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Old 08-19-2003
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Bruce Caldwell is on a distinguished road
Touching Bottom

 
Where the water is clear, it's easy to steer clear of shoals and reefs.
 
Kirsten, my Mystic 20 catboat, draws just about two feet of water with the centerboard up. However, the charts for Long Island's Peconic bays are peppered with 1s indicating where to find just one foot of water at mean low tide. Finding these low spots without a chart is easier than I imagined. 

One afternoon at low tide I sailed slowly north out of Reeves Bay and into Flanders Bay with a light southwesterly wind. Soon I was well out from shore, moving along at a stately pace under the full 282 square feet of gaff-rigged sail carried by the boat. I set a northeast course for the green can buoy on the far side of the bay. 

 
Rips in the water are a sure sign that the bottom lies not far below.
 
This green can marks one leg of a channel hugging the western and northern shorelines of the bay. Powerboaters steer careful courses from buoy to buoy here to stay in the channel. I, however, continued smugly straight across the bay, rounded the green can, and gybed to return to the marina. 

Steering a southeasterly course, close-hauled with the centerboard down, I was pleased to discover Kirsten was perfectly balanced on this point of sail, and needed no hand on the tiller. The centerboard increases Kirsten's draft to four feet, but I planned to tack well before reaching the shoal on the south side of the bay. Meanwhile, I sat back and enjoyed the hands-free sailing. 

A few minutes passed before I realized that the boat was stopped. The sail was still full and water was still moving past the hull, but my position in relation to landmarks on shore wasn't changing. Looking over the side, I noticed the water was surprisingly clear. Why, I could even see small fish swimming about and crabs moving across the sand. They seemed to be moving faster than the boat. 

I had found one of those places marked with a 1 on the chart. I raised the centerboard and tried to pole the boat off, but Kirsten didn't budge. I backed the sail in an attempt to go in reverse—still stuck. Finally, I lowered the sail, got out of the boat, and waded around it. 


Watching the water as well as the chart will keep you from heading toward the thin spots.
Kirsten is shallowest near the bow and deepest at the stern. Pushing on the bow moved her a bit toward the deeper water, but pivoted her stern even deeper into the sand. She wasn't going anywhere for a while. I reached into the water to pick up a shell, splashed my arms and face to cool off, then clambered back on board to wait for the incoming tide. 

Some time later, the slow flogging of the sail told me the boat had shifted position, gradually becoming un-stuck as the water level rose. I backed the sail again, and crabbed away from shore until I could set a westerly course to the entrance of Reeves Bay. As I neared the marina, I headed into the wind and lowered sail to see how far momentum and the tide would carry Kirsten into the marina entrance. The answer was easy—just far enough to dig her bow into the bank. While I was poling off, Vinny, the marina manager, motored past and asked if I needed help. "Nope," I said, "I can get her in." As long as there's enough water to float her, I thought to myself. 

 
How to Enjoy Running Aground

Running aground doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience. Consider that you are learning the bottom topography of your local waters and add that bit of information about the shoal areas to your store of knowledge. The following tips can help you steer clear of trouble, or get you off when you are conducting such a local survey: 

 Keep your eyes in constant motion while sailing, looking out for shoals and landmarks that can help fix your position.
 If you don't have a depth finder, but do have a centerboard, leave it down just enough to warn you of shoals when sailing in shallow waters. The sounds of a dragging or bumping centerboard may alert you to danger, but sand and mud can trap a boat silently.
 If you are starting to run aground, turn around, fall off, or gybe.
 If you do run aground, raise your centerboard if you have one, and back your sail by pushing the boom to the other side of the boat trying to back off.
 Shifting passengers and any other heavy weight on board can also help free the boat by heeling her or dislodging the keel from the bottom.
 Powering out with the engine is generally not recommended as it can dig the boat deeper into the bottom, and may possibly damage the engine or propeller.
 If you know the tide is rising, and you have the time to spare, relax. Mother Nature will do the heavy lifting.



 

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