Four Tactics to Use if You Run Aground

”Uh-oh,” I heard myself say. “We’ve got a problem!”  Running aground was the last thing on my mind that gorgeous July afternoon as I guided Tackful, our “new to us” Catalina Capri 25, into the harbor.
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”Uh-oh,” I heard myself say. “We’ve got a problem!”

Running aground was the last thing on my mind that gorgeous July afternoon as I guided Tackful, our “new to us” Catalina Capri 25, into the harbor. It was a perfect day out on Chesapeake Bay, and we couldn’t wait to celebrate with a bottle of wine and some crab cakes.

Peg, my first mate, and I were on a shakedown cruise and had left Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that morning on a 25-mile sail across the bay to Rock Hall, a little waterman’s town on Maryland’s eastern shore. From the moment we raised the sails, we knew this trip would be special. With the wind blowing a steady 10-11 knots out of the southwest, we trimmed the sails for a beam reach and never touched them again. Perched high on the rail, we felt more like passengers than skipper and crew. Tackful seemed to know exactly where she was going, and we were thrilled to be along for the ride.

“What’s wrong? Why’d we stop?” asked Peg, as the joy in her voice quickly turned to concern.

“We’re aground, damn it!” I blurted out. “How could that happen? Right here in the harbor!!!”

We’d never been in Rock Hall’s harbor before and in our enthusiasm we’d become careless, leaving the chart and our good sense down below. How we missed the ample daymarks outlining the harbor’s perimeter channel remains a mystery to me, but somehow we did. There we sat, with Tackful’s 4-foot keel securely planted in Chesapeake mud. We had never been aground before and didn’t have a clue as to what to do next. To make matters worse, the waterfront was studded with popular seafood restaurants, and it soon became apparent that we had become the pre-dinner entertainment for the al fresco crowd.

I won’t be sharing the embarrassing details of our extrication, but I do wish I’d been better prepared for what in the Chesapeake and other shallow sailing venues is a virtual certainty. If you’ve never run aground in sand or mud, there are a number of things you should know before it happens to you.

First of all, have faith that you’ve probably done more damage to your ego than to your boat. Soft groundings rarely cause damage, outside of scraping some bottom paint off the keel. It is smart to check the rudder and the bilge to make sure no structural damage has occurred, but chances are your boat will be just fine.

What you do need to worry about is getting off again, and the following are four important tactics you should try in sequence before calling for help. Some are easy. Some, not so much. Any one of them, if successful, will save you some serious money.

Change direction: If you’re under sail and haven’t yet lost all forward momentum, quickly throw the tiller or wheel over hard and try to tack back toward deeper water. The sooner you react, the better. Don’t worry about the jib. Let it backwind, as it will help swing the bow around. The odds of this working are best if you’re sailing close to the wind in a fin-keeled boat. If you have no momentum, drop or furl your sails as quickly as you can, or at least depower them by letting them flog until you can figure out how to get them down. Otherwise they may very well drive your keel that much deeper into the bottom.

Back straight off: After you’ve dropped your sails, start your engine and put it in reverse. Gradually increase power, taking care to note any resistance that might indicate your prop is touching bottom. If it’s clear, continue to increase power. You know there is deeper water not far astern, and hopefully you can get to it.

If you’re aground in mud, it will create suction around your keel, so to break loose try rocking the boat from side to side while backing down. Once you start moving, don’t back off the throttle until you’re floating free. If you’re aground in sand, be careful not to stir up the bottom so much that the sand clogs your engine’s raw-water intake.

If your initial attempt to back out doesn’t work, relax a minute and assess the situation. Check your chart for other escape routes. There may be more deep water in another direction. Check the state of the tide. If it’s flooding, you can sit back and let the rising tide float you off. If it’s ebbing, you need to act quickly.

Heel the boat: If your engine alone can’t break you free, the next step is to reduce your draft through heeling. The simplest way to heel a keel boat is to put your crew and any other heavy objects on the lee rail and swing your boom out to leeward. If there’s a daredevil aboard who’s willing to hang on the boom, all the better; if there’s a second daredevil willing to take a ride in a bosun’s chair hanging off to leeward, better still. A backwinded sail will also help. Once you’ve achieved your maximum heel angle, try motoring in reverse again.

If this doesn’t get you moving, you can try to increase your heel angle even more by setting your heaviest anchor well out to leeward and bending its rode onto a halyard. If you don’t have a dinghy to take the anchor out, you can swim out and float it into position with some lifejackets. Once the anchor is set, grind in the halyard on a winch. As your heel angle increases, try backing out again, being careful to ease the halyard as you start moving.

Kedge off: If it’s clear your boat can’t break loose under its own power, regardless of its heel angle, the next step is to try and pull yourself free. The process is called kedging and is not difficult to perform. Begin by retrieving your anchor from abeam and reset it well astern. It should be far enough back to allow the anchor to set securely, as it will be handling a very heavy load. After you set the anchor, run the rode to your boat’s stern and take it to a winch near the centerline; a coachroof winch by your companionway will work well if you have one. Have a crewmember take in any slack in the rode and then, in concert with the engine, try to winch the boat back toward deeper water. Once you start to move, be sure to take up the slack in the rode before it fouls your prop.

Unfortunately, in spite of all your best efforts, sometimes a boat just won’t budge. Heavy full-keel sailboats aground in sticky mud often need a professional towboat—or a friend with strong powerboat—to pull them off. Groundings are a common occurrence, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to reach a towing company that will respond quickly. Simply request assistance on VHF channel 9 or 16 and then reach for your wallet. To ease the pain, think of me while you’re waiting, and be thankful you’re not aground in front of a raucous dinner crowd in the middle of a well-marked harbor.

L. Alan Keene, a retired mental health care professional turned writer, sails his Oxford Dinghy and his Capri 25 on Chesapeake Bay

Photos by L. Alan Keene

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