If you never go sailing you never go aground; that's what I often tell friends when they relate how they got stuck. And a few weeks ago it happened to me. The anxiety which often accompanies a first grounding is long since past and the fear of losing the boat never seriously enters my head here in the shallow waters and muddy bottoms of the Texas coast, though I did get a little agitated as our problems increased. We had been motoring out of Offats Bayou at the time keeping between the red channel markers and the shore. Somehow we strayed a little too close to the shore and we came to a stop. No problem yet, I put the engine to run astern and tried to get off the way we had got on - always the best method to try first. But then a grating metallic noise from below the water near the stern caused me to question this method. If there was some obstruction below I certainly didn't want to do any damage to the propeller so we shut off the engine and decided to kedge off. Having the dinghy already inflated helped. We lowered it from the davits, took the oars aboard (always sensible before you cast off) and pulled it around to the bow where we lowered into it the 45lb CQR anchor, the 20 feet chain and all of the 150 feet of nylon rode. A spare line was made fast to the bitter end of the rode and secured on deck to one of the bow cleats and then I rowed out to deeper water until at the fullest extent of the rode I dropped the anchor overboard. Back on deck I took it straight to the port sheet winch and began winching in. My muscles tensed, the line drew taught but nothing else. We waited for the wake of a couple of passing power boats but still no discernable movement. Next stage, slacken the line, take it to the bow and from there back to the sheet winch. Again we winched it tight but again nothing. What next. Maybe if I heeled the boat to reduce the draft and at the same time tried to pull us off we may get somewhere. I tied a spare line on to the spinnaker halyard and then rowed the end out and tied it on to the anchor rode using a rolling hitch. Winching it in did heel the boat about ten degrees and we then tried putting more tension on the anchor rode but still no movement. It seemed we were hard aground. Then along came Corrin, a helpful and knowledge fisherman, who offered to try and pull us off. At first I was a little reluctant partly because of my stubborn independence but also because sometimes well meaning helpers are more of a liability than an asset. Not Corrin, who clearly knew what he was doing. We still had the anchor rode taut on to the port sheet winch, the spinnaker halyard out along the anchor rode and winched tight to heel us a little, and now Corrin pulled us from the bow out in the same direction as I had layed our anchor. Almost instantly we were moving and off in to deeper water. All we had to do was pull in our anchor rode and carry on home. But our problems were only just beginning! In pulling us off from the bow our anchor line with spinnaker halyard attached became caught under the boat somewhere and we now found ourselves anchored by the stern, lying downwind in the channel with no way of pulling in the anchor rode. I took the boat hook to try and free the line thinking it was merely caught between the keel and skeg but to no avail. I pushed down on the lines, pulled in on the lines, fished around in the cold water in an attempt to find the other end of the line but without sucess. It was dawning on me that an underwater swim was called for. Fortunately we had a mask on board and with some reluctance I decided this was really necessary. But first, if I was to free the line at the stern we would immediately be drifting again and so before I did anything I had to lay our second anchor from the bow. Slowly I lowered the heavy Bruce down and allowing a little scope I secured it to the bow cleat. Now for the water.With some reluctance I dropped over board from the dinghy and having caught my breath in the cold water I dove down to see what the problem was. It was obvious. The bottom bearing of the rudder was not at the very bottom of the skeg but about six inches higher which left an inch or so gap between skeg and rudder. Our anchor line had caught in the gap and the knot where the spinnaker halyard was attached had become jammed. Once we had loosened all of the lines sufficiently it was not too difficult to free the knot and bring the anchor rode aboard. One more dive to check the propeller which was unmarked and I was finished. Back aboard we hauled up the kedge anchor, sorted out the spinnaker halyard and were ready to proceed. All we needed to do was bring up the heavy Bruce. With no anchor windlass on the boat I took hold of the chain and began pulling. Nothing happened. After several attempts, Corrin who was still standing by, brought his boat along to the bow and helped me pull up the heavy anchor. He did so easily and it was only then that I realized how the cold water had sapped my energy. With the Bruce aboard we set forth and with no other real problems we motored all the way back to Clear Lake during the still, February afternoon.
How could I have avoided going aground?
- We could have stayed on the upwind side of the channel. Though there was very little wind we had been drifting off to the down wind side of the channel. It is nearly always safer to drift towards the upwind side of a channel because if you go aground on that side any wind will assist you in getting back in to deeper water.
- We could have stayed closer to the red channel markers. In fact in this case it would have been the same thing as staying more upwind but that is not always so. Its a general rule of mine (broken in this instance) that where channel markers occur singly rather than in pairs, it is always sensible to stay close to the marker but leaving it on the correct side.
If I had followed either of these principles we would probably not have gone aground.
What could I have done differently once we were aground?
- I could have dove so see what was catching when I first heard the grating noise from the stern. This would have probably have shown me that it was the skeg catching on some underwater obstruction and not the propeller. Knowing this I could have used the engine and probably got off easily. In warmer waters I would probably have done this.
- Rocked the boat from side to side. It may have helped but usually you need to have the engine running at the same time and I had decided against this.
What did I do right?
- Not running the engine once I heard the noise from the stern
- Rowing out a kedge anchor as soon as I did.
- Using the sheet winch to try and pull us off. This will often work
- Heeling the boat with a line taken from the mast top. This often helps.
- Dropping a second anchor before trying to release the first one. This is always a sensible precaution.
What equipment helped?
- Having the dinghy already inflated helped. Without a dinghy at all you have to swim a kedge anchor out. This would not have been sensible given the amount of traffic in the channel
- Plenty of spare lines to attach to the halyard, to lengthen the anchor rode and to provide a towing line.
- A mask and snorkel
- Several anchors
What equipment would have made it easier?
- An anchor windlass (if it was a heavy duty one and capable of power and manual operation)
- Larger sheet winches: they really were to small to give much purchase.
Other lessons learned
- Cold water saps your energy pretty quickly (a lesson re-learned)
- Don't spurn help if its offered
- Don't panic