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Experience: When Your Boat Ends Up Hard Aground

A sight no boat owner ever wants to see

A sight no boat owner ever wants to see

The kindly man who’d helped me select a new phone that morning slides me a scrap of receipt paper when I approach the Walmart electronics counter for the second time that day. “Are you Megan?”

“Megan, 30’s, looking for a phone. Call Terrie. EMERGENCY” the note says.

“Now don’t panic,” my friend Terrie Calder says when I call her. “Your boat has come off its mooring and run aground. You’d probably better head up there when you’re done. Colin’s up there now, and Paul’s on his way.”

This message has filtered through a chain of no fewer than six people, starting with the harbormaster in Belfast, Maine. Though friends were checking on Narwhal daily, I’d been cruising the Maine coast aboard Paul Calder’s Cape Dory and hadn’t laid eyes on her in over a week. As visions of waves sloshing my boat against rocks run through my mind, I buy a SIM card and dash out of the store.

It’s now 1430, there are hours of daylight left, but no moon afterward, which at least guarantees us a large tide. High tide in Belfast will be around 2300, and a front is predicted with wind and rain picking up through the night. I spend the hour-long drive trying not to remember every grounding horror story I’ve ever been told. This boat was bought on a whim, and I hadn’t budgeted for a hull breach.

I had bought the Bristol 24 from Paul only a month before. It had new sails, good rigging, a fairly new outboard, a sturdy hull, a nice anchor and rode. It had many repairs and rebuilds of varying success and craftsmanship, but was still a great deal overall, with a few remaining projects and no major expenses. Paul offered to help me complete these projects and get her in the water. While I’m in a sailing collective in New Orleans and own a jonboat there, this is my first sailboat, and I wouldn’t have taken the plunge without the support of a friend far more knowledgeable than I am about sailboat systems and repair.

Paul had bought the boat from Bill and Kelly, a lovely couple in Belfast, not long before. Since we both were visiting from out of state, they let it stay on their property next to their Nonsuch 30. We spent two weeks running back and forth between the hardware store, marine store and various secondhand boat shops, commuting an hour and a half each way to Bill and Kelly’s. In those two weeks, they shared their electricity, old parts, advice, stories about their kids and a cookout with the neighbors.

The boat needed a number of repairs, not least of which was a cover and sealant for the exposed hull-deck seam. The deck had been replaced at some point, its layers of fiberglass and balsa core now visible past their stapled perimeter. It took 60ft of rub rail, three tubes of 4200 sealant and four people (Paul, Terrie, and Nigel Calder and me) over the course of a day to make her watertight and looking more like something you’d want to board.

In addition to the exposed seam, there were several fittings that flexed, leaked or creaked, including the anchor roller, stern ladder and the stove chimney hole. (This Louisiana woman was much relieved to find her Maine residence had a source of heat.) The coax cable to the VHF antenna had also been ripped apart rather than unscrewed, presumably when the mast was unstepped, which meant it needed new fittings soldered onto either end. Nigel spearheaded the rewiring of a number of questionable past electrical decisions and construction of an electronics panel. What took us two days and $200 would have taken me, alone, several weeks and far more money. Lastly, Paul and I replaced the water-pump impeller in the four-stroke Tohatsu, the nicest outboard I’ve owned by a long shot.

As launch day approached, Bill and Kelly offered me their mooring ball in Belfast harbor, since their boat was on the hard for the remainder of the season. The kindness of boating folks never ceases to amaze me. I hired one person to haul the boat, another to step the mast, and she took to water beautifully.

Since the mooring ball didn’t have a pennant, I spent some time aboard learning to splice 12-strand rope and making little improvements. Using cheap offcuts of 12-strand, a couple of thimbles, some splicing twine I’d found aboard and a large second-hand shackle, I soon had a beautiful first rope project. I installed it on the mooring ball with a fender as a temporary buoy.

Then I made a couple of huge mistakes. First and foremost I unknowingly I used a rope that wasn’t thick enough. I also cleated it to the deck, ran it through the chock, through the metal thimble on the mooring pennant and then back through the opposite chock to the cleat. Thus secured, every movement the boat made meant the metal thimble rubbed across the bridle line. Soon after the boat was on her mooring, I left for an eight-day cruise with a contingent of Louisiana folks.

The chafed line can be seen here (left); The rudder was partly buried but fortunately undamaged (middle); I used a floor jack to life the hull off the flat rock (right)

The chafed line can be seen here (left); The rudder was partly buried but fortunately undamaged (middle); I used a floor jack to life the hull off the flat rock (right)

Now, when I arrive in Belfast, I’m unsure where exactly the boat has gone aground. After a moment of scanning the harbor for an out-of-place mast, though, I spot her near the Boathouse. Paul and Colin are across the beach.

