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Sailors have rights over fishermen; good luck

2008 June 17
You'd think fishermen would be among the most laid-back life forms on the planet. The activity-OK, pastime-is all about lying back and waiting for something to happen. Except for the mysterious requirement to start passing time in this way at some absurd pre-dawn hour, fishing's demands for physical or cerebral activity are minimal. On the other hand, its opportunities for the passive, calming enjoyment of nature, for contemplation and, above all, sublime relaxation are limitless. If anyone should be mellow, it's a fisherman.

So why are some of the fishermen I encounter on the water so uptight and ornery?

I have been cursed at in stentorian broadcasts across the water in language foul enough to embarrass a drill instructor. I have been threatened with mayhem to my person and my boat. I have been chased with apparent intent to ram by a powerboat obviously operated by someone in the thrall of the aquatic version of road rage.

All at the hands of fishermen.

I don't deserve this ... really. You can ask anyone (except a fisherman)-I'm a nice guy on the water. I invariably give friendly waves to passing boats. Sometimes, when proximity permits, I exchange compliments with the skipper or crew. Just last summer I shouted to the comely first mate of a gorgeous motoryacht that her boat was the second prettiest vessel on the water that day and she replied with the identical comment about my boat. I even acknowledge high signs from the jockeys at the controls of cigarette boats passing at 50 miles per hour and God knows how many decibels, though I may be mouthing "muffle that beast, you moron" through my smile.

My theory as to why some fishermen don't respond to this sort of seagoing camaraderie is that they feel compelled, perhaps out of an atavistic urge to protect a favored fishing hole, to defend their space while trolling in water used by other vessels. This may be compared to defending one's turf, especially since fishermen seem to define their space in terms of acres-lots of them. I've found it's very hard to give them enough space.

Not that I don't try. As soon as I spy a fishing boat ahead, I start plotting the course needed to avoid its circle of private water. This is easier said than done. Typically the fishing boat changes course too. I fall off, I point up, the angler is still angling toward me.

This is often accomplished with studied obliviousness. Don't ask me how any conscious person can miss the approach of a red sailboat with a 70-foot mast, but time and again the occupants of fishing boats turn their heads at the last moment and display shock at seeing us passing-at a safe distance but apparently not, judging from the graphic comments and gestures, beyond the sacred boundaries of proper fishing space.

I've seen fishermen so adept at being oblivious that they've managed to pull it off in the middle of a sailboat race course. One can only wonder what they thought the blaze-orange inflatable tetrahedral buoy around which they were trolling lures was doing on the water (a fish magnet placed by the DNR, perhaps?), but yes, they were utterly shocked when they looked up and saw a whole fleet of sailboats invading their fishing space.

I've learned from talking to fishermen among my acquaintance that the rage exhibited in these confrontations is often righteous. Many fishermen are convinced they have the right of way over sailboats. It says so, some of them insist, in the Rules of the Road.

The rules do say that a vessel under sail must give way to a vessel that is fishing. The catch is, fishing is defined as "fishing with nets, lines, trawls or other fishing apparatus which restricts maneuverability but does not include a vessel fishing with trolling lines."
As Capt. Bill Brogdon, retired captain of Coast Guard vessels and author of Boat Navigation for the Rest of Us, put it in an article in Soundings, recreational boats that are fishing are really not fishing, according to the Rules of the Road.

Brogdon also points out that sailboats that sail from behind to pass recreational fishing boats are not bound by the rule that says that overtaking vessels must stay "out of the way of the vessel being overtaken," because a sailboat's rights trump those of a powerboat, even one with trolling lines deployed.

So the next time a fisherman confronts me over trespassing on his turf, I'm going to pull along side, produce my copy of the Rules of the Road, read the relevant passages to him and engage in a discussion on the nuances of fishing with nets, lines or trawls versus trolling lines.

Just kidding. That sounds like a good way to get a treble hook stuck in a fleshy body part. I think I'll just stick to my practice of doing my best to stay out of the way of fishing boats-even if the rules say they're supposed to stay out of my way.

I still wonder why fishermen, with all that time on their hands to enjoy the beauty of the water, are so grumpy, especially about sailboats that make no noise to disturb the fish nor wakes to disturb relaxing fishermen. Maybe they need to sleep later.