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Getting Off When You Go Aground

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Techniques to try before you call Sea Tow

When you go aground, usually the safest course of action is to get professional help, unless it’s a slight grounding and easy to back off. But waiting for professional help may not be necessary; in some cases, it may actually be detrimental. If the tide is dropping, if a storm is coming, if waves are pushing you into shallow water, or if waves or wakes are grinding your boat against the bottom, it may be best for you to go to work immediately to attempt to get your boat off. In my past 54 years of going aground, I’ve learned some tactics the hard way. Of course, the first tactic is to not go aground; the second tactic is to never admit you’ve done it. But if you’re out here enough, you will go aground, and admitting it will become admitting the obvious. So let’s talk about it.

Many tactics for getting off involve substantial risk to you and the others aboard, and your paramount concern should be the safety of people. But inherent to cruising is the fact that you often will have to make decisions in which you weigh risks and decide on a course of action that’s safest, considering all the circumstances. Use the tactics here at your own risk. I offer them not to recommend them, because I can’t know what all the circumstances will be when you go aground. I offer them to hopefully add to your arsenal of cruising options as you make your decision as to what’s best for you and your crew.

Don’t Waste Time

For some reason, a typical reaction when people go aground is to walk around the decks, forward and aft, scratching the head. This includes a lengthy period of time standing on the bow and looking straight down. Face it. You’re aground. Unless you’re holed, your chances of being damaged will usually increase the longer you’re there. Evaluate your situation as quickly as possible. This may involve some walking around and gaping, but not much. Remember that, in most cases, delay is your enemy. Delay may be your friend if the seas are calm and will stay that way, if the weather is good, if the tide is coming in, and if wind or current isn’t pushing you into greater trouble. Also, if you’re on hard ground such as rock, it may be advisable to wait until you can float off or get professional help. You’ll have to quickly decide what’s best.

Determine The Facts

Determine whether you’re holed and taking on water. You’ll probably have a good idea of this as you ground. Sliding up onto a nice mud bank probably will not have holed you unless you’ve impacted a rudder, prop and strut, or stabilizer fin. Lurching and grinding onto a pile of rocks probably will. If there’s any question, check the engine compartment (or have someone do it for you) immediately. Don PFDs if there’s any question as to needing them.

You should already know the type of bottom you’re on by the feel and sound of the grounding, not to mention the charts. If you’re on rocks or if there’s any danger of being holed or danger to you and your crew, call the Coast Guard immediately. Depending on their assessment of the circumstances, members of the Coast Guard may come out to remove people, or they may call a towing or salvage company. Don’t risk life or personal safety. Most of the tactics discussed here apply to soft bottoms. Rock or reef presents a much more complex and potentially dangerous issue.

Determine whether the tide is rising or falling. Remember that a current running “in” doesn’t necessarily mean that the tide is rising. The tide could actually be falling. If you’ve gone aground near high tide, check to see whether the next high tide will be lower or higher than the present one. Heights of highs and lows vary because of moon phase, and this is reported in the pilot books as x feet above or below datum. (These are the numbers shown on your chart and may be for mean low water or mean lower low water; check your chart.) Heights of highs and lows can also be affected by wind. For example, if you know that the wind is blowing water out of a sound or a bay and that it will continue to do so, you should assume that the next high tide might not be as high as the present one.

Determine the tide’s stage. It will not rise or fall at the same rate. For example, in most areas of a six-hour tide cycle (two highs and two lows in a 24-hour period), one-half of the total rise or fall (and therefore the strongest current) occurs during the third and fourth hours. The rate of rise and fall will also depend on your location, the phase of the moon, and other factors, such as winds. All of these are important to know. If you’re in local waters, you’re probably familiar with what to expect. When you cruise in unfamiliar waters, it’s a good idea to study relevant pilot books and local charts to familiarize yourself with area characteristics.

