Getting Serious About Groundings

By Tom Neale, 7/15/2004

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.

3. Determine tide status. The mere fact that the current is running in doesn’t necessarily mean that the tide is rising, and vice versa. Also, times of high and low tide from official reporting points may not be the same as where you’re aground, unless you happened to hit the light house they’re talking about. Know your area, have local tide tables aboard and or a good computer program which gives you this information, for many locations, quickly. Look at on scene indicators. For example, check tide lines on the aid to navigation that you just passed on the wrong side, or on the shore that you’re too close to. If you cruise along the east coast (and certain other tidal areas) it is crucial that you Know the Rule of Twelfths. If you don’t, the reported and observed tidal information may be of much less use to you. Go to the current SPECIAL EAST COAST TIPS section of this site to learn about that. The Rule of Twelfths is also helpful in many areas of the west coast and other areas.

4. If you can just float off in a few minutes on the rising tide, it will probably be best to just let this happen. But you must take steps to keep yourself from being blown or pushed by waves or current into shallow water in the meantime. You also may not have the luxury of waiting if there is heavy sea or approaching bad weather.

5. Find out where the deep water lies. As mentioned in my column “Back to the Earth” on this section of,, it may not be astern. It could be to one side or even ahead, depending upon the nature of the shoal and the manner in which you grounded. The lead line mentioned is a great tool. But if you have a larger boat that’s aground and a dinghy with a depth finder, it may help to scout around with that to find the best way out. You may also be able to read the water surface to determine depths. In many areas you can simply tell by the color. The higher up you can get on your boat, the better you can tell. Even if looking at the color of the water won’t help, as in muddy waters, there are usually other indicators. These include: A flat still surface probably indicates that you’re looking at shallow water. A strong evenly flowing current probably indicates you’re looking at deep water. An eddying current probably indicates that you’re looking at shallow water or a sharp drop-off or obstruction on the bottom. Rocks protruding through the surface probably indicate you’re looking at deep sh__.

6. Immediately “dropping anchor” isn’t always the best thing to do. Examples of when to not do this include when the tide is rising and the wind is blowing you into deeper water, or when you can easily motor off. True, the Coast Guard will almost always tell you to drop anchor if you call them and tell them that you’re aground. But they aren’t on the scene, and they have no choice but to assume that we’re all dummies. (Spend a Saturday listening on VHF 16 and you’ll see why.) Sometimes dropping anchor is an impediment to getting off, sometimes it’s just useless. I once heard a guy reply when they told him to immediately drop anchor, “Well, uh, OK, but first I’ve got to get my children out of the way. They’re cooling off, sitting in the water right under the bow.”

7. “Kedging Off,” despite what so many articles say, may not necessarily be the best thing to do, although it can be a helpful tactic in some circumstances, especially if your have a smaller boat. This involves getting your anchor out to one side of your bow (the side where the deep water lies) and then pulling in on it to pull the bow around and hopefully out. But it’s easier said than done. If you have a larger boat, you won’t be able to throw your anchor far enough out to get a good enough hold for pulling your bow around and out. Remember you generally need at least five to one scope for reasonable holding. Taking it out in the dinghy presents problems because the anchor is heavy and the chain that you should have as all or part of your rode will be heavy and hard to pull through the water astern of the dinghy. Walking anchor and rode out to deeper water may be dangerous, especially if there is a steep drop off and current. If you have a good holding light weight anchor such as the Fortress, this will be easier. There’s another method of turning your bow that, in some circumstances, may be much quicker and more effective. To learn about this, go to and read the “Tom’s Tips” article on that site, entitled “Getting Off (the Bottom) Using the Pivot Tactic.”

8. Remove Weight, unless you determine that you can get off quickly otherwise, Launch the dinghy and put stuff and people (wearing life jackets) into it. Pumping out the water from your tank also helps. A gallon of water equals approximately 8 pounds. If your boat is small enough and you don’t have a dingy, having people get off the boat (if you are on a shallow stable sandy bottom with very weak or no current and they are good swimmers wearing life jackets) may also do the trick, but there can be danger here as noted above. Put lines out for them to hang onto if needed. Make sure they hold onto the boat or lines at all times.

9. Move Weight. Often merely moving people to the bow or stern, to raise the end of the boat that’s stuck, will help.

10. Look for Cowboys. You know those folks that you love to hate, who love to race by throwing huge wakes? Well sometimes they can get you off if the wake comes from the right direction and you’re under power waiting for them, and skillful enough to quickly maneuver off when you get the lift from the wave. Obviously this involves some risks, but we’ve seen many a grounded boat get off by hailing a larger boat and asking him to make several passes throwing healthy wakes. Be careful. Don’t ask for this if the bottom is very hard. Never have anyone standing outside the boat when the wakes come. The boat could rise and fall on their feet—or worse.

11. Wiggle. Often just motoring straight toward deeper water won’t do the trick. That slimy grip of mud and sand must be loosened. You may need to turn your rudder to left and right, wiggling the boat as you do so, to break loose.

12. Rock. While trying to motor off it often helps to have the people aboard move together from side to side to rock the boat.

13. Anytime you’ve been aground in sand or mud and used your engine to get off, you should assume that sand and/or silt has been sucked into the raw water side of the cooling system. This could damage the flexible impeller that’s used by most systems to force water through the cooling plumbing. The actual manifestation of the damage may occur soon, or much later. It’s a good idea to check the impeller before it checks you.

14. Hard bottoms, heavy seas, or approaching storms usually require different tactics. Often the best thing to do in those circumstances (and many others) is to immediately call for professional help, such as TowBoatUS, as well as trying to extricate yourself, if it is safe to do so. Always remember: personal safety is far more important than property damage. Anytime you’re aground, as is the case with so many other situations in boating, you’re facing certain risks and whatever you do will probably involve other risks. These tactics involve risks. It’ll be your job to decide whether they’re worth taking, weighing possible adverse consequences and risks of whatever you do, and weighing those risks against those of other actions or inaction.

For more tips, see

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale