Cruising Tips: Free a Line from a Prop

Eventually everyone wraps a line around a prop. I was told this on my first-ever job as a captain—leading teenagers on liveaboard dive-training trips in the Leeward Islands—and bragged about being the only skipper not to have done so.
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Scuba gear is useful when freeing a wrapped propeller

Scuba gear is useful when freeing a wrapped propeller

SEAMANSHIP

All Wrapped Up

Eventually, everyone wraps a line around a prop. I was told this on my first-ever job as a captain—leading teenagers on liveaboard dive-training trips in the Leeward Islands—and bragged about being the only skipper not to have done so. On the last day of the last trip, motorsailing a catamaran up the east coast of St. Martin, my arrogance finally caught up with me. I saw a fish pot disappear between the hulls and before I could cut the throttle we had wrapped the starboard propeller. And yes, it has happened since.

Most of the time your engine will give you hints as to what is going on. There may be heavy clunking, extreme vibration or a complete engine shutdown. In all cases, you should shut the engine down immediately, stop what you are doing, and think. Many sailboats have folding or feathering props, and in some instances, the prop may not be wrapped, but instead is not properly oriented. The boat, when put in gear, will vibrate badly at all engine speeds. If this happens and you do not think you have hit anything, try shifting into forward and reverse, back and forth, to try and get the prop to unstick itself.

If the prop is wrapped, try and maneuver the boat to a safe place under sail. Anchor if you can. Issue a security call on the VHF so that any nearby traffic understands your situation. Only dive overboard if you have a mask and fins, the water is clear enough to see, and the wave action is calm. If you’re at sea in a swell, wearing an old bike or hockey helmet is a good idea. Do not jump overboard unless you are attached to the boat and someone is watching you.

Whatever the conditions, you’ll need a good knife and some patience. Wear gloves, and watch out for barnacles. They can cause nasty infections if they cut you. Once you cut away the line, gently test the engine and running gear to ensure no damage was done. A severely wrapped prop can bend a prop shaft, so do not assume all is well.

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