All sailors have either run aground or are going to run aground. It's just part of the package. Sue and I have lost count of the number of times we've been stuck it in the mud, but we haven't lost track of the fact that we have always (knock on wood) been able to free ourselves, on our own, of our predicament.
In running aground, there's always the initial inconvenience. It's never a good time to get stuck. There's usually a bruise to your ego, but the real pain comes if you have to pay someone several hundred dollars to tow you free. If you'd like to free yourself from the mentality that if you run aground you'll have to call for assistance, take charge and learn some basic skills that will best help you to get back afloat.
First let me say that you need to minimize the chances of running aground so badly that you are in big trouble. This means that if you don't have charts for the waters you're sailing in, it's asking for trouble to be sailing or motoring too fast, not knowing what's beneath your keel. We prefer to navigate unknown areas under power and not under sail and always at a speed that we know will not cause any damage to our hull should we hit something.
There are several simple steps to follow after you have run aground that can help you come to your own rescue. These techniques for self rescue can be used individually, but are often combined for greater effectiveness.
The first course of action in any grounding is to calmly assess your situation. By the sound or feel when your boat comes to a halt, you should get an indication of whether the bottom is hard or soft. Fortunately most grounding incidents occur in either soft mud or sandy bottoms and there is usually little damage to the boat. Running aground on large rocks or coral reefs is a much more serious matter. A granite rock or coral head can seriously damage your hull. The damage can be magnified if compounded by the continual up and down motion of wind and waves. In these groundings, it pays to be more careful in evaluating any damage, and in choosing your method of freedom. If water is flooding your boat, your best course of action is to leave it grounded so that it won't sink.
After you've confirmed that you're not taking on water, your next priority is to consider where the deep water is. You know it's behind you because that's where you came from, but depending upon how far you sailed into shallow water before you hit bottom, the closest deep water may be dead ahead, or on either side. If you're in familiar waters this process might be instantaneous, but often it means taking the time to make sure that you move in the right direction. If you have a dinghy on board, you may need to take several nearby soundings to determine which direction to head.
When analyzing your situation, remember to consider tidal influences. If you're lucky, you'll run aground on a rising tide. In this case, you may need no further action than to wait for the water to rise and set you free. If the tide is ebbing, your situation is entirely different. Not only are you aground, but as the minutes tick by, you may lose any chance of freeing yourself for many hours. Quick action is imperative with an ebbing tide. That's one reason why it's important to always carry a tide reference onboard with you. We would never leave port without having a current copy of Reed's Nautical Almanac on board. This annual publication provides comprehensive tide and current information for all coastal areas of North America.
If you run aground under sail, your tactics may be slightly different that those when operating with auxiliary power. If sailing close hauled when you first touch bottom, your best course of action is to immediately tack, leaving your jib sheeted where it is so that it will backwind on the new tack and keeping your mainsail tightly trimmed. This will quickly spin your boat, placing you on a reciprocal course, and heel you over during the maneuver which will reduce draft. After your boat has spun to the desired direction, release the windward jib sheet, and re-trim to the leeward winch.
If you're running or broad reaching and hit bottom, you'll want to spin the boat as quickly as possible in the direction you believe deep water to be by either heading up sharply, or jibing and re-trimming the sheets. If you're sailing a small boat, coordinate these maneuvers simultaneously with a shift of crew weight to the low side to increase heeling and further reduce draft.
If you ground really sharply under sail, you will need to make a judgment call. The prudent course of action may be to drop sail as soon as possible and assess any damage before proceeding.
If you hit bottom when under auxiliary power, you should immediately stop forward propulsion. Often a quick application of reverse thrust will remedy the situation and set you free. Applying short bursts of reverse thrust can initiate a rocking motion, which sometimes helps to break the suction of mud on your keel. If you have an inboard engine, be careful, as prolonged reverse thrust can stir up silt, clog engine intakes, and cause your engine to overheat. As fixed propellers produce far more forward than reverse thrust, a successful tactic is to sometimes turn the bow towards deep water and power forward.
It's possible to reduce your boat's draft by several means. One method is to heel the boat over, which will lift the keel to one side thus reducing draft. This is easily accomplished by placing the crew weight on the low side on smaller boats. If your crew reacts fast enough to an initial bump on the bottom, you can often just tack back out into deeper water without any further action on your part. Even in larger boats, this can have an effect. To use the crew weight to a greater extent, put them on the end of the boom and swing it out over the water. If your crew is unwilling to do this, other heavy items could be utilized with the same end result. As mentioned earlier, sheeting the sails in tight will induce additional heeling. Make sure though that you're pointed toward deep water and not propelling the boat further into the shallows. Another draft reduction method is to lighten the boat. Water weighs a whopping 8.3 lbs per gallon, and can make a big difference if you have big tanks.
Learning the art of kedging is the biggest key to helping yourself when you are really stuck. Kedging refers to the act of rowing or swimming out an anchor (with the buoyant assistance of a couple of lifejackets under it) to stabilize your situation and then employing it to pull yourself free from the bottom. Be quick to set a kedge in any grounding situation where you find that the wind, the waves and/or the current are forcing you further into shallow water. This will give you time to calmly assess your predicament and formulate a plan of action to free your vessel.
A kedge anchor is set in the deeper water, usually in the direction from which you came. The anchor rode is led to either a cockpit winch or sometimes forward to a windlass. The winching in of the line, combined with auxiliary power, and/or the sails trimmed in tight, can usually free you from the shallows.
Another kedging technique can be used to reduce draft. Two snatch blocks are needed. One is attached to a masthead halyard. The rode from the kedge is led through the block then hoisted aloft. The second snatch block is attached to the deck or toerail and led to a cockpit winch. Cranking in on the cockpit winch provides the necessary force to pull the masthead towards your anchor. This can be used to dramatically reduce draft, if all other methods have failed.
With so much going on in trying to re-float yourself, it's easy to overlook lines in the water. Watch for dinghy painter lines, kedge rodes, etc, and keep them clear from your prop and rudder.
Often when we're exploring in our sailboats we come across waters we'd like to explore, but don't have any detailed charts. To never venture into any of these areas would take away much of the charm and freedom of having a boat. So by all means check out the new area, but always proceed with caution and with the knowledge and confidence that you can help yourself if you do run aground.