It happens even to experienced boaters. One minute, you’re cruising along on a sunny day, skimming your boat effortlessly over the water. The next minute, you hear a loud crunch and suddenly feel a sickening jolt — you’ve run aground.
According to the Coast Guard, grounding is the fourth-most-common type of boating accident in the United States. It’s easier to run aground than you might think. Often, danger buoys can alert boaters to shallow waters, but sometimes shallow areas have no markers, and boaters get stuck on a shoal, reef or sandbar they never knew was there.
Do you know what to do when you run aground? You can always radio for help, but many boaters would rather not take drastic action before they absolutely have to. Fortunately, when your boat runs aground, you can try several steps to free yourself before calling in the cavalry.
What to Do as Soon as You Run Aground
Once you’ve run aground, you don’t want to try to extricate yourself without taking stock of the situation first. Doing so could make any damage worse. Instead, follow these preparatory steps when you’ve run aground:
Check for injuries: The first step you should take when you run aground doesn’t have to do with your boat at all. It’s to check for injuries among your passengers. Running aground can be jarring. The force of the impact can cause passengers to fall, or it can turn items and equipment into projectiles that can seriously injure your passengers. Before figuring out your next steps, take a minute to make sure everyone on board is okay.
Be patient: Don’t immediately try to reverse, or you could damage your boat. In the worst-case scenario, if you push off and then get underway, the hull of your boat could give way beneath you. This issue often occurs when the force of running aground smashes the rudder or propellers of the boat through the hull, but even outboards and stern-drive boats can suffer severe hull damage when they run aground.
Shut off your engine: When a boat gets grounded, its cooling water intakes often fill with silt and debris, so turn your engine off to avoid overheating it. Even if it doesn’t look like your intake grates or sea strainers have been compromised, keep on eye on your engine temperature once you’re back underway. If your boat has a pressure gauge, check it — it should show any decrease in cold water flow. Broken shafts and struts can also harm your engine, so it’s a good idea to have your engine powered off until you can inspect for damage.
Check for gasoline leaks: Usually, a quick sniff of the air around the boat should be enough to tell you whether your boat is leaking gasoline. Do not smoke or turn your engine back on if your boat is leaking fuel.
Put on your life jackets: Even if you’ve inspected your hull and there’s no visible damage, it’s always possible there’s a crack somewhere you can’t see. Once you’re underway again, wear your life jackets just in case hidden structural damage has compromised the structural integrity of your boat. If you’ll be stuck for a while, put on your life jackets in case of falling or being swept into deep waters.
Set a kedge anchor: Setting a kedge anchor helps keep the waves from pushing your boat further onto the shore. Your primary anchor is likely in the bow, and since your bow is stuck, its anchor is of little use. A kedge anchor, however, can be useful in stabilizing a boat that has run aground. Its lighter weight also makes it quicker and easier to maneuver. Try to set the kedge anchor as far into deeper water as you can. Either walk out — using caution — or row out in your dinghy if you have one.
Assess the damage: Look over your boat carefully. Check to see whether the boat has sustained only cosmetic damage, like scrapes, or whether cracks or holes have appeared where water can seep through. If your boat is taking on water, you’ll need to start pumping out your bilges and figuring out an emergency plan. Don’t forget to consider your rudders and propellers. If these extend below the level of the hull, they may be damaged, even if the hull looks intact.
Assess bottom conditions: If you’re stuck on a hard, rocky bottom, your best efforts to push off may come to nothing. A hard, rocky bottom is also more likely to have damaged your boat or to cause more damage if you try to push off too rapidly. If you’ve run aground on a soft, muddy bottom, you stand a better chance of being able to push off without incident.
Assess the weather: Scan the sky and the horizon. If you see signs that a storm is blowing in, you’ll need to move quickly. An incoming storm can whip up winds and waves that may push your boat further aground, which can damage it further or make it more firmly stuck.
Signal or radio for help: If your boat is too damaged to use, one option is to signal or radio for another vessel to assist you. Towing another vessel can be tricky, however, so make sure the operator of the other boat is knowledgeable and experienced.
Call a commercial towing company: If your boat needs a tow back to shore, your best bet is probably to call a commercial towing company. A commercial towing company has the tools and expertise to hook up and tow your boat safely.
Radio the Coast Guard: If all you need is a tow, the Coast Guard will not come to get you, but you should still let Coast Guard personnel know that you’ve run aground and where. However, if your passengers’ lives and safety are at risk — say you’ve run aground in a violent storm, or your boat is foundering — then the Coast Guard can assist in getting you and your passengers to safety. In either case, you can contact the Coast Guard on Channel 16 VHF-FM.
How to Refloat Your Boat
If your boat hasn’t sustained significant damage, you can try to get it floating again by experimenting with the following steps:
Check the water depth: If your boat seems okay, check the depth of the water in the area where you’ve run aground. You can use charts to see the topography of the sea or lake bottom, and you can use a boat hook, a weighted line or a handheld depth finder to check the water depth in your immediate area. Checking the water depth helps you determine whether you can safely push off and in what direction.
