Winter Boating in Victoria

RACV Marine

Buying a boat

Winter in Victoria. It’s cold, wet, grey and it’s not even snapper season. Who but the most hardened sea salt would venture out?

Although boat ownership across Australia has increased over recent years, boating for many people in and around Melbourne tends to be limited to summer. As much as we’d love to head to the Continental Shelf to chase tuna, the reality of holidays, work commitments and owning a tinnie combine is that venturing out for most us happens over the warmer months.

Except, it doesn’t have to be that way at all.

Cold, calm and predictable

To get an idea of what true winter boating is like, look no further than the ice, anti-freeze and mandatory winterising procedures endured by people in Europe and North America.

Victorian boaters are blessed with surprisingly mild winters, yet there’s a misconception that the weather is not conducive to safe or enjoyable boating. While it certainly gets cold, winter can often be more predictable and calmer than summer.

"The weather in Port Phillip Bay is not too bad in winter time,” says Charlie Micallef, charter operator and presenter at the long-running Savage Seas Adventures fishing show. “You get crisp and cold days, but you don’t get the strong South-easterlies from the ocean like you do in spring and summer,” he says.

In other words, your trips can be planned with greater confidence because the wind can be more predictable than in summer.

Gentlemen’s hours

Winter boating, if you hadn’t noticed, tends to be a lot more relaxed, unless you’re launching from a red hot tuna spot (as an added bonus, many marinas offer cheaper off-season rates). For a start, there are far fewer boats at the ramp, although it’s not for lack of fish.

“We have what we call gentleman’s hours,” says Charlie, referring to the hours on some of his own operation during winter. “You don’t have to get up at two or four in the morning, you can get up at say nine or ten. It starts to get crisp after four or four thirty so that’s when you come home with a good feed of fish. I love it; it’s a very rewarding time of year.”

The same logic naturally applies for when you’re on the water. Fewer boats mean you can fish your favourite spots in peace.

Preparation is key

One thing that Charlie thoroughly recommends is having everything organised the night before.

“My biggest tip is preparation. Don’t just get up in the morning and start putting your gear together. Gentlemen’s hours are limited before it starts to get cold so my advice is to get every single thing ready the night before,” he says.

Futzing around in the bitter cold is not fun so he lists simple things like trickle-charging your battery, putting up your clears before departure (those studs can get pretty stubborn) or, if you’re fortunate enough to own a hardtop, treating the windscreen with an additive so it doesn’t attract condensation.

“These little things make a big difference to your trip. You’re more relaxed so you can go out there and do what you want — and that’s catch fish,” he says.

While you’re preparing the night before, get your warm gear ready too: thermos, hat, fingerless gloves, ear muffs, sunnies, sandwiches, you name it.

Winter species galore

Winter boating would hardly be worth it if it weren’t for the fish, particularly since water-skiing and diving are (who’d a thought?) less popular in winter. Contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of good fishing to be had in winter.

“A lot of people think that the fish disappear over winter,” says Charlie. “Well, they don’t.”

Good numbers of fish can be found in the southern end of Port Phillip Bay and also in Bass Strait. “The key is to hit the fish when they’re feeding. That just takes a bit of time to learn. For me, it’s a challenge to get those fish in those cold temperatures. The fish are still there, they just don’t feed as often as they do in the warm water.”

Fishing in winter doesn’t have to be hard though. For bread and butter species you can’t go wrong with that classic winter species, the big calamari, or bottom bouncing for the ever-reliable flathead. Pinkie snapper, bream, salmon, King George whiting and gummies are among the many more options.

Charlie says fish behaviour and movement varies a little from year to year, though not massively. His recommendation is to be patient.

“One of the important things to do is to keep a diary. The same species of fish will come to the same location, year in, year out. You might be out by a couple of weeks but it is really, really important to keep a diary. After a couple of years you’ll see there’s a pattern. Write down everything — the wind conditions, the bait you use, obviously the location, even the colour of your underpants if you think that’s important!”

Buying a boat

Brilliant bait

A vital part of preparation is to get the best stuff you can get your hands on.

“Don’t use old, smelly bait that’s been in the freezer for two years,” says Charlie. “It’s very important to get it fresh. If you can catch it yourself, that’s even better.”

He says many local markets and fishmongers days will happily get in whatever you want, whether it’s pipis or salmon.

“The other day I went to the market and picked out some Australian salmon that I was using for sharks for a charter the next day,” he says. “It was quality stuff. You could cut it up and I could eat it myself. So, don’t skimp on that. It might cost you a few more bucks, but it’s worth it.”

Safe winter boating

As mentioned, winter weather can be predictable and calm. However, even the best Bureau of Meteorology report can be off sometimes.

All cold water is fatal if you fall overboard and stay in long enough. During winter, the risk increases because the water is at its coldest.

Stephen Brown from Portland VF 17 (Australian Volunteer Coast Guard) knows a thing or two about winter boating. Thousands of people head to Portland during the tuna season (it usually peaks from April to June) and Stephen has personally been involved in numerous rescues and call-outs.

He says that, in the 14 years that his flotilla has been going, most local fatalities did not result from capsized boats, but from people fishing off cliffs and plateaus around Portland.

Most winter call-outs are from stranded boaters who misjudged their offshore fuel needs, as well as mechanical and electrical failures. If there’s a medical issue, it’s usually a scrape or broken finger or limb that resulted from a fall.

However, one of the greatest dangers is the water temperature.

Cold water is a killer

Unexpectedly falling into cold water is deadly. Even if you manage to stay afloat, you’ll have a hard time controlling your body’s natural response: muscle spasms, hyperventilation, instant numbness and a significant increase in heart rate that could even cause a heart attack.

“It’s called cold water shock. It causes problems with breathing and also interferes with the brain’s capacity to operate airways,” says Stephen. “It takes a few moments, a minute or a minute and a half, for the breathing to come back properly. People also breathe in salt water,” he says.

Stephen explains that while the local water temperature is around 15 to 16C° all year round, a seasonal phenomenon known as the Bonney Upwelling can cause it to range from 20C° on the surface to 10C° on the bottom. If you fall into the colder water, it can prove deadly.

“Someone immersed in those sorts of temperatures has less than an hour to survive,” says Stephen.

If someone is recovered then there’s the ever-present danger of hypothermia. Get them out of the breeze, help them remove their wet clothes, and make them as warm as possible with blankets and (if available) hot beverages or even just hot water. Strong alcohol, apart from impairing judgement, may make you ‘feel’ warm but it has the opposite effect on your body.

“Coast Guard take cold-water shock very seriously,” adds Stephen. “All Coast Guard members do in-water training on a regular basis. Coast Guard also has a ruling that there is no in-water training conducted during winter time in Southern Australia,” he says.

Although it has been said countless times before, always wear a lifejacket. It is absolutely possible to instantly lose control of your muscles and fingers during cold-water shock, making it extremely difficult to grab (let alone put on) a lifejacket.

And finally

Common sense should always apply when you head out, regardless of season.

Charlie Micallef adds, proper marine battery maintenance is also essential. It’s important all year-round, but the chance of a flat battery increases if your boat is seeing less regular use.

To counter that he uses a good trickle charging system.

“I will just leave it out all night and when I get up in the morning, all I do is just unplug it, put the lead back into the boat and drive off. It’s always embarrassing if your boat doesn’t start, so maintaining your batteries is probably the number one thing,” he says.

Last but not least, make the most of the colder months. Even if you don’t get out much, winter is a good time to catch up on much-needed maintenance. Knowing that you’ve got that sorted will make things much less stressful when the warm days do roll by — which if you’re like us, can’t come soon enough!

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