If you have ever lost or broken fishing rods, you will understand our pain: 13 Penn Internationals gone.

fishing rods
It's not cheap to fish offshore!

Many of you fish offshore and know the costs associated with running to the canyons. A $1000 gas tab along with $200 for bait and ice are the norm. Lures start in the $25 range with $400 for a dredge (you need two) not unheard of. For those not familiar with the offshore world the rods cost close to $400, and the reels run in the 600-dollar range… each! Add 1000 yards of line, and it is easy to reach $1000 per rod very quickly. We normally troll nine lines in fair weather.

So, now you are asking about the rods. Stolen? Fire? Divorce? All are good guesses, but let me start at the beginning.

The two-foot monster

1992. An exciting time as Ron, my buddy and co-conspirator in this rod debacle, purchased our first offshore boat, a Baja 28 center console. Okay, not a great or even good offshore boat, but 30 years ago the choices were few as center consoles were new to the boating scene and larger twin engine varieties were rare. We had been running my 23-foot Imperial out to the Jack Spot where we would catch our limit of bluefin tuna before lunch fishing Penn 6/0 Senators and using a handheld Loran to locate our destination. Basic, but as there were tons of fish back then, we were happy with this set-up. 

But we all know the two-foot boat monster that demands a new vessel be purchased every few years which is larger and more expensive. We justified this move as the new boat would have radar, a life raft, and twin engines, but secretly our real reason was to pursue the yellowfin tuna, marlin, wahoo, and dolphin that resided 40 to 70 miles offshore—out of reach of our little 23-foot Imperial. Equally important was to maintain our appearance and upgrade our Penn Senators to those expensive Penn Internationals I mentioned earlier. Gold Penn Internationals do look cool, and we all know how important that is!

I know; what about the lost rods? I’m getting to them. 

fishing rods
The author and his buddies fished this center console boat for 13 years.

We fished this new boat for 13 years, trailering her to Hatteras winter through spring and fishing Ocean City in the summer and fall. Great times but a little scary as this boat was not designed to fish eight-foot seas in January off Cape Hatteras, which we did. Frequently. Over the years we lost many fishing companions as they came and left with remarkable frequency. About as often as we lost rods… While Ron and I were excited to run through the inlet and catch 50-pound tuna,we found our guests enthusiasm decreased in proportion to the size of waves we fished. 

The learning curve

This new boat was great, but our techniques were still in the learning curve and the reason for our first lost rod. It was around 1994 when Ron, Bob, and I were fishing off Hatteras one cold and windy April afternoon. Rain was not just falling but coming down in buckets. Hard to tell it was raining as sheets of water came off the bow as we trolled through 20 knots of wind and six footers. 

Around 1 p.m. we had a quadruple knockdown of 50-pound yellowfin which would normally be great but not today. We each reeled in a fish and started searching for the fourth rod. What we found was an empty outrodder which was pointing aft and sitting six inches lower than normal. If you are not familiar with an outrodder, it is an aluminum bracket that fits into a rod holder and allows you to position the rod to point directly out from the side of the boat. Great for increasing your spread of lures, but when the tuna hit and pulled hard on the line, which was tight due to our drags being in the strike position, the tension caused the rod holder pin to snap allowing the outrodder to swivel backwards and the $1000 rod and reel to shoot overboard and to the bottom of the sea. 

Now some of you are reading this and saying, “they should have had safety lines on their rods.” Yes, we should have but this is early in our offshore career. Remember, we were pioneers in this sport, as most who ventured offshore went in charter boats and very few private boats ran farther than the 20-fathom line. But we learned our lesson and built safety lines with snaps and swivels and used them in the years to come.

A safety line did not help the loss of rod number two. One summer day found us anchored 42 miles off the coast of Ocean City chunking for tuna at a spot called the Hot Dog, a very popular location even 25 years ago as it can hold thousands of hungry tunas. We were enjoying a typical day of hooking tuna that would follow our chunk line up through the depths and provide us some exciting moments. 

As a little background I would like to share that Ron and I took pride in our skills and approached all tasks with enthusiasm and perhaps a little too much exuberance. This day was no exception as when one of our guests pulled a tuna to the surface, I gaffed and lifted the 65-pounder over the gunnel in one big swoop. Unfortunately overtop my head was a rocket launcher filled with International rods and reels. My gaff caught one which crashed down on my head and immediately launched itself overboard along with a $200 pair of sunglasses. We did not have safety lines on rods that were stowed in the rocket launcher. Rod number two gone.

fishing rods
The crew.

Big waves at the WMO

But all this was just a warm-up for losing the next 11 rods. We had graduated from the minors into the majors and decided that losing one rod at a time was for amateurs. We were ready for the big leagues and proved it a few years later.

