Sea Fishing: Worth the Risk?

risk3I have been a keen sea fisherman for the past 40 years and during this time, probably like most of us, I have taken a few chances; climbing down onto near inaccessible ledges to fish a gulley, or fishing rocks that are just a little too close to breaking waves.  However, over the past few years my approach to angling has changed, almost totally due to my work, and I have realised it’s never worth pushing your luck as maybe sometime, excuse the pun, you will get caught out.

I used to be employed as a rear crew member of a Search and Rescue helicopter crew, (before the service was privatised)  in both the South West and Scotland During this time I spent numerous hours searching for lost fishermen or recovering their bodies from the sea.  Nearly all had been reported as falling overboard or being swept from the rocks or a beach by freak waves, I don’t believe there are such things,  if there were  then why do they come so frequent?

I would hate to discourage anyone from fishing the rocks and I don’t want to teach anyone to suck eggs, but having flown past several anglers “pushing their luck” with a breaking sea, I thought maybe just a reminder of a few precautions that may one day help save them.

To start with, remember the 5 p’s.  Prior Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance. You wouldn’t go fishing without your bait so make sure you prepare before heading out with your kit.


First off, check the weather. There are plenty of good sites, don’t rely on yesterdays forecast. Although they are generally more accurate nowadays, they appear to change so rapidly nowadays with the latest prediction models.

Dress appropriately. In the winter, the sea temperature drops to a point where even short term submersion will result in rapid onset of hypothermia (in minutes you could be rendered incapable of getting yourself back out the water).  Lots of thin layers are far better than just one thick layer; it traps the air between them which helps insulate.  Ensure you finish with a windproof and waterproof top, wind-chill is a killer, particularly when against a backdrop of snow and sub zero temperatures.  Bright colours help to identify individuals, as do reflective materials, particularly at night.  Beware wearing waders or tight fitting boots that cannot be kicked off, sadly I have attended several incidents where someone has fallen overboard or their boat has gone down and they never got out because of the weight of water  has pulled them down.  If you can, wear an inflation suit or a lifejacket, the modern jackets are quite discreet and lightweight. I have known of several occasions where one has saved the wearers life, quite literally.  Oh and don’t forget a hat, a lot of heat is lost through your head.

Other equipment to consider is a short length of rope, both to assist in lowering equipment down a steep face or to help a companion who may have fallen or been washed into the sea.  Not only have I had to rescue fishermen from the sea, but also a number who have fallen a short distance because they struggled with the amount of kit they have been carrying.  It only takes a fall of 3 times your own height to be fatal!  A mobile phone is a must, even when unable to use your own network due to lack of signal a majority of phones will give you access to the emergency services on other networks.  A torch is also a must, even if you intend leaving before nightfall, no one can second guess the future, if we could we would all be millionaires having won the lottery.  If you spend a lot of time fishing the rocks at night or a small boat an investment in some flares would be beneficial.   Before you get onto the rocks just watch the sea for a few minutes, the fish will wait whilst you watch several sets come through.   I would also advise arriving before dark; the shoreline changes rapidly however familiar you are with a particular mark.

Many of the callouts I had, did not come from the casualty but from a fishing partner. The message here is clear: where possible, don’t fish alone – particularly when fishing anywhere where there is even a slight risk.  If you intend to go it alone then ensure someone knows where you are going and when you are due back, if you change your plans then make sure you let them know.  I have known of one occasion when a crew was searching for a group of fishermen in a small boat at night who changed their mind on where they were to fish and went somewhere else, were catching plenty and stayed several hours longer than planned, a wife became concerned phones the emergency services and a search was instigated.  Not only was this a waste of money but assets were diverted away from another incident in which there were 3 fatalities.



If you do still find yourself in trouble after taking all the precautions you could’ve, what can you do?  Whatever happens, try and stay safe.  This may sound simple but you would be surprised at the number of people who get into trouble, cut off by the tide etc, who then push on and make the situation worse.

If you have to contact the emergency services, coastguard or police ensure you pass as much relevant and accurate information as possible.  Your position, the nature of the incident, the number of persons involved.  Other information of use would be extent of any injuries, what you are wearing which will assist in identifying yourself and contact details.  If you are a third party reporting an incident and there has been a delay whilst you attempted to gain a phone signal, the time the incident occurred would also be of benefit.

Depending on the type of incident and the controlling authority, this might be where my colleagues and I may get involved.  For searching, the UK helicopter SAR force has a number of sensors at our disposal.  The primary is the Mk 1 eyeball, a visual search of the area; this is where an accurate position and description is vital.


sar1Alternatively, a Forward Looking Infra Red Search or FLIR could be used; this relies on a contrast of temperatures, i.e. the body against the sea.  FLIR is good but it has its limitations, although it looks fantastic in “Police camera action” it’s not particularly good in poor visibility, in fog, drizzle or rain.  Another aid used during night searches are Night Vision Goggles or NVG’s, these use and enhance background light source and can be a very powerful search tool in the right conditions; personally I have located an injured climber in the mountains from over 5 miles by the light of their mobile phone, but again its effectiveness is reduced in poor weather.  Finally the aircraft can use RADAR to locate small craft.

Hopefully, with these aids to assist and with the help of the other emergency services we will locate you.  And once we have, how can you help, well, if you have flares don’t fire them directly at the aircraft or in it’s flight path, you may laugh but it has happened.  If it’s at night don’t shine your torch directly at the aircraft, at best it may take out the pilots vision, this is particularly hazardous particularly if they are wearing NVG’s.  If you can, I strongly advise you to secure your kit away, the rotor wash from aircraft is storm force so any loose object becomes a missile and you might lose your £300 rod and reel to completely ruin your night.  If you have your rope then you can also consider securing yourself.

sar2One thing to note as the winchman is lowered to you is the amount of static charge that will be discharged as the winch wire earths as it comes to ground.  To that end, don’t be tempted to assist the winchman until the static wick that hangs beneath him touches the ground, alternatively if you wish to ignore this advice, grab it but don’t be surprised the winchman has a bit of a giggle as you start break dancing across the rocks .  If, however you are unfortunate to end up in the water, then it will obviously require a winch recovery, the winchman will be lowered adjacent to you where he will attempt to place 2 strops around you, don’t struggle, fight or grab him (easy to say that sitting in front the fire), or he will hold off.  The first strop is the primary lifting strop and will go under your arms, the second is placed under your knees and allows you to be lifted horizontally, an important factor particularly in even the mildest hypothermic situation.  Keep your arms by your side and you won’t fall out and enjoy the ride.  As you approach the aircraft you will enjoy the heat from the engine and will be swung into the door, do not attempt under any circumstance to remove the strops until either you are strapped into a seat or told to.  There is nothing worse than rescuing someone to find they then fall back out and you have to start  all over again!  Once inside the aircraft do exactly what the crew tell you, it can be a dangerous environment to be in if you are not used to it, particularly at night.

As I said at the start, I don’t want to be seen to be teaching anyone to “Suck Eggs” but sometimes even the simplest of precautions can be enough.  Well, fish safe and tight lines everyone,  hopefully I will see you on the beaches and rocks in my spare time, not professionally!


Article Submitted by Florrie 4/2/13

Updated by John 26/10/17

One comment on “Sea Fishing: Worth the Risk?

  1. Dave says:

    All sound advice. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *