U.S. West Coast Towboat Lanes (crab pot free)

I get asked about the Oregon/Washington/California Towboat Lanes frequently enough that I decided to post some explanation and background. They extend from Cape Alava, WA(15 miles south of Cape Flattery) to Point Reyes, CA(30 miles NW of San Francisco entrance) about 700 miles. There are access points that split off to make some, but not all of the river entrances along the way. There is no dedicated lane for Quillieute River, Nehalem River, Port Orford, Rogue River, Shelter Cove(CA), Noyo River, or Bodega Bay, or for that matter any of the smaller coves and generally un-navigable rivers and creeks. Of the ones named above, I use most of them at various times to find shelter. Going in and out of the lanes to get to these places with no dedicated access is tricky, especially at night.

1. The so-called towboat lanes are supposed to be free of crabpots and their troublesome buoys. This is a misunderstanding.

First, their is no "law" that prevents crab fishermen from putting their pots in the lanes. If the areas near the lanes are crowded some fishermen will take a chance and deliberately put pots inside of the lane boundaries. The lanes are a "cooperative agreement" between the tow boat operators and the crab fishermen. If the tugs with tows agree to stay in the lanes, then they are not liable to the crab fishermen for destroying their gear, that they run into, if such gear is in the lane. An article about the history.

A tug with tow can destroy an entire string of pots costing thousands of dollars. Whereas the average yacht, or even another crab boat will generally tangle with only a single crab pot buoy during any given trip.

With GPS and chart plotting the crabbers generally know where the lane edges are within about 50 feet and of course that includes the tow boat operators. However, this is not always a safe assumption and the lane widths are generally only a mile wide(6082 feet). Crab pots are often set right up within a few feet of the lane edge as perceived by the crab fisherman. Any mistakes on their part or yours can get you entangled in multiple crab pot buoys, one after the other.

Towboat Lane Website Meetings of the Towboat operators and crab fishermen occur generally in November and March of each year.

It may be difficult to convert the data files on their website to use with your chart plotting software. The way I did it was to convert the files and then turn them into a simulated route, so that I could see the edge of the lane. These "routes" consist of about 50 files and I have to pick and load them one at a time so to cover the actual area that I intend to traverse. This is not as much a problem if you have a laptop and are running one of the major chart plotting programs listed on their website. But, I don't use a laptop, only Android Tablets and it took more than just a little bit of monkeying around to get a workable system. It can be almost impossible to import these data files into a dedicated chart plotter like Raymarine, Standard, Garmin, Furuno, etc.

Confusing Issues

The inner lanes (or so called summer lanes) are generally adhered to north of Tillamook Bay. From Tillamook south the lane is generally free of crab pots all year round. The lanes south of Tillamook are about 2 miles wide, instead of one mile like all the lanes to the north.

Staying in the lane while navigating.

This is not a easy as it might first appear. The lanes are further offshore than make for easy use by yachtsmen. The inner lane from Grays Harbor to Tillamook is only valid during the late spring until late November(check the exact dates each year); during this period, sometimes all the gear has already been pulled, everywhere. The worst time from a yachtsman's standpoint is right after the start of crab season, generally December 1. Crab season is subject to east winds, especially at night and it is a real nuisance even to the tug operators to be 15 miles or more offshore if the wind is blowing from the east.

Keep in mind that these are "towboat lanes", which means you will find the towboats with their tows in the lanes. If they come down the middle of the lane, right at you, you will have less than 1/2 mile to navigate in and it is mighty easy to get outside the lane while avoiding them. These tows are mighty dangerous and 1/2 mile is cutting it close as far as I am concerned. Sometimes the tow is 1/2 to almost a mile behind the tug. Don't ever let inexperienced crew run the helm around these tows. It only takes a small mistake to get your yacht plowed under. In other words, it takes very precise navigation to stay in the lane and wind, current and meeting other vessels can easily cause you to wander out of the lane. There are no buoys or other markers to visually mark the lane edges or the turn points. You can't set a course from Columbia River straight to Cape Alava and not wander outside the lane as it is not a straight (rhumb) line.

This gives you a simple look at what I go thru in using the towboat lanes. Amateurs tend to look for simple answers to their problems. The towboat lanes are not as simple as they look.

Gear: placement, locations and construction

In point of fact, in addition, I know a number of the crabbers in various ports and often will query them before I make a run up or down this section of coast. Things I ask; do they know of any gear outside of 50 fathoms, are they aware of any places where there is gear in the lanes, what is the trend to placing more or less gear generally, etc. Recently I saw crab gear in 450 feet of water NW of Coos Bay, Oregon. There has been a rumor that crabbers don't set gear beyond 300 feet(50 fathoms), but this may no longer be a safe assumption. Trying to stay outside the crab gear violates my first rule of coastal running: don't go any further offshore than necessary. Trying to reconcile this rule and using the towboat lanes in practice is a tricky decision.

Generally, all gear is supposed to be removed from the water each year by September 1. I collect a list of any gear I run across, after that date but before crab season opens to various state personnel, as they will pass the information along to the people who get paid to go out and collect them. One more bit of trivia: in the week before crab season opening, a few boats are paid to set gear for testing. The resulting crab are checked for contamination(domoic acid, etc.) and percentage of meat content. This gear is unlikely to be in the towboat lanes, but you may encounter this test gear anytime after the start of what might have been the official opening of crab season. On some occasions the season has been delayed up to a month. And, the Native Indian fishery may start several weeks before the regular season. I may not have covered all the possibilities, so beware.

Lost Gear Recovery Programs: California, Oregon Washington

The buoys used, that mark the crab pots, are now made out of a hard plastic that can damage delicate yacht propellers. They used to made from softer material. In areas subject to strong current, commercial crabbers will generally use two buoys, one to hold the line up and the other on about another 10 feet of line that will still be visible and retrievable even when the first buoy has been pulled under by the current. You are more likely to tangle a buoy in your prop if the current is slack and both buoys are lying idle on the surface. Some crabbers fail to put lead weights on the line to hold the excess line down, not needed to reach the bottom. This excess is sometimes 50 feet or more and will be lying scattered on the surface, if not weighted down.

 Android Apps to display the Towboat Lanes Data

GPX Viewer.

Backcountry Navigator

Google Earth

Request the .KML file from the Towboat Lane Website, use the contact email at the bottom.


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