I’ve seen many pictures of boats fully aground, but to approach the full, masted height of your new boat—heeled without sails, 50ft from the surf—is a feeling I will never forget. Partway to her, I stop and turn back, overwhelmed by what’s in front of me. “Welcome to boat ownership,” Paul quips; he and Colin are grinning. The lightheartedness of friends is another kindness among many and a welcome relief.

Reinforced by their spirit, I survey the scene: boulders the size of small cars bookend one side of a small strip of pebbly beach, maybe 100 yards across. The other end is a field of sharp, craggy rocks, meeting the jagged remains of a downed pier trailing off into the harbor. My boat rests on the smooth, pebbled section, not even fully heeled, since a flat rock, like a footstool, props her up. The outboard is where we had left it, in the cockpit. There are many miracles in this unfortunate event.

Paul and Colin have already laid two anchors as far out as possible in the direction we want the boat to move. The rodes run fore and aft: one through a rear chock and round the port winch; the other across the bow cleat to the starboard winch. This gives us the option of pulling either the bow or stern to sea.

We put an extension on the main halyard and tie it to a distant rock, creating a gently-angled mast anchor. This line will allow us to keep the boat well heeled over as the water rises, preventing the keel from digging in and reducing the effective draught, hopefully sparing us some time in the rain.

With hours to go, Colin and I run for supplies and return with shovels, a floor jack, a scrap of plywood, several logs, foulweather gear and, most importantly, snacks. By the time we return the sun is on the horizon and the water is much closer, maybe 15ft from the boat. Paul has brought the dinghy from the dock to the beach and angled his truck in order to use the headlights.

In preparation for high winds and lashing waves, we plan to remove the rock footstool. It’s still very calm, but any amount of wave action will make it hard to watch the hull rocking against it or to listen to it. Using the jack and diffusing the pressure point with a piece of plywood, we raise the hull enough to kick under several logs and dig out the stone. Next, we dig out the rudder. It appears undamaged. Finally, we dig a crater in which the rudder will have some room while backing out, hopefully preventing any damage.

As the tide rose, Paul and I secured two anchor rodes to help pull the boat free.

As the tide rose, Paul and I secured two anchor rodes to help pull the boat free.

By now it has started to drizzle. It’s pitch black, with only Paul’s headlights to show what’s happening. The water is coming in fast. It’s knocking the dinghy against the shore, 5ft from the boat. I pull it farther up the beach.

We have nothing to do now but wait, so we sit on the beach, eating our snacks and talking about how if we had enough time we’d build a fire. I think how distinctly like a birth this is: the becalmed bustle, the one-way train with lots of unknowns, everyone focused on one moment, subject to nature’s whims.

The rain thickens; we put on foulweather gear as waves begin to splash the hull. We go over our action positions: Paul at the port winch and on the bow for weight if needed; me at the starboard winch; Colin leaning on the halyard extension to make sure the keel doesn’t dig into the sand before we can winch the boat toward the anchors. Paul and I jump aboard before our shoes get wet. The tide is moving quickly now, and there is nothing to do but wait.

Finally, the boat begins to lift. I tighten the anchor rode inch by inch until the boat pulls free of the beach. When we’ve made enough progress away from the surf, Colin releases the halyard and the boat swings upright for the first time since she was deposited on the beach. We drop the motor back in its well, start it and retrieve the anchors. Back on the mooring, we work the metal thimble from the pennant end and run two new, thicker lines through the eye of the pennant and back to the deck cleats.

A line to the main halyard kept the boat heeled over until it was floating again

A line to the main halyard kept the boat heeled over until it was floating again

So what’s the lesson here? The line was too thin, and it was merely passed through a metal thimble from bow cleat to bow cleat. When the boat swung the line chafed on the thimble, and the sawing motion eventually cut through. Would that light line have held if it hadn’t been secured that way? I’ll never know, although I’ve been told since by well-meaning and more experienced sailors than me that it’s the right way to moor.

If there’s time for a story, and there usually is, we both have a laugh at a very lucky misfortune. I now know the correct way to secure a boat to a mooring temporarily is to use one line from each bow cleat, each doubled through the thimble or eye. Beyond that, the other even more important lesson was this: that while as an outsider I knew the sailing community values helping one other, it was not until I became a boat owner myself that I truly understood the depth of that commitment. 

Megan Grusenmeyer is a native New Orleanian. She is a student glider pilot, cycling enthusiast and new sailor. She works in environmental fundraising, festival production and bike maintenance. 

Photos by Megan Grusenmeyer, Paul Calder, and Colin Sarsgard.

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January 2019


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