Determine the next high tide: If you want to give yourself the best chance of getting your boat floating again, check tide tables to figure out when the next high tide will be. It’s hard to push off in the shallow water of low tide. You want the surrounding water to be as high as possible so that when you try to move, you don’t just run aground once more.
Lighten your load: Pump out your bilges, dump your water tanks and move passengers and heavy objects into a dinghy if it’s safe to do so. Lightening your load may give your boat some extra lift and make it easier to float free.
Slowly push off: If you haven’t run too far aground, and if the ground is relatively soft, you may be able to push off safely by using an oar or boat hook. Before doing so, lift the outdrive motor if you have one. Be sure to keep checking your boat for leaks and other damage as you push off. If anything looks wrong, don’t continue. Make sure your boat hasn’t turned such that you’re backing into shallower water, which can seriously damage your propellers and rudder.
Get out and push: If pushing off with an object doesn’t work, try having a few people get out of the boat and try to push it back into the water.
Winch off using your kedge anchor line: If pushing off from the shore is ineffective, you may be able to haul your boat back into the water by using a winch on your kedge anchor line. Doing this generates more force and can help get a stuck boat moving.
Reverse off: If you can safely do so, try reversing off under engine power. Using your engine when you’ve run aground is likely to stir up debris, which can lead to clogs and overheating. Nevertheless, powering can help you get your boat unstuck if pushing off is ineffective. Shift your passengers into the stern to lighten the weight on the bow, where the boat is grounded. Then turn on your engines, put them into reverse and see if that’s enough to get your boat free.
Rock back and forth: If you have twin engines, alternating bursts of power from either side of your boat can help your boat wiggle backward into deeper water. If your boat has only one engine, you can try moving the rudder from side to side to create the same effect. If you have two engines, and you’ve run aground at an angle, going forward with the engine closest to shore while reversing with the other engine can also help your boat turn and slip free.
Power off at an angle: This technique works best if you’ve run aground at an oblique angle. If you try to power off, but you’re not at an angle, all you’ll do is run more firmly aground. Turn your engines on and go forward while turning your rudder hard toward deeper water.
Use a passing wake to your advantage: If the bottom is soft and your boat hasn’t run too far aground, you might be able to use the wake of a passing vessel to help lift yourself free. Coordinate your engine thrust with the timing of the wake to give your boat an extra boost.
Use a dinghy to help pivot: This technique is risky and is best used by experienced boaters, but it can be effective. It also works best if you’ve run aground at an oblique angle, so that the deeper water is off to the side of the boat rather than directly astern. In this situation, if you have a dinghy, you can sometimes use it to push the bow of your boat into deeper water. Because this maneuver is complicated and risks damaging both your boat’s hull and the dinghy’s, it’s best to try other options first.
How to Avoid Running Aground
Though you can try many tricks to get free when you’ve run aground, the best tactic, of course, is to avoid running aground at all. Knowing how to keep from running aground is essential to keep your boating day fun and stress-free:
Study navigational charts: If you’ll be boating in unfamiliar waters, take time to study navigational charts before you head out. Knowing what depths and features you’ll be boating into can help you steer a steady course.
Talk to knowledgeable people: Before you head out, also spend time talking to marina staff or boaters who know the area well. They can help alert you to unmarked or hard-to-see hazards in the water.
Stay in a clearly marked channel: Buoys and beacons are your guides to safe waters and hazards. Inform yourself by making use of the Coast Guard’s guide to beacons and buoys and what they mean.
Carry charts in the boat: To avoid running aground, carry local charts and know how to use them. If you can’t find marking buoys or you get confused about which tricky-to-navigate areas are where, a quick check of your charts can help you get it sorted out.
Stay alert: Though it’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of the sparkling blue waters, cloudless sky and festive atmosphere of a day of boating, it’s essential to stay attuned to your surroundings. According to the most recent Coast Guard statistics, operator inattention is the primary cause of boating accidents in the United States, leading to 654 accidents and 437 injuries in 2018 alone. Don’t let a beautiful, calm day lure you into a false sense of security. Keep a lookout for danger buoys and unmarked shoals and sandbars. Even a momentary lapse in alertness can lead to running aground.
Proceed at a reasonable speed: Excessive speed is the fifth-most-common cause of boating accidents in the United States, leading to 276 accidents and 231 injuries in 2018. Though zooming across the water in a powerboat is serious fun, only open the throttle when you’re sure you have the space and water depth to do so safely. Otherwise, maintain a safe speed so that you have time to react to unanticipated hazards in the water.
Use your depth finder: It’s not necessary to take soundings every few minutes — if you have a depth finder, set it to alert you whenever you’re running into shallow waters. Never use your depth finder to replace your attention, however. It’s there to help you, but you should always concentrate on your surroundings as well.
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