Does it seem like everyone either has knee pain or knows someone who does? A group of 286 lobstermen interviewed every three months from 2012 through 2015 reported new knee injuries at a rate of 4 per every 100 fishermen. Half of them required some kind of treatment for the injury.
The lobstermen, of course, may have been involved in other strenuous activities earlier in life, like football or hockey, for example. Old injuries can be exacerbated by years of lobstering. Some lobstermen also may do other demanding work, like construction. For comparison, however, residential construction workers in 2019 had an overall injury rate of 3 per 100 workers, which is less than that reported by the lobstermen in the survey. The construction workers’ injuries also were from all body locations, not just the knees.
In 2013, 26.6% of lobstermen (105 of 395) interviewed, both captains and sternmen, reported experiencing knee pain within three months prior to the interview. Only 24 of the 105 received medical treatment, an indication that an important proportion of lobstermen work in pain. However, only 11 (3% of 395 interviewed) reported that the pain altered their work. This could mean that working in pain is feasible as well as common. Perhaps it is something that people are simply used to doing or expect to experience. It could also mean that people are not anticipating that treatment could solve the problem, or that obtaining treatment is too much of an additional challenge. But, after all, pain is pain, and your body is not lying to you.
In some cases, treatment for knee pain has been effective. Some lobstermen have tried regenerative injection therapy and have had success. And of course, everyone knows about painkillers. Although it was not part of the questionnaire, many lobstermen reported having had knee replacement operations. They directed specific comments to a future generation of lobstermen: “If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.” This was not meant as a regret for having knee replacement therapy that allowed the lobstermen to return to work without the pain. It was to suggest that there were things they could have done to prevent the pain in the first place.
To understand what can be done to prevent knee injuries, identify the preventable actions at work that contribute to knee pain in the first place. These are forceful exertions, repetition, awkward posture, and contact stress. Contact stress is what happens to the knees when you kneel on them. It is also what happens to lobstermen’s knees when they lean against the inside of the boat for stability while they pull the trap onto the washboard. Other actions lobstermen mention specifically include the repetitive forceful activity of kicking away the trapline that falls under the hauler combined with the exertion required to stand on the hard deck of a rocking boat.
What does an older lobsterman mean, then, when he says he’d do things differently? To prevent contact stress on the inside of the boat, some have installed padding on the inside of the hull. Construction tradespeople who often kneel will wear kneepads. Floor coverers, for example, often wear custom-fit kneepads from the Proknee company of Maine. Some may find that better boots reduce stress on the knees by improving the alignment of the legs. The ocean is not going to stop rocking the boat, but wooden boats are heavier and less reactive to the ocean than fiberglass boats. They are easier on the knees because stability can be maintained with less biomechanical acceleration at the knee. Wooden boats “feel better” even if they are harder to maintain.
To help with the problem of kicking traplines out of the way, use a rope locker or rope bin. A rope locker is a space under the deck into which the trapline falls as it comes off the hauler. There is a slim opening in the deck next to the hull and under the rail, through which the trapline falls into the below-deck space. Rope lockers can be retrofitted in a fiberglass boat; these days fiberglass boat manufacturers, such as Taylored Boats of Addison incorporate rope lockers into their builds. One recent example is the open stern 44’ Willis Beal Grand Finale built by Taylored Boats. Maine Marine Patrol now specifies that each of its patrol boats have a rope locker.
A less involved solution to trapline underfoot is a rope bin, which can be made out of a 3-foot piece of plywood mounted on a similar length piano hinge. This mounting should be about 4 inches off the deck surface to allow for a kick space or toe kick, such as is found under kitchen cabinets. A small wooden stop can be mounted on the bulkhead. As rope comes from the hauler, the plywood falls against the stop and the rope falls into the open bin. As the traps are set, the rope pays out of the bin and when empty, the lobsterman can lean against the bin to close it.
Improvements like a rope locker or rope bin will not only reduce the wear and tear on knees and hips from repeatedly kicking rope out of the way, but also will reduce the chance of getting a foot caught in the trapline as it pays out and potentially being pinned against the rail or pulled overboard.
If you would like more information please contact Ann Backus, firstname.lastname@example.org. As usual we welcome comments about this article and your ideas about how to make lobstering physically less stressful.