When we first bought Rita P, she came with a really long boat hook. We figured a 5-foot hook was plenty long enough to snag a mooring line from the bow of a Pearson 30 sloop, but this hook was several feet longer and looked like something you would see on a big power boat with high freeboard.

But it didn’t take long for us to learn how useful “the world’s longest boat hook” could be.

In a moment of inattention, we snagged a lobster buoy, and its line lodged at the top of our rudder. That boat hook was just long enough to push the line past the bottom of the rudder and free us from the buoy’s grip.

We were lucky. Not only did we have a cool tool, but we were sailing when we caught that buoy. Had we been motoring, we could have easily wrapped that line around our propeller and getting free would have been a lot tougher.

Lobster buoys — like ledges and fog — are a fact of life on the Maine coast. Most local boaters have stories about snagging one. The consequences range from minor inconvenience to considerable damage.

Even worse, boaters can get hurt while trying to free the line — commonly called pot warp — from the rudder or propeller shaft of a pitching boat.

The problem can get more complex as you move east into bigger tidal ranges.

There you have toggles — the smaller, unpainted, doughnut-shaped floats — about 20 to 30 feet from the main buoy. Toggles hold the line up and keep it from snagging on the bottom.

Published reports indicate there could be up to 6,000 lobstermen actively fishing Maine waters, with up to 3 million traps in use.

The buoy-to-trap ratio can vary. A single buoy could mark one or two traps.

Some lobstermen run a string of several traps with a buoy marking each end. So there are likely hundreds of thousands of lobster buoys out there, and the pot warp lies just under the surface, waiting to snag a rudder or propeller.

The buoys have gotten so thick in places like Tenants Harbor and Merchant Row in Penobscot Bay that some recreational boaters talk of avoiding those areas altogether.

Even some lobstermen acknowledge a saturation point. One Casco Bay lobsterman I know avoids setting his traps in certain areas because it’s just too crowded.

Boaters can reduce the chance of unpleasant encounters with lobster gear. Curtis Rindlaub, author of A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast, offers tips in his book and on its companion website at mainecoastguide.com/sidebars/buoys.html.

Rule No. 1: Watch where you’re going and steer around the buoys.

“Anyone used to putting their boat on autopilot or allowing their concentration to be too far elsewhere as they sail or motor will inevitably be surprised by a buoy, even fairly far offshore,” says Rindlaub. “I am often sailing solo, and even a simple motor across an open bay hardly allows a moment off the helm to jump down below for a drink or a sandwich.”

Specifically, watch how buoys lie to wind and/or current. Note whether toggles are present — they will be a bit upwind or up-current from their associated buoy. Steer just downwind or down-current from the painted buoys.

Never, ever try to steer your boat between a buoy and its toggle — that is the easiest way to snag a line that could be just under the surface. Keep in mind that strong tidal currents can push toggles and even buoys below the surface. Don’t ask how I know this.

If you’re running your engine and are about to run over a buoy, shift into neutral. This can keep you from wrapping potwarp around your prop shaft.

Sometimes you can remove the line with a boat hook. If it isn’t wrapped too badly, you might be able to back it off using your engine.

Because there will be times neither procedure works, it’s important to have a knife, face mask, snorkel and wet suit on board for the unlucky person who has to go over the side and cut the warp.

Some recreational boaters express frustration about lobster buoys, particularly when they’re in tight harbor channels.

Their concerns have some merit, and perhaps someday Maine will consider following other states and establish float-free zones where appropriate.

But it helps to look at the bright side. Lobstermen are only trying to make a living, and their job is to bring us a tasty treat from the sea.

It’s also not uncommon for them to be the first to come to the aid of boaters in trouble.

With a little mutual respect, we can continue to coexist.

Gail Rice of Freeport and her husband, Randy, race and cruise their Pearson 30 sloop on Casco Bay. Contact her at:

[email protected]