What To Do When You Run Aground
Safety at Sea: Aground? Here’s what you need to know when stuck between a rock and a wet place.
There’s an old saying about cruising: If you haven’t been aground, you haven’t been around. Yes, running aground is every sailor’s nightmare, one that many of us have experienced. But it’s also true that it goes with the territory. If you’re going to wander off the beaten path, sooner or later you’re going to touch bottom.
Hopefully, it’ll happen on a sandbar in quiet conditions and you’ll gently back off. Running onto a ledge under full sail with the tide falling is the sort of life-threatening situation we all want to avoid.
Either way, if or when your grounding does occur, having proper equipment readily at hand is extremely important. Quality, watertight flashlights to inspect bilges or peer under the boat are a necessity; have a few on board and check them periodically. Your “grounding kit” should include miscellaneous patching supplies such as underwater seam compound and small tarps. A substantial anchor with plenty of rode that’s readily available to set astern can be a lifesaver. A long, proper boat hook is an important tool to determine the underwater terrain around a grounded boat, as well as the points of contact with the bottom (see “How to Make a Handy Hook”). A handheld portable depth finder can also be very useful. Although most chart plotters have the tide charts built in, you should also have a regular tide table as a backup.
The configuration or shape of your hull will be a determining factor when evaluating the situation and deciding what to do next. Do you have a good mental picture of the underwater profile of your boat, such as where the keel begins and ends, as well as the rudder configuration? Even if you do, a side-profile drawing of the boat is worth keeping aboard.
Traditional full-keel sailboats, with their attached rudders, are less apt to suffer damage than modern fin-keel designs with spade rudders. Full-keel boats will usually remain on a level fore and aft attitude (depending on the bottom), and will lie on their side as the tide lowers. In contrast, the relatively small surface area on the bottom of a fin keel can rapidly settle into mud or sand, or get wedged in rock. As the tide goes out, the boat can pivot forward onto the bow or aft onto the spade rudder, which is not designed to withstand the load imposed in this manner. If the boat then turns onto her side, it can be catastrophic.