What To Do When You Run Aground

It’s not if…it’s when. No matter how prepared you are, no matter how alert you are, no matter what your chart plotter/sonar/depth gauge says, one of these days, you’re going to come to an abrupt stop against your will. And if it hasn’t happened yet, you just wait. But it doesn’t have to be the end of your boating day. And if you follow these steps, you can limit the damage done and the time it takes to free your vessel from its embarrassing perch.


We’re power boaters, and the first thing we’re going to want to do is power up and through the problem. Wrong. That is a recipe for making things worse and digging yourself in even deeper. The first course of action is to have everyone on board put on a life jacket if they haven’t already. Then, evaluate your situation. And to do that safely, go ahead and put the boat in idle. Obviously if your prop is striking something, you want to shut the motor off. But idle may be enough to see what’s going on and still give you the ability to maneuver quickly if there’s a ripping current, outgoing tide or heavy boat traffic.


Rocky shoal, marshy muck or sandbar? This is going to determine your next move. If you throw the boat into reverse and try to blast your way off this darned impediment backwards, you run the risk of filling your water intake with all sorts of engine-fouling badness. Plus, that metal propeller is no match for submerged boulders. If you’re in a tidal basin or on a managed lake with water-level fluctuations, or a river that you’ve run safely all summer, remember it may now be littered with unseen obstacles. Make sure you take a minute to make sure you know what you’re dealing with.


Are you aground hard or easy? That is, deep into the mess or just barely into the mess? This has a lot to do with your speed at impact and what it is you’re on. Time to do a visual inspection of the hull. Lean over the sides or, if it’s safe to do so, hop in wearing a life jacket and paddle over. If you’ve got a damaged or punctured hull, the safest thing to do is anchor and call for assistance. The last thing you want is to work your boat free, only to find that you’re taking on water.


Best-case scenario is that you’re on easy and the current, tide or another boat’s wake may help set you free. Anchors should be set upwind. Use a tube or life jacket to help swim it into position if it’s safe to do so. Make sure you know where the deeper water is, so you can move in that direction.


If you’re on hard, though, it may be necessary to get busy. In that case, reduce draft as much as possible by offloading weight. Start with any water you may be holding. That’s the really heavy stuff. Or reposition your passengers as needed. Other items that may make sense to offload, such as full propane tanks, can be loaded onto a tube or dingy and tethered alongside. If the tide is running out, consider that you may need to support or cushion the hull as the boat loses float.


As a last resort, before getting professional help from a tow service or local boating law enforcement, you may be tempted to try getting help from another recreational boater. Don’t do it. Most pleasure crafts don’t have deck hardware strong enough for such feats. And even if the cleats hold, the lines you have aboard will likely break under the stress, creating a dangerous situation for everyone aboard both boats. 

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