Avoid Entangling a Lobster Pot when Sailing Maine Waters.
Lets begin by understanding what a lobster pot is so that avoiding a fouled propeller is easier, and sailing is less stressful.
A "Lobster Pot" is a term often used to describe the metal vessel holding water which is used to boil lobsters. But there’s another meaning for lobster pot.
In Maine, a Lobster Pot is a wire trap used to capture lobsters. To mark the trap and to provide a retrieval system, floats are attached to a line on the pot. To simplify the spoken language, the floats/buoys are also referred to as Lobster Pots.
Each buoy is attached by a long length of line, the pot warp, to one or more traps (or “pots” as they are known farther south) weighted to the bottom. Modern buoys are made of painted foam, sometimes with a stick of wood or plastic through the middle as a handle.
A toggle is a second float that supports the warp ahead of the buoy, usually smaller than the buoy, unpainted, and lying 20 to 30 feet up current or upwind of the buoy.
The toggle is used in areas of greater tidal range or in areas of strong current. The farther east you sail, the more toggles you will see.
Avoid passing between the toggle and its companion buoy because the warp between them hangs in a shallow arc.
More current or wind will stretch the toggle farther from the buoy and bring the connecting wrap closer to the surface.
In areas with a strong current or high tide some pots may be submerged. Always wear polarized sunglasses, even on cloudy days. You will see submerged pots well before you will without polarized lenses.
In the photo above there appears to be a narrow path between two rows of pots. However, this could be described as a trap for boaters. The white float toward the middle is a "pickup buoy”. Just to the left of the white float, the corresponding toggle (circled) lies with a line just barely below the water.
Shooting for this apparent gap would surely snag a line. The simplest thing is to pass close to the downwind/current side - the same side the buoy stick is pointing. That will keep you away from the line and the toggle.
On the downwind/current side you can safely pass a buoy very close - even touch the hull. While under sail, most pots will slip off, but don't press your luck. A wrap around your prop is a whole different problem.
If you are motoring among pots, be ready to slip into neutral and give the stern a kick away. Watch for the buoy to pop up astern before going back into gear. A knife, face mask, snorkel, and wetsuit should be standard onboard equipment. Single-handed sailors should plan on how they will safely accomplish this feat alone.
If you’re unlikely to jump overboard to free an entanglement, consider calling for help. If you’re close to a local harbor, call local boat yards and ask if they know of a diver that can come out and help you.
Key point to remember: ALWAYS pass to the down current, down wind, or down tide side of the pot.
Never intentionally pass above a lobster pot unless you absolutely know you have the room to do so. Pots have an uncanny way of letting you know which way is up current, wind or tide and which way is down. Follow the stick or the wake flowing around the buoy!
Acknowledgement: This blog is a compilation of Mark Gabrielson and Bernie Coyne writings previously shared with the Blue Water Sailing Club in preparation for the annual Maine Cruise.