Hook knife saves the day

Rich Stidger


Maine boater goes afoul of lobster pot lines

The day began like a typical Maine day—a foggy, “instruments only” kind of day. No Kodak moments, but I couldn’t really complain as it was the first foggy day of our cruise.

Leaving Mackerel Harbor on the east side of Casco Passage, we motored out to the main channel, heading toward Northeast Harbor. We encountered a swath of lobster pots dense enough to walk to shore on. With near-zero visibility, I dodged pots while trying to stay on course, checking the radar for targets.

Did I mention that the diabolical lobstermen (and -women) up here like to attach a “toggle” to their traps? The toggle float is connected to the main float by a line as long as 30 feet. This line floats below the surface where it’s visible only to sailboat keels, props and rudders. You mustn’t drive between the main float and the toggle. If you do, the connecting line will wrap around your keel if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, the line will slip around the keel and wind around your prop shaft in a New York second, instantaneously if you turn above 2,000 rpm.

Experienced Maine sailors (like I thought I was) understand how this game works. You watch for two floats: one colored with the unique pattern of the diabolical lobsterman and the other with a similar, complementary or plain white color. You look for the prevailing wind or current to determine the safer side to pass. If the downwind or down-current float lays more horizontally than the upwind or up-current one, the two floats could be connected, and you shouldn’t pass between them. If they are both semi-vertical, they are likely independent, suggesting you could pass between them.

You might be thinking: Why not just play it safe and always pass downwind or down current? With so many floats, it’s hard to tell which ones are connected. The stakes get raised during high tide or a fast-running current because the up-current toggle float gets pulled underwater, and you can’t even see it.

Did I mention that these diabolical lobstermen like to put toggle-float systems in all the channels and everywhere else?

So, I was motoring along, watching the floats and steering a zigzag course when it happened.

The line wound so tight that it locked the prop. My forward speed dropped to 1.2 knots, and thoughts of a cold swim entered my mind.

My boat snagged a connecting line that quickly wound around the prop shaft and pulled the float toward the side of my boat at 50 mph. I couldn’t let off the throttle fast enough. After getting to neutral, I did a 180-degree turn and idled in reverse, hoping the line would unwrap.

It didn’t.

The line wound so tight that it locked the prop. My forward speed dropped to 1.2 knots, and thoughts of a cold swim entered my mind.

Now, I saw the problem. Not only had I picked up a connecting line between a toggle and the main buoy, but I had also picked up a connecting line in the middle of a string of pots.

After 15 agonizing minutes of forward-reverse-forward-reverse, I got free. Sort of. Although no longer connected to the infernal lobster pots, I had significant vibration. The line had wrapped around my shaft. More forward-reverse in an attempt to loosen the load seemed to work; the vibration lessened, but I wasn’t sure it was gone completely.

We continued to Northeast Harbor and spent two days there. I kept thinking about the prop, but I really didn’t want to go into the frigid Maine water. I was in denial, hoping that all the line was gone and that the vibration I felt was normal.

Leaving Northeast Harbor, again in the dead of fog, we motored to Campbell Island on the southwest side of Eggemoggin Reach. By this time, I had decided to go in the water to be sure the prop was clear or clear it if it wasn’t. As I feared, a wad of line had wrapped around the prop and hub, effectively jamming the prop so the blades wouldn’t feather or go in reverse.

Hook knife used to cut tangled lines

We rigged a line from one side of the stern to the other so I could pull myself down to the prop. Using my hook knife, I cut and ripped at the line, taking pieces out until it was all gone.

This was the second time this hook knife had saved my bacon by freeing my boat from lines. I suggest you always keep one on your boat, just in case.

This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Sail & Power Squadron newsletter, Berkshire Log.

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1 thought on “Hook knife saves the day”

  1. ” diabolical”. Really?? Just folks making a living. I sail that water often I do have a knife of course, but the wetsuit is on board for this reason (it’s not recreational). The toggles are a hassle, but, fishing is a difficult way to make a living. Don’t make it harder for them during your recreational activity, please! If you must cut a pot warp off your shaft, tie the buoy off to it’s warp so the pot is not lost. Be considerate
    Erik Williams
    SEO, ABC Delaware Valley

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