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How to Free Your Boat from Underwater Hazards

Updated on February 15, 2016
Photo Credit: Duwan Dunn
Photo Credit: Duwan Dunn

The Crab Pot Conundrum

Let me start this by saying that I never saw a crab I didn’t like. Steamed and spiced, hot from the galley, I savor every tasty morsel of this beautiful swimmer. Put some crabs in a pot and I’ll be first at the settee with a mallet and a bib, anxiously anticipating a cornucopia of crustaceans.

So it would be hypocritical to denigrate the prop-hungry crab pots of coastal waters and the watermen who place them there. And even if I didn’t love crabs I would have no qualms about people trying to make an honest living out there. But unfortunately these crab pots do pose a navigational hazard to boaters, and should be kept off your lay line whenever possible.

My introduction to the ubiquitous crab pot was on the Chesapeake near Annapolis, MD. I was a new Catalina 34 owner and was on my first big shakedown cruise. At the end of a long day beating up the Florida coast, we were approaching an anchorage when suddenly our speed dropped to one knot, and then went dead in the water. I suppose we could have just retired for the evening at that point, but being the curious type I put on a diving mask and plunged in. What I saw still shocks me to this day: the prop had completely wrapped itself in a pot line and was barely visible; the cage hung just below it, the crabs staring at me with those beady little eyes, begging for their lives. Two-hours and one nasty barnacle cut later, we were free to carry on (no, I didn’t take any crabs).

As we traveled north towards new jobs in Washington, DC we had several more close encounters of the crab pot kind, and these soon became second only to hard groundings as the top things that can ruin your day on the water.

Contrary to popular belief, even under sail alone you can hook a crab pot. On the way back from a long cruise last year, we were sailing along when, looking aft, I noticed a crab pot go down like a bobber on a fishing line. The boat slowed, and I thought through my options: Drop the sails and jump into the freezing November water (bad idea). Start the engine and back the boat up (terrible idea). Call the towboat guy (expensive idea). Instead I crossed my fingers, said a prayer to Neptune and three-minutes later the boat lurched forward as the itinerant pot bounced back up to the surface.

The first thing to avoiding an unscheduled meeting with a crab pot is to know where they are likely to be. Crabs favor shallow water in the warmer months, so the pots are generally placed in less than 20-feet of water, but we’ve seen them as deep as 30-feet.

And expect a lot of them. Most coastal states issue commercial and recreational licenses to take blue crabs or lobsters, and last year Virginia alone issued permits that allowed a maximum of 704,375 crab traps in the Chesapeake and its tributaries, and in return received revenues of $134,047. Now that, is a lot of pots in the water!

They are usually set up in rows for easy retrieval and the result in a prime spot can look a lot like a minefield. If you find yourself suddenly in the middle of a crab pot field, attempt to find a line between the rows and sail out of it. If you’re boating at night and you realize you’ve wandered into crab pots, slow down, and put a crew member on the bow to use a sweeping motion with a spotlight. The pots are easy to see once you’ve passed them, and an occasional glance aft will tell you if you’re out of the field. If passing close by a pot, adjust your course so you pass on the down wind, or down current side to decrease your chance of hooking it.

If you have flexibility in when you head out, try to travel in the middle part of the day when the sun is high and pots are much easier to see. If you’re motoring and you believe that you’ve run over a crab pot, quickly put it in neutral and try to slide over it—you might get lucky.

For sailors, a line of pots up ahead isn’t always a bad thing. It’ a good sign that the water’s getting thin and that it’s time to tack back to deeper water.

If, despite your caution, you take a pot around the prop, don’t put it into reverse. This will only foul it even more. Rather, drop your anchor, shut off the engine, and think the problem through. Basically, it’s time for a swim or time for a call to a towboat operator. If there is sufficient daylight remaining, and the boat is not pitching too much you (yes, you!) can free the prop. If you choose this tact, prepare yourself well before going in:

1. Shut off the engine, remove key, and put in neutral.

2. For protection from jellyfish, wear a long sleeve shirt, long pants, and gloves.

3. To decrease buoyancy put rocks in your pockets.

4. Place a sheathed knife on your belt

5. If with crew, request that they stand by to assist you, and to keep eye out for jellyfish.

6. Run a line overboard, near the location of your prop.

Hold the mask on your face as you jump in. Carefully approach the prop on the sunny side and assess problem. Sometimes you can unravel the crab pot without cutting the line (the waterman who set this trap would appreciate this). If hopelessly fouled, cut with knife and unwrap at each incision, spinning the prop with your other hand as you go. This, of course will take several dives, and some serious lung exercise. When surfacing grab the overboard line to rest and catch your breath.

When free, if practical, retie the crab pot to the line and return to the boat. Wash the tools with fresh water and immediately skedaddle. By all rights you should be the top dog for the balance of the trip, and everyone on board owes you a drink when you get back to the marina. For your part, remember what happened out there, and try not to let it happen again…happy sailing.


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