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Hard Aground! Now What?!

By Vincent Pica
Commodore, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

When I teach seamanship courses to private boaters on the south shore of Long Island, I note that, if you boat in our local waters and have never run aground, you’re lying. Even USCG regulars have been known to “touch bottom” at times in these waters… I also note that God left a lot of sand on the south shore and not so much water – and plenty of water on the north shore/Long Island Sound but lots of rocks… So, the issue is not if you run aground but what you do afterwards.

What Do You Do First?

There are a couple of things to do right away. First, determine if the grounding has caused a leak. Even sand, if you hit hard enough, will stove in a hull (or a through-hull fitting or a driveshaft fitting through a stuffing box). While the water obviously isn’t very deep where you are, if your hull starts to fill with water, she may slide into deeper water and problems will escalate. At the same time, get everyone into life jackets. You’re the skipper, and responsible for the safety of everyone aboard. Secondly, check your tide charts and determine if the tide’s rising or falling. If it’s falling, time’s against you. 

Now What?

At this point, you know if the boat’s leaking. (If so, hail the USCG on VHF-16 and get the “rescue starts now” clock ticking.); you have everyone in life jackets and you know if you’ll be helped by time or not. This should have taken you less than a minute. If the hull isn’t leaking, try backing away the way you came in. Increase throttle moderately and keep turning the wheel back and forth. Why? Well, to some degree, it’s like rocking a car in the snow. Sand and boats can get into a very powerful embrace caused by suction of the wet sand and a smooth surface of a boat’s hull. But, secondly and perhaps more importantly, you’re sending sand from the stern directly forward – increasing the “hump” that you have to float over. By turning the wheel, you’ll break the suction and spread the sand around. 

Be conscious of what’s behind you because, if you suddenly break free, you don’t want to go flying into a busy seaway. Assuming this is working, it’s quite possible that you’ll find yourself making more progress when the wheel is to one side or the other. Once you see the stern making more way down one exit path then the other, make that your new centering path. In short, don’t waste time and fuel trying to back down a path that isn’t getting you anywhere – but don’t fail to sway the helm back and forth down your new exit path or you may fill it with sand and ruin your escape. Most times, this will get you out. 

I’m Free – Or Am I?

Unless you got out pretty quickly and easily, head for the marina and wash out the sand. I’d also have somebody look at the running gear. A small nick in a prop can do a lot of damage to an engine because the running gear is no longer balanced. Know that noise your washing machine makes when the laundry load isn’t balanced? That can happen inside your engine. At a minimum, get the boat somewhere where you can get a water hose on the engine and flush it – with the engine OFF. If there’s sand in there, don’t grind it out. Wash it out.

What if you’re at this for five minutes and nothing’s happening? Well, if the tide’s against you, and you have towing insurance, call for help. Any more time wasted and you might be spending the night. Commercial towers are well equipped and largely well trained. (You don’t have towing insurance? Think again, bunky! It’s the cheapest insurance that you’ll use.) Get familiar with the differences between “salvage” and a simple tow, especially if you don’t have contracted commercial insurance. Maritime law is complex.

What if the tide’s with you? Well, you can still call for help but you also have an opportunity to engage in some seamanship that might hold you in good stead in the future when you have more difficult circumstances in hand. How about putting an anchor out towards the deeper water and “kedging”, i.e. pulling yourself along it from the bow? You’re introducing a new angle of pressure and that might pull you free or at least loosen the bottom-suction. At a minimum, as the tide rises, it’ll keep you from being blown higher onto the beach by the wind. If you have a tender, get it to work pushing the boat. Think like what you are. A sea captain.

If you are interested in being part of the USCG Forces, email me at JoinUSCGAux@aol.com or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at d1south.org/StaffPages/DSO-HR.php and we will help you “get in this thing.”

Captain Kevin Reed is the Captain of the Port and Sector Commander for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. CAPT Reed is responsible for all active-duty, reservist and auxiliary Coast Guard personnel within the Sector. As a Commodore of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary First District, Southern Region, Vin Pica works closely with CAPT Reed and his staff to promote boating safety in the waters between Connecticut, Long Island and 200 nautical miles offshore. Sector Long Island Sound Command Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 203-468-4401.


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