Chartplotters and plotting apps have made it easier than ever to avoid running aground in your sailboat, but accidents still happen and the prudent sailor should be prepared by knowing what steps to take. Often you have to act very quickly to avoid a worsening situation.
First Steps: Do You Have to Act Fast?
Running aground may involve a "soft" grounding in sand or mud or a "hard" grounding on a rocky shoal. With a hard grounding especially, the boat may stop very suddenly, causing crew and gear to be thrown forward, possibly causing injuries. The first step is to ensure everyone on board is okay. Then check for a water leak that may demand preparing for repair or abandoning ship rather than trying to get free.
Next, quickly check your chart and estimate your position in the shoal area. Sometimes you may be able to continue in the same direction to reach clear water, although in most cases you generally need to reverse direction or turn sharply to either side to get free. Obviously it is essential to first determine the direction in which the boat ideally should move.
In the worst case, the force of the wind or current continues to drive the boat deeper into the shoal area. In such a case, or when the water level is dropping with the tide, you need to act quickly before the situation gets worse. Understanding your options helps you choose the best course of action more quickly. If the methods below do not free the boat quickly, then set an anchor as soon as possible to prevent wind or current from moving the boat further into the shoal area.
You also need to act quickly after a hard grounding because the hull may soon be damaged or holed by rocks grinding against the fiberglass or other hull material.
Using Your Engine
Sailors often attempt to motor back off the bottom immediately, using the boat's engine. This can be the best strategy - but not always. If the prop or shaft may have grounded (in a boat where the prop is relatively low in the water relative to the keel, which likely is on the bottom), then immediately shifting into reverse could put the engine out of commission. Think before you act. If the prop is a more than a foot above the keel bottom and likely not in contact with the bottom, then reversing may be your best option. Unless you are sure of the configuration of the bottom, use a long boat hook to check the water depth off the stern on both sides to ensure you have clearance.
On a centerboard boat, you may be able to get free by raising the centerboard. Be aware, in this case, that the prop may then be the lowest part of the boat. Take care not to let it strike bottom. With an outboard motor on a transom mount, raise the prop to its highest position just below the surface. Be aware also that as soon as you raise the centerboard, wind or current may start to drive the boat farther forward into the shoal, so raise it only after starting to reverse.
Once you begin reversing, stop if the boat does not soon begin moving backward. The prop wash may be stirring up sand or silt that will choke the engine's water intake for the cooling system, damaging the engine.
Can You Use Your Sails?
If you were under sail when you struck bottom, chances are that you will not be able to sail free because it is very difficult to reverse direction with the bow unable to pivot. The one exception may occur if you were sailing very close into the wind (close-hauled) on a soft grounding. You can try backwinding the mainsail by pushing the boom far out to the other (windward) side. The force may then push the bow back off the shoal - but only if the boat can pivot, and this could cause damage or be ineffective on a hard bottom. In sand or mud it may be enough to break free.
Except in this one case, it is usually better to drop sails after grounding while attempting to use the engine and other means to get free.
Heel the Boat
When a sailboat with a deep keel heels to one side, the keel actually pivots upward, lessening the boat's draft. This may be enough to break free, with or without use of the engine. Remember to check water depth around the boat by taking soundings, as usually you will want to heel the boat toward deeper water.
Heel the boat by positioning all crew on one side. Crew weight on the end of the boom far outboard can heel the boat even further. For maximum heel, if you have a dinghy and can row an anchor out to the side toward which you want to heel, attach a masthead halyard to the anchor rode and then winch in the halyard to pull the masthead toward the water, heeling the boat.
Sometimes heeling by itself may break the boat free. Or it may allow the engine to reverse the boat off the bottom.
Finally, if still stuck, try kedging the boat off the shoal with an anchor. Row or swim the anchor (buoyed with a PFD) as far as possible out into deeper water. When the anchor is set, winch in the rode from the bow, trying to pivot the bow around to face the deeper water. If the boat moves, continue winching to pull the boat into deeper water. If the boat does not move, move the anchor rode to the stern and try kedging the stern out.
If All Attempts Fail
If you are thoroughly stuck and the tide is rising, keep the anchor rode taut while you wait to float free. If the tide is falling and all efforts have failed to free the boat, there is little to do except call for help (in an emergency) or wait for the flood tide.
If other boats are nearby, you might try a radio call on Channel 16 to see if a powerboat can assist you with a towline. A bigger engine may be all you need to break free. In some cases, if you have an anchor kedge on a tight rode, just the wake from a passing boat may lift your boat's hull for a moment, allowing you to haul it free one step at a time.
Here’s a fun quiz to test your knowledge of what to do if you run aground.