“Only two sailors in my experience never ran aground. One never left port and the other was an atrocious liar.” — Don Bamford
Running aground on any type of boat can be a humbling experience, and such an experience does, indeed, leave one grounded — complete ego deflation — regarding this absolute that hovers above the head of every boater. I’ve witnessed several boats running aground in my 50 years of messing around in sailboats, and I’ve run aground in every boat I’ve owned, and dodged some serious hull damage. When a sailor witnesses a boat leaning awkwardly on her keel with her sails flapping wildly or loaded up with a belly full of wind — hard aground — there is at first a feeling of superiority because we’re not them; however, that feeling then shifts to a humbler position when the sailor realizes it could be them in this predicament.
Anyone can run aground in a boat, but how a boat gets out of this kind of jam is where things can get interesting; a combination of experience and luck will determine the endgame of the grounded vessel. For example, just south of Hope Island in Narragansett Bay there is a charted wreck of a tugboat’s boiler that lies a few feet below the surface. About 18 years ago I had the misfortune of sailing right into the boiler — the marker for the wreck was sometimes off station — because I was not being vigilant enough for this patch of water. I was in my sloop Celtic Legend and was cranking along in 15 knots of wind and going six knots on a starboard tack. I heard and felt the thump of my keel and immediately knew that I was in the boiler, which has a circumference of about 20 feet. My only recourse was to strap in my mainsail and jib to load up the rig with wind, and force my boat to heel over at about forty degrees. My thinking was that the grinding keel would maybe have enough of an angle below the waterline to allow me to clear the boiler. It didn’t work even with some solid 20-knot gusts helping heel the boat. Resigned to my fate, I got on the radio and sought assistance. After I explained my dilemma to a Safe Sea Marine operator, I climbed out of my cabin to eat a ham sandwich and wait for some help. Then, as fate would have it and to my pleasant surprise, I saw a forty-foot power boat heading south toward the Jamestown Bridge. The boat was about 30 meters off my starboard side. I calculated that when this guy passed me, he would leave a minimum of a three-foot wake and if I played my cards right, and timed my steering correctly, then my boat would get lifted by his wake and I could steer the Celtic Legend hard up wind and sail out of the boiler. It worked, and I called Safe Sea to cancel my need of assistance. I saved dough and avoided some embarrassment that day; I marked up my chart with a big red circle of the wreck and went merrily on my way to Newport Harbor — another bullet dodged.
Grounding a sailboat while heading downwind can go sideways and create on deck havoc on many levels; swinging booms, snapping sheets, and loaded sails can cause a dangerous situation. The first indication of a keel hitting bottom with loaded-up sails, will force the operator to perhaps pivot the boat and possibly head up wind and work to sail away from the mud, or rock pile — reef. It’s the worst possible point of sail to run aground — in my humble opinion. However, sailors have gotten out of this kind of grounding and have learned many valuable lessons. One lesson in particular, is to continually read and check your charts, and pay close attention to your water depth — soundings. With all of our electronic gadgetry, there is nothing better than our own intuition and awareness of what is going on by paying close attention to time, speed, and distance. And, noting these important things in relation to all navigational aids.
Last summer while sailing toward the Mount Hope Bridge in 30 knots of southwest wind, I was flying along under my 135 head sail alone, and having a great downwind sail. I decided to change my course and sail around Hog Island, and then shoot across the entrance to Bristol Harbor where I would then harden up and do a few short tacks to windward in order to make my approach to Potter’s Cove on Prudence Island—my favorite hangout. That was the plan anyway, before things didn’t actually go as planned. As I was zipping across the entrance to the harbor at seven knots, I was looking south at the red channel marker off Hog Island. Out of the periphery of my eye sight, I noticed the color of the water changing and then I heard a thwomp. Right at that moment, I felt Reverie’s keel crunching on the rocks. I had the breeze on my port beam and could not fall off the wind or pivot the boat upwind. This was not good, as I knew I was hard aground with an outgoing tide. I rolled up my headsail — which was tricky in 30 knots of wind — and ahem, called Safe Sea. I spent dough that day. Additionally, because of the grounding on a rock pile, I was very concerned with the boat’s keel, but as fate was again kind, there was no serious damage and Reverie is now all saddled up for another season.
Finally, a sailor friend once said, “Any sailor worth his salt has run aground at least once, it’s what you learn from it that matters most.”