CRUISING in Maine is ruled by an unforgiving triumvirate: rocks, fog, and lobster buoys. The rocks are charted, the fog comes and goes, but the brightly painted lobster buoys are everywhere.
To cruising sailors, the buoys can be a minor inconvenience or a serious navigational or safety threat. Understanding the function and placement of buoys can help minimize the risks they pose and may, on occasion, steer you out of trouble.
Over three million lobster traps are fished in Maine waters, and, together or in groups, they are all marked by lobster buoys. Despite trap limits in recent years, the number of lobster buoys continues to increase as more and more lobstermen fish their maximum number of traps.
Each buoy is attached by a long length of line, the potwarp, 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.
Hitting a buoy itself poses little danger. Pulling a buoy into your prop is less benign. The buoy may pop out from under your boat and bob to the surface in your wake. Or, the prop may cut it up and spit it out like chewed popcorn.
The worst case is when the prop catches the potwarp and wraps it in a knot on the shaft. The engine may stall, and the boat will either be anchored by the trap or adrift if the wrap has broken. Night, fog, an exposed location, hard current, or heavy traffic all multiply the seriousness of the situation.
Before you cruise to Maine, you can install a cage around your propeller or Spurs or other cutting devices on your shaft. Both solutions are expensive. The Spurs cut indiscriminately, and cages cost you some speed. And neither keeps potwarp from snagging your spade rudder.
Your first—and best—line of defense is to stay alert and steer around the buoys. In many places, it’s like weaving your way through a mine field. Turn off your autopilot and adjust your itinerary to avoid running inshore at night.
Look carefully at the buoys you pass. You may be in a region where the lobstermen fish singles, one buoy for each trap. Or, more likely, you will be in an area that fishes "strings"—many traps roped together and set in a line, with buoys at each end of the string.
To keep strings from crossing, strings are set parallel to the shore. Look for same-colored buoys spaced at regular intervals parallel to the shore. You can pass safely between them, since the potwarp between the traps is all on the bottom. The longer the distance between the buoys, the more traps there are on the string. Or, once you recognize the strings, you can run down the channels between the strings.

Next, note the potwarp in your area. Most potwarp sinks, but in rocky areas where extra warp is prone to getting caught, lobstermen may use floating potwarp. Most lobstermen will still use a length of sinking warp just below the buoy to keep the floating warp from lying on the surface where it is likely to foul a prop. In the rare places where you see floating warp, use extra caution.
Toggles also keep sinking warp from snagging the bottom. 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, when possible, 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.
Now note the current. Lobster buoys point in the direction of current or wind, and the wake and trailing seaweed around them makes a good gauge of the current's strength. When narrowly avoiding lobster buoys, always pass down current or downwind of the buoy to avoid being swept onto it.
Finally, watch your depthsounder. Lobsters move throughout the season, and so do the lobster buoys. Early in the summer, before they molt, the lobsters hide among the shoreside rocks and in the warmer shallower waters. In June, the presence of lobster buoys may indicate that you are getting out of a channel or into rocks or shoals.
After molting, in early July, the lobsters move to deep water holes and less rocky bottoms until their shells can harden. Most of the buoys move with them. In July and early August, most buoys will mark deep water, often with dramatic contour changes. At this time of the season, if you are searching for deep water through a tricky passage, you may find it by steering for the buoys.

By the height of the lobster season in August and September, the lobsters can be anywhere, still in the deep water or back in the rocks and shallows, so the buoys aren't as useful to steer by.

If you are about to pass over a buoy, immediately put your engine in neutral. If you do snag a trap, you may be able to remove it with a boathook or back it off with the engine. An experienced sailor, Stuart Gillespie, offers this advice: “Reach for the warp with your boathook, bring it aboard, and wrap it a couple of times around a winch. Nudge the clutch to turn the prop; you’ll be able to sense which way it will come off by the pull on the winch. You’ll feel the warp come off the prop one blade at a time—thump, thump, thump.”

