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CWO Thomas J. Guthlein
Commanding Officer
USCG Station Castle Hill
75 Ridge Road
Newport, RI, 02840
(401) 846-3675


Every week, thousands of vessels cruise the waters just south of Newport. Many may catch a brief glimpse of the barrels that appear to be floating atop the swells, however few realize the danger that lurks just beneath the surface. These barrels are in place to mark the many fish traps that stretch from Sachuest Point to Brenton Reef, and can turn a day on the water into a day fraught with peril.

Each boating season, many vessels become hopelessly ensnared in the fish traps and find that without professional assistance, there is little they can do to help themselves. Not surprisingly, becoming tightly bound and immobile can quickly go from an inconvenience to a very hazardous situation. Once stuck tight, a vessel is usually stern to the seas, with the weight of the nets restricting its ability to rise and fall in order to weather the oncoming waves. In this position, it is only a matter of time before the vessel becomes overwhelmed by a breaking swell and begins to sink.

Each trap consists of many parts, any one of which could wrap around a propeller, rudder, or keel, leaving a vessel stranded and at the mercy of the elements. The traps are surrounded by anchors, which are marked either by simple lobster buoys or larger ball shaped floats. Each anchor is strategically placed to support the shape of the trap, keep the trap in one location, and to keep the nets pointed in a constant direction. Each trap begins with a “high flyer” buoy, which is similar to a lobster trap buoy, with a 6 foot pole topped by a radar reflector. Extending from the high flyer is the leader line. This line supports the twine netting that herds the fish into the keeping area and is stretched taut just below the surface, and marked by small floats seen just above the water. At the other end of the leader line is the fish holding area known as the “box”. Also supported at the top by a taut line, and, consisting of twine netting below, this is by far the most sensitive and easily damaged portion of the trap. The box is supported by large 55 gallon steel or plastic barrels.

Once professional assistance arrives, the rescuers often find that there are numerous hurdles to overcome in order remove the stranded vessel from danger. Any fixed wheel vessel approaching the now damaged and free-floating trap can quickly find themselves also fouled in the lines, leaving not one but two boats in danger. In some instances, the Coast Guard may be forced to launch a rescue helicopter in order to remove the occupants from the stricken vessel, as their rescue boats cannot approach the ensnared casualty closely. The helicopter must travel to the scene and deploy a rescue swimmer, who must then swim through the seas and attempt to board the casualty, which may be heavily heaving up and down. Once the swimmer is aboard, the helicopter must lower a rescue basket and lift the occupants from the moving deck.

In many cases, professional salvors are called in to assist. Many of the vessels owned and operated by local salvors are water jet driven, increasing their ability to safely navigate in the line-strewn area around the stranded vessel. However, even these water jet driven vessels must launch a diver, who must swim beneath the casualty and cut it free before it can be towed to safety. In rough conditions, a fully equipped and encumbered diver must battle the current and seas just to get to the casualty, and must then try cut the vessel free while holding fast underneath several tons of boat that is being constantly dropped on his head.

Under the conditions I have just described, it is easy to understand why mariners should use caution when navigating south of Newport. The designated trap areas are well marked on navigational charts, and it would be wise to steer well clear of them.

60 Reynolds Street
Wickford, RI 02852
24 Hour Dispatch: 401-295-8711