Put some crabs on the table and I’ll be first there with a mallet and bib. Steamed and spiced, hot from the galley, I savor every tasty morsel of this beautiful swimmer. So it would be hypocritical to denigrate the many crab pots of East Coast waters and the watermen who place them here. But unfortunately, these crab pots pose a navigational hazard to sailors, and should be kept off your lay line whenever possible.
The crab pot, or trap, is attached to a cord leading to a Styrofoam float. These floats dot coastal waters from Maine to Mobile. My introduction to them happened on the St. Johns River near Jacksonville. I was a new Catalina 34 owner on my first big shakedown cruise. Approaching an anchorage at the end of a long day our speed suddenly dropped to one knot. We could have just retired for the evening at that point, but being curious, I donned a diving mask and plunged in.
What I saw still shocks me. The prop was completely wrapped in a trap line with a cage hanging below. Crabs stared at me with those beady little eyes, begging for their lives. One hour and a nasty barnacle cut later, we were free to carry on.
Contrary to popular belief, even under sail alone, you can hook a crab pot. Sailing back from a long cruise last year, looking aft, I noticed a crab pot float 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 a minute later the boat lurched forward as the itinerant float bounced back to the surface.
Knowing where crabs are likely to be can help you prevent an unscheduled crab pot meeting. Crabs favor shallow water in the warmer months. Pots are usually set up in rows for easy retrieval and can look a lot like a minefield. If you find yourself in the middle of a crab pot field, look for a line between the rows and sail out of it. If you’re boating at night, 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 leeward, or down current side to decrease your chance of hooking it.
Try to be flexible with your departure time so you travel when the sun is high, making the pots easier to see. If you believe you’ve run over a crab pot while motoring, quickly shift to neutral and try to slide over it—you might get lucky. And a line of pots up ahead isn’t always a bad thing; it’s a good sign that the water’s getting thin and that it’s time to tack back to deeper water.
If you take a pot around the prop or rudder, don’t shift into reverse. Rather, drop your anchor and think the problem through. Basically, it’s time for a swim or a call to a towboat operator. With sufficient daylight remaining, and if the boat is not pitching too much you (yes, you!) can free the prop. If you choose this tactic, prepare yourself well before going in.
1. Shut off the engine, remove key, and put engine in neutral.
2. Place a sheathed knife on your belt and wear gloves.
3. If with crew, request they stand by with a boat pole to assist you, and keep an eye out for hazards in water.
Approach the prop on the sunny side and assess problem. Sometimes you can unravel the crab pot without cutting the line (the waterman who owns this trap would appreciate it). If not, cut with knife and unwrap at each incision, spinning the prop with your other hand. This of course will take several dives, and some serious lung exercise.
When the prop is free, retie the crab pot to the float. 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.
Robert Beringer is a Marine Writer living in Jacksonville, Florida. His first book, “Water Power!” a collection of marine short stories, will be published this year.