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What to do When You Run Aground

March 10, 2014

We've all heard the old adage that there are those who admit to having run aground and then there are liars. Though we haven't grounded Eurisko with her 5 1/2-foot draft nearly as often as we did Lay Low with 3 1/2 feet, our most recent contact with the bottom was by far the most embarrassing: mostly because we didn't follow our own advice.

Pushing too late in the day meant that we were entering an anchorage just after sunset, still light enough to see, but we didn't have long to put the anchor down. Maybe that's what distracted Dave: in his head he was already in the anchorage, trying to pick a good spot to spend the night. Instead, he should have been concentrating on entering the anchorage itself. In his defense, our charts are 14 years old and we were squeezing between spoil areas as charted. Obviously, no one told the spoil areas not to move. Or the dredges not to place spoils outside the line drawn on the chart. We entered under motor, not really having the time or energy to sail in. I felt it first, since I was sitting.
"What's that?"
"What?"
"That! It's the bottom."
"Really?"
Sound effects of screeching tires as 20,000 pounds came to an abrupt halt. High and dry. Oops.

We have rehearsed groundings a hundred times. Any time we enter a tricky spot we get the run down from the captain.
"Hang on to the cutter stay or something up there. It's shallow and we're coming in hot. If I run aground I'll..." and the lesson continues along its usual route, depending on point of sail and the area of least danger. The problem was that this time we were motoring and we were at a loss as to how to proceed when we bumped. The charts showed 11 feet, so Dave hadn't even worked out a backup plan before we were seemingly irreversibly stuck.


Notice the black smoke as the captain pushes ONTO the shallows after running around.

For some bizarre reason, instinct seems to be to give more throttle. This is an illogical response, but one we see frequently, and have now done ourselves. You know you safely got to your current position from directly BEHIND you, so why try to continue FORWARD? If you can control your instinct, as soon as you notice you've touched the bottom (when under power) put the motor in REVERSE. Back out of the spot where you've run aground, returning to where you know the water is deep enough. Do not continue forward, regardless of how sure you are that it "can't be far" to the other side of the bar, lump, wreck, reef or whatever other obstruction you've hit.

Similarly, if you are under sail and beating to any degree, immediately slacken the main sheet and let your headsail(s) flog. Slow down the boat to minimize forward motion and running even harder aground. Point the bow into the wind and in a perfect world, the boat will be pushed back toward deep water. If you are running, quickly decide which direction is most likely to be deepest and (as long as there are no obstructions) head up in that direction, again, trying to drop your speed. If you are running and cannot head up, immediately drop all sail so as not to push you farther onto whatever you are stuck on.

If you're lucky, you won't be so hard aground that you can't maneuver your way slowly back the way you came, to deeper water. Seldom is it that easy, however. Pointed toward the wind, you may be able to blow off the shallow spot, depending on where deep water is and if you can get the bow to tack through the wind if necessary. Using your headsail only (your main will drive you forward, the way you just ran aground) you may be able to use the wind to drag the bow around until your keel is clear and then sail off. Otherwise, you may be able to backfill the main (the same way you set an anchor under sail) and allow the wind to push you backwards. Of course, if you are in a tidal area and tide is falling, any delay in action will result in your sitting until the tide returns.

The ultimate in cruising how-to books has an excellent description of how to react to a grounding depending on which side of a river you are on (windward or leeward), what point of sail, how badly you hit, the strength of the wind and state of the tide. No one should leave the dock without having at least perused a copy of Eric Hiscock's Cruising Under Sail. No one should go cruising without having studied it thoroughly and having a copy onboard for reference.

Unfortunately, chances are good that you will be stuck in a position requiring more drastic measures than any of those listed above. Many people's first response is to call TowBoatUS. Though this is an option while close to this particular continent, what are you going to do when you run aground in Panama with no previous experience of how to get yourself off the bottom? Even when help is nearby, remember, some day it may not be. And if you have never tried to be self-sufficient, you won't have the necessary skills when you need them.

So let's say you decide to try this on your own. It seems that everyone's second favorite response is to use a halyard from the masthead to a dinghy and heel the boat until her draft is less than the depth of the water. Maybe it's a macho thing; maybe guys just like to prove that they can move big heavy objects. While this is a great way to free a boat that has been beached during a hurricane or is otherwise compromised, I don't recommend it as a first response for a boat you really care about. Think about the load on your rigging. A little knowledge of physics will show you the incredible amount of force placed on the top of your mast in trying to move your lead keel out of the mud. Fortunately, there is a better way, it's just not as much fun and doesn't produce such obviously visible results. But it also uses parts of your boat designed to take such a load.

It's a lot of work, but what on a boat isn't? Get in your dinghy, load an anchor, row it out toward deep water (take the lead line with you if you're not sure where that may be) and give yourself lots of scope. We use our secondary anchor since it only has 50 feet of chain and 300 feet of nylon rode. This keeps it from being quite so heavy to row out. Drop the anchor over the side of the dinghy and come back to help your crew as they use the windlass to bring in the slack. With a manual windlass you have better control of how much rode you bring in and how quickly. Once you have straightened out the rode and are stretching it, slow down and give your boat time to react. Sneak up on it, as Dave says. Bring in the rode a few inches at a time. Remember, you are trying to move a very large weight that according to laws of nature would rather remain stationary. If you have a power dinghy or there is someone nearby who does, you can also try to create a SMALL wake around your boat. This may lift it enough to allow the anchor rode to pull the bow around a little. Be ready on the windlass, to take up any slack as she moves.

With either quick reactions and luck or a lot of work, you should be able to remove your boat from any grounding that you created. After all, she just sailed up on that shallow spot, you should be able to convince her to come off without outside assistance. And the work that it costs you to get back to clean water is your penance for having not paid attention. Or having trusted 14-year-old charts.

Get two cruisers together and at some point anchors and anchoring techniques will be mentioned. MONDAY we'll share a few simple rules to remember when anchoring.

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