Steve Bowen finds himself in a serious tangle with a lobster pot in UK waters
We were running downwind, goosewinged along the Welsh coast, when all of a sudden we came to a grinding halt.
A quick look over the side confirmed my fears – we had snagged on a lobster pot pick-up buoy and now there was 40-50m of polypropylene line laid across our bow.
This was secured to the main seabed pot line which effectively created a 40m wide gate – and we’d just sailed into it.
Our Moody 31 bilge keel had earlier been anchored in a safe spot taking in the view with mugs of tea a few hundred metres off a sandy beach, a few miles to our east.
All four crew aboard were looking forward to moving along the coast to a second secluded anchorage for lunch, with the benefit of a tailwind of around 12 knots ENE to propel us comfortably goosewinged some 400m offshore.
I had gone to the mast to make an adjustment to the lazy jack lines when looking abeam to port I was alarmed to see a yellow floating line disappear under our bow and start to drag the attached buoys through the water on our port side.
While we had identified the buoys as we approached them, we had thought that our distance of 30m or so from them was more than adequate clearance. Clearly not.
Praying for the line to slip off the under water appendages of the hull didn’t work. We came to a standstill.
Immediately, we dropped the whisker pole down, furled the genoa and, with four anxious faces looking over the transom, we set about clearing the ‘trap’.
We tried rounding up but the boat was held pointing downwind and putting the helm over had no effect.
ASSESSING THE OPTIONS
We decided that starting the engine at this stage was out of the question without knowing the nature of the entanglement. Even with a rope cutter in place, we could cause damage to the prop shaft or the ‘P’ Bracket.
Our next action involved the use of a telescopic boat hook that was long enough to reach about a metre beneath the hull. We tried by crouching on the sugar scoop transom, to deflect the line free, but to no avail.
Next a 10kg diver’s weight was secured to the offending line in the hope of sinking it, away from wherever it was caught, but no such luck.
These failed attempts suggested a prop entanglement; my worst fear.
Concern had crept into our minds at this stage as the wind strength had increased to 16 knots and although it was still slight, the sea state was building too, with noticeable slop on the transom. We were only 400m off a lee shore.
There remained one last option if we were to deal with this dilemma ourselves, to which we all concurred: Cut the rope!
Though proactive in thought we still weighed up this action in an increasing wind strength. There still remained concern that we could somehow remain snarled with a line to the pots on the seabed and an inaccessible tangle beyond our reach.
Options were running out so we heaved the buoys and floating line into the cockpit. It was hoped that we might be able to pull the severed end free from the fouling point or run it through. If not then we would have to sail our way out of the problem.
The decision was made. Seven miles to our north lay the harbour we had just left, where, if we could tack in through a very narrow entrance without an engine, we would be able to dry out on our bilge keels and sort the problem.
To the south lay a notorious narrow sound that we would have to tackle without an engine but a freshening tailwind against what would be a foul tide.
We opted for the former with some trepidation and hoped that our sailing skills would get us through. We would at least be in a reasonably active boating area where we might be able to secure a tow if absolutely necessary.
TRYING TO CUT FREE
Armed with a substantial serrated knife and clipped on with several other able arms securing me I ventured over the transom kneeling on the sugar scoop.
Going over the side and trying to free directly from the prop or rudder was not an option as the likelihood of serious harm was too high.
Holding on with one hand I hacked at the yellow line. Not as simple as one would think, even with a sharp blade. At last the line parted and we were at least free!
It was with disappointment, though not surprise, that we found the propeller was still tangled, and although the cut tail streamed away behind us, rope remained around the propellor, and we didn’t want to risk starting the engine. We would be sailing after all.
Winds were now 22 knots ENE so we put two slabs in the main and two in the genoa to play it safe.
From our position we sheeted in, hardened up and settled down to sailing the boat efficiently as possible, albeit somewhat preoccupied with the next few hours ahead.
Under any other situation we would have revelled in the conditions, trimmed the sails to suit and enjoyed the short passage upwind even when, as we closed on the northern shoreline, the gusts were 33 knots apparent in sunshine and an enjoyable wave pattern.
GETTING BACK INTO HARBOUR
We had time to discuss options; sail plan for harbour entry, anchor at the ready and how we may get a tow if needed. I still wasn’t sure about the latter.
I decided to call the resident harbourmaster, always able to give assistance and advice and told him our predicament. He couldn’t guarantee a tow but we agreed to call up when we were 15 minutes out to reassess.
After discussing the type of entangled rope with him he suggested an engine start and gentle forward gear nudging to hopefully let the rope cutter do its job.
The encouragement prompted the decision to try a start. Initially, the engine revs died off a little when in gear but by unloading and trying again a few times we picked up rpm.
We all breathed a sigh of relief and finally after lowering the sails we cautiously wound our way through the narrow harbour approach to secure against the wall to dry out later that evening.
As we sat in the cockpit enjoying a beer, we considered a different scenario had the incident occurred at 0300 with a Force 5 and maybe shorthanded.
At the very least it would have involved a Pan Pan call. Our own situation could easily have elevated to that status.
The underwater entanglement became clear at low water and it was evident that the rope cutter had done its job but not freed the nest of line clear of the prop.
We removed the length of 18-20mm polypropylene line. It was a new, lead-weighted line, but trapped air seems to have prevented it from sinking.
Choose the right sailplan
The area we were sailing through had numerous buoys with flags but they were not very visible.
Goosewinged with a whisker pole was not the right sailplan for rapid course changes.
In such a location sailing with the engine out of gear with a free spinning prop probably sealed our dilemma with the wrap. In gear, it is possible that we would have been able to deflect the line away, or even if forced to cut it we might have been able to pull the line clear.
We kept an active lookout but missed the floating line. In future we will assume every lobster pot has a long floating line and will take avoiding action.
Plan your route carefully
Try and sail away from frequently potted areas by diverting as necessary. Nighttime might not prove so easy.
Check the tide
Be mindful of tide height, set and wind direction. Low tide would very likely leave more line on the surface and a reasonable breeze and tidal set extend the line further from its normal position.
Prepare to call for help
Even with the above precautions, a long floating line is a real and potentially dangerous obstacle that can put crew and vessel in imminent danger.
If in any doubt, be prepared to make at least a PAN PAN call or even a MAYDAY.