Check the weather. You should already know what’s happening where you are at the moment, but you’ll need to know what may be happening in the next several hours. Look at the horizon and listen for thunder, but also try to get more thorough information. You may have satellite weather capability, or you may need to have someone listen to the VHF weather broadcast. Do what it takes. Deteriorating weather could be fatal to your boat and perhaps her crew. Most of what we discuss here assumes that you have relatively calm winds and seas at the time. If the water is rough, you’re much more likely to need professional help.

Determine where the deep water is. It isn’t always astern. Boats often go aground at an angle to a shoal. This probably means that very shallow water is on one side, deep water is on the other side, and relatively shallow water is ahead and perhaps even astern. Also, sometimes a boat will bounce or slide over a bar or ledge and come to rest in a deeper pool. This could mean that shallow water is all around, which may be
a very good reason for calling for professional help. If you can’t tell by looking at the water or figuring from the chart, sound with a lead line or pole around the boat. If you still can’t tell, you may need to launch a tender and sound with a lead line or, preferably, the depth finder that should be in your tender.

Consider the characteristics of your boat’s hull underwater. If your keel is hollow and not very strong along its bottom, you may not want to do some of the things we’ll discuss. If it has a beefy grounding plate on it or extra glass, you’ll have more options. A long, full keel will respond differently than a shorter keel, especially when trying to pivot the boat. Twin props will give you additional maneuvering options, but they may also present additional liability if one of the props is in the sand or mud or is likely to become so.

A rudder that hangs far down may be in the mud and may limit your choices. Running gear fully protected by the keel is a plus. Stabilizer fins may cause problems, depending on their location on the hull and their proximity to the bottom. If you’re familiar with the configuration of your hull and its protrusions, you’ll be better able to assess the advisability of various tactics.

After considering these and all other relevant factors, take action if that’s what the circumstances call for.


Common advice when boats go aground is to “put the anchor down immediately.” This may be detrimental. If you’re being blown farther into shallow water, it helps in theory, but by the time enough scope plays out for the anchor to hold, you will have already moved considerably. There are circumstances in which putting out an anchor may help, but don’t do it without evaluation.

Even a little bit of weight loss helps. Open the faucets and start draining your water tanks. This should normally be done immediately, unless you’re far away from civilization and loss of water may jeopardize the safety of you and your crew. If you have capable crew, you should assign such tasks immediately so that helpful steps are taken simultaneously.

If it is safe to do so, launch your tender. Safe conditions include good weather, no seas, no dangerous current, capable and qualified crew, and
a sound and easily launched tender. Because of additional risks associated with launching the tender, consider first whether you have a reasonable likelihood of success in just powering off. I’ll discuss this in more detail below, but suffice it to say that if you’ve just gently nudged the bottom and you can easily power off, you shouldn’t risk launching the tender.

As soon as the tender reaches the water, it will remove a large amount of weight. In many instances this will be enough to float your boat off. I’ve seen this work with heavy boats up to 50 feet in length. A capable helmsperson should be at the wheel when the dinghy touches water. If the boat floats enough to move, you don’t want it moving in the wrong direction because of current or wind. The dinghy operator should immediately get into the dinghy to assist and keep it under control and, if necessary, out of the way of the main boat. If launching the dinghy doesn’t float the boat, have other crew members get in the dinghy to the extent that this is consistent with safety. For example, don’t have someone who can’t swim or can’t stand the exertion or who isn’t agile get in. All should wear PFDs and be aware of the risks.

If needed, scout around in the dinghy to find the deep water. (Hopefully, the water around your boat will be at least deep enough to float the dinghy.) We keep a depth finder on our dinghy, and it’s proved invaluable for this and many other purposes. If you don’t have one, use a lead line. Unfortunately, a lead line will probably consume much more time.

Begin using your boat’s power to get off. This will require great skill on the part of the helmsperson. Don’t do this if you’re on rock or dangerously hard bottom, or if you think a part of your running gear, rudder, stabilizer fin, or other protrusion is in the bottom.

Often, people think they can just “back ’er off.” This action could turn a 5-cent grounding into a $100,000 haulout. Before engaging gears, try to assess whether the prop(s) and/or rudder(s) are touching the bottom and whether they will impact the bottom as you move in the direction in which you plan to go.

