It is one of those sailing facts of life that, however hard you try to avoid it, sooner or later you will most likely find yourself aground. It has happened to me twice. Once when I was on a RYA training vessel near the entrance to Beaulieu River in the Western Solent, UK, on a rising tide. The second time when I was sailing single handed near the entrance to Chichester Harbour, on a falling tide. The first was easy enough to deal with, but going aground on a falling tide was a very unpleasant experience as I was stuck for six hours and concerned for the safety of my vessel.
When a yacht runs aground, it can be a stressful situation, especially on a falling tide in an exposed position with a swell running. There are several steps you can take to address the situation in order to ensure the safety of your vessel and its occupants. Here are some tips should this happen to you. Remember that the steps to take in a grounding situation will vary according to the specific circumstances.
Safety of crew and vessel
The safety of your crew and the vessel is the number one priority. Ensure that everyone on board the vessel is wearing a life jacket. Quickly assign the crew specific tasks in order to save time and enable the vessel to be re-floated, if at all possible. These tasks include taking swift action, assessing the situation, calling for assistance and deploying a kedging anchor.
Take swift action
By taking appropriate swift action, you may be able to re-float the vessel immediately. If sailing, you may be able to quickly tack away at the first signs of a grounding, which you can feel under the keel. If you are able to tack, the vessel should heel as you do so and you may be lucky enough to get off. If this doesn’t work, try re-distributing weight, heeling the vessel or rocking it to safety. This has worked for me by positioning the crew at the bow which raised the stern and lifted us off. Also try distributing weight along the side deck which helps to heel the yacht, then motor in reverse away from the shallow water.
However, if the vessel is well and truly stuck fast, turn the engine off and assess the situation.
Assess the situation
You need to determine the extent of the grounding and evaluate if there are any immediate dangers, such as water ingress or structural damage. If there is an immediate risk of your vessel taking on water, it may be necessary to abandon the vessel so inflate a tender if you have one and prepare the life raft.
Call for assistance
If you are in a harbour, call the harbourmaster immediately, give them your position and request assistance. They will usually send someone out to see you as soon as possible and if necessary take passengers ashore to safety. Harbourmasters are trained to help vessels in difficulty and will provide guidance, help you deploy a kedging anchor, co-ordinate rescue efforts and may be able to tow your vessel clear if they arrive quickly enough.
If you are outside harbour or get no response from the harbourmaster, contact the coastguard immediately, notifying them of your position, number of people on board, sea state and any immediate dangers. They will co-ordinate rescue efforts if necessary and notify the nearest rescue vessels that can come to your assistance.
Use a kedging technique
If the vessel is not taking on water, you may be able to re-float it by using a kedging technique. This involves deploying an anchor in deep water away from the vessel and then winching it to safety. If help arrives quickly, pass them your anchor attached to a long line or the anchor chain if your vessel has an anchor winch. On a falling tide, wait until the tide has dropped completely and then you will be able to carry the anchor to the best position to enable you to pull the vessel off the shallows when the tide rises again.
Remember that when you are approaching shallow waters to be extra vigilant, especially on a falling tide. You should always keep a close eye on your depth gauge and have either an electronic and/or paper chart to help guide you. Give channel marks a wide berth, especially on low water springs. Passage planning is key, you should always know what the tide is doing and give yourself a good margin of safety. And if it happens to you, remember to call the coastguard.