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In coastal waters around the Caribbean islands the sight of two small floating containers several feet from each other is common. The floats used to hold up the trap line and mark the spot are often empty Clorox bleach bottles, plastic detergent bottles or other similarly sized containers discarded after domestic use and re-used instead of the pricey (but more visible) marine floats. Fish or lobster traps are usually found in shallower waters (<100 feet) close to shore and they can be extremely to see, even when one is keeping a sharp lookout for them. While the Clorox bottles are bright white and thus visible against the backdrop of water, the green or blue bottles that are sometimes used are well-nigh invisible. When travelling into the sun when it is low on the horizon the little floats can only seen when they are very close; close enough so that there is hardly enough time to change course and avoid them.
Lines that are heavier than water drop vertically or at a steep angle (due to current or very strong wind) from the first float. In such cases one only needs to avoid hitting them dead-on, a miss of a couple of feet is sufficient to avoid the line fouling on the keel, rudder or propeller. But if the line is light or if it has a lot of slack in strong currents the angle isn't steep and one needs to give the visible part of the trap a wide berth to avoid fouling on the boat. It isn't always easy to see which side is safer (current direction overrides wind direction) so the best procedure is to get as much distance as possible between the boat and the floats. Sometimes the fish traps are set so close together in groups that it is like running an obstacle course. I prefer the analogy of trying to negotiate a minefield since the effects of entrapping a trap can be pretty nasty as well.
St. Kitts and Nevis have a reputation of being a fishing trap breeding ground. I think that is deserved, not only because I lost an argument over right-of-way with one, but because every single time I've rounded the southern tip of Nevis I've encountered masses of them. The worst was one late afternoon with the sun just a couple of diameters over the horizon and my course set right into that sun, even with sunglasses, a shaded hat and using my hands as shades it was impossible to see the floats until they were amidships; I don't know how I managed to avoid them that day.
On that fateful day I was rounding the southern end of Nevis on my way to Antigua, motor sailing since the wind was weak on the lee side of the island and I wanted to make Antigua before nightfall. I first noticed something amiss when I looked behind the boat and thought to myself “Cool, I have a dolphin swimming underwater right behind the boat!”. After a couple of seconds of reflection, I wondered to myself “I didn't know that dolphins were bright yellow, are they?” and then belatedly realized that what I was seeing was the yellow bottle pictured below being dragged, just under the surface, behind the boat. I throttled down (realizing I was a LOT slower than my previous speed of 8 knots), turned off the engine and hove to. I realized that I'd managed to catch a fishing trap but didn't know how I'd go about un-catching it. My rope cutter had evidently failed and Zanshin I was now acting as a super-sized float to a fish trap in 80 feet of water.
Now that I wasn't making speed through the water the float made it it the surface and I could grab it with a pole. There was a very long length of line attached to the two float bottles and it took a while to pull it all into the boat; alas there was just a frayed end instead of a trap at the end, otherwise I might have been able to re-attach it and at least not leave the fisherman to lament his loss of a trap and line.
After hauling what I could aboard and cutting away what I could see I decided to press on, having lost over an hour. If I hadn't been alone aboard I would have dove off the side to see if any rope was wedged in the rudder but as everything seemed to be freely moving I headed off towards Antigua. By this time the wind had freshened a bit and I sailed all the way in to just shy of Falmouth harbour, when I turned on the engine so that I could motor forward and furl my sails - it is much easier to motor into a harbour than to try to dodge anchored vessels and shallows under sail. Unfortunately, that was when I realized that something was wrong. The whole ship shuddered and vibrated badly as soon as I put the engine in gear, I assumed that I had managed to bend my shaft during the fish trap fiasco and put the boat back into idle while I tried to figure out how to enter the very crowded harbour under sail. To make matter a bit more pressing, it was fast approaching dusk and in the tropics there is very little twilight, light goes from “on” to “off” very quickly. I finally ended up with a compromise, I entered the channel and passed the reef under heavily reefed mainsail and genoa, then risked damage to the boat by idling forward under power and hauling in the sails. The vibrations were bad and I anchored as soon as I was out of the channel and in the anchorage. The next morning I dove on the propeller and, luckily for me, it turned out that the shaft was OK but that the rope had wrapped around the folding propeller and caused the imbalance in the shaft.