on, and when his boat – with the state of her crew’s health, her structural condition, her design attributes, and capabilities in a seaway in mind – should be home in port.

We asked four well-known and seasoned professional captains how they plan for and handle heavy weather when at sea. All four are showcased on National Geographic Channel’s hit television show, “Wicked Tuna,” and each is a top-notch giant bluefin tuna fisherman and consummate seaman. Here’s what they have to say about managing their vessels in the often-nasty conditions of the North Atlantic Ocean. And here are their respective preferred tactics and strategies, stored in their memory banks after years of sea time in their rugged little tuna boats.

Jogging into head seas
Jogging is the powerboat version of heaving-to, motoring into head winds and seas with low rpm, but with sufficient power to maintain steerageway and position and conserve fuel until the wind and seas diminish.

Capt. Timothy (T.J.) Ott fishes out of Broad Channel, in Queens, N.Y., aboard the f/v Hot Tuna, which was built by Dixon’s Marine Group, in Lower Woods Harbour, Nova Scotia. Hot Tuna is 48 feet long, with a 17-foot beam and a five-foot draft, and she is powered by a Detroit Diesel Series 60 that generates 825 horses.

When it comes to jogging in big seas, Ott said, “It depends on what kind of seas; every boat has its sweet spot. For the Hot Tuna, generally speaking, anything over 25 knots in a head sea, we’re jogging.” Capt. Brad Krasowski of the f/v Fish Hawk out of New Bedford, Mass., says, “The Fish Hawk jogs everywhere to save on fuel.”

Capt. Dave Carraro fishes out of Gloucester, Mass., with the f/v Tuna.com, a 44- by 18-foot Calvin Beal design built by SW Boatworks in Lamoine, Maine. With 1,000-horsepower Caterpillar C-18 power plant, Capt. Carrero says he jogs into seas in wind strengths of 35 to 40 knots and seas eight to 15 feet.

Capt. Dave Marciano runs the f/v Hard Merchandise, a 34.8-foot by 13.8-foot, solid-fiberglass Daniels Head Novi hull. Like Carraro, Marciano also fishes out of Gloucester. “The Hard Merch has a 210-horsepower Cummins B Series engine that gives the boat a top speed eight-and-a-half knots,” he says. “When jogging into rough seas, it’s important to take it one wave at a time if conditions are that extreme. You have to be cautious so as not to blow the forward windows out.

“The best bet is to not be out in those conditions. But, as any mariner knows, at some point we all find ourselves in the situation when all we can do is hang on and ride it out.”

Running with the seas
When it comes to running with seas, Ott says, “Anything under 25 knots, in certain sea conditions, we’re running. It all comes down to the type of seas. You have to know your boat and what conditions it performs best in.” Krasowski says he only runs it up to 15 knots to “clean the black carbon out of the Cummins motor.” Carraro says he tries to avoid running in following seas altogether. “Anything bigger than jogging seas, [which, on his boat, Carraro defines as 35 to 40 knots and seas from eight to 15 feet],” he added, “we should not be out.  However, if caught out,  and conditions worsen to a degree, I would be stern-to, unless waves were too steep and rolling was a concern.”

Quartering Seas
When asked about quartering big seas – positioning the boat so waves are abaft the beam but not coming straight up on the stern – as a heavy weather tactic, T.J. Ott says, “I pay attention to what the weather is doing and the distance between the waves. The tighter the waves, the more uncomfortable it is, and the slower we’ll go.”

Capt. Krasowski says, “We quarter giant followers, but we try never to get caught in them. With the forecasts and computers we have these days, we can stay on top of most conditions.”

Carraro and Marciano both try to avoid being out in conditions that would require quartering at all. “I prefer not to get into a following sea, particularly in extreme conditions or big seas,” Marciano says. “The danger of pitchpoling [somersaulting stern over bow] is real; boats are not surfboards.”

Preparations for bad weather
“We batten down the hatches to make sure there’s nothing free that could crash down and fall on someone,” Capt. Ott says. “We also make sure everything is secure in the cockpit and on the roof, and that we are prepared for a long, bumpy, wet ride. We make sure all safety gear is in its proper place – and everyone knows where it is.”

