It was late afternoon, and the fishing had slowed somewhat. Some giant trevallies, the odd green jobfish and a solitary amberjack had paid us a visit, together with an ever-present and rather annoying pack of small reef sharks. A typical Midway afternoon just outside the reef. The two clients, a couple of Italians called Pepe and Elio, had had fun but were already looking to do something different. Some thirty feet down or so we could see the coral heads and the fish flicking through the chum-line. Suddenly, they scattered, and I thought a fresh shoal of GT's were about to bully their way into the queue. I was leaning over the chum bucket when I felt Pepe stiffen behind me as Elio hissed with electrifying excitement. I straightened up and followed the direction of Elio's gaze. There, ten feet away from the boat, was a totally fully-grown tiger shark, lazily swimming up the chum-line. It dwarfed the 22' Glacier Bay catamaran we were in. Incredulously, my companions had totally differing ideas about what to do. Pepe's legs gave way beneath him as he hugged my shoulder and whispered, 'Let's go home………now.
Elio, on the other hand, grinned with excitement. 'Let's catch it, Roddy. Can we ?' Well, no we couldn't. Mainly because I had no trace material on board capable of handling the monstrous serrated teeth circling the boat. In the end, we did nothing - just sat and watched it, all estimated 3,000lbs of it. Well, I did stop chumming for a while…………….
Two points should be instantly apparent from the above story - firstly, you do not a need a big boat to go to where big fish live. You also do not need a big boat to catch them………as long as you have the right gear onboard, of course ! In fact, when it comes to choosing between a big boat and a little one, it often simply comes down to the comfort factor and little else. A little centre-console will go as far and as fast as a 40' game-boat on a flat day, and catch as many fish. But, the instant the weather kicks up, the odds change in favor of the big boat. Shelter from wind and sun, comfort with coolness and warmth, less bouncing about and the ability to heat up food and drinks all contribute to the effectiveness of a large hull, and it is hard for those unaccustomed to fishing to see what the appeal is of a small boat. However, what many people do not realise is that there are literally millions of small boats around the world, and they all catch fish.
So, if you've finally decided to take the plunge and buy a boat, how do you start narrowing down your choice ? Obviously, some circumstances make the situation easy, and one of the most important questions when choosing a boat is what you intend to catch, and where. If you are routinely running 60 miles to a canyon for tunas and billfish, you are really making it difficult for yourself with an 18' Dell Quay Dory as your preferred vehicle ! Likewise, if you simply want to go up a tidal creek and fish for flounders, a couple of million bucks worth of Hatteras is going to look slightly out of place as well. And if you intend to keep what you catch, a couple of bluefin won't leave much space in a small Boston Whaler - in fact, by the time you've loaded a wireman, a chair, two 130lb outfits and five flats of chum into the same boat, you're pretty well stuffed before you've started.
So, sensibility is a key issue in deciding the length of your vessel then, but where do you go if you want the best of both worlds, have a limited budget, and want to keep the wife happy ? Well, I'll stick my head out here and say that three of the most important issues for me when deciding on a boat are as follows. Firstly, engines - outboards or inboards ? Secondly, chair or no chair ? Thirdly, and this may seem strange, is there going to be a head on board ? Looking at these three issues in turn, you will hopefully realise that the answers to them will cover a whole host of other issues.
The engines - there are three power options available (I discount water-jets at present), and I'll discuss them in turn.
Outboard technology has grown so fast and furiously in the last decade that there is no longer any excuse for choosing a diesel engine over an outboard purely to win the 'dependability' argument. Nor does the old chestnut of fuel economy still run true. I have run five boats powered by 4-stroke outboards in the last four years, and apart from dirty fuel I have had no major problems. In the same time frame, I have also been in charge of five large diesel-powered boats, and without fail each one of them has had a major malfunction of one sort or another. None of them requiring a tow in from sea (thank the lord for twin engines), and none of them an easily preventative problem, but they still occurred and it is simply a case of a large vessel being a complicated animal with more things to go wrong. If you buy a brand-new 4-stroke outboard, follow the manufacturer's instructions and maintenance schedule exactly, and look after and use it, you will be sorely unlucky to have a major breakdown with it in the first 1000 hours. And all you have to do is check the oil-level - not much more ! Compare that against a 200hp or larger diesel and I wouldn't expect a major problem to occur, but by heck it wouldn't surprise me either. Granted it is not normally the block which has the problem, but an ancillary item such as a water-pump, starter motor, alternator, thermostat etc. Modern 4-stroke outboards currently run up to 130hp in the biggest of the Hondas, and Yamaha, Mercury, Suzuki and others all have engines that compete on what is a very level playing field.
For me, I see no reason to power a small boat with more than twin 130's (as I would then be in the realm of inboard engines, personally), and so I will stick my head out here and say that if I had to power a boat with outboards, then they would only be 4-stroke ones for the foreseeable future - I have every confidence in them and like them. They are clean, easy to maintain, extremely fuel-efficient, quiet and provide lots of torque for a typically laden angling vessel. In addition, and this is a big plus, an outboard is easy to work on, makes a boat eminently trailerable and transportable, and you can get at that prop quickly in an emergency. You can also dry out on a mooring quite happily. Petrol and diesel are pretty much on a par now when it gets down to the pennies and so the cost factor between diesel and petrol engines rapidly starts to lean in favour of the outboard.
The second engine option is the ubiquitous stern-drive. Despite the fact that I have used them commercially, and many other people swear by them, they are not my favorite form of power. Yes, I know the diesel-powered versions are reliable, and I know the petrol ones are very quick, but my problem does not lie with the engine itself particularly, but with the propulsion unit. I do not like the gaskets and bellows needed to make the leg waterproof, and I have busted the gear-train in a leg several times, sometimes for the most innocuous of reasons.
In addition, because of the installation set-up, I cannot get around the engines for regular maintenance as much as I would like. To me, if you're going to put an engine of over 200 horses in a boat, it should be a proper diesel with a shaft and prop. Likewise, if the boat is small, power it with an outboard and you can take the damn engine right off the boat to work on it, replace it, or to make repairs to the hull, etc. For some reason I also find the leg of a stern-drive much more attractive to fishing gear than the leg of an outboard. Why this is, I have no reason, but it is still a minus factor for me.
There are alternatives to this set-up where a 'jack-shaft' is used, which in simple terms means the engine is amidships and connected to the outdrive on the transom by a shaft which commonly runs through a tunnel under the deck. This is a very sensible arrangement and one I would think long and hard about if I had to install an outdrive on a boat. It removes that awkward engine box from the transom and effectively distributes the weight of the engine in a far more effective position for a small boat. That said though, outdrive-powered boats theoretically have the best of both worlds in that the leg can be lifted for trailering and dry out, whilst a diesel-powered version offers dependability and economy and I am sure there are many satisfied owners out there who enjoy their I/O engines.
The final option for powering boats is the simple single or twin-engined installation of standard petrol or diesel engines with gearboxes and shafts. These installations typically involve the engines being situated nearly amidships, with a straight shaft driving a three or more bladed propeller. Commonly, twin-engine installations will have counter-rotating propellers.
Diesels are the more common choice of power in mid to large boats capable of handling the weight, whereas small vessels often choose petrol engines which are lighter. Either choice offers a situation where the engines can be worked on efficiently and easily, and in the case of diesels, dependability, fuel efficiency and durability are three of the most often quoted attributes. Indeed, of all the commercial boats in the UK under 50' in length, I doubt if 10% or more are powered with petrol engines, and I would not install a petrol engine of this nature in any commercial craft. To my mind, petrol, vapours and bilges do not sit kindly with one another when daily usage of a boat is in mind ! Other benefits of a diesel installation of this sort include the safety factor (as there is less risk of combustible instances !) and increased deck space.
To what conclusion does this all lead then ? Well, there is one further argument which is very often the crux of the matter - the availability of fuel. Some docks do not have petrol available and the nearest gas-station can be several miles away. Some locations do not have a dock, but they still have a gas-station! A trailerable boat is advantageous in many places where one can simply drive up to a petrol pump and fill the boat's tanks up directly from the nozzle ! Likewise, a boat equipped with a pair of 4-stroke outboards will hardly consume more than 20 gallons in a day's fishing. A 35' charter vessel though is going to go through a lot of fuel, whatever type it is, and therefore needs easy access to a supply. A small 25' centre-console powered by a lightweight diesel is probably not going to need much fuel though, and may get by with a supply of jerry-cans. It is all horses for courses.
Broadly speaking, once one has the choice of engines in mind, one then has to start considering the next issue before deciding about the engines anyway, because it all becomes relative. Chair or no chair ? If you are fishing for things which do not require a chair, you can have your choice of engines. However, should you want the use of a chair and heavy gear, standard shaft-driven installations are the preferred option,, particularly if you are an aggressive driver of a boat and like backing down, black smoke and wet anglers. Many outboards cannot back down fast - they stall. Having said this, there are thousands of boats, particularly in the southern hemisphere, which have outboards and a chair. Many of these boats though are of a centre-console or open nature, and much of the fishing is done running the boat pointy-end first. Personally, if comes down to a wireman and a leader, I will opt for the straight shaft every time, unless a chair can be mounted in the bow of a boat, and then we have a totally different ball-game in which everyone has a fine time, including the fish because it is often released before it knows it is hooked !
Anyway, engine-wise, anything up to 26 feet or so I would power with 4-stroke outboards if no chair was required. If a chair was needed, then it would be decided on whether the climate was suitable enough for a centre console, in which case I would happily stick with the outboards and go for a bow-mounted chair. If a wheelhouse or enclosed helm was required, then I would obviously go for a small lightweight diesel (such as a Yanmar) and a straight shaft. For those of you who know my predilection for power-cats, this is where I get into a problem since none of the small cats available at present can be outfitted with straight-shafted diesels !
