More years ago than I care to admit, I experienced a cathartic moment while approaching Punta Arenas, Costa Rica. I didn't have a cruising guide and was using an out-of-date Mexican chart. I know, that sounds like a sure recipe for disaster—and it was—sort of. The chart showed deep water to the west and north of the skinny peninsula that shelters a bustling port. Despite the fact that this approach felt all wrong, and that all the anchored and moored boats were tucked up close to land, I put my trust in the good senor who made the chart and swung a wide arc around the peninsula. It was just past high tide at the time, and with a range of more than 10 feet, I had a false sense of security. Suddenly the water started thinning. I eased the throttle, and then I threw it in hard reverse. It was like the water was evaporating before my eyes. It was too late—thunk! I was hard aground.
Soon the tide was rushing out and there was nothing to do but watch the boat heel further and further over. It was like beating without any wind. I prayed that the muck surrounding the boat wouldn't swallow it up. Five hours later, at low tide, we had laid completely over. It was a horrible feeling. Not only were we aground, we were a quarter mile from the nearest water!
I could see the yachties anchored off Punta Arenas training their binoculars on the boat and shaking their heads. I swore I could seem them mouthing, “what a fool,” and could detect the smirks on their faces. I had to do something to regain a semblance of my pride. So with the boat removed from its natural element, I put on my sea boots, hopped into the muck and went to work. I broke out a can of old bottom paint and touched up the waterline (at least on the side I could reach) and then scraped all the barnacles and slime off the keel, prop and rudder. I waited until dark to haul out an anchor to use as a kedge. By first light I was floating free and had taken up a mooring at Yacht Services. I had gone from being a smuck in the muck to a genius who used the horizontal method of careening. OK, maybe not a genius, but at least my considerable pride was partially restored.
Careening is the time-honored way of cleaning, painting, maintaining, and repairing boat and ship bottoms. All early mariners took time to careen their ships, and until recently, it was also a technique often employed by cruising sailors. For several reasons careening is rarely done these days. First, more and more cruising boats have fin keel hull shapes and they're a bit more challenging to careen, even on a well designed and supported grid. Twenty years ago, most cruisers sported traditional full keel hull shapes, or at least, long fins and skeg-hung rudders. Secondly, as cruising has become more popular, boat yards have been built in even the most remote areas. Finally, few sailors are comfortable with the thought of careening. Most would much rather have their boats lifted by a smoking, rusty travel lift with ratty slings, than to lay peacefully against a wall and let the sun and moon move the water out of their way.
Careening is, however, viable and certainly the most affordable way to inspect the bottom and, under the right circumstances to do maintenance. I have careened, intentionally that is, a couple of times, most recently in Taboga, a small island just off the Pacific terminus to the Panama Canal. I was delivering an Irwin 52 to Ecuador and we needed to adjust the Max Prop. The yards in the Canal Zone were bristling with business and couldn't haul us without a long delay. Also, I was extremely nervous about hefting a 60,000-pound, 15-foot-plus-beam boat on the rather tired looking lift at the Balboa Yacht Club. I would have preferred the railway lift, but it was occupied. Another cruiser suggested Taboga, so we made sail.
An old ferrocement barge lies wrecked in the harbor, and serves as an adequate careening grid. We eased along at about half tide, and with a tidal range of more than 15 feet, it didn't' take long until we were leaning against the wreck and able to change the prop pitch in knee-deep water. In fact, the most harrowing aspect of the operation was jumping down from the deck. Unlike Taboga, there are some harbors around world that have actual careening grids. My mother careened her fin-keeled Jeanneau Gin Fizz sloop in Opua in New Zealand's Bay of Islands and later in Darwin in Northern Australia. However, as long as there is sufficient tide, you can become creative when comes to careening.
My brother in law, Trevor Richards, sailed around the world in his Endurance 37 cutter and is a veteran of many careening adventures. He described careening his boat in Beaufort, NC. Working his way into the mud off Shackelford Island, he ran anchors out from his masthead halyards to stabilize the boat. “Everything was going great until a strong wind came up and one of the anchors dragged. Then, over she went and that was the end of my bottom painting.” Trevor, who is one of the best seaman I know and is today President of Spring Cove Marina in Solomon's MD, jokingly added, “That's not the way to do it, and now that I run a boatyard, I can't recommend careening.”
If you do choose to careen, there are several tips to remember. If there is a grid available, be sure to carefully measure how much water there is at different states of the tide. It is usually best to spend a day monitoring the tide before you careen. When you do pull alongside, be sure to secure you fenders horizontally because as the boat drops with the tide you tend to roll on your fenders. Also, and probably most importantly, you must position the keel so that the boat will lean into the grid slightly. You most definitely don't want to lean away from the grid or lean too far against the grid. When you pull along side, leave 12 to 18 inches of space between the grid and the widest section of your topsides. As the boat drops it will become obvious if you are too close or too far away. Before you are completely stuck you may need to give the engine a shot of power to push the boat one way or the other.
Also, remember that you will need to tend your mooring lines as the boat drops. It is a good idea to rig up a snatch block near the chocks and run extra long mooring lines to winches for added oomph, just in case you need it. The aft mooring line can usually be lead to a sheet or spinnaker winch. The forward line can be handled by a halyard winch, or in some cases, the windlass. Before you are stranded in the boat, remember to devise a method to get down to the ground; few grids are set up for this purpose.
If a grid is not available, you can often improvise your own. Often times in areas where there is enough tidal range to make careening feasible, the beach has a steep edge. Sometimes, especially if your boat has a long or full keel, you can lay beam-to the beach alongside this steep edge. This will give the boat something to lean against once the tide disappears. Sometimes, you may have to take an anchor out from the masthead. Just remember Trevor's advice and don't try to balance the boat between two anchors. When using a makeshift grid, like a wreck or old marker or building, be very careful to ensure that the spreaders and rig will remain clear as the boat descends.
Finally, once you are careened, work quickly, but not hastily. If you are doing a bottom job you will need a quick-drying bottom paint. Remember, there is no reason you can't remain careened for several days until the job is done properly.