If this procedure fails, someone will have to go over the side and cut the warp. 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. Synthetic warp may fuse into a tough plastic blob. Try to save valuable gear for a lobsterman by tying the cut ends together.

When you reach your secluded anchorage, you may find that it, too, is peppered with lobster buoys. How do you anchor among them? Look for strings, and avoid dropping the anchor on a line between like colored buoys. Adjust rode to hang in as clear a patch of water as possible. Most importantly, understand if your underwater hull shape is prone to snagging warp if it swings across a trap. Fins and spade rudders are more vulnerable than full keels, but warp can even find the crack between a full keel and its rudder. Remember which buoys are nearby and check that they are still visible before you get under way in the morning. If you don't see them, check your keel and rudder.

Lobsters and Lobstering

Maine lobstering rules and regulations

Snagging lobster buoys forum topic

The Lobster Conservancy with a real-time lobster cam.

Maine lobsterboat racing

Video of lobster fishing off Bunker Harbor

No doubt, the subject of lobster buoys and how to avoid them will be a contentious one for a long time. It is best resolved by a mutual respect and understanding on the part of both recreational boaters and commercial fishermen. Here are your comments.

Thanks for taking the time to collect this info......

We started cruising the coast of Maine again after a long hiatus....say twenty years. I'm 45 now so most of my recollections of cruising are with my parents and none of those memories include dealing with or being concerned about pot warps/floats. Now however it is an overwhelming concern, in fact pots are a larger concern than ledges, currents, other boaters and fog, some other reasons I love cruising the coast of Maine.

Yes, we've hooked a few, our underwater configuration seems to be more suspectible to hookups than most, so we are very cautious, especially when motoring . We can appreciate the difficulties that the lobstermen/women work under, we can appreciate their need to provide for their families, however we cannot understand their disregard for the safety of and enjoyment of the coastal areas that pleasure boaters have as much right to as they do.

I hate to even say this but I think that it is only a matter of time (and not much time) before some boater says enough and takes this to the courts, certain risks are acceptable, some like trying to navigate the bouys/warps in Tenants Harbor, Round Pound, Muscongus Bay, are beyond acceptable. We hooked one coming out of Muscongus Bay and in the process of trying to get it off the prop hooked two more. At that point, we were being set towards a ledge, we cut the offending lines and saved our boat and our crew from danger. Cutting is a last resort and not the one prefered, however it is impossible in some cases to avoid it. The loss of the gear is small when compared to the potential for much larger losses.

I have gone so far as to bring this issue up with the BoatUS foundation, no response, so much for them, although maybe they would appreciate some of the letters on your website....I'm inclined to let this sleeping dog lie and probably will as I'm a working guy with not a whole lotta time on my hands.

What time I do have I prefer to be out dodging lobster traps........;-)

P.S. I've seen this discussion on many e-mail lists, bulletin boards/discussion boards relating to marine issues and will, if you don't mind post a link to your page.

Nat Howe
S/V Shikari---Islander 32
Jackson, NH

Curtis Rindlaub responds:

Hi Nat,

Thank you very much for voicing your concerns about the plethora of lobster buoys. I have to agree that a serious accident will result in a fouling incident, though I clearly see the other side of the coin. My son is a student lobsterman, with 26 traps out, each with its own buoy, and each bought with hard-earned money and sweat equity. A loss of even one of those traps is a huge loss to a 13 year old.

What I don't feel the lobstermen are coming to grips with are the facts that the number of lobstermen and traps out in the water have reached historical highs in the last five years, and that what once was a treated like a sacred right--the ability to put your trap wherever you pleased--may have to be reanalyzed.

Here's a land-based analogy. Several bicycles on a two-lane 55 mph road pose a small hazard but little risk or inconvenience to the four-wheeled traffic. Two thousand bikes on the road all the time would bring out the State troopers.

The fact that lobstermen and their gear are involved in making a living is an important one and one deserving the utmost respect from those of us who have the privilege to explore this coast by boat. I think the use of Spurs, which indiscriminately cut lobster gear, is unconscionable, and that anyone who installs one should consider swearing off eating lobster for the rest of his or her days.

