Back to the Earth

By Tom Neale, 7/15/2004


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

I’ve read a lot of macho seafaring articles about how to handle following seas. I’m a lot more concerned about how to handle approaching dirt. Going aground gives a whole new meaning to the concept of “roots.” When I was growing up in rural Virginia, some folks were still plowing with horses and mules. Most were using tractors. No one ever thought of plowing with a boat. But now I think of it all the time and get that same fine feeling of closeness to the earth every time the mud enfolds my keel. There are a few differences between plowing with your boat and plowing with a mule or tractor. Out on the field, there’s seldom anyone around to see your work. Out on the water, you’re like a lump of sugar in a herd of flies. Everyone you know and a whole lot of people you don’t show up.

The experts in magazines usually start out saying they seldom go aground and then spend the next five pages telling me what to do when I run aground. I don’t need this. I know what to do. I am an expert. The first thing I do is try to come up with a good lie. If the water’s shallow enough, I instantly hop out with a paint brush in my hand. That way I can tell everybody I’m just painting the hull. If it’s too deep for this, I throw over an anchor and go up on the bow with a book like I just planned to stop there and enjoy the afternoon. Of course when the boat starts to heel I change tactics. That’s when I get out with a scraper and work on the bottom. Everybody knows I’m cheap, so it’s no problem getting them to believe I’m just saving haulout expenses.

The real problem is that while I’m doing my very best to pretend that this is just a planned thing going on and that I’m certainly not accidentally aground, all those brightly colored tow boats show up and start circling around. I feel like one of those criminals you see on TV, trying to sneak away from the cops, while half a dozen TV NEWS helicopters are circling overhead with cameras and spot lights going. This is where skills in going aground really become important.

Getting Serious About Groundings

Here are some tips about how to get off (the bottom) that work. These tips involve grounding in sand or mud, and in settled weather and seas. And if you’re an east coast cruiser, be sure to also read the separate section of SPECIAL EAST COAST TIPS.

1. Assess the situation and act quickly. Dropping tide, approaching weather, waves, or wakes from approaching boats can worsen the grounding and/or increase the damage.

2. In assessing the situation, take into consideration the characteristics of the bottom of your boat. Differences such as those between a sailboat, a motorboat, an outboard, and boats with protected versus exposed running gear should play an important role when you decide the best things to do.

Click Here for More Tips

One thing you need to do, now that you’ve clearly established the location of the shallow water, is to establish the location of the deeper stuff. The magazine experts say, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s behind you.” What they don’t understand is that, with my superior experience, I can even go aground sideways. There’s an art to this thing. If you do it right, you can skip along until you’ve gotten to the other side of the shoal and have the deeper water a few feet ahead of your bow, or off to your side. If you do it really well, you can even have enough shallow water all around you to get out and play croquet while the tow boats are figuring whether they need to call a bulldozer or a U-Haul truck.

I always keep a lead line aboard. It’s great for getting a clue as to where the deep water lies. Some people will tell you that you should row around in the dinghy to find the deeper water. My problem with this is that then I have to get the dinghy unstuck. Usually, all you have to do is walk around the deck with your lead line, testing the depths to get an idea. Of course, I don’t like to admit that I need to keep a lead line for this purpose, but that’s not a problem. I tell my friends that we keep it aboard for emergency crabbing for whenever we unexpectedly find a chicken neck.

Once you know where the deep water is, you can try to get there. Many people think you’ve got to delve deeply into the chronicles of seamanship to do this. Sometimes you do. But you’ll be surprised at what a few inches will do. Often all you have to do is get off the boat. This can be dangerous unless you’ve gotten yourself into a known safe underwater environment, like the middle of a football field after a hard rain. So I’ve learned to jump into my dinghy. The first time I did this I lowered it into the water, hastily jumped in, and untied the line. Then I grabbed for my oars. Then I noticed that they weren’t aboard. Naturally, I’d left them on Chez Nous, which is why I looked up. The unmistakable aura of sweet success settled over me as I saw her heading sedately away, at a very nice speed. The removal of my weight had been enough to bring her up the inch or so needed to float her. And I’m really skinny. Mel, of course, wasn’t about to come back and get me. Never mind the fact that she didn’t want to. She couldn’t. The water under the dinghy was too shallow. Oars, or at least a paddle would’ve helped, but who would have known that my weight would have been so important. From this experience we learned two things. 1) Always keep your oars in your dinghy. 2) Always bring along your heaviest friends.

A tactic that seems to work for many is to stand there yelling, “Back OFF.” I have some problems with this. In the first place, it only works for the novice grounder. These people, unassisted by a higher experience level such as mine, seem to only be able to just nudge the bottom with the tip of the bow. Backing off for them is like backing off when you’ve just parked on top of a fire hydrant. All you do is “put’er in reverse,” and suddenly there’s a lot of water everywhere. But there is benefit in this tactic, even for an old hand like me. When my friends in other boats show up and start pointing at my predicament, I just stand there yelling, “Back Off,” then I “put’er in reverse”, then I stop the engine, look around and smile as though I’ve successfully completed the maneuver, walk up to the bow, throw over the anchor, and lie down with a book.

One of the very few things I’ve learned over the years is that however you get off, you don’t want to damage the boat or the running gear in the process, and sometimes you simply need to get some help. It’s like that lost art of stealing chickens back in the old days. You’ve got to be very careful pulling a mad chicken out of a hole in the fence while the dogs are coming around the corner. If you don’t do it right, you don’t know what kind of shape it’s going to be in when you get it out.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale