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What You Need to Know About Running Aground

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on April 21, 2021. In

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So your boat has run aground, what now? Few things are more frustrating and potentially scary on the water. A boat running aground could cause serious hull damage and be a safety risk.

First, remember to keep calm. Nearly every boater is going to run aground at some point. If it hasn’t happened yet, it just means it’s going to happen later.

Don’t start worrying about hull damage, injuries and accidents, and when to radio the coast guard yet. Let’s first take a look at what you can do step by step to deal with the situation. This can help minimize hull damage and injuries.

First Steps When You Run Aground

Running aground can be extremely dangerous. If you know what you’re doing, you can minimize the risk.

Take Stock of the Situation: Your instincts may be to react right away. Instead, try to keep a calm head. Don’t move anything just yet.

  • Turn off the engine. This will prevent overheating or drawing in mud and muck.
  • Lower the sails on a sailboat, then raise the centerboard and rudder.
  • Inspect the outer hull and inner hull. Look for cracks and leaks. If you have significant damage then things could get much worse if you try to free your boat.
  • Raise your outboard or sterndrive.
  • Try to repair any damage if possible. This can be as simple as using a rag to plug a hole if that is your only option. Anything to stop the vessel from taking on water will help now. PFDs and plugs may also work. It depends on the nature of the damage and what you have on hand.
  • Make sure everyone on board has their life jackets on.
  • Fix your location. If you need to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help, they’ll need to know where you are.
  • Consult your charts. It’s good to know the lay of the land. You should find out where deeper water is around you.
  • Assess the tides. Is it high tide or low tide? How much time do you have before it changes?

Get a Better Idea of What’s Going On: This isn’t always possible but if you have a dinghy, now is the time to use it. Get into the dinghy and survey your vessel. This will help identify any additional damage or hazards.

Inspect Hull Damage: If you have damaged the boat, get a better look at it. Don’t try to adjust anything yet. If you ran aground on a rock, see how it is affecting your hull. A rock may have plugged a hole in your hull. If that’s the case, moving the boat could cause you to rapidly take on water.

Radio the Coast Guard: Once you have a clear picture of the situation you can use your VHF radio to radio the U.S. Coast Guard to inform them. This is a good idea even if you don’t need help right away. When dealing with a situation like this you can never be too careful. You can update them on the situation then advise on your plans. If you are going to try to move the boat yourself, it’s good for them to be aware. They may also offer advice or assistance if needed.

Things to Avoid When You Run Aground

The chance of property damage is always there when you run aground. You want to make sure that you are not doing anything to make it worse. There is a temptation when we get stuck to try to fight out of it. How many times have you had a car tire stuck in mud and then you hit the gas? It may work in that situation but it is not a good idea for a boat. You risk even more damage.

Trying to power through by pushing the boat is a bad idea. If you ran aground on a very small shoal this may be an OK solution. However, if you have run aground on something larger you risk significant damage.

Putting the boat in reverse may also be a bad idea. You may end up with mud or vegetation in the engine intake. This could cause serious engine damage and leave you totally stranded. If your engine overheats that’s a whole different problem.

Only choose a course of action once you have done a thorough inspection.

How to Pull Your Boat Out

Once you have determined whether or not it is safe to move, you have a few steps to take. The situation will always determine the best course of action. That said, these options may work.

Reduce Your Draft

The lighter your boat is, the less water it displaces. Start by emptying your water tanks if it’s not life and death to keep them. You can also add gear and equipment to your dinghy to lighten the load.

Go With the Tide

If the tides are rising you may not have to do anything. If you have not suffered significant hull damage this could work. The rising tide may lift your boat out. If that is the case, you could carefully proceed once the water level has fully risen.

You’ll want to be patient for this to work. Wait for high tide to come all the way in. Assess whether your boat is truly free and clear of what it ran aground on. You may have to set your kedge anchor to help here.

Use a Kedge Anchor

Setting a kedge anchor may help pull your boat free. A kedge anchor is a lightweight anchor that can help haul a grounded boat off of what it has run aground on. Think of it like a grappling hook. You can set the anchor into the water and use the current to help pull you free. Use the dinghy or some PFD’s to float the anchor out.

Get a Pull from the Coast Guard or Other Boaters

The Coast Guard can help with this but so can other boaters. You can run a line between your boat and another boat. Once secured, the other boat can help tow you back to a safe place in the water. Just make sure you’re paying attention to water depths.

Make sure to be very cautious if another boat is pulling you to safety. The tension on the line will be very high. If the line breaks and a passenger is nearby it could be deadly.

Use the Wake

If you have run aground too badly a pull line may not help. That said, you may still benefit here. Other boaters can do some rapid forward and reverse movements. This can create a wake which could lift your boat off of a sandy shoal. It is not recommended to do this on rocks, which would cause even more damage.

Call for a Towing Company

If the situation isn’t an immediate danger you may not want to bother the USCG or another boat. There are commercial towing companies that you can contact. You can join local organizations. Think of it like AAA for the sea. Check with local boaters and marinas. See which company has the best reputation, fees, and service. You may never need to use the service, but it’s good to have in your back pocket.

What if the Tide is Falling?

If the tide is getting lower and you are aground, it may be possible to free yourself by pushing forward. This is not recommended in most cases. It may work or it may cause even more damage.

You do need to decide quickly what to do in this case as time is limited. If you do not feel you have the time or ability to free yourself, then don’t.

Radio for help and then decide what to do next. If the tide will fall a considerable amount, you may need to support your boat. Some kind of cushioning could prevent the risk of further damage.

If nothing else, running aground may give you a chance for a full hull inspection. You can see parts of your hull normally immersed in the water, and maybe clean it.

Be Safe and Be Smart

Running aground doesn’t have to be catastrophic. Your two best bets are to stay calm and use common sense. Don’t panic. Make sure the boat and everyone on board is safe and secure. Address any damages as necessary. If the situation is dire, call for help and make sure everyone has access to safety gear. If it is something you can manage yourself, just make sure you do so in a calm and orderly fashion.

Patience is sometimes a virtue in this situation. Waiting for the tide to lift you is often the best idea. It may take hours. But it can be the difference between a scratched hull and one with holes in it.

Make sure you keep in contact with authorities. Even if the situation doesn’t seem too serious. The tides can literally turn and you could be in a worse situation. It’s also important to make sure authorities and other boaters know where you are and what you’re doing.

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