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What to do when you've run aground

2015 February 1

When your boat goes bump on the bottom, know how to save yourself without making the situation worse

In the moments after you realize you have run your boat aground, it’s best to take a deep breath and recite The First Rule of Holes: “When you’re in one, stop digging.” Many of the steps you are inclined to take can make matters worse. You may already doubt your own skills and your decision making. You’ll get a lot of advice, some of it noisy, a lot of it not grounded in experience. Chaos is lurking. 

If it’s your first grounding, it means you either haven’t been sailing long or you’re too timid. Many veterans can tell stories that would fill an entire weekend. Few sailors have ever had to crack open the first aid kit in a grounding, but there are well-known cases of broken bones, concussions and worse. So before you do anything else, assess the status of your crew. If there are medical needs, tend to them first. It’s unlikely the boat is sinking, but faced with a choice between a bleeding crewmember and a hole in the boat, stop the bleeding first, then the leak. 

Speaking of worst-case scenarios, think about leaking boats and PFDs. Make sure everyone has one, but if your boat is taking on water, don’t send anyone below decks wearing a PFD; it’s hard to get someone out of a boat when they’re pinned to the head liner by a flood. 

Before you start an exit plan, consider what your boat is sitting on. If you’re stuck on a coral reef, imagine it’s a thousand little hacksaws on a lunch break. Sitting still, all is quiet. But if your boat starts moving around, lunch is over. 

Build your plan around the least possible motion. Minimize rocking, pitching, thrashing. If there are waves, try to take advantage of a crest. It is very important to know which is the best direction out. Logic and percentages indicate it would be best to go straight back the way you came, so if you have a good engine and your boat backs straight, take the first high crest and go. Remember, what goes up must come down, and you don’t want to land on more coral in the next trough. 

Rock is second to coral as an evil parking surface. Even if the rock you are on is flat, there’s no way to know what sharp edges are nearby. Having no cushion effect, rock is more likely to loosen keel joints and bend rudder posts. 

Sand and mud are cousins, and by far the most popular for grounding. Like coral, sand and mud can penalize too much commotion. If you twist and turn your keel in the muck, it’s digging in. Think of wiggling your toes in the sand. The best immediate exit is the obvious one. Your keel dug a little channel coming in. Try going right back out the channel you dredged. 

Getting off without an engine 

Also in the worst-case category is a boat with no engine. Motoring out was the best choice, but if your engine is broken, or you don’t even have one, sailing out offers limited direction and power. If there’s a breeze on the nose, you’re in luck. Try poles and preventers to get some jib and mainsail area facing the wind, and back out. Otherwise, you need to know that deep water is ahead, because ahead and to leeward is where the boat will sail. If you think deep water is downwind, try stalling the sails and heeling the boat. 

Speaking of heeling, there is always talk about getting bodies out on the boom to heel the boat. This can be useful if you know the boat will move toward deeper water. The risk is in digging the keel deeper in the muck, or drifting to shallower water rather than deeper. If you aren’t confident you have some positive directional power, don’t heel the boat until you rule out the downside. 

Kedging is another theoretical remedy especially for sailboats without engines. If you have a dinghy, take the anchor way out, back where you were before you hit bottom. Take lots of chain, people and anything else with significant weight. Empty the water tanks. Getting the boat light is the best you can expect from kedging. Just pulling on the anchor is a long shot at getting out to deep water. It’s too slow and under-powered, the pull angle is often bad, tending to dig the keel tip in or twist the boat crossways, and it’s a mess to clear out of the way if a tow boat comes along. If you don’t have a dinghy, you have to throw the anchor out. How far can you throw 20 pounds? What about 45 pounds? 

The anchor does have a valuable function in this troublesome world: it’s an anchor. It can keep you from being pushed by tide, wind or waves into shallower water. If you know the tide is running out, or for any other reason you know you’re safer to stay put, get the anchor down, get them all down, right away. Take it straight to the direction of the wind, wave or current that’s pushing you. If you don’t have a dinghy, you will have the problem of getting an anchor to set so close to the boat. Try helping it with weight; once it’s down, slide a second anchor or anything else heavy, down the line to try forcing a horizontal pull on the anchor. You’ll have a mess to pull out later, but if shallow water ahead is a serious danger, it’s better to take a chance. 

Be careful powering off 

If you are reversing your engine to back out, think about the effect of your prop. The harder you push the throttle, the more mud, silt and sand you will stir up. Remember to check, clean or change your filters and impeller soon after a grounding when you’ve powered off the bottom. 

All that throttle also greatly increases the torque effect of the prop. Range carefully with your eye, to see and compensate for the tendency to turn rather than back straight. You don’t want to drag the keel sideways or bang the bow into a rock, and you don’t want to be circling as soon as you pop out. Better to ease the throttle up and use only the minimum required to move slowly straight back. This is assuming you are stopped dead and stuck. If, as often happens, you feel just a slight warning bump on the bottom, and you know that worse is right ahead, by all means slam on full stop reverse, hang on to the wheel and hope for the best. 

What to do when you’re on two hulls 

The torque effect in a grounded catamaran is worse, especially when the cat is stuck primarily on one hull. Suppose your starboard side is on the hard and port is still floating. If you put reverse to both engines, the boat will rotate counter-clockwise. It’s important to go back to step one and think about what your boat is stuck on, and how. 

To free the starboard hull you will have better luck reversing the starboard engine, using the port engine to balance whatever twisting effect develops. And if it’s a shoreline to starboard, you will certainly want some port forward engine thrust as soon as you start to get free, in order to rotate clockwise and start backing away from shore. 

Going aground is still not illegal in most places, so don’t call the lawyer if the Coast Guard shows up. In fact, they are well equipped and quite competent at pulling folks out of trouble. They even went above pay grade to ease my bruised ego once: “Don’t worry, everybody’s doing it here, the buoy’s off station.” 

If a fellow sailor, competitor or other civilian comes along to help, be extra cautious. Don’t let them boss you into something you think might be dangerous. Avoid having your boat pulled in the wrong direction. Don’t tie a line to a weak part of your boat, even if they tell you to. If you tie to them, do it in a way you can easily cast off if things start to go badly. If possible, set up a bridle on your boat so you have control over the direction you go when the tow line pulls. Keep an eye on all props, yours and theirs. 

One more word about nosing around in shallow water: do it bow first. If you know it’s shallow, keep the bow toward the shallow. Rudders are vulnerable. Rudder posts are easily bent and have tremendous leverage to wrack the back end of the hull. 

When it’s all over, be sure to sit still for a while and review everything you learned from going aground: How did it happen? Was the chart wrong? Did you read it wrong? What was the tide cycle? Did you break anything? Is there some different rigging or gear to have aboard? 

If you got your boat free without calling for help, nice going; you did it the way sailors have been doing it for a few thousand years. Then ask yourself one more question: Is sailing still fun? If the answer is yes, welcome to the club; you’re in good company.