In every sailor’s life lurks the inevitability of an eventual grounding. If you’re a sailor and you haven’t yet run aground, chances are very good that one day you will.
What to do When Running Aground
DON’T PANIC — doing the wrong thing can put you on harder.
Now that you’re on the bottom, take a minute to evaluate the situation. Check the bilge to be sure that you haven’t holed the boat and aren’t taking on water. What is the nature of the bottom? If it’s soft sand or grass, chances are good that the boat is undamaged, and that if you need to motor or kedge off you won’t grind a hole in the boat.Your objective is to get safely into deeper water.
Motoring off — If you have a motor or engine your first inclination will be to start it up and try to back out. This may work, but be careful. In sandy or muddy bottoms you are likely to suck sand up into the cooling system and render the motor useless. A powerful engine in shallow water can actually push sand from the stern to under the keel, making the situation worse. If you’re on rocks and you reverse hard, you may drag the hull along the rocks and damage or even hole the boat.
Set out an anchor. One of the first things to do is to set out an anchor to keep your boat from being pushed even farther onto the shoal. If you have a dingy you can use it to carry out an anchor. If you don’t have a dingy, and if conditions are calm, maybe someone wearing buoyant flotation gear can swim an anchor out. Be aware that this is not an easy task and a person can become totally exhausted very quickly. If your boat is a small one, your anchor is also probably small enough and light enough for you to be able to throw it far enough for it to work, but be careful if you do this. You don’t want to go overboard with it. Keep as much tension on the anchor line as you can. This alone may help free you up, especially if you have a rising tide, or if passing boats create enough of a wake to raise you up momentarily.
What is the state of the tide? If you’ve gone aground on a rising tide, you may just be able to wait a couple of hours until it rises enough to refloat the boat. If you’ve gone aground on a falling tide, however, you need to get into deeper water fast, or you may be stuck where you are for an entire tide change. If this happens, and if the boat is likely to end up lying on its side, close up hatches and companionways to keep it from flooding. If you’d be better off lying on one side than on the other, try to kedge off an anchor from what you want to be the low side. You may also be able to control which side ends up high by shifting crew and gear weight. Where is the deeper water? It may seem obvious that deeper water lies behind you, but it might be even deeper beside you. Of course it’s not directly in front of you — if it were, you wouldn’t have run aground in the first place. To find where the deeper water is, you have some options. If you have a lead line you can lower it off the boat from all sides to get a measurement of the depth. You can make a lead line by taking a light line and attaching a weight to the end. You could also very quickly put a boat hook or an oar in the water.
How do you get there? If you have a centerboard, raise it. This will decrease the draft, possibly enough to free the boat. Can you sail off? If you were sailing down wind when you ran aground, harden up and try to go to windward. If you were sailing close hauled, tack immediately and move crew weight to leeward. If sailing off on a reach or downwind would put you into deeper water, ease the sails and fall off toward the deeper water. Move crew weight around to heel the boat in the direction which is most likely to help it to slide off – this alone may reduce the boat’s draft enough to free her up. If this doesn’t work, drop sails, as the wind on the sails will continue to push you harder onto the shallow water. Furl them out of the way. On deck they will become a slippery liability.
Kedging off — Once you’ve set an anchor in deeper water, you may be able to winch it in and pull the boat off that way. Again, moving crew weight around may help immeasurably. It may help to rock the boat by shifting crew weight back and forth as you winch in on the anchor.
Use a halyard — If you know that heeling the boat in one direction will help, hand a halyard to someone in a dingy who can then carefully motor off the boat’s beam and pull it over farther. If you don’t have a dingy, a crew member can grab a halyard and swing out over the beam of the boat to try to increase heel.
Get off and push – This technique is obviously only safe and effective in very shallow water, and thus will only work with a very shallow draft boat, such as a day sailor or a multihull. Before getting in the water, be sure to put shoes on. Make sure that the boat won’t sail off without you, and that you have a way to get back onto the boat.
Accept tow? As a last resort, if all other options have failed. This may require a VHF call to a towing company. Be careful — a big powerful powerboat may be able to pull with more force than the boat’s equipment can handle–the boat’s hull can be damaged. The boat must have a cleat strong enough to take the strain of a tow, which may be considerable. If there is no cleat strong enough, consider tying off to the base of the mast. If the mast is stepped through the deck it will take the strain, if it’s stepped on deck it may not. The line used as tow line also must be strong enough to take the strain of towing — if it breaks under the strain of the pull of a tow boat, it will become a lethal weapon.
When you may not want to refloat the boat — if you have a hole in the bottom you may be better off right where you are, at least until you’ve been able to carry out enough of an emergency repair to keep the boat from sinking.
After bow spring line– A mooring line fixed to the bow of the boat and leading aft where it is attached to the dock. This prevents the boat from moving forward in its berth. Its opposite, the forward quarter spring line, is used to keep the boat from moving aft in its berthBilge– The lowest part of the interior hull below the waterline.Centerboard – a fin shaped, often removable, board that extends from the bottom of the boat as a keel.Cleat– a device used tosecure lines made of metal or wood.Halyard – a line used to hoist sails.Keel – centerline of a boat running fore and aft; the timber at the very bottom of the hull to which frames are attached.Kedge -To use an anchor to move a boat by hauling on the anchor rode; a basic anchor type.Rode – The anchor line and/or chain.