2005 found us entered in the White Marlin Open. We had three friends fishing with us and a great week of weather ahead even if a bit choppy at the beginning of the week. Our first day of fishing was not spectacular, and at noon we decided to move in from the deep (we had been fishing the Washington Canyon), and fish the tip of the canyon between the 50- and 100-fathom line. At 3:30 p.m. it was lines up as deemed by the tournament rules, so we reeled in and started the 65-mile run back to the inlet. It was a beautiful sunny day, so Brian, one of our guests, and I sat in front of the center console enjoying a cold beer as Ron steered a course for home. 

Now is a good time for a lesson in boat dynamics, physics, and stability. Expecting fish, we had filled the fish box with 200 pounds of ice which was in the bow of the boat. A small cabin, also in the bow, was loaded with gear and a 100-pound life raft. Brian and I were sitting in front of the center console, and I may have consumed a few more cheeseburgers over my lifetime than was good for me. I will just say we added a few hundred more pounds to an already overloaded bow. The wind was against the waves and what had been fun rolling six-footers now got a little steeper and less fun and caused us to slam and climb up the backs of the next waves. See where this is going?

We climbed up the back of one of these steeper waves and zoomed down into the trough as we had been doing for the past hour. The difference was this time the bow dug in and a wall of water shot back through our open boat filling it and rolling it over as the next wave caught us seconds later. Within 10 seconds our Baja was upsidedown. I was 100 yards away as that wall of water that came over the bow blew me out of the back and broke a few ribs while depositing me astern of the overturning boat.

Story getting a little better, eh?

fishing rods
The fishing rods weren't the only thing they lost... but thankfully everyone onboard was safe.

When the crew becomes shark bait

So, I find myself treading water without a lifejacket and with broken ribs far away from our boat. I was surrounded by items that had also been washed overboard and spied a can of WD-40 which I shoved into my shirt hoping it would provide at least some flotation. I spotted the back seat floating nearby and gave it my all to swim to and climb on top of. Now that I knew I was probably going to survive, I looked around and spotted my buddies clinging to the upsidedown hull of the boat bobbing violently in those six-foot seas. 

I counted heads and saw we were all accounted for but not out of danger, as we were 45 miles off the coast and surrounded by a blood/bait slick being constantly discharged from our sinking boat and the gashes on my mate’s limbs. Again, for those of you not familiar with offshore fishing, a great place to fish for sharks is the 30-fathom line which is where we decided to park the boat.

Our rods? 11 Penn Internationals. A mix of 50s and 70s. We were done fishing, so no safety lines, and when a boat is upside-down, they fall out. Poor design on the part of the boat manufacturers, but in their defense a low priority by most of their customers.

And us? We were very lucky, as our moving to the 50-fathom line saved us. At the 3:30 p.m. “lines up,” we were inside of the fleet, on a rhumb line from the canyon to the inlet, and confident a boat would venture by eventually. About an hour after our mishap a fellow tournament boat, The Cat in the Hat, from Montauk, NY, swung by to see what was floating off their bow. What they found were four guys clinging to the stern of an overturned boat and one fat guy drifting off into the distance on a boat cushion. 

What we did not lose…

I would like to end the story by sharing that we saved our boat and retrieved some of our gear, including a few rods. Nope. The next morning, we were awakened by a call from the Coast Guard alerting us that our boat was still floating and was a hazard to navigation and asking what we were going to do about it. We made a deal with a salvager, but had to alter the contract after he found the boat in worse shape than what we described. It seems a vessel had lifted our boat onto its deck with some type of crane and cut everything off the boat that had any value. Gone were the engines, props, T-top, leaning post, and our gear (and extra rods we stowed in the cabin). The damaged hull was then thrown back into the water and still had to be towed in, as it did not sink and was still a hazard to navigation.

Is there a good ending to this story? Well, kind of. We lost 11 rods that day, but what we did not lose was even more important. While we laid in the hospital being patched up, the attending physician shared that he hoped we did not have the winning fish onboard. Confused we asked him why he would wish such a thing. His response was to remind us that losing a boat and all our equipment was bad enough but also losing a million-dollar fish would have been too much. I guess it was a good day after all!

Lessons Learned:

  • Accidents do not unfold in slow motion. The boat filled and rolled over in seconds, not minutes. There was no time to dig for the EPIRB, lifejackets, or life raft. These items must either be worn or within easy reach.
  • Bad weather is not a requirement for accidents. Our weather was sunny and warm, which lulled us into a false sense of security.  
  • Boats are designed with fish holds, ice chests, and cabins providing us with a myriad of locations to store our gear. The onus is on each of us to not overload any one area of a boat, hence decreasing stability.

By Joe Borrison