Running aground in an power boat usually goes something like this: VROOOOM, VROOOM, BAM! Your cooler careens up into the bow, fishing tackle flies through the air, and soda cans spray their contents from stem to stern. On the bright side, as you clean up the mess you get to feel like an idiot, too. But truth be told, even the sharpest boaters among us end up “on the hard” from time to time. And if you own a boat and you haven’t run aground yet, don’t worry—sooner or later, you will.
The important thing is, what will you do next? How you react to a grounding is what really separates the captains from the Gilligans. Here are five critical steps you need to take to minimize the damage. (Note – for outboard boats, only. Inboards, stern drives, and certainly sailboats face their own set of challenges when aground).
1. Freeze! No, not you—the boat. After a serious grounding your gut reaction may be to get the boat back into deep water ASAP, but this can be a mistake. Before you try moving it, inspect the bilges, motor mounts, and transom for damage. If any water is entering the boat, moving it off the bottom can be an extremely bad move for obvious reasons. Instead, if there’s serious and obvious damage, now’s the time to call for assistance. Same goes for a boat that’s grounded on rocks. Fortunately, more groundings take place on sandy shoals or mud flats. But if you’re sitting on rocks either call in the pros, or risk doing more serious damage to your boat. There’s one exception to the above rule; see below.
2. Observe the conditions. If it’s calm out and you’re in a low-traffic area, you can settle down and take your time with things. But in some conditions, you’ll need to get your boat afloat as quickly as you can—because running aground is actually a great way to sink it. When the hull is sitting on bottom, waves may break over and into the cockpit, filling it with water in a matter of seconds. This is particularly dangerous if the stern of the boat if facing the seas, and is a common issue in inlets lined by sandy shoals. So judging the circumstances is an important part of deciding which steps to take next, and in what order.
3. Get un-grounded. Assuming it’s been judged either safe or necessary, there are several tactics you can use to get your boat floating again. First, tilt up your drive unit. Next, reduce and/or redistribute as much weight as possible. Unloading passengers (in appropriately safe conditions, of course), pumping out a water tank, and removing large coolers or other heavy objects will all help. Now it’s time for a little manual labor. But don’t just grab the bow and start pushing; instead, have the crew alternate pushing from each side, so the boat rocks back and forth. This makes it a lot easier to get the hull sliding through sand and/or mud. In some cases (especially if your boat has a keel or a very deep V in the center) if you can get the boat to lean on one side it may gain some buoyancy. Though it takes even more manual labor, another trick is to dig out around the bottom. In many cases this isn’t very practical, but if you can at least remove the sand or mud that piles up behind the transom and get another inch or two of water under it, it will become a lot easier to make headway.
In some other circumstances, you may be able to inch the boat in the right direction, only to have the current or wind shove it right back. If this presents a problem, you can use a technique similar to kedging. Walk your anchor as far as possible into deeper water, and set it into the bottom. Then run the rode to the nearest cleat on the boat. Assign one crewmember to work the line while everyone else pushes the boat, as described above. Put only a half-wrap on the cleat, so you can take up line as everyone pushes, yet apply enough tension on the line to prevent the boat from being pushed back in the wrong direction. If the crew needs to take a breather or if the hull suddenly comes free, the line should be properly cleated asap.
4. Inspect everything. Once your boat’s floating again, you’ll need to start looking for damage. First, look at the three most commonly damaged items: check the prop for bent blades, eyeball the skeg, and check out the fishfinder transducer. If all look good, start the engine up and look closely at the tell-tale. If it appears to be pumping less water than usual (or none at all) there’s a good chance the engine sucked in some grit. It may merely be clogging the tell-tale, it could be clogging the entire cooling system, or it could have damaged the water pump impeller vanes. You probably won’t be able to tell which until your engine either overheats, or doesn’t. Next, move on to any system plumbed with an intake. Livewells and raw water washdowns, for example, might have sucked in sand, mud, or grit.
In all likelihood, a hull inspection will have to wait until you can pull the boat. Your initial inspection (back in step number one) should have alerted you to any major-league damage, but there could be more subtle damage which you won’t spot until the boat’s out of the water.
5. Run the boat. If you’re confident there aren’t any massive issues, it’s time to run the boat. This will tell you a lot about what has or hasn’t happened as a result of the grounding. The key things to look for are performance consistent with the norm, and new or unusual vibrations. If you don’t detect anything out of the ordinary, consider yourself lucky. But if it feels like the boat’s trying to shake itself apart, you probably bent something between the prop and the powerhead. If it pulls in one direction or the other, chances are the skeg’s out of kilter, the steering system took some damage, or you may have bent or broken a trim tab.
Now, to state the obvious: try not to run aground again. Of course, sooner or later, you will. It’s inevitable. So when your boat does go BAM! try to keep cool, don’t get too upset, and remember these five steps.
You say running aground is the least of your problems? Troubled boaters should also read Seamanship Disasters: 3 Stupid Ways to Sink Your Boat. Those who are challenged by getting into the slip will want to check out Five Docking Disasters: Don’t Let This Happen to You! And everyone who’s getting behind the wheel should be familiar with The Top 10 Mistakes Powerboaters Make: Don’t Do This!