However, from the viewpoint of mariners on the water, I think the respect should go both ways. Why mine the channels and then complain when the gear gets snagged? The answer--or the attitude--might be as much to deter visitors as to catch lobsters: Hey, if it keeps those dang cruisers away, its a good thing. I believe this attitude, while certainly not universal, is prevalent in and around many working harbors. Fishing is a territorial business, and it is easy for the territorial feelings extend toward cruising boats. I think that it is good for everyone involved to remember that nobody, neither the cruiser or the lobsterman, wants gear to be snagged, cut, or lost.

When I am honest with myself, one part of me has the same feelings. Part of the coast of Maine's beauty is that there relatively so few cruising boats here. In the past it was fog that posed the cruising challenge and kept the numbers of boats down, but with first loran, and then GPS and inexpensive radars, that discouraging factor has been reduced. The increased numbers of buoys seem to be becoming a new challenge, daunting enough to keep the coast from getting overrun.

What is not in doubt is that lobster boats, buoys, and traps are a big part of cruising in Maine, and hopefully they will be for a long time to come. There has been some speculation recently about whether the fishery, as robust as it seems, is on the verge of a major collapse. The thought of the Maine coast without the familiar thrum of the lobsterboats and the buoyed waters is a bleak one. Given a choice, I'd take the buoys every time.

Thank you again for your thoughts. I will post them on our site.

Curtis Rindlaub

Nat replys:

Thanks Curtis,
Your thoughts echo mine on many levels, and I think, many of the folks that enjoy the coastal waters of Maine and New England, whether they be earning a living or simply for pleasure. Interrestingly enough I posted my thoughts as well as a link to your site on the Cruising World BB (here is the thread http://old.cruisingworld.com/forums/genlmesg/index.pl?read=265343#Responses ) one of the responses was from a sailor in the Chesapeake where they have "Float Free Channels", I'll find out the details on this program and forward to you if you'd care to see them.

Do you mind if I copy and post your response on the CWBB? I'll give you full attribution. Or I'll post annon.....

As an aside I heard a story on Maine Public Broadcasting this summer a story about the industry, one of the interviewees, a lobsterman I presume, said..." I like to think of ouselves as farmers, rather than just fisherman, we've been feeding these lobsters for years before they get big enough to stay in a trap" I hadn't thought of this aspect of the biz before, but hell it's true, the lobsters are almost domesticated by the time they get to keeper size, having been handled and thrown back in dozens of times........they should start naming 'em.

I've often tried to imagine what the bottom must look like in those areas that are lousy with pots! Hell there can't be alot of other places for some of those poor buggers to go but into a trap!

Love the guide....keep up the good work........when are you gonna get your bb up and runnning, tried to log in again yesterday, no luck....


CCR responds:
Hi Nat:

Yes, of course, please feel free to post my thoughts.

Lobstermen certainly are farmers. The amount of bait that gets thrown at the lobsters is unbelievable, and the bait fisher threatens other species because the lobstermen need so much of it. It is also hard to believe the numbers of lobsters. I am a diver, and it is just hard to believe how many lobsters are on the bottom. Most, however, are small, and the danger to the lobster fishery is that the larger breeders might not be given enough time to breed before they reach market size. This issue is hotly debated, of course. The v-notch program helps. Any caught egg-bearing female's flipper is cut with a v notch to indicate to subsequent lobstermen when she is caught again that she must be thrown back.

Funny you mention naming them. My son and I actually have caught the same lobster three times in a row. When we first caught it it was a cull, missing one claw, and it had a small bud where the claw was beginning to grow. The next two times we caught it, the claw had formed and gotten bigger.

Thanks again for your thoughts on this subject.

I am a sailor who spends most of my time on the Chesapeake Bay. Recently, I began planning on a trip to Maine next season, but am very discouraged by the reports of the problems with numerous lobster floats in the approach channels to many docks and harbors. I realize that the situation will not change before next summer, but wanted to share an observation that alleviated many of the problems with crab floats here on the Bay: "Float Free Zones."

