Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Shallow runnings

"So, I noticed the charts here show a lot of water from zero to one foot deep. Exactly how shallow will you run one of these boats?" I asked.
With a laugh and a easy smile, Captain Mark hooted over the wind "Where I'm taking you, that depth finder isn't even going to read!"
Owning a new boat is an emotional experience. Not on par with major life milestones, but certainly one you'll remember. My first kiss, graduating from school, my wedding, my children's birth...  and the first time I ran the boat aground.

Not something you want to remember, and it's especially worse if the memory isn't "that time I put the boat on a rock" but is "that time I put the new boat on a rock."

Captain Mark flashed a mischievous grin. "You might want to let me drive."  I stepped away from the helm, trying to ignore the bottom skimming beneath us or that the depth gauge on the display read simply "--".

When we picked up 2fly and headed to Boca Grande for the week, I had three missions in mind.
1) Have a great time getting to know the new boat
2) Catch some fish
3) Don't put the new boat on a rock
Hiring a guide seemed like a great way to maximize our chances of success for all three goals.  At the suggestion of some of the great people at Yellowfin Yachts, I contacted Captain Mark Liberman. Mark operates a Yellowfin 24 himself, and he's happy to guide off your boat, too. With luck we could learn about fishing an area I've never been while getting some tips on running the boat.

Our first few days we were on our own. We stayed in the channels and diligently watched our depth. We moved slowly in waters shallower than 3-4 feet, and we frequently used the trolling motor to reduce the risk of banging up our shiny stainless steel Mercury prop. 

Now we were skimming south on Pine Island Sound in three feet of water, the Yellowfin 24 loping along at an easy cruise speed, me at the helm and Captain Mark at my side pointing the way. The broad open water of Charlotte Harbor was behind us, and bottom flashed beneath us with patches of sand and turtle grass as we weaved through braided islands and channels at 40 mph.
"You might want to go sit up toward the bow.The motor tone and pitch increased as Mark trimmed it up more than I would have thought prudent, and the prop launched a fountain aft and upward from the prop.
A Yellowfin 24 draws 14" according to the manufacturer's specifications. With the prop down it's deeper. With Mark at the helm and the speed up, we skimmed along less than a foot above the bottom.  A state of suspended disbelief set in as my brain tried to reconcile this with new-boat-owner anxiety. Stop worrying, smile, enjoy it. It seemed impossible but we never hit, and I know we could have run it shallower.

For someone coming from the Milford Mudhole, where the tidal range is 6-8' and depths change quickly, this was an education. So what did I learn? 
  1. Commitment. Once you're shallower than you can draw, you have no choice but to continue until you reach deeper water.  You better know what's around that next bend...
  2. Planning. You need to make sure you're going to a place with deeper water so you can stop without settling the stern into the bottom. You also need enough depth to accelerate to a plane again without damaging the turtle grass beds and leaving ugly prop scars.
  3. Go on a diet. Fuel is heavy. Water is heavy. Gear is heavy. People are heavy. Leave it at home or plan to stay in deeper water as appropriate.
  4. Motor trim. You can trim the engine up more than I was comfortable, to where the prop is partially exposed like a surface drive and the water intake will still be deep enough to cool the motor.  Raising the jack plate will get the motor up, but can also lift the intake too high. Trim also helps get the skeg up a bit higher.  Even trimmed up this far, the boat has plenty of power to stay up on a plane.
  5. Weight management. Even on a boat this big you should get the boat running flatter by moving heavy stuff forward. Full coolers and people should move forward of the console. Live wells should be emptied if possible. Don't let the stern squat if you don't have to.
  6. Local knowledge. Pine Island Sound typically gets a one-foot tidal range. A strong northerly or easterly can blow all the water out of the sound, and a southerly or westerly will fill it up. Our visit coincided with a full moon, and the astronomical high tides gave us a bit of a safety factor. Another day or a different breeze would mean areas that Mark took us would no longer be passable.
With Mark's lessons fresh in our minds, we ran the boat from Boca Grande to Pine Island for a relaxed lunch at the Tarpon Lodge.  On the way home we headed back across the sandy flats rather than the channel. With the boat hardly touching the waves, I trimmed up and smiled as the depth finder displayed "--".
We slowed the boat as we neared Mark's intended fishing spot.  He sprang to the bow and lowered the trolling motor. As he did, he grinned broadly and said, "I bet you didn't know you'd bought a flats boat!"
And Mark put us on some fish, but that's another story.

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