“I’ve run aground” are words that justifiably send a shiver down every sailor’s spine. However, the damage you may do to your boat when running aground is all relative—the most important risk factors are the type of the bottom you’ve hit, your speed when running aground and the sea conditions.
Avoiding the Bottom
When you’re running in thin water, there are two ways I recommend to avoid running aground—using your depthsounder and alarm to keep an eye on how shallow the water is, and plotting your course on paper charts. I am constantly stressing the need to check the depth every 10 seconds or so in shallow water, but the alarm is a great backup.
When it comes to paper charts, I recommend them because you can quickly scan a wide area for hazards and adjust your course accordingly. It’s just not as easy to do on a chartplotter. Plotters work well for telling you where you are and what’s immediately around you, but they’re not as good as a big paper chart when you want to study a large area. When sailing we often don’t run direct courses, but tack or gybe our way to our destination. To me, 90 percent of the reason to plot a course—or at least survey the area you will be sailing in—is to figure out the minimum depths you will encounter and identify hazards. I find it much faster and more accurate to do so on paper charts.
First Steps to Freedom
As soon as you feel your boat running aground, having successfully ignored or turned off that annoying depth alarm, you should immediately turn to deeper water if you are still moving. The natural reaction when you run aground is to freeze—turning is not necessarily instinctive, but it can make a huge difference. Once you’re sure you have stopped moving, note if the tide is ebbing or flooding. If it’s going out—work fast, for you’ll soon be going nowhere. Get out the boathook and figure out where the deeper water is. You will also quickly get a sense for what the bottom composition is. If the tide is coming in, sit tight; with any luck you’ll be free soon.
Once you’re aground and can’t free your boat by turning, the next thing to do is try to increase your heeling angle. Move everyone onboard to the leeward side and adjust or raise the sails. The sails should be sheeted 90 degrees to the wind to maximize heeling, but eased out no more than 45 degrees. Then use the motor and/or sails to turn the boat. Normally, the motor will allow you to get the boat free, as long as you were not heeled over too far when you ran aground. Sometimes it helps to backwind the jib. Turning the rudder back and forth is often a big help, as you can often “wiggle” the keel out of hard sand or soft muck. You’ll have no such luck, however, with clay bottoms of medium density.
If you ran aground when sailing upwind or on a beam reach in at least a few knots of breeze (Fig. 1), or if you were motoring and the motor alone is not enough to get you free, a technique that I’ve found works wonders is to turn the boat downwind. (If I could patent it, I would.) We practice running-aground drills in our Ensigns during our Basic Keelboat class, and this works about 95 percent of the time, though obviously it will not work if the wind and/or the current are pushing you onto the shoal.
First, if you have a traveller, bring the car all way up to windward (Fig. 2). (This is helpful, but not essential.) Next, sheet the main in as hard as you can and backwind the jib. Get everyone’s weight on the leeward side—hang off the shrouds if needed. The boat will slowly, almost magically, turn downwind, typically at about 160 degrees to the wind (Fig. 3). Bring everyone back to the cockpit and gybe the boom over. You will need one person to ease the mainsheet while someone else pushes the boom to windward (Fig 4). In a blow, this will be difficult—be careful and do not attempt if you can’t easily push the boom out. If muscle power alone doesn’t do it, you can try running a preventer from the end of the boom forward to an amidships cleat or outboard block and pull the boom around with a winch. (Again, be careful!) Once the boom is all the way out on the other side, it should gybe over. Now get some weight out on the boom, heeling the boat over as far as possible the other way. The boat should sail free with a little windspeed.
If you ran aground when heading downwind, you usually can sheet in a little, ease the jib, get some weight on the boom and turn upwind. Of course, depending on where the deep water is, it may make sense to gybe the boom over.
Probably the most embarrassing grounding I’ve experienced occurred one morning when I anchored in the sand pit in Port Jefferson, New York. Having recently graduated from college, I borrowed my father’s Contest 42 and headed across the sound with a bunch of friends. I always loved climbing the sand pit cliffs as a kid, and my friends, including a prospective girlfriend, were of a like mind. We had a good 10ft of water, with the tide down 2ft—plenty for the 6ft draft of our boat.
When we got to the top of the cliff, I noticed the wind had changed direction, not surprising in a sand pit with high surrounding walls. However, when I looked down at the boat, I also noticed that it didn’t appear to be moving properly in the motorboat wakes. Sure enough, by the time I got back down, the boat was already heeled over 5 degrees, and we were not going anywhere as the wind change had neatly guided us onto a nice little high spot near the middle of the pit. Still, with a soft bottom and no risk of wave action, doing nothing was our best course of action. Three hours later, we had a steady stream of motorboats coming by to admire our predicament. Naturally, I did the only reasonable thing I could, and getting out a scrub brush explained that we’d needed to clean the bottom.
Martin van Breems runs the Sound Sailing Center in Norwalk, Connecticut; he is a highly experienced coastal and offshore racer and cruiser