Although initially unpopular with the watermen, these clearly marked channels have been a success, particularly in areas that have a lot of boat traffic. These open channels enable pleasure boaters -- and watermen -- to travel into and out of marinas and selected rivers and creeks at night without fear of snagging lines. This also saves the watermen the cost of losing pots to irate boaters who cut the lines rather than take the time to unwrap the line from the prop/rudder/skeg.

I hope that you find this suggestion useful.

Len Zuza

Curtis Rindlaub responds:

Hi Len:

Thank you very much for this suggestion. Don't let the discussion of the buoys discourge you from coming to Maine. Lobster boats and buoys are a part of cruising in Maine and the lobster buisness is what makes most of the coastal towns what they are. And the lobsters taste great.


We have lobster pots in Rhode Island, Mass and Long Island too. But nothing like Maine. The Maine lobster pots are really something to be concerned about (given the chilly waters which are nothing to fool with if you have to go for a swim). In any given area, the cruiser may find pots with toggles or without. Knowing how to recognize which ones have toggles and which do not is a must. Maybe you could get some articulate lobsterman to explain what the pleasure boat operator should look for when motoring along. My wife and I discovered that it is absolutely imperative that one knows which way the current is moving in order to know where the usually-submerged or partially-submerged toggle is located in relation to the free floating part. Once we saw one of these with the line from the toggle to the free floating marker (at the most insidious depth of about 3 or 4 feet) and how they were situated vis a vis the current, we then knew what to look for. When the wind and current oppose each other, then it is really a night mare. I am curious what a lobsterman could offer in terms of suggestions for avoidance.
Jim and Carol Farrell
S/V Breezing Up, Wickford, RI

On our downeast trip this year, we discovered a number of things which you might like to know about. First and foremost, the tremendous proliferation of lobster traps, with their toggles that truly are hazards to navigation. They become more abundant as one travels further east. And they are especially hazardous because now, it seems they are attached to the main line closer to the surface. Hence, more opportunity to snag on a shaft or prop. They don't begin to thin out until you pass Christmas Cove on a homeward (western) journey. From our friends at Wayfarer Marine, I heard more reports of repairs and emergency calls from boaters caught in one of the damned things. I know everyone's entitled to use of the waters, even the lobstermen./ But this is really becoming

Andrew and Cherie Lorant and pup Amy
Big Beaver.

A thought: Maine is becoming so littered with lobster floats, at least west of and including Mt. Desert, that I have serious reservations about recommending it to other cruisers. There are indications in the Chesapeake that "float-free" zones and channels have been established by the state. Float free zones are marked in the Chesapeake by bouys marked, "crab line".

Might you lobby for such zones in Maine, to prevent discouraging out-of-state cruisers (and who are your customers) from visiting Maine? I'm not talking about big areas, but simply enough of a channel to get into and out of, e.g., Rockland/Tenant's Harbor without having to crawl and pick one's way through lobster pots. Tourist-based businesses might support you-- Hinckley's, Dysart's Great Harbor Marina (new name)?

You might solicit pot area ratings from cruisers for your publication, recognizing that changes may occur throughout the season.
4: no pots -- can be negotiated at night
3: few pots -- can be negotiated by occasional course changes under autopilot
2: many pots -- careful, manual steering required
1: dense pots -- manual steering at reduced speed required to avoid catching a pot

There were far too many 1's and 2's, especially in heavily traveled routes such as around the Cranberries and Tenant's Harbor, preventing sailing and requiring motoring to deal with abrupt course changes. Even leaving Portland, we had to dodge pots 15-20 out, in a southerly direction.

Roger Bohl

I'm writing on behalf of my aunt and uncle who just finished a delightful two month sojourn along the coast of Maine. They sailed from Essex, CT and made it as far as Buck's Harbor (just in time for Hurricane Lloyd). The Shabu, their 33' Nonesuch sailboat, will be wintering in South Freeport (Brewer's) and they plan to continue their exploration of Maine and on into Fundy and perhaps Nova Scotia next summer. I just drove them home to Connecticut yesterday.