If the deep water is astern and the engines won’t pull you off, try rocking the boat. The suction of sand, and especially mud, on the bottom after you ground is stronger than you may think. Rocking helps to break the keel loose. This is easy with twin screws, revving in reverse with first one, then the other. With a single screw, swinging the rudder back and forth as you reverse hard may help. In a light boat, having crew quickly move from side to side or from bow to stern may help. (This is why I always like to take along heavy friends.) If a passing boat can give you a wake (and if you’re confident it won’t do more damage than good), ask the boat’s operator to do so, and use the engines as the wake lifts you. If there are waves occurring naturally, try to use them to your advantage in the same way. Use the prop wash against the rudder to try to move the boat in the right direction. If you have two engines, use their turning capacity.

If the deeper water is off to your side, as is so often the case, you have the problem of moving the boat sideways without moving it forward or aft. Most boats aren’t designed to do this. Try using your bow (and stern) thruster if you have this equipment. It’s not designed
for this purpose, but judicious use may be enough to swing the bow out. (Watch for overheating of the thruster motor and wiring.) If this doesn’t work, try to swing your stern out with your props. Normally, this involves reversing one or the other. Depending on the circumstances—and if other tactics fail—sometimes you can swing your stern around to deeper water by short thrusts in forward against the rudder. Do this carefully, because it’ll also be pushing the bow forward into the bottom and could quickly become counterproductive. This will probably help only if the drop-off to deep water is steep and very close, and if the shoal is hard enough to keep the bow from digging too far in but not so hard as to cause damage. Remember the feel and sounds when you grounded when assessing this.

While using the engines to try to extricate yourself, you’ll very likely suck in large amounts of sand or mud. This can quickly deteriorate your impeller(s) and possibly clog cooling passageways, depending on your engine. Pay careful attention to the heat gauges, and check (and be ready to replace) that impeller soon.

Pivot Tactic

If all else has failed, there’s another tactic that we’ve seen used successfully many times. I call it “the pivot.” In most groundings, one of the biggest issues, as noted above, is to move the bow toward deeper water, or at least so that it’s pointing toward deeper water. If you can do this, you can use the full power of the engines (consistent with safety and prudent seamanship) to move your boat off. Reverse power of engines does not create as strong a shove as forward power, nor does the rudder(s) have as much effect. The pivot tactic won’t be appropriate if you’re aground in rock or shale. It usually is most likely to work if you’re aground in sand or mud and if, as is often the case, you’ve slid into a shoal at an angle, with the deeper water to one side.

This tactic can be quite risky to crew members, perhaps more so than other tactics we’ve discussed. But it may extricate you when no other self-help will. You’ll have to weigh the risks and make your decision as to the safest course. Current or seas running will increase the risks of this tactic.

By this point, you will probably have launched your dinghy. You’re now going to use it as a tugboat to push your bow around. This isn’t as simple as it may seem, and it must be done very carefully. There must be a very fit, skillful, and capable person in the dinghy, and the helmsperson on your grounded boat must also be very skilled.

Cover the bow of your dinghy with several layers of wet towels or other material to protect it, to protect your hull, and to help provide friction between the dinghy bow and your hull. A large tractor/truck tire inner tube is ideal, but few carry these aboard. If you have an inflatable, you’re a step ahead here if it’s well inflated and has a relatively flat bow. It may still be advisable to use the wet towels, however. A small dinghy with a pointed bow may make this tactic quite difficult and may be far too dangerous to use for this purpose. We have a 12-foot aluminum dinghy with a pram bow and have found it to be excellent for this (and many other) purposes. All aboard the dinghy should wear PFDs, and the operator should attach the kill switch to himself. (This safety practice should have been done as soon as he started the motor.) Approach the bow from the shallow water side (hopefully, it’s deep enough here for the dinghy), and slowly motor up to the bow.

