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Running Aground Is An  (Almost) Inevitable Reality

Photo of boat listing to the side

A rising tide and favorable winds  can increase the odds of a grounded boat floating free.

Captain Daniel S Parrott photo

On Chesapeake Bay, they say that if you haven’t been aground, you haven’t left the dock. In Maine, a sailor might boast, “I know every rock on this coast … because I’ve hit most of them.” Wherever you go, a droll maxim makes clear that if you spend enough time on the water, sooner or later you run aground. It is an overstatement to say that grounding is inevitable, but if it does happen, hopefully it isn’t serious. Or frequent. Or in front of a spectator fleet.

A friend of mine who has been aground quite a few times in his lengthy career approaches the reality thusly: If there is risk to life or limb, call for help, put on life jackets and try to be sensible.

Fortunately, the majority of groundings are far less dire, allowing us a more considered discussion of options and tactics. My friend likes to divide this topic into two categories: “Things Not in Your Control” and “Things in Your Control, Somewhat, Possibly.”

Things Not In Your Control

Tide: If there is no measurable tide, you’ll have to lighten the boat or call for assistance, or both. If there is a tide, it can be crucial to your prospects. As a point of basic seamanship, you should always know how the tide is trending.

A rising tide in a grounding situation is generally cause for optimism, especially if the weather is calm or the wind is blowing off the obstruction. On the other hand, unless you can aggressively maneuver clear in short order, a falling tide after a grounding means a protracted situation.

A falling tide may do nothing worse than prolong the visit. However, if the tidal range is significant, and the hull shape is such that the vessel lies over on its side, the boat may fill on the rising tide before there is enough buoyancy to lift it. So the second thing to know is the approximate tidal range. A 2-foot tidal range means things can only get so bad before they get better. A 12-foot tidal range means things can get quite bad before they get better, if they ever do.

Know the configuration of the hull. Is it flat-bottomed and likely to stay upright when the tide goes out, or does it have a fin keel that will cause it to lay over? Are you aground on a sandbar or a pinnacle? All of this information can steer your decision to stick it out or get immediate assistance.

Another tidal consideration pertains to the cycle. Semidiurnal tides, found on the East and West coasts, produce two highs and two lows per day, but not of equal magnitude. Whether the higher high or the lower high is coming next may have some bearing on your best chance for floating free. Diurnal tides (one high and one low per day) and mixed tides, such as those found on the Gulf Coast, make for a longer wait between opportunities to get afloat. In such places, high tide sometimes simply doesn’t materialize at all.

Last, the lunar cycle makes a difference in how much water is coming and going on a given day. In my town, there can be a 3-foot difference between the spring tides (full and new moon) and the neap tides (first and last quarter).

Wind: The big question to ask about wind is whether it’s blowing on or off the obstruction. A rising tide with a favorable wind will see you on your way again, but if the wind is blowing onshore (or on-ledge) with a rising tide, it will only push the boat farther up, leaving it high and dry. An onshore breeze with a falling tide isn’t good for much, either. In general, an onshore breeze will probably entail setting anchors to prevent being driven farther up the beach.

But before you go to all that effort, note that wind strength and direction influence water levels — especially in

shallow, semienclosed bodies of water. In such places as the Delaware Bay, Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound and just about any part of the Intracoastal Waterway, wind can elevate or reduce normal water levels. Something similar can be said of the Great Lakes, where seiches — water sloshing from one end of the lake to the other — can temporarily raise or lower water levels. If this kind of wind effect is present, it may aid or thwart your efforts.

Barometric pressure: The role of barometric pressure on water levels can be significant, especially on bodies such as those just mentioned. High pressure, usually associated with fair weather, can suppress tidal predictions. Low pressure, typically associated with foul weather, can do the opposite, as seen in storm surges.

Photo of grounded boat

Calling for assistance is sometimes the best, if not only, option when aground.

Things In Your Control, Somewhat, Possibly

Backing off: Upon grounding, your first instinct may be to use the engine to get free. In most cases, you’d be crazy not to try. A chance swell may lift the boat just enough for the prop to drag the hull free. My friend once asked a Cigarette boat to kick up a wake around his grounded vessel. While going full astern, he was able to back off the shoal on the wave crests.

However, with this approach, if the cooling water intake is no longer below the waterline, you risk burning up the engine. Even if the cooling water intake is below the waterline, silt and sediment could block it, with the same result. That’s why monitoring gauges and bilges should be part of your initial response.

If you have sails and the wind is blowing off-obstruction, the wind can help push the vessel free. Sails sheeted in flat can also heel the boat, reducing draft.

Find the deep water: If you knew exactly where you were, then you probably wouldn’t be aground. And there’s no point in getting free only to go aground again. Figure out where the boat is touching, and where the deeper water is. This may be obvious, or not.

The depth sounder probably won’t be informative. It’s either going to read 0 feet, 0 inches (which you already know) or it will show adequate water under the keel (when there isn’t). With a lead line, sound around the vessel’s perimeter. If the situation allows, send a dinghy out with a lead line to find the best route to deep water.

My friend emphasizes that this would be an awkward moment to realize that, because you thought a lead line was antiquated, there isn’t one aboard.

Movable weights: For a minor grounding, shifting weight may be a quick way to get free. If you are touching at the bow, shift weight aft. If you are touching astern, shift weight forward. The same goes for port and starboard.

When it comes to movable weights, don’t overlook people. My friend once grounded just after leaving the dock. By sending all the passengers to the bow, he got the vessel to clear the hump.

Also, look for weights that can be removed, such as potable water or a dinghy.

Kedging: In the days before engines, kedging was one of few means for moving a vessel when wind and tide did not cooperate. Kedging entails rowing (or taking by dinghy) a length of anchor and chain in the desired direction, dropping it and pulling the vessel toward the anchor, while simultaneously rowing a second anchor out with a different boat. Rinse and repeat. In the case of grounding with an onshore breeze, running an anchor out to deeper water and maintaining tension on it can keep the vessel from being driven farther ashore. With enough mechanical advantage, you might be able to pull yourself free.

Handling an anchor this way is no everyday affair. It may be possible to place a light “lunch hook” into the dinghy and pitch it over the side when in the proper position, but my friend does not recommend placing a large anchor into a small boat, lest its re-launching prompt a follow-up tutorial on stability. Instead, suspend the anchor under the boat with expendable line that can be cut free without entangling anyone or anything. An inflatable boat will require chafe gear on the tubes.

Hopefully, none of this information will ever be of use to you. But should events prove otherwise, my friend says the most important resource within your control, somewhat, possibly, is attitude. It is hard to be resourceful when you are angry, and people can’t think straight when they are being yelled at. With minor groundings, it is amazing how a few small adjustments can get a boat back afloat.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue.


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