Going aground

The average sailor seems to find running aground as shameful as investing in pickle futures instead of a web start-up. He shouldn’t. After all, it’s only the guy who never leaves the dock who never runs aground. Anyone who ventures into interesting waters will sooner or later trip over a bump on the bottom. The most important part of running aground is in knowing how to extricate yourself from your predicament.

I usually run aground when I expect it least. We could be sailing nicely on the correct side of a marker, perhaps cutting it a shade close to in order to squeeze the last ounce out of a favorable tack. But since shoals often shift, or I get overconfident now and then, the boat slips right into the mud. Sailing without an engine, I usually carry the tidal situation in my head and act accordingly. During a falling tide I will race in the dinghy to get the lighter (of the two on the bow) anchor out into deeper water. When used as a kedge, the anchor with a nylon rode will work the best since the rope handles more easily than chain. Back on board I crank my Enkes 28 mounted on the bow as a windlass (it produces a lot more power than any standard windlass) and try to drag the boat towards the deep water. In cases when the deep water lies off the stern, I route the anchor line through large snatch blocks to the stern chock and use a Barient 28 sheet winch to pull us off stern-first. With luck I beat the tide and get her floating right away, but just as often I have to wait. The state of the tide when a boat goes aground makes all the difference. A rising tide will soon help her off while a falling tide may cause the hull to lie down and possibly suffer damage. In non-tidal waters like the Great Lakes, running aground just means hard work to reduce the draft in order to free the boat. Let us look at some typical cases and procedures of re-floating a grounded yacht. Rising tide

The rising water level will soon float a trapped hull. In mild conditions reversing the engine (after making sure no lines are hanging in the water) may free the boat immediately or at least hold her in position to float off. At times, however, current and wind conspire with the rising tide to spin the boat sideways and shove her farther up the shoal. Running the anchor upwind and current will prevent this; the engine will help only after the boat floats again. If a boat grounds on a rocky bottom and pounds hard because of the swell, the crew should look for leaks and effect temporary repairs before moving into deep water.Falling tideAfter touching ground on a falling tide take immediate action by reversing the engine and heeling the boat with the sails or moving the weight of the crew onto the main boom and swinging it out. Heeling the boat to reduce draft will not benefit multihulls and yachts with bilge keels or with wing keels that increase their draft when heeled. Do not churn the water for too long as it will only fill the engine cooling-water intake with mud or sand. If efforts to re-float obviously fail, prepare the boat for an extreme list as the water level drops. After grounding close to high water the boat will probably dry out on the turn of the bilge. Examine the configuration of the shoal from a dinghyin the case of a small boat, a long boathook will often do. Use the turning power of the engine, hoisting sails or working with anchors to position the boat so that she settles down with the keel downhill. Otherwise, the incoming tide may fill the cockpit and possibly the cabin before the hull rises.

After arranging the boat alignment to minimize damage, check that the fuel will not run out of the tank air vents and battery acid will not leak. Pump the bilge so the bilge water does not wet important items in the lockers. Cook before the boat lies down, then turn off the propane cylinder because LP gas flowing downhill to a stove may cause an explosive increase in liquid gas pressure. Also, make sure that the engine oil cannot seep past the dip-stick hole.

Lucky boats land on a mud or sand bottom but even the best of us will one day ground on sharp rocks, coral outcroppings or mud full of old mooring blocks. If sounding reveals such hazards, the crew will have to protect the hull from punctures before the boat settles down. Inserting a large sail bag stuffed with coils of spare lines will do, as will cockpit gratings and floorboardscheaper to repair or replace than fixing a breached hull. Forget using fenders and bunk or cockpit cushionsthey are too buoyant to force under the hull unless you can attach lines to them and have plenty of hands to force-feed them under the hull.

Our boat Mollymawk carries two long hefty spinnaker poles, and in the past I used one of them to keep the hull from settling on a sharp coral pinnacle. To immobilize a spinnaker pole in the most useful position, attach rope guys to its lower end. Yachts with very wide, long keels or wing keels tend to dry out uprighta precarious position since a soft sea bed may yield or crew movement on deck may upset the balance. Strategically lashed spinnaker poles can serve as props.

Unless the tidal current bringing the rising water will definitely flow toward the deep water, the stranded boat must set out an anchor to prevent bumping farther aground as the hull begins to float. When the boat dries out on a firm sandy bottom, a strong crewmember can walk out with the anchor in his arms. A mud sea bed is too treacherous to do that, so, before the water runs out, use a tender to take out a kedge. The anchor goes into the dinghy first and then the line. Leave the bitter end on the yacht. Slack the line on the way out and, when it ends, drop the anchor. Return to the yacht and tighten the anchor rode to dig the hook in. Reduce the pounding

If there is any sea running, the boat stuck on a shoal in an almost upright position will pound. Long-keel yachts with external lead ballast will fare relatively well even though the mast will sound like it is going to jump ship. However, high-aspect fin keels may threaten to crack the hull at the base of the fin. Keeping the boat heeled will ease the pounding, but do this only after laying out a kedge to prevent being driven farther onto the shoal. Heeling with the mainboom

For heeling a grounded boat, a skipper with several crewmembers may send some of them to the end of the boom. Or, a short-handed yacht can hang the tender from the mainsheet tackle disconnected from its deck fitting. Not all boom topping lift setups can support that kind of weight, but a mainsail halyard shackled to the end of the boom can take at least a couple thousand pounds. Swing the boom outboard with a foreguy, a line between the bow and the end of the boom.

The above technique will also help a boat in danger of a dry-out to achieve a list with the deck uphill and away from choppy waves. If the yacht has already begun listing the wrong way, you will have to force the boom to the high side by winching the foreguy on that side.

Forcing a grounded yacht (with a conventional keel) to heel will reduce the draft and help re-float in tideless waters. Also, it is the only technique to re-float a luckless yacht that gets “neaped”; i.e., gets stuck at high water on the last day of the spring tides (the highest tides of the month), which are followed by smaller tidal ranges. Consider, too, that even within the period of springs or neaps a yacht may not float at the next high water. Often the mornings bring higher high tides than the afternoons. It may mean waiting for a sufficiently high water for 12 hours instead of six. To achieve a maximum angle of heel you may have to run a line from a separate kedge anchor to a point on the mast. The higher up the mast, the more heeling moment. Since the spinnaker halyard blocks may be too weak, you should send up a hefty snatch block on the jib halyard. Then run the kedge line through it to a winch on the mast or, better, on deck. To reduce draft even more, you may have to empty water tanks or unload movable ballast and stores. Accepting assistance

Getting “neaped” and a forecast of imminent stormy weather justify seeking assistance, but, otherwise, beware of accepting help from heavily powered vessels. Dragging a grounded boat through a rocky bottom can add damage, and, in search of profit, some salvage operators will try to tow you off before your yacht floats on the high tide anyway. Use help only after you have examined the bottom and prepared the grounded vessel by heeling. Fasten the towing hawser to the strongest point, such as around the base of a through-the-deck stepped mast, put padding where necessary, and then lead it clear of stanchions and other vulnerable fittings. On a lightly built yachts you will have to run the hawser around the hull. Suspend the hawser at the correct level by pennants along the deck edge.

Before salvage begins, have a documented contract with the salvage operator to protect yourself from future claims. In U.S. waters yacht owners who have paid to become members of the ubiquitous towing companies are in the best position. Others will have to pay at least $125/hr for day towing and $150/hr for night and then possibly face a salvage claim. Arrange a contract before the tow line is on your vessel!

By Ocean Navigator