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How to go Aground in Style

Look Ma! No water!

Look Ma! No water!

No doubt about it. Sailing a shoal-draft boat that can ground out easily makes you feel like you have a secret super power when cruising. My first such boat, a Golden Hind 31, drew just 3ft 8in and had a long full keel with two small bilge keels sprouting out either side—a triple-keeled yacht if you will. This gave her great directional stability when sailing and allowed her to stand up straight when she had no water to float in.

I was, of course, eager to try this trick. Soon after acquiring the boat I sailed her up the St. George River in Maine, all the way up to the head of navigation at Thomaston, on an incoming tide. When it came time to anchor I turned out of the conjested channel into open water and confidently kicked my hook overboard. Another boat that had been sailing up the river just behind me got ready to do the same.

“You shouldn’t anchor here!” I called out, feeling very smug. “There’s no water here at low tide!”

The crew on the other boat gaped at my boat as though it were a spaceship just landed from an alien planet, then turned tail for the safety of the town dock.

I had my come-uppance hours later when I returned to the scene after a long dinner ashore and found my boat standing upright, yes, but buried deep, bow down, in very soft mud. I was worried the mud would never release her and stood fretting for hours until she floated again.

Lesson learned: before parking your boat on the intertidal littoral, you should know what it consists of.

My latest boat, an aluminum-hulled Boreal 47, which has a centerboard and draws just 3ft 3in when it is retracted, also has the magic power. However, I was more circumspect this time, and before exercising it I selected a grounding venue I was very familiar with, a big mudflat just inside the mouth of the Kennebec River, where I spent summers as a kid.

I also stayed aboard this time and experienced the transformation firsthand. It actually did feel magical. Though conditions were calm and the boat was hardly moving while at anchor, my body sensed immediately when it ceased floating, as though this were a phase change as distinct as water turning to ice. I realized, too, I needed to think of things I don’t normally think about.

I did remember to shut off the water-cooled fridge before all the water went away. And when I was awakened that night from a sound sleep by the sensation of the boat floating again, I thought to turn it back on. However, one thing I had not thought of was to close the intake valve. As a result, all the water in the intake line drained out while the boat was aground, and to get the fridge running smoothly I had to open up the system’s water strainer and prime it again.

Something else I hadn’t thought of was the dinghy and the fact that it would refloat long before the boat did. The boat, with the dinghy tied off astern in its usual spot, had grounded out in line with the current, broadside to a light breeze. However, when the dinghy refloated, it was blown across the back of the boat and got pinned under its transom skirt as the water continued to rise. Fortunately, I discovered this just in time and managed to free the dinghy, in the middle of the night, without a stitch of clothing on, before any harm was done.

Next time, you can be sure, I will remember to tie off the dink amidships.

The boat was again hard aground by the time I finished breakfast the next morning, so I set to work scrubbing her bottom with a long-handled brush. The mud was just soft enough to grab my feet as I worked, which was both annoying and tiring. In all the job took about two hours, which I reckon is how long it would take doing it in the water with a mask and snorkel on.

Still, I think I like this way better. After all, there’s no point having a super power if you don’t use it from time to time. 

December 2017

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