Waterlines: Tangled Up in Pots

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A close call in Maine’s Penobscot Bay

A close call in Maine’s Penobscot Bay

I learned to sail on the Maine coast as a boy, and one of the things my elders taught me was to respect fishing gear. If you got caught up with a lobster pot, you did everything you could to get clear without cutting the pot warp. It represented a family’s livelihood and thus was sacrosanct.

I crossed a Rubicon of sorts in the late 1990s, when the lobster fishery was booming and lobster pots were so thick on the water you felt like a running back when cruising looking desperately for clear lanes to sail in. The crisis point came one summer when I anchored at Burnt Island, taking great care to stay clear of the many pots that littered the harbor there. I woke in the morning to find my ground tackle enmeshed with a pot warp anyway. True to my upbringing I jumped overboard and spent 20 minutes in the water, which in those days was very cold, and finally succeeded in untangling the mess. I was nearly hypothermic when I crawled back aboard my boat.

I re-anchored in a clear spot and spent the day hiking the island, after which I was roused at dawn the next morning by the deep rumble of a lobster boat’s dry exhaust quite close by. Peering out a portlight, I saw the man working the boat drop a pot—same colors as the one I’d saved the morning before—right where any sapient mariner would assume my anchor must have been. I returned to my berth to sleep some more, and sure enough, when I woke again found the pot warp twisted round my ground tackle. This time, rather than swim to save it, I cut it free with a knife.

This episode taught me two things about cruising the Maine coast. You should only respect fishermen as far as they are willing to respect you, and you should always carry a wetsuit, just in case.

I have quarreled with many a pot warp in the 20 years since. I caught them often on the bilge keels of my old Golden Hind 31. I caught them sometimes on the rudder skeg of my Tanton 39. However, I never caught one on a propeller—until this past summer, that is, when I was cruising the coast on my Boréal 47. The prop on this boat is behind a long shallow keel and has a line-cutter on it, so I thought I was safe. I did hear an urgent tapping sound under the boat, then saw a pot buoy come clear with a short length of severed warp on it. The boat kept moving forward, and I assumed the line-cutter had done its job. An hour later, though, when I put the engine in reverse to stop at the mooring I was picking up, the shaft seized up and the engine stalled.

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One thing that has changed in the past 20 years is that the water in the Gulf of Maine is now much warmer. When I was young, water temperatures in the summer never rose much above the mid-50s. But that day I tangled my prop last summer my instruments told me it was 68 degrees F. I actually had a debate with myself: did I really need my wetsuit to dive on the prop? In the end I elected to use it simply because I had it. But it didn’t take long to cut the line free, and I would have been fine without it.

The lobster population in Maine has been booming the last few years, primarily because the water farther south is too warm to support lobsters anymore. They’ve all crawled north to stay alive, and the question now is how long will it be before they need to crawl even farther north. According to several reports I’ve seen, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any other body of water on the planet, so the answer may well be not very long.

I will confess that for a while after that incident at Burnt Island I saw fishermen as the nemeses of cruising sailors. But attitudes like this are hard to sustain. Part of me will not be sad when there are no more pots to dodge while sailing the coast. But a larger part will mourn their disappearance. Lobstering has been the life-blood of this place, and Maine lobstermen have always fished responsibly. They do not deserve the fate that awaits them. 

November 2018

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