Once we get over 26' or so, then the case for twin diesel installations becomes stronger, although to be very fair, there are a number of very efficient, fast and gloriously practical boats running around in hot climes with a couple of big hefty outboards snarling on the transom (some have three engines !!). Luckily for those who run those sort of boats, they do not have our fuel prices !!
So finally we come to what is my last issue, but is not necessarily yours - to have a head, or not ? This may seem a strange issue, but it actually has a number of complicated side-effects. Men are quite capable of standing up all day long and having a pee over the side, but when it comes to a good, um, you know what, some guys just can't bring themselves to use the old bucket routine. Happily, for those of you so afflicted, neither can the majority of women. A girl on a boat wants a little decorum and that is why heads are a necessity if you are thinking of ever having wives and girlfriends on board a boat for a long period. Of course, if you are a lady reading this, you'll know all about this anyway !
So, if a head is necessary, you have two choices. Either a small cramped one inside the steering console, which is rapidly becoming a de-rigeur option on most US-built small boats nowadays, or you go for the wheelhouse/cabin idea with something a little more comfortable. Some boats, of course, have other innovative arrangements, notably the Targa 27, for example, which whilst catering as a fine UK angling boat has an outside head. Some custom charter boats also have a head reached with deck access. A head need not be of ample proportions of course, and if that is not a major consideration there are plenty of US centre-consoles with heads in them, and a porta-potty is also an option for many UK-built small angling boats. But, here is the crux - if you go for the 'comfort zone' you automatically have somewhere to put other things in a safe and relatively weatherproof place - electronics, fishing gear, safety gear, clothing, photographic equipment, food, drinks and anything else that does not like saltwater. And (I speak from experience here) while a centre-console of any sort may be the best thing in the world when it is calm and hot, there were times in mid-channel when I wished I had a wheelhouse, no matter how big the boat. You have to make this decision based on the geographical base of your boat.
So, big boat or little boat ? If you work at sea for a living, you have to consider two further aspects which I have not covered here - your budget and what your needs are. If you're after a 60 mile license for the deep-water wrecks at the far western end of the channel, then a boat in excess of 30' (at least) and capable of cruising at 20 knots or more whilst looking after 6 anglers (at least) is going to be your obvious choice. If you're looking to go abroad and start up a charter business somewhere like the Caribbean or Kenya, then my advice would be to go slowly and think small with a centre-console with which you can make some money out of only two or three clients, and build up from there.
If you're a local angler in the UK, you can fish from almost any boat you care to buy. Some people fish from RIB's in the North Sea and the channel, and do well. Some fish far offshore in tiny boats, and some go the other way and have bought themselves a fully-kitted out 33' twin-diesel craft which they use on a regular basis with some friends. Being a British guy involved with fishing both at home and abroad, I tend always to travel and look at boats with a very open eye when abroad and there is no doubt that some boats can do the work of both climates - I had two 33' CyFish in Madeira at one stage and they are still there, catching enormous marlin and tuna. Several Lochins, AquaBells and AquaStars are in use around the world in the same line of work. In reverse, I had had a 26' Glacier Bay centre-console catamaran (built in the state of Washington, USA) with 90hp Hondas in Alderney for a season, and it was the perfect boat for what I intended - small groups of individual anglers.
So what is the final answer ? It's up to the individual. What they want to do and where. If you pushed me for a list of boats to look at for pleasure fishing suitable for both the UK and abroad, this is what I would go and look at right now.
GLACIER BAY CATAMARANS, 22' to 26' for outboard-powered centre-consoles with the smoothest ride imaginable : www.glacierbaycats.com
KEVLACAT, 20' to 28' for outboard and I/O powered catamarans with a reputation for speed and an extremely tough build quality : www.kevlacat.com
OSPREY BOATS, for excellent small boats up to 30' built to withstand Alaskan weather conditions. Fast and spacious : www.ospreyboat.com
SHAMROCK, 20' to 29' inboard-powered boats. Some classic fishing vessels here suitable for both sunny and wet climates : www.shamrockboats.com
BENCHMARK, 36' & 38' inboard-powered catamarans. Excellent build quality, great ride and range: www.boatshow.com/BenchmarkBoats
EDGEWATER BOATS, up to 26' unsinkable centre-console boats : tel 001 904 4265457
REGULATOR, 21' to 32' outboard-powered centre-consoles. Excellent reputation for build, strength and layouts: www.regulatormarine.com
PURSUIT, outboard and inboard powered boats up to 33'. Excellent build quality: www.pursuitboats.com
HENRIQUES' 28' TO 44' inboard-powered boats. The best value big boat in the US. Heavy-duty industrial build : www.integritymarine.com
LOGIC BOATS, 12' to 21' outboard-powered boats made from polyethylene. Unbreakable - scratch, cut, kick, chip - nothing happens. Cannot wait to see them in this country - ideal for launching on shingle and rocks: www.logicboats.com
CYFISH, AQUABELL, ORKNEY and CHANNEL CAT from the UK.