Going aground is something that happens to everyone. The important thing is to know how to get your boat back afloat as it’s going to happen to you sooner or later. Here are some tips for power voyagers that may help.
First, you need to know whether you are in imminent danger. If you are simply stuck on a mud bank and the bottom is soft and will not damage your hull, you can wait until the tide lifts you off. On the other hand, if you have just run up on a coral reef and the swell is forcing you farther onto the reef you need to take serious action quickly, otherwise your pride and joy will quickly be reduced to a bare hull.
Let’s look at mud banks. In the first instance, they move. Every chart of an area with mud banks, especially those that form the delta to a major river, will be plastered with warnings about the need to proceed with caution. A few months ago I set off from Trinidad in the Caribbean aboard my classic power voyager Passagemaker. I was beginning a three-year circumnavigation of South America. Before I had even been at sea for more than 24 hours, I was stuck fast on a mud bank. I had tried to enter the Orinoco Delta to the south. Have a look at the more detailed screen shot of the area where I went aground and you will wonder why I didn’t simply motor down the dredged channel shown on the chart. The reason was simple. It no longer existed. You can see I was approaching the channel but before even reaching it the depth dropped to six feet. For this reason I followed a set of GPS waypoints thoughtfully provided by another cruiser who had successfully navigated the area some years previously. I made one cardinal mistake, however.
I entered this area halfway through a falling tide. Being in a rush to enter the Macareo River in daylight, I had attempted to cross the mud banks at 1600, proceeded to become lodged on a mud bank and had no choice but to wait over eight hours until the next high lifted my boat off. Luckily, the mud was soft so I just had to endure the odd bump while eating dinner and sipping a glass of wine, albeit at a 30-degree angle. The rising tide was also flowing into the river so it helped the boat to cross the mud bar.
If you find yourself stuck on a mud bank and you don’t want to wait for the tide to rise, you can sometimes kedge yourself off by dropping an anchor astern and winching. However, the chances are your keel will be nicely embedded in the mud and it will be very difficult. If you are trying to power off the mud bank, be sure to keep a close eye on the engine temperature gauge because there is a chance the mud will find its way into the raw water intake and block it.
When approaching reefs or mud banks always do so at low tide with slack water, so as soon as the tide turns, it will lift you off. Be aware of the wind speed and direction. If it is blowing onshore with any force, be extra cautious as it will drive you farther aground in no time at all and make recovery much more difficult.
Coral heads, which by definition are uncharted or at best only generally indicated, will bite you without warning and a good lookout wearing polarized sunglasses at the bow is a must. At certain times of the day the sunlight reflecting off the water will make it very difficult to see them, so it’s better to either give the area a wide berth or to wait until you can see below the water surface properly. And never approach a reef unless you have your dinghy in the water and an anchor ready to drop well astern so you can winch yourself off.
Time is critical when dealing with reefs. Even if for some reason you can’t winch off immediately, you must put that stern anchor out and cleat off the line so the moment there is some slack in the waves or current you can pull the boat off. And don’t be embarrassed to call for help on your VHF radio as soon as you realize you are not going to free yourself within, say, one hour. It may require several hours for the right message to reach the right people in most parts of the world and even longer to assemble a rescue team. The Caribbean is one of our favorite cruising grounds, but the Coast Guard on some islands are so busy chasing drug lords (at our request, I might add) that they really don’t have the time or resources to come out to help voyagers who should know better.
I might add, you should think twice before trying to abandon your yacht if you are on a coral reef. The coral will tear unprotected skin and thin clothing to shreds. If there is any swell it will tumble you over without any trouble. Stay in your boat. It may be uncomfortable, but it will protect you.
To give you some idea of how much damage a coral reef can do to your boat, look at the photo of my prop after the anchor dragged in Livingston, Guatemala, and Passagemaker went up on a reef. Not only was the prop damaged, but a shear pin in the rudder snapped clean off. I had to be pulled free (at a cost of $400). The prop had to be removed, straightened and balanced. Total cost of the whole exercise was close to $1,000 and it took more than a week to complete. Needless to say I’m a lot more careful about dropping the pick in strange anchorages. It’s always prudent to spend the first night on board rather than rushing ashore to paint the town red.
Peter Quentrall-Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org), was last seen buried up to his waist trying to recover a 4 x 4 Land Cruiser somewhere in the middle of Guyana where he is currently exploring the rivers of South America on the historic motor yacht Passagemaker. You can read more details by searching for Passagemaker on Facebook or at their website www.passagemaker.org.
How do you avoid becoming stuck in the first place? Knowing where you are and what depth of water you are in is obviously critical. There is simply no excuse nowadays for claiming ignorance with all the electronic charts freely available over the Internet. Plus, GPS receivers are now built into virtually every piece of electronic equipment. Sure, the charts may not be as accurate as you might like, but you should never go close to a hard object like a reef relying too much on your GPS anyway. And don’t be afraid to put the helm hard over if you have a bad gut feeling about what lies ahead.
The other absolutely vital piece of equipment is a good depth gauge. Once it is installed, make sure you calibrate it to your hull. In other words, if the sensor is mounted three feet down the hull from the waterline, you will need to add that distance to the amount shown on the depth gauge. Also recognize that it’s almost impossible for a depth gauge to give an accurate reading when the bottom is silt or mud. A minimum safety margin should be your depth gauge reading minus three feet.