“Jim! What’s wrong?” I shouted as I sprinted half-awake toward the companionway with Glen, our 11-year old son, close on my heels. The roar of our diesel engine thundering into reverse had yanked me from my sleep.
Just eight days earlier the three of us had left our home of 20 years in Juneau, Alaska, to begin a three-year sailing voyage to Mexico aboard Resilience, our Contest 44 ketch. We were motoring across Dixon Entrance, which opens onto the North Pacific. Strong winds opposing the large seas and currents there can make this a challenging open-water passage.
That morning, as the orange dawn unfurled, Jim and I had released our dock lines in Ketchikan. Seven hours later, around 1100, we had big seas, but conditions were mild, so I went below for a nap. Lulled by the steady thrum of our Perkins engine, I soon fell asleep with Glen by my side. That’s when we were jolted awake by the sudden roar of the engine.
As I climbed into the cockpit I pulled on my life jacket while Glen buckled into his. Seconds earlier Resilience had been traveling at a steady 7 knots, but now she was dead in the water. How could this be? Jim was kneeling at the stern, looking down. A line punctuated with white styrofoam floats bisected the water and crossed directly beneath our boat. The line of floats extended in both directions as far as the eye could see.
We had hit a gill net. Resilience was snagged in an acre of nylon mesh. There were two 35ft fishing boats in sight when I arrived on deck, but neither of them was moving toward us, and our VHF radio was silent. Suddenly, one of the boats made a sharp turn and began galloping in our direction. Her captain stood tall on the flying bridge.
“You better have gear to dive on that!” he shouted as he drew closer to us.
Jim stared at the water, looking down at the net from one angle and then another, like a hawk assessing its prey.
“Do you have dive gear?” barked the skipper of the fishing boat as he hovered above us.
“Yes, we do,” I answered, looking up at him.
Returning my attention to Jim and the net, I said in a low voice, “It doesn’t look like it’s caught in the prop.”
Jim had reached the same conclusion and was trying to figure out how we might slip free of the net.
“Should we get the boat hooks to push the net down?” I asked.
Jim nodded. Glen turned to retrieve the pole near the bow while I reached for the one at the stern. But before I could pull the boat hook out of its loops, Jim redirected me. “Get the trolling cannon balls from the anchor locker.”
When trolling for salmon, we deploy these 4-inch diameter lead weights to drive baited lures down to where the fish school below. The skipper of the fishing boat, meanwhile, continued to prance nearby.
“You gotta get out of there. This is how I make my living. You’re sitting on top of a $5,000 net.”
“We’ll get it off,” said Jim. “We understand.”
“We don’t think it’s tangled in the prop,” I added.
“That’s what they all think,” the skipper shot back. “I’ve never seen anyone go over a net and not wind it around their wheel.”
As I made my way to the bow to get the cannon balls I made eye contact with the skipper. “We’d like to be the first,” I said.
“Glen, get my wetsuit and snorkel gear. It’s under your bed in the forepeak,”Jim instructed.
Glen disappeared below to pull the gear out of the locker under his sleeping bag.
Resilience was pitching and rolling in the swell. Opening up the anchor locker at the bow, I took out one of the 15-pound weights and put it on the deck, where I had to brace it with my knee so it wouldn’t roll away. I then got the second one out and lowered the lid of the locker. As I walked aft carrying the two heavy balls, Glen looked at me, willing me to be careful. He’d seen me pitch against the lifeline as the boat rolled. I proceeded aft in a crouch and set the cannon balls next to Jim.
“I need a short piece of line,” he said.
“What size?” I asked, as I opened the sail locker where we store spare line.
“About a quarter inch,” he answered, not looking up.
“All we have is this new one with the blue flecks,” I called back.
He paused. “That will do.”
“You gotta get that net off,” said the fishing boat skipper. “I’ve gotta pick up that net soon, and you’re in the way!”
“We’re working on it,” Jim answered, tying the end of the line that I handed him to the eyebolt on one of the cannon balls. He then tied on the second ball, leaving six feet of line between them and a 20-foot tail. “Okay, let’s lower these over the net,” he said as the skipper of the fishing boat watched.
We maneuvered the first ball onto one side of the net and then used the tail to guide the second ball onto the other. Nothing happened at first, but then the floatline started to sink. The two weights began slipping in the wrong direction, sliding down slope away from our hull rather than pushing the net down from under it. The water was crazy with plankton, and one snagged salmon was barely visible, held in place by its flared gills.
Then the floatline began inching backward under our rudder, and suddenly the intact gill net stretched taut behind us. We were free!
Pulling on our blue-flecked line, I did my best to retrieve the trolling weights, but they were caught in the floatline. The line was pulling hard against me as we drifted away from the net.
“Leave it. I’ll get your gear for you,” called the skipper of the fishing boat. His tone was less harsh, but still authoritative. “You gotta get out of here!”
Later Jim told me what had happened. While Glen and I were resting, he’d seen the two fishing boats ahead and was on the lookout for nets. One of the boats was inshore, the other offshore of our course. Through binoculars, Jim could see two large orange floats, roughly 400 yards apart, and another pair of orange buoys closer to the second fishing boat. He erroneously concluded there were two non-overlapping nets, and that we could pass between them. Instead the gillnet was deployed between the two sets of orange buoys, and the smaller white floats between them weren’t visible until we were almost upon them.
As soon as he saw the dotted white line, Jim realized his mistake. He acted instantaneously and shifted into reverse, and then into neutral, so as to close our 22-inch folding propeller. Rather than spinning into the net, the folded prop blades left the net unharmed so that it slid back around the boat’s rudder skeg.
As we drifted away from the long curtain of the net, I imagined the fishing boat’s skipper was relieved that he’d been wrong about us fouling our prop. I know we certainly were.
What we did right:
- We all were wearing life jackets.
- We worked well together as a team. Although the situation was tense, we also maintained cordial communications with the fishing boat skipper.
- We did not immediately send Jim into the water, but first tried a safer option. We had snorkeling equipment on board, in case it was necessary to dive on the prop.
- We were familiar with our boat’s underwater configuration. Jim was therefore able to react quickly and appropriately once he saw the net. He also had a clear idea of how the net had caught us.
What we did wrong:
- Jim should have woken me to help scan for gear in the water.
- We should have tried to hail the fishermen on the VHF radio for advice before trying to proceed past the net.
- We should have passed offshore of all the net buoys.
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Illustration by Steve Sanford; photo by Beth Ann Mathews