How to Avoid Going Aground, and What To Do
If When You Do
If you spend enough time driving boats, you will almost certainly touch the bottom one day. Whether through navigational error, exploring uncharted shallows, or navigating shoals that shift with storms and tides, even the most experienced skippers know the gut wrenching feel of nudging the bottom. The important thing is knowing what to do to minimise the damage, and safely recover from the grounding.
Avoiding a grounding is the best strategy!
- Know the draft of your vessel and the accuracy of your depth sounder
- Plan your route using navigational charts that show underwater contours and hazards. This is essential even for the shortest journey if you are navigating unfamiliar waterways
- Trust your instruments, but verify them: constantly compare GPS, depth sounder, RADAR, and visual references
- Post a lookout when navigating in shallow water – someone with polarised glasses looking at the water ahead can often spot submerged hazards in the boat’s path
- Go slow in unfamiliar waters. There’s an old saying about berthing: “only approach the wharf at the speed at which you are prepared to collide with it”. A low speed grounding typically results in embarrassment. At high speed you can add injuries, structural and mechanical damage, and salvage costs.
After a Grounding
If you do run aground, go through the following checklist:
- Stop engines until you can assess the situation
- Check that everyone is OK (not injured, still on board)
- If anyone is seriously injured, call for help immediately
- Assess the damage – check all compartments and bilges for leaks and flooding
- If you find damage and leaks, do your best to block them with cushions, clothes, etc. to minimise the water flow and call for help.
- If you go aground in an area with strong currents or on a coastal reef, call for help immediately. Conditions can deteriorate quite suddenly in such areas as the tide changes, making it impossible to safely recover the vessel without assistance.
- If everyone is OK and the boat is not seriously damaged:
- If possible, use your tender to set an anchor back in the deep water to prevent the tide pushing the vessel further aground.
- Assess the tide – if it is rising, relax and wait for the tide to reflect you, then back out into the deep water again.
- If the tide is falling, secure anything that might fall as the boat heels over and settles on its hull and consider calling for help. You might have to wait more than 12 hours until the tide rises sufficiently to refloat.
Sailing vessels can sometimes recover from a light grounding by having a crew member swing off the end of the boom to heel the boat and raise the keel.
Every grounding is a serious incident as it subjects the hull and equipment to stresses that they are not designed to handle. Always seek an out-of-water inspection by a qualified shipwright ASAP after recovering from running aground.