If the current is running, this maneuver can be quite difficult, and you may have to carefully make several trial runs. Gently lay the dinghy bow into the side of your boat’s bow as near to its prow as is safe and practical. The farther forward, the greater will be the pivot effect. But it’s important to have the dinghy bow far enough aft to avoid it slipping out around the prow. If current is running, it will be setting you to the side immediately, and you’ll need to keep the outboard running at a speed that will keep the dinghy bow pinned against the bow of the main boat and to hold the tiller at an angle that will keep the dinghy against the boat’s bow, roughly at a 90-degree angle to the main boat’s side.

Slowly increase speed, hopefully pushing the bow of the main boat around, breaking the bottom’s suction as you do so. As you increase speed, there will be a dangerous tendency for the dinghy bow to suddenly lose its traction with the main boat’s bow and pop loose to one side. If you’re not careful, this could cause the dinghy to flip, resulting in injury or death to its occupants. Watch for this, and carefully turn your outboard to keep the dinghy bow square on to the side of the main boat’s bow.

As the dinghy operator is pushing the main boat’s bow, the helmsperson must be ready to throttle forward as soon as the bow starts pointing to deeper water. This requires good judgment and skillful use of the helm, transmission, and throttle. The helmsperson will suddenly be very busy. He must do what’s needed to free the boat and make sure it remains in deep water. But he must also be very careful to not endanger the dinghy, and he may not be able to even see the dinghy while it is still close to the bow. Often, the boat will suddenly break free and shoot forward into deeper water. The dinghy operator must be prepared for this and react accordingly. If the dinghy bow slips off to the side while the outboard is revved up, the dinghy could capsize. The dinghy must quickly and safely disengage and stand clear. This is the reason we prefer to not attach a line between the dinghy and the main boat.

Some prefer to pull rather than push. They attach a line with bridle between the stern of the dinghy and the main boat’s bow. You’ll see skillful, professional towboat operators do this regularly, but their boats are much more powerful, their rigs are set up for it, and they are familiar with the dynamics. I’ve found that pulling with a dinghy doesn’t generate as much power and control as pushing. Also, it can be very difficult to control the direction of the pull of the dinghy as it tends to swing from side to side on its tether. In addition, it takes longer to rig for this tactic, and, as we’ve discussed, time is critical.

A favorite tactic discussed in many books and magazines is “kedging off.” In theory this sounds good, but I’ve found it to seldom be the best thing to do for anything other than a very small boat with an anchor so small that you can throw it for a good distance. For a larger cruising boat, you’ll still have to launch your dinghy to get the anchor out to the side and into deep water. You’ll have to pull the chain and/or rope through the water behind the dinghy, which can be very difficult, especially if current is pulling the rode. You’ll need to rig a fairlead to your windlass.

Normally your anchoring rig has been set up to handle rode that runs out ahead over the prow. In this case, it’ll be going out to the side. You’ll then have to start cranking in on the windlass, and this equipment is seldom made to take that much strain. However, depending on the circumstances, this may be a good tactic to consider.

If you have to call for a tow, be aware of the differences between salvage and a simple tow. This can make a great deal of difference in the cost of the operation. Also, don’t assume that your towing service will cover getting you off. If it’s anything other than a very soft grounding, it may not. Check with your service to learn its criteria. Also check with your boat’s insurer to determine your coverage in serious groundings. This subject is beyond the scope of this article.

Also beyond the scope of this article are the myriad environmental regulations and laws that govern what you are allowed to do and what you must do to avoid environmental impact. For example, in many areas of the Florida Keys (and elsewhere), many of the steps discussed here would be deemed illegal and subject to fine because they might result in additional “damage” to sea grass or reef.

The mere act of going aground in these areas can result in a large fine, and certain reporting requirements are mandatory. Towboat and salvage operators must be specially certified to work there. Learn the laws of the area you cruise.

There are many other things to do that may be helpful the next time you find the bottom. Reading good resource material, such as Chapman Piloting & Seamanship, 64th Edition, is always advisable. And some evening, sit down among cruising friends with a beer and admit that you’ve been aground. After that first moment of awkward silence when they are deciding whether they want to sneak away from your company and pretend they don’t know you, you’ll probably learn a lot of other helpful tactics.