What to Do if Your Prop Gets Tangled

Are You Ready to Act Fast?

Hooknife

It happens to every sailor eventually: motoring through an area of lobster traps or crab pots, or even through open water, a line or piece of net catches in your prop and the engine abruptly stalls and won't restart. More than just an annoyance, a fouled prop can suddenly create a dangerous situation. You may be in a crowded channel or in danger of drifting onto rocks. The water may be freezing cold.

And if it's never happened to you before, and you don't recognize the problem and know what to do immediately, you may be befuddled long enough for the boat to get into real trouble.

Possible Scenarios

  • You are motoring along and without warning the engine simply stops. You restart but it just makes a funny sound and dies again when you put it in gear. The boat is drifting free on a current or blown toward shore.
  • You are motoring when the engine and boat both come to a grinding halt. Without warning, you are "anchored" by the stern, the wind or waves tugging at the boat and putting great pressure on your prop shaft (or spade rudder).
  • You are motoring and the engine suddenly falters and the RPMs drop way down. Throttling up makes no difference, and you're barely making headway.
  • You've been sailing but are now approaching the harbor, your mooring or dock, or a channel homeward. You drop the sails and start the engine, but it dies right after putting it in gear. You're adrift between a rock and a hard place.

    Have the Right Gear Ready

    Freeing your boat from a nasty and potentially dangerous situation will require both the right equipment and effective actions, and you should plan ahead for both. It's not good enough to be able to figure out what to do if you lose precious time looking for equipment.

    In some cases you can free the prop without having to cut loose the tangled line or net (as described in the strategies below) - but don’t depend on that.

    In most cases you'll need to be prepared with the right gear to get free:

    • Every boat should have a sharp knife aboard, for many reasons. A serrated blade cuts much faster through a line under tension. A wrist lanyard on the knife is helpful if you might have to dive beneath the boat - it's easy to drop a knife in that circumstance!
    • A specialized long blade on an extension handle, like the Hooknife made expressly for this purpose, makes the job easier and can save you from having to go in the water.
    • Every sailboat should carry a boat hook, or preferably two, since it can easily be pulled or jerked out of your hand when a wave moves the boat. The longer the better, in case you have to reach deep below the surface to snag a line.
    • Swim goggles or a dive mask are essential in case you have to go below the boat to cut the prop free. You don't want muddled vision while manipulating a sharp blade while trying to hold on against buoyancy and currents.
    • If you sail in a cold water area, keep a wetsuit on board. With a severely fouled prop, it can take repeated dives to cut off a line - and if you're shaking with cold you might not be able to do it all.
    • If you sail after dark, you should also have a waterproof flashlight, preferably a headlamp. Because of your buoyancy, you'll need one hand to hold on to the prop, shaft, or strut while using the knife with your other hand.

      Read on for what to do when it happens to you.

      Have a Plan in Mind

      The steps to take depend, first, on whether the boat is anchored by a line wrapped around the prop or rudder or is drifting free. Either way, you may need to act fast.

      Try reverse:

      It doesn’t always work, but it just might. When the signs point to a piece of line or other debris fouling the prop, start the engine in neutral and, at a low RPM, slip briefly into reverse. Never do this if you're anchored by a line still pulling on the prop.

      Don't rev up the engine or fight with it in gear, which can only wrap the prop more tightly. Typically a line wraps only two or three times around the prop and shaft before stalling the engine, and if it doesn't release immediately with a bit of reverse, then chances are it will only bind even more tightly if you blast into reverse or try going back and forth between reverse and forward.

      Anchored by stern:
      1. If the boat is anchored by the line, as may happen with a pot warp to a string of lobster or crab pots, your first concern is to take the pressure off the part of the boat tangled in the line. With wind or current, the large forces involved can damage the pop shaft or strut. If you have sails up, drop them immediately!
      2. Look for the offending line dropping down in the water behind or beside the boat, or you may have to fish around in dark water. But don't cut it, because then you'll have to deal with a drifting boat too. Try to grab the line quickly with your boat hook and wrap it around a stern cleat. It can take a lot of strength to bring the line up against the pull of the boat; be careful not to lose the boat hook.
      1. If a line is caught around your rudder rather than prop, you may see a pickup buoy pulled up against the rudder's leading edge where it meets the hull. You may be able to push the buoy down with your boat hook to free the rudder. This is almost impossible, however, if you don't first remove the anchoring tension by cleating the line.
      1. Now anchored off a cleat, you have time to work on the next step, freeing the prop.
      2. If the boat is slowly drifting toward trouble, dragging along a lobster or crab pot, you may be forced to cut the line before freeing the prop. Make sure you first have some sail up to be able to control your movement.
      Drifting powerless:
      1. Accept that it may take more than a few minutes to get free, so your first concern is for safety of the boat and crew while buying time.
      2. If in imminent danger of drifting ashore or hitting bottom, get an anchor out immediately. While this is seldom a mayday situation, if you don't trust anchoring and can't sail to safety, consider a radio call for assistance. Another boat nearby might tow you to safety or stand by until professional assistance arrives.
      3. You may be able to sail to deep water or a better anchorage. (Avoid anchoring on a lee shore, where you may be unable to sail away if the anchor drags.) Diving to free the prop is usually easier and safer when anchored than when bobbing about at sea.
      Now free the line:
      1. If you have a swim ladder or step and a Hooknife with an extended handle, you may be able to reach the line around the prop from water level at the stern. It helps to have practiced this sometime when your boat is out of the water, so you can visualize where you're reaching. The Hooknife's outer blade can be used to saw the tangle off if you're not able to hook a loop to slice it free.
      1. Without a Hooknife, you have to go under the boat. Gather your gear and take your time. If there is any current at all, or if the boat is drifting in open water, tie a line around your waist, held by another crew. Don't even think of going in the water if you're alone - call for help instead.
      2. How you cut free depends on how and where the line or other material is fouled - something you can't guess until you see it. (Another reason it's critical to have swim goggles or a dive mask.) The good news is that once you're there with a good knife in controlled circumstances, it's almost guaranteed you'll succeed.