Thoughts on Running Aground - SailNet Community

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Old 08-06-2001
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Thoughts on Running Aground


At some point in your sailing career, the sea bed and the bottom of the keel are likely to come into contact. How easy it will be to get floating again depends on a number of factors.
No one wants to be known as an expert for running aground, but no matter how much saltwater courses through your veins, it happens. Some of the more notable moments on my sailing resume include the instance when the boat touched bottom and stayed there for sunset's segue into moonrise. There was the time when a large powerboat barreled up a narrow channel, forcing us to seek shelter on the mud. And there was that incident when the impeller shredded as the crew used the engine to try and back the boat off hard ground.

While the details might be lost in the blur of adrenaline that accompanyies the action, each grounding imparts a lesson or two (as well as a healthy serving of humble pie) that should eventually permit a mariner to reduce his or her time spent in that ignominious state. Whether you pilot the likes of the Queen Elizabeth II (which struck an ‘uncharted’ rock off the New England coast some years ago), Cam Lewis’ 110-foot, state-of-the-art catamaran Team Adventure (which recently plowed into the bottom just prior to starting the race around Long Island), or a lowlier craft that has a penchant for sticking its nose in the mud from time to time, the first moments of after a grounding are the most crucial.

For starters, all groundings are situational, and there is no one strategy that works for all. Suffice to say that the best grounding is always the briefest. Should you feel your boat thumping along, or suspect it’s plowing a field of mud below your keel, try to keep from losing momentum altogether and pivot your way back to deeper water. The decision to jibe, tack, or invoke another maneuver should be made with a one-shot mentality, and should most often, although not always, get the bow of the boat pointing back toward deeper water. Running aground and getting off again in the same breath does not afford a crew too many second chances.


Not all groundings turn into strandings needing salvage operations, but even if you're aground only briefly, you should drop an anchor over the side to keep you in place.
If the boat stops dead in its tracks, it’s time for an assessment. The bottom type, whether the boat is under sail or power, swell, tidal state, and where the shallow water lies all will play a part helping you to figure out what to do next. The quicker you can run through this list of variables, the better, especially if you’re dealing with a falling tide. If rock is the prevalent bottom in your area, you’ll know it, because there will be abrupt and pronounced thumping as the waves bounce the keel against the bottom. If mud is more common in your locale, the grounding may take much longer, bringing a gradual decrease of speed and maneuverability until the boat stops. There is mud fine enough that it allows signals from a depthsounder to penetrate through three or so feet of the stuff, but it will still stop your boat. And, it’s not unheard of that sailors will see their depth gauge still displaying enough water under the keel—despite the fact that the scenery has stopped moving.

Trying to keep your thoughts clear while the rig is vibrating from every thump as the boat lists at a precarious angle and concern registers on the faces of your guests is not an easy thing to do, but if you’re in charge, that’s what it will take. Ensure that no one is going to get injured by an accidental jibe or any sail handling that will follow. Likewise, check down below to see that anything that hasn’t already flown across the cabin won’t do so in any of the ensuing action.


Without a dinghy, getting an anchor like this far enough away to be useful means either a Herculean toss or wading through the water with it.
If your boat has a fin keel and is on sand or mud, you may be able to use the sails to pivot the boat back toward deeper water. Sometimes this means back-winding the jib or main to do so. You may have to get creative—in warm, sheltered waters with a light displacement boat, the solution may be as elegant as stepping over the side and pushing the bow around. In boats that are harder aground than this, using the wind to heel the boat over is usually the least stressful technique, aside waiting for the tide to rise. There are some cases when you may actually have to change sails to take maximum advantage of the wind. If you have a fuller proportioned keel, the success of using the sails will depend on wind strength and how far you’ve plowed into the bottom. When it comes to dealing with a full keel boat that is aground, in many cases the best way off is to try and retrace your path back, which is easier said than accomplished, especially if the wind and current are against you.

"Prop wash can carry all sorts of sand, weed, and muck into the engine intake, with the potential to clog the strainer and shred the impeller. "
The first instinct for many sailors after running aground is to reach for the ignition key and throttle lever, but care should be taken when using the engine. The prop wash can carry all sorts of sand, weed, and muck into the engine intake, with the potential to clog the strainer and shred the impeller. If you do use your engine, try using short bursts of reverse and forward and keep a close eye out to see if you’re making any headway. Be realistic in assessing how well the engine is working in getting the boat off—if it’s not working, don’t keep at it as this can invite any number of problems—lines, seaweed, crab pots, etc. somehow getting involved. Instead, start thinking of your next strategy. Receiving a tow from a good samaritan should likewise be thought thoroughly through. Taut lines can part, fittings can be sent flying, and the risk of damaging the hull and underbody increases anytime large horsepower engines are involved in a towing situation. And never stand over or behind a rode under heavy load.

Usually, the more you can induce heel, the less grip the bottom has on the keel. If using the sails doesn’t seem to be working, try getting an able body or two out on the boom, and put all the rest of the crew to that side of the boat. Setting an anchor as a kedge is another good idea, and some sailors have been able to attach a halyard off the top of the mast to the anchor to induce heel, reduce the draft, and get floating again. If you have a dinghy, row or motor an achor out. If you lack a dinghy, consider keeping a light anchor on board that you can throw a good ways out. (One SailNet user writes that it's also relatively easy to swim an anchor out. Using several PFDs to make a ‘raft’, one can plop the anchor on top this and swim it and the rode out. While the technique probably won’t work with 66-pound Bruce, with a light anchor and some chain, it reportedly works fine.)


Here's hoping that if and when you run aground, the conditions will be ideal and passersby won't be able to discern whether you're stuck in the mud or merely awaiting the sunset.
If you’re trying to pivot the boat and get the bow headed out, try setting the anchor off the bow and using the windlass. If you’re looking to retrace your steps, set the anchor off the stern, and use a winch to try and move the boat aft. If the anchor rode becomes bar-tight and starts groaning under the strain and you start wondering about the safe working loads of your boat’s equipment, stop cranking. A well-timed power boat wake can sometimes offer enough of a wave to eventually inch the boat off. Even if the boat doesn’t seem to be moving, keeping an anchor set will insure that you’re not inadvertently driven harder aground.

If none of the above works, it appears as if you’re stuck waiting for the tide. Here’s hoping your icebox is stocked and no one in your crew is in a hurry. Take some solace in the fact that plenty of seafarers have gone through the ritual that awaits you, and try to enjoy the large block of time you've now got on your hands. Who knows? Having the hook over the side may be enough of a ruse to convince passer-bys that your boat is anchored exactly where you meant it to be.


Suggested Reading:

The Power of the Kedge by John Kretschmer

Touching Bottom by Bruce Caldwell

Reflections on Cruising Instruments by Tom Wood

 

Buying Guide: Anchor Accessories

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