Carraro echoed Ott’s comments, adding a few more preparation tips: “When forecast conditions are to become a concern, we make sure all hatches above and belowdecks are secure, all gear is secure, survival suits are removed from the easy-access compartment and stacked by the cabin door, and that the flare kits are next to survival suits.

“The EPIRB is tested and checked, emergency procedures are reviewed with the crew, and an open line of communication is established with another boat nearby, if possible. Or timely position reports via a satellite phone are established with someone on land until we are out of dangerous conditions.”

Drogue or sea anchors?
“Yes, we have one but we don’t really use it,” Ott says, while Dave Marciano says, “Yes, we keep a sea anchor aboard Hard Merch. We use it if needed for extreme weather, or for just laying-to if fishing offshore and we want to limit the drift during the night.” Carraro said the Tuna.com does not carry a drogue.

Returning to port
“We come in at anything over 25 knots,” Capt. Krasowski says. Capt. Marciano agrees with him, adding, “Normally, we’d head back to shore for anything over 25 knots. As far as icing conditions, when we have below-freezing temperatures, my rule-of-thumb is to never leave in wind conditions higher than coldest temperature. For example, if it’s 15 degrees out, we won’t go out in more than 15 knots of wind. More than 15 knots will result in too much ice with spray.”

“We return to port if wind is forecast to be greater than 30 knots,” Carraro says. “We return for blizzards and icing, tropical storms, heavy lightning,” Ott reports, “or any time there’s over 30 knots of wind, as this decreases your chances of landing a fish, so you have to take that into consideration as well.”

Just stay in port?
“Unless there’s a bite going on, anything over 30 knots we’re in port,” said Ott. Carraro agreed and said, “We do not leave port if winds are greater than 30 knots unless winds are forecast to diminish in velocity.”

Offshore watch systems
“We tend to do three- to four-hour shifts, so someone will always be at the helm monitoring conditions and adjusting accordingly,” says Hot Tuna’s  Ott. Dave Carraro says, “If stuck offshore in a blow on the anchor, or jogging into or down a sea, someone is always on watch on the Tuna.com; someone is always on watch regardless of sea conditions.”

Some skippers’ sea tales
Fish Hawk’s Brad Krasowski talked about a close call one day when the weather changed abruptly and unexpectedly. “My worst night was 60 knots of wind, with thunder, lightning and 20-foot waves all night off Cape Lookout on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The forecast had called for only 25 knots. I was knocked out, and suffered a bloody head. I don’t know how I made it. I guess it wasn’t my time, but it was very scary.”

Dave Marciano said his closest call came shortly after purchasing his “Wicked Tuna” boat. “It was six months after I purchased the Hard Merchandise, and we were tuna fishing in the Great South Channel [some 60 miles southeast of Monomoy, off Cape Cod]. The winds were forecast to blow 35 during the night, but it was going to be quick, diminishing by sunrise.

“Ultimately, it blew 55 knots that night, and it was a long night for all the boats that decided to stick it out. Having only owned the boat for six months, I wasn’t sure of the vessel’s capabilities. But the next morning we were fine, and I knew I had a good solid rig after that.”

“My most dangerous situation was in 40 to 50 knots of wind with high seas,” reports Tuna.com’s Dave Carraro. “My crew and I were prepared, as we always are at all times, and it was a non-event.” T.J. Ott, who is in his 30s and the youngest of the four captains by more than a decade, says he has had some close calls doing some of the ordinary things that are not much of a danger in mild weather conditions. “Real rough weather with freezing spray needs a lot of attention because it makes the boat top-heavy and limits visibility,” he says. “It’s tough to get to the bow to defrost the windows safely without falling into the water; everyone has to be on standby and very cautious when conditions are like that. Luckily, it’s not something we encounter a lot, but, in that moment, everyone has to be ready with survival gear – anything could happen at any time.”

“Wicked Tuna” returns with an all-new season on Sunday, March 12 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on the National Geographic Channel. Shelley Fleming-Wigglesworth is a freelance journalist from Maine specializing in at-sea stories and maritime and commercial-fishing news.