Every longtime boater has run aground, even if they don’t admit it. Odd things do happen. I learned that during the peculiar grounding of my 57-foot ketch in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Off-watch in the forward cabin, I was jolted awake by a loud thud. I jumped out of my bunk and ran aft. The helmsman stood frozen, so I leapt to the controls and shut the engine down. Forward, the bowsprit pointed toward the treetops as we peered overboard. Like a circus elephant posing for the crowd with its front legs on a pedestal, the entire cutwater was high and dry. We were perched ridiculously on top of the middle of a cypress stump submerged just inches under the surface of the black water. The boat remained motionless on a freakish incline while we wondered how we had wandered so far from the center of the channel.
We quickly surveyed the situation. There was no mud stirred up around us and the cooling water intake strainer was still clean. Next, we sounded all around the boat, looking for shallow water and other submerged debris. We weren’t leaking. There was no real range of tide or current running. Taken together, we were confident the propeller was clear and there was sufficient water around us. Posting one person on the bow, we restarted the engine and cautiously went astern. The boat obediently slid backwards off the slimy stump and settled matter-of-factly back on her waterline. It was harmless, hilarious even. But we exercised the cautionary principals that apply in any grounding. Stop the engine, survey the boat and the area, ensure the propeller and rudder are clear, assess the tide and then make a plan to get off.
There are two types of groundings: hard and soft. A hard grounding results from a collision with something major, such as a submerged jetty, reef or rockpile. This kind of incident can do major damage, even destroy your boat, leading to injury or death. If a hard grounding ever happens to you, perhaps the safest strategy may be to put on your life jackets, call for assistance and remain in place until help arrives. When the boat is in danger and lives are at risk, make a Channel 16 Pan-Pan or Mayday call.
Then there are soft groundings. In these scenarios you can free yourself with some clever seamanship and a dose of good luck. Most soft groundings, when handled correctly, don’t do major damage, except to one’s pride, but they might if you panic or make rash decisions. What to do after you run aground largely depends on how you got there and what the conditions are afterwards. Just like any accident, calmly assess the conditions first, then make a rational plan of action.
Grounding in a small centerboard or outboard boat is one thing, since one can usually pull up the board or tilt the motor, then shove off with an oar or boathook; you could even get out and push. It’s a different tune if you are operating a boat with a larger inboard engine or fixed keel. You should definitely know what your boat’s underwater propulsion gear looks like. Does your gear hang below the keel as it does on many powerboats? Is your rudder vulnerable?
If you run aground, shift to neutral and shut the engine down. If you’re sailing, drop the sails. Avoid the instinct to immediately throw the boat in reverse or throttle up to push the boat across an obstruction. So, assess the scene. Is anyone hurt? What did you hit, sand or rocky terrain? How fast were you going? Are you taking on water? Are your propeller(s) and rudder(s) clear? Is the tide rising or falling, and where is the deeper water?
Note your exact position and observe changes in bearings around you. The tiniest clues will guide you. Ascertain where the deeper water lies, but don’t assume it’s where you just came from. Instead, climb up higher on the boat and look for water color and changes in the surface action. If you can’t decipher it by eye, use the dinghy to sound around your boat with a weighted line.
You can also shift weight away from the point of impact. Send your crew from one end of the boat to the other and from side to side and be sensitive to how the boat feels. If the wind is on the beam blowing toward deeper water, sailboats can raise the main and sheet in hard to heel the boat and reduce the draft. If the wind is not favorable, convince your crew to shift their weight outboard to heel the boat away from the shallows.
Try cautiously backing only if you are confident your propeller and rudder are free. Try thrusting away from the shallows in conjunction with weight shifting and heeling. If you’ve grounded gradually at an angle, with the deeper water on one side, you might be able to power off ahead with the rudder hard over. Operators of twin-engine powerboats may have success alternating thrust between engines, and rocking the boat to break bottom suction. Monitor your engine’s temperature gauge(s) carefully because sand and silt can foul your raw-water intake. Be cautious and use your propulsion judiciously.
A rising tide is an asset. You may have to wait for more water and try again. If you are on the edge of a bar, receiving a passing boat’s wake may help. If you time your thrusting with the lift of a wake, you might just be able to bounce free. It will only be a couple of inches of lift, so make it count. Again, you need to know where the deeper water is, your running gear must be free, and you’ll need to thrust in the right direction.
Once you’ve exhausted all weight-shifting, heeling and thrusting efforts, you can kedge. Kedging-off requires strategy and skill, which is why many recreational boaters will opt to call for a tow at this point. Kedging-off is the technique of setting an anchor in deeper water and warping the boat toward it. It’s a great way to pivot your boat toward deep water or present the bow across a filling current so you will set away from the shallows as the tide lifts you free. A big Danforth makes a fine kedge, but remember, a Danforth is cranky to set in a rocky or densely knotted grass bottom. You’ll need to set the kedge anchor by dinghy, while the crew pays out the anchor rode.
The process of lowering the anchor into a waiting dinghy is best worked out on the spot since no boats or crews are the same. It requires good communication and teamwork, diligent boat handling and line tending. I advise practicing this maneuver before you use it in a real-life scenario. A “smarter not stronger” method that’s worked for me is lowering the anchor into a rowing dinghy. Let it settle onto some padding across the transom. A slipknot lashing to the thwart will hold the anchor poised to drop while rowing. Once in position, make sure the rode is clear, then release the slipknot and allow the anchor to fall clear of the dinghy by gravity. After the anchor is set, tension is applied using the anchor windlass or a sheet winch. Gradual tensioning on a rising tide will effectively coax the boat into deeper water, especially combined with strategic engine thrust and heeling.
Many boat operators tout the pivot-push technique, using a padded inflatable tender pushing on the bow to turn the boat away from a bar. This can work with a big outboard-powered vessel.
After a grounding, you may be offered a tow from a passing boater, but remember that you’re taking a risk, as it’s hard to gauge another boater’s experience, and there’s a lot of strain on a towline. I once saw a post rip off a deck at the end of a towline; the stretchy nylon retracted with such force it took out the wheelhouse window of the towboat. If there is risk of life, call the Coast Guard. If you just need help, call a professional towing service, which will arrive with the right equipment and skills to be safe and effective.
A soft grounding may be embarrassing but it’s not the end of the world if you respond correctly. Stop the engine, survey the boat and the area, ensure the propeller and rudder are clear, and assess the tide. And don’t panic, because that could make matters worse or cause costly damage to your boat. And one more thing: Pray for a rising tide.
This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.