Where I Prefer to Go Aground

By Tom Neale, 12/9/2010


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My favorite place to run aground is in the ICW of Georgia. Or North Florida. Or southern South Carolina. As you can see, I’m not overly choosy as to where I like to run aground. I’m sure there are other good places to do it, but these are high on my list, and I’ve sampled many.

These areas aren’t just arbitrarily chosen or the result of some fanciful whim. They have two important things in common. The first is a tidal range of six to eight feet. The second is lots of really soft mud. Sure, there are some sand banks here and there, mostly near the inlets, but I try to aim for the mud bottoms. They’re much easier on the keel and less likely to build up around you when the tide changes.

Wrong place at the wrong time.
You don’t want the bottom to build up around you. This defeats the purpose of running aground in an 8 foot tide. And this brings me to one more important consideration when you’re running aground. I much prefer to run aground at low tide. Getting stuck in the mud at high tide, to then have it drop 8 feet, really sucks. Just like that mud your keel is settling into. Of course, you can take advantage of the situation and get off and clean your bottom, but if you have a sailboat it has probably settled over into the sucking mud on one side so you can only clean the high side….which means you’ve got to run aground again sometime soon to clean that other side, so you won’t have to steer to port or starboard the rest of your trip because of the lopsided drag of barnacles and seaweed on only one side of your hull.

And then, the next time you run aground, you need to do it in a manner so that the dirty side is up when the tide drops. There’s some art to doing this, although I’ve never seen it covered in Chapman’s or any other authorities on seamanship. You try to run aground with the dirty side (the side that you want up) on the higher side of the sloping bank or shoal. I’ve learned, with my many years of considerable experience, that running aground on a sloping mud bank usually results in the boat rolling over toward deeper water. So one can usually arrange to get that dirty side exposed for cleaning at the next grounding. But I digress. We were discussing favored areas to go aground, not bottom maintenance when you do it.

There is at least one drawback to running aground in my favored areas. A six to eight foot tide means that there’s a huge amount of water moving between slack high and slack low. It’s not like it just goes up and down. The water runs out to the ocean and back in to the creeks and rivers. This, of course, means there’s usually an incredible current going first one way then the other. Sometimes this current is two or three knots. This can be a big deal to a slow displacement boat trying to get somewhere, but it can be a bigger deal to any boat stuck in the mud. The current can actually turn the boat around or push it into shallower water as it flows mercilessly against the hull. So it’s a good idea to take a compass reading when you go aground so that you remember which way you’re supposed to be traveling if and when you get off.

It's easy to run aground where shoals extend way in to the channel.
There’s another far more insidious problem with current, that somewhat detracts from the benefits of grounding in my favorite areas. Current is why I try to avoid the sand banks when I run aground. Not only are sand shoals relatively hard and can do much more damage at the moment of impact, strong current can move or alter a sand bank very quickly. As it races around your keel, it pulls and pushes sand around it, sometimes building a very significant bank on one side, sometimes on both sides. This is far worse than the “mud sucks” phenomenon. This is more akin to the “being buried alive” phenomenon. I’ve known boats that have gone aground on sand shoals in these areas to become trapped deeper and deeper into the sand until they’re completely covered up. There’s an old shrimp trawler that went aground years ago on the southern end of Jekyll island. The only thing you can see now is the top of its mast. The rest of the boat is under the beach, and this happened in less than a year. I’ve spoken to TowboatUS operators who’ve told me of sailboats totally disappearing under the sand in much shorter times. If you break out $29.95 and buy our DVD “Cruising the East Coast with Tom Neale” (http://www.boatus.com/cruising/TomNeale/DVD_signup.asp) you’ll see some very interesting video of some of these scenes, along with a lot of other good stuff.

There’s one good thing about current if you’re skillful enough at grounding. If you can get your stern or bow swung out into the current, so that it’s pushing in a direction favorable to breaking your boat free of the bottom, you may have a much happier day. Of course, sometimes this is simply out of the question because of the way you’ve gone aground. But it may be worth a try. One way of doing it is to swing your rudder in the appropriate direction. But usually the current must be coming from your stern for this to work.

I’ve tried another method with success, but I can’t recommend it because it has quite a bit of risk. I’ve only done it when other risks far outweighed the risk involved with the maneuver, and this seldom is the case. I’ve launched my tender and pushed the bow (from the shallow water side) out into the current so that it can pivot the boat. Sometimes just getting the weight of your dingy off the boat (and your weight) will be enough to free it. An inch or two of the boat’s rising may be enough. If this happens, hopefully your mate is at the wheel and in competent control. But all this requires a lot of skill, experience and good luck and can be very dangerous work. It’s almost always better to call a good towboat operator to save the day.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that there’s yet another detriment to my choice of favorite areas to go aground. The charts, when they give depth, are supposed to give it at low water. So when you see a passage that’s noted as being too shallow for you, it’s not necessarily a problem if you just learn to plan your arrival at that passage near high tide, preferably when it’s still rising. So you really don’t have to run aground at all.

Tom’s Tips About Bottom Maintenance When Aground.

1. Some people in areas of extreme tides use them to save haulout bills for sailboats and other keel boats.
2. It’s always better to just go to a yard. If anything goes wrong and the boat topples, it could severely damage the boat and it could kill whoever is working underneath it. Obviously, I don’t recommend this.…

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