Friday, April 10, 2015

Running Aground

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Florida

There is a constant competition in the minds of cruisers.  The competition is between the pleasures of cruising versus the fears.  Among the fears, I believe running aground is among the most potent.

Libby and I have run aground so many times (30 or more times), that I have a database of the lat-lon coordinates of all those locations.  (I can't find it at the moment.  I'll publish it later.)

Today, let me say a few things about the truths and myths.

A Westsail 42 after running aground on rocks.

Running aground can sink your boat and end your life.  True, but only if you run aground on rock or coral in heavy surf.  On the USA East Coast (except for Maine) it is more common to go aground in mud or sand (a so-called soft grounding)  In those cases, both you and your boat are likely to come away unharmed.
On the ICW we have two kinds of boaters.  Those who run aground, and those who lie about it.
If you do run aground in mud or sand, don't panic.  Stop and think before taking any action.   Resist the urge to immediately use the engine to try to power off.  That can cause more harm than good.

The most common solution to a soft grounding is to simply wait for the tide to come in.  If that doesn't work, try the following.

  1. Try a modest amount of power with the engine.  Before trying that, figure out which direction is best to try.   If you have a fin keel, a spade rudder, or an exposed prop, you can damage the boat or the engine by overdoing use of the engine.   Tarwathie has a full keel, a skeg rudder, and the prop is in an aperature far from the mud.  Those advantages allow the W32 to try harder with power than some other brands.
  2. Kedge yourself off.  That means taking an anchor out in the dinghy as far as you can, and dropping it.   Then haul the anchor line in to move the boat.  Electric anchor windlasses have clutches that are not strong enough for this job.  Use a manual windlass, or the manual crank on the electric windlass if possible.   Which direction to pull?  90 degrees for a fin keel sailboat, and astern aft for a full-keel wedge-shaped boat like Tarwathie.
  3. Fin keel sailboats can make it easier to drag sideways if they heel over.  Sometimes raising the sails will do it.   Other times, pulling the halyard from the masthead will do it. Don't overdo that, or you may break the rigging.
  4. If you have towing insurance, call them.  I wrote recently about towing insurance.  Actually, if you have the insurance, and if there is any chance of damaging the boat by self-help methods, make this item number one on the checklist, right behind waiting for the tide.   The towing companies recommend that you do nothing to try to free yourself while waiting.
As a guess, out of say 32 groundings in our history:
  • 30 of 32 groundings were soft, two were on rock.
  • 25% of the time, we didn't get stuck.  We just bumped hard on the bottom.
  • 25% of the time, we were able to back off in just a few minutes using the engine.
  • 25% of the time, we kedged ourselves off within 30 minutes.
  • 25% of the time, we were towed off by passers by or by the TowboatUS, or by Sea Tow.
  • 0% of the time (according to my memory) were we able to float off when the tide came in.
Myth, soft groundings are always the fault of the helmsman.   Myth, if you are careful, you can always avoid grounding.  Closer to the truth: if you cruise on the East Coast, you will run aground; probably at least once per year.    Shoaling and silting never cease.  Staying between the red and the green is no assurance.  Male skippers take note, "Never get angry or yell at your mate for running aground."  At least not for 24 hours when you calm down and have a chance to fully consider decisions made.

Myth, depth sounders, even fancy forward-looking depth sounders will keep you out of trouble.   In most cases they only help by giving a warning just before you hit, but too late to evade the grounding.   You can increase the depth of alarm warnings, but on the ICW, be prepared for false alarms every 5 minutes.

Caveat: If you are sailing in waters with rock or coral bottoms and heavy seas, you must be much more cautious and conservative.  How close you come to hazards depends on the quality of your charts, and your certainty about your current position.   Uncertainty in either of those should caution you to leave miles, or sometimes dozens of miles between you and a grounding hazard.

Finally: In reality, for some of us, the boat is a toy, for others (like me and Libby) our boat is our one and only home, and emotionally a member of the family.  Naturally, we are more conservative about risk taking than some other people.

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