What To Do If You Run Aground While Sailing

What To Do If You Run Aground While Sailing | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

Grounding is one of the low points in every sailor’s life, and there are two types of captains; those who have gone aground, and those who admit that they have gone aground.

It’s a common occurrence pretty much anywhere in the world and sailboats are particularly susceptible to it given their generous draft and relatively awkward maneuverability.

Add in the fact that every harbor has its own set of perils and that once you're aground, you likely will never free yourself without assistance.


Table of contents

Three scenarios of Grounding

I have been aground in literally hundreds of boats and each and every time, it was not my chosen activity. My top three groundings go like this:

  1. I was coaching a team of yacht club kids on a member’s boat and we were sailing just off Black Rock Harbor in Bridgeport, CT. My job was to coach the kids and it was the job of the owner to skipper the boat out of the harbor. Not liking the way I was coaching and thinking he could do a better job, the owner abandoned the helm and took my place on the foredeck coaching the young lads on proper fordeck prep. Begrudgingly I walked back to the helm, unaware of the giant rock that lay just feet from our boat, and took command of the helm under full sail and cruising at 6 knots. We slammed into the rock and the kids that were standing at the mast clipped the kids that were standing on the foredeck as they fell into a pig pile below the bow pulpit. The owner fell flat on his face and I slammed my face into the wheel. The boat suddenly stopped, bubbles rose from below as air escaped from the newly formed separation between the keel and the hull, The sound of water filling the bilge sent shivers down my spine. We came about, steamed full throttle into the dock and I stepped off the boat while the owner whimpered quietly into the bilge.
  1. The next worst grounding I encountered was aboard a 74’ schooner just outside Ocracoke. Visibility was poor so I gave the helm to my first mate and I stood on deck watching for the next buoy as we motored our way up the channel into Silver lake. For some reason I never quite understood, my young first mate slammed the wheel hard over some five boat lengths before I ever thought to give the order. We rammed the steel hull hard into the mudflats just outside the harbor entrance. Lucky for us the boat had a massive detroit diesel which we used to dredge our own channel through the soft mud until we were approximately ten feet from the main channel where it became thoroughly stuck and refused to move any further. A passing fishing boat took pity on us and pulled us the rest of the way through the shallow muddy mess to safety and didn’t even charge us for the cleat we bent to all hell on his boat as thanks for his efforts.
  1. But the best grounding I ever experienced saved my life. I was in a small boat off Stratford Point at 10 pm on a Saturday night of Memorial weekend. The water temperature hovered at a balmy 49 degrees and the air temps dropped to the 40’s as they often do on the water in New England in May. The water had a solid 6 foot standing chop and our boat was shall we say less than seaworthy. The first wave crashed over the bow and stopped our progress while a second wave swamped our stern and filled our boat with water. Thankfully the motor did not stop, but every piece of gear we had in the boat washed from our boat and sank in 20 feet of water with a 6 knot current washing out to sea. The boat hovered just below the water line and my buddy and I were soaked and shivering almost immediately. We turned the boat and ran it full speed onto the rocks of Stratford Point where we managed to get the bow high enough that the water spilled out of the boat. We limped home cold and tired with a sputtering water logged motor, but very thankful to be alive.

So of those three tales, which one do you think I learned the most from? The answer is all of them.

Every accident has its lessons I think and only a complete doofus would fail to learn something from each of those events. But what were the take-aways? What went wrong and why did I screw up so bad? How many times do I have to go aground to learn that boats need water to sail? First let's take a look at why it happened.

Why do groundings happen?

Invariably there are a few common themes when a boat goes aground. The most obvious theme is poor planning. Whether it’s the weather, the tide or the boat, something was not planned on when a boat goes aground.

The first scenario was clearly because (a) I had no idea where I was and (b) had a bad attitude about being relieved of my job. The owner should never have left the helm at that exact moment, but if he did, he should have briefed me on where we were in the harbor and what we were heading towards.

I don’t really think either of us were quite aware exactly where we were when the exchange happened, but really we should have known because there were marks on top of those rocks that everyone else knew was there. But there you go, a bad attitude mixed with lack of knowledge yields a sinking boat.

The second grounding was more poor communication, a second theme but way more common occurrence on a boat. Expecting someone knows something is never a good call and one should ever assume that anyone knows anything on the water.

It is the unsaid element that causes the ship to go down. The failed-to-mention broken life line, the forgotten split ring or the assumed knowledge that my first mate knew how to read navigational markers. It's not what you say that gets you in trouble on the water, it's what you neglect or forget to say that gets you into trouble.

When a captain orders the helm hard over, the crew repeats the command hard over aye back to the captain so he knows he has been heard. Never assume that someone hears you or knows what you're thinking. Always assume they don't know and find out if they do know by repeating what they said back to them.

In practical terms you do this to ensure that your voice has been heard over the wind, the motor or the waves. But in pragmatic terms you do this because you never know what the other person your sailing with really knows on a sailboat.

The last scenario was a combination of poor planning and worse communication. Neither my buddy nor I expected the weather to be that bad and I had no idea that this boat was as crappy as it was. But the final reason why a boat goes aground is demonstrated perfectly here because when a boat is sinking, the best place for your boat to be is on the shore. The titanic wouldn’t have killed nearly as many souls if the Captain could have run that ship onto a sandbar.

When a boat is no longer seaworthy and unexpectedly decides to inform you of that fact, take your boat and ram it as hard as you can on something that won't sink and save yourself from peril - and that's the best reason to ground a boat.

How do you get off the ground once you're there?


But whether you want to be aground or not, there are a few tactics you can employ to get your boat back off the beach. And the first is kedging.

The word itself is scary, sounding like some horrible lunge disease or something like that. In truth however, it is a great tool to get oneself off of the ground using your anchor to haul your boat into deeper water.

It helps if you know how to read the tide and the wind and use those factors to help get your boat back to deeper water, but hauling your anchor up and either carrying it or rowing it to deeper water so that you can haul your boat back to deep water is a forgotten art that find its roots in the self reliance of the ancient sailors. It’s not easy to do, but rather than pay $5000 to Boat US to haul you off a beach, you should at least try it.

Use Your Sails

Another thing you should try in your SAILBOAT is use your sails. Odds are you are aground because you failed to read the wind and the water correctly, but if you can somehow manage to get your boat pointed into deeper water and then haul your sails in tight, you might just be able to heel your boat enough to slide it back into deep water and be on your merry way. This requires wind that cooperates with you and you run the risk of pushing your boat further ashore if the wind decides not to help you out, but hauling in the sails combined with kedging might just be the ticket if you find yourself aground with no one to help.

Lighten The Load

Other things you can do include lightening the load and offloading all items that can be thrown overboard safely like fresh water, ice and children. You can always get more water and ice when you get back to shore and children most times can find their way back home. Just kidding, don't toss your kids overboard. But what you could do is put all extra bodies and gear into the dinghy or on the shore as a way to lighten the load and help the other tactics to work more effectively.

If you do have a dinghy or chase boat, you can ask one of your crew to drive the boat with your halyard attached in an effort to tip the sailboat over. Most small power boats have a shallower draft than keel boats and so using them to give your boat some heel to get you off the sand is a great way to be self-sufficient. Just make sure you have enough water to run your power boat because the last thing you need is another boat to be rescued by Boat US.

What to do first when you go aground

There are no hard and fast rules about sailing but with grounding there are a few things you should do first.

Check The Crew

First check that everyone is ok. Groundings can be sudden and hard and injuries may happen. Check that everyone on board is uninjured but if they are injured assess their injuries and if need be hail the USCG with a Pan Pan or Mayday depending on the severity of the injuries.

Check For Damage To Your Boat

The next  thing you do is evaluate the boat for damage. Look in all the holds and bilge and listen for water leaking.

If your boat does have damage or is in danger of sinking, you need to know this asap to get help inbound immediately. If you are taking on water, even if you are in shallow water, this is a mayday situation.

Boats can become very unstable when filling with water and you have no idea what the tide and weather may look like in the next hours. Getting help to a sinking boat is paramount so this also goes on the “do it first” list.

Assess Weather and Tide

Once you have checked that everyone is ok and the boat is not sinking, then you need to concern yourself with the weather and tide. Take an assessment of where you are in the tide cycle and what the winds are doing.

Many groundings have been fixed by just waiting a half hour or hour for more water on a rising tide. But if your tide is falling many other boats have been forced to spend the night and wait for the morning high tide to lift their boat to safety. Understanding what the conditions are now can help you considerably in three hours on either a rising or falling tide.

Ring the bell

Now that you have realized you will be here for some time on your grounded boat, there isn’t much to do but wait. Wait for the tide to rise, wait for help to arrive, wait for the boat to sink. It's all a waiting game.

The USCG says that in reduced visibility you should sound 3 distinct strokes on the bell, followed by a rapid ringing on the bell for about five seconds, followed by 3 more strokes. Since you don't have anything else to do, you might as well do that.

Other things you could do is play cards, make dinner, or work on your tan. Do all those things if you want, you're not going anywhere fast.

Grounding can be as miserable or as fun as you make it. If everyone is safe and your boat is not in peril, consider yourself lucky. Some of my favorite memories of sailing have been while I was stuck aground in a sailboat, so don't get too worked up about it, and enjoy it.

Sailing is supposed to be fun, even the bad days. If you can get yourself off with some of the tactics we have gone over here, then go for it. But if you need help, don’t wait til 5PM to make that call. Getting help inbound early when things go bad on the water is really important.

Towboat Membership

My last little piece of advice is get a towboat membership before you go aground again. The average cost for a tow that is not covered runs in the thousands while a membership costs less than $100. And the last thing you need after grounding your boat is a giant salvage bill from a towing company.

Thanks for reading and as always do good, have fun and sail far.

What To Do If You Run Aground While Sailing
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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