They used your book extensively during the trip and had rave reviews about its accuracy and detail. The two issues that plagued them the most - and are still concerns for next summer are -- lobsters "pots" (their term, not mine) and the efficacy of NOAA weather.

Personally, I spent 10 summers living on an island in Muscongus Bay and know all about lobster buoys. While my travails were primarily in smaller and faster power boats, I have had my share of run-ins with toggles and submerged tackle. I shared with my aunt and uncle my "extensive wisdom" on how to read the water and avoid run-ins, assuaging
some of their anxiety. But I think they are still a little spooked.

I noticed that you had a comment on the "Notice to Maine Cruisers #3" about these. So perhaps you are planning to include a chapter on the art of navigating around these little devils in your next edition.

John Brandt

Curtis Rindlaub responds:
Dear John,

Thanks for your comments about your aunt and uncle's cruise.

There's no doubt that lobster buoys are a part of cruising in Maine, and they will be for a long time to come. The current problem, though, is their shear numbers. There are many more of them, even compared as recently as a few years ago, for several reasons. As offshore fishing resources have crashed, some draggers have turned to lobstering. When the Department of Marine Resources began to restrict lobster licenses, anyone who even had a vague notion of lobstering applied for one. And when the DMR limited trap numbers, many fishermen put out that many, even if they hadn't before--a weird psychology perhaps.

Avoidance comes, primarily from diligence. Some underbodies are more prone to snagging them than others (I'm not familiar with the configuration on a Nunsuch)--fin keels and spayed rudders being more prone than full keels. You've got to see them and steer around them, and for that reason, nighttime sailing close inshore is almost out of the question except in emergencies, and autopilots become pretty useless.

From a practical standpoint, if a boat is snagging them on the prop, Spurs can
be installed to cut the line, but I hesitate to recommend this since prop cutters cut warp indescrimately. If the warp is snagging the keels or rudder, sometimes deflectors (depending on the configuration) can be installed. Our full keel catches traps mostly when we are drifting sideways, often when we've just come off a mooring or dropped an anchor. The warp runs along the keel and gets wedged in the 3/8-inch crack between the keel and the rudder. I've solve this problem by screwing a small wire strap between the keel and the rudder. I don't think I've ever had one wrap around the prop, since it's fairly shielded by the keel and rudder.

Have the lobster buoys become a hazard to navigation? After being exceptionally tolerant, I'm beginning to think so. They pave the narrowest channels and seem to sprout in the trickiest of places. Last weekend I was hobby horsing through six to eight-foot standing waves out the mouth of the Kennebec River, with the current but against the breeze. If we snagged a trap in those conditions, it would have been nearly impossible to go over the side to free it, and we would have been adrift close inshore and moving fast toward disaster. The problem is compounded for less agile older couples who aren't prepare to don a wetsuit and go in with a knife. I can anticipate a fatality in this situation--heart attack
from cold water, hit on the head by heaving hull, fatigue, or drowning from entanglement.

Really, I think mutual respect would go along way toward solving the problem. Lobstermen could leave a few channels open for other boaters, particularly IN the channels.

Roger responds:

Thank you, Curtis for your timely and thorough response. I only had two opportunity to sail with them in Casco Bay (from South Freeport to Portland Harbor) this summer. I had no previous experience on the waters of Casco Bay to make a comparison about the sheer number of buoys. I did note that the buoys observed were much larger compared to upper Muscongus Bay, in and around Friendship and Cushing, where I spent many summers. In Casco the lobster boats are larger and they seem to haul multiple traps on each line. In Friendship, perhaps because of the steeper tide, they fished with one trap per line and tended to use toggle buoys. It was those toggles that cause the most headaches.

P.S.There's one change we'd love to see all up the coast: float-free channels into every harbor, just wide enough to motor through. Could you start a campaign? The lobster pots are a nightmare....

Jane Cave, Washington DC

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