You ain’t been around until you’ve been aground!

The first thing anyone learns about marine navigation is that the boat has to float in the water, and should never touch the bottom. The reality is that it happens to everyone eventually, sometimes more than once!

So, jumping right into it, here are two of my mishaps.

One Spring 2006 or 07?, for 3 months I was working as a private Captain on a 47′ Catamaran that I cruised from Ft. Lauderdale, to the Turks and back. Just myself, the Owner and his wife. One day, while following the magical purple line in the chart book entering Leeward in Turks and Caicos about 21.49.5N and 72.09.2W I was charging downwind, confident in the charts I was using, I decided to sail fully into the river before I doused sail. It was after all, 20 kn plus and a following sea from the North, just half a head sail and I was doing about 5 knots. It wasn’t more than a mile from the entrance when, with the aged owner beside me, the boat came to a steady stop, not the kind the jolts hard and you fall forward, but the kind like landing in deep snow when jumping from a tree. With the bow of the cat rocking up and down, and the white caps slapping the transom and lifting the stern, we were not moving forward, in fact we were aground. My boss, just about had a heart attack, and then began shouting french words that I don’t know the meaning off. A quick double check of the GPS position to the chart and I reassured myself that we were exactly/or almost exactly on the recommended track. At least I could defend myself that I followed the routing as close as this owner demanded, but I should have seen the change in colour indicating shallow water.

The boat began doing a drunken port-starboard shuffle forward, so we were aground, but barely if that is a real term. I knew the area was supposed to be soft sand, the kind where conch and starfish are found, but I couldn’t see anything since the bottom was all churned up from the waves. Maybe it was low tide, or the north wind the last few days had pushed up the sand. One thing for sure, with over 20 something knots from behind, I knew I wasn’t going to spin the boat around go the other way. This was a classic lee shore scenario, except I had sailed right into the trap as it were.

I think now, I know what then I only then felt instinctively, which is putting the boat beam-to-wind trying to about-turn would highly stress the leeward keel as the windward side would lift with waves and the boat would push against the keel sideways with its mass.

Since the boat was edging forward I decided to keep the stern to the waves and power through. I turned on both engines 1800 RPM, and unfurled the complete headsail. I don’t remember what I thought, but certainly I was in a pickle and taking a risk. To wait it out, might mean destroying the boats bottom if I sat idly and smacked on and off the bottom. I didn’t think I could easily turn around, and we were a little far from shore to get convenient help. So, as I said, I decided to push through it.

Sure enough with every wave the stern lifted and as the bow followed suit the boat would surge forward a few meters before finding the bottom again. Mr. Owner was not happy, and by now I fully expected to be flying home later today. His wife had convinced him to stay inside the saloon and let me deal with the situation, probably for the better of his blood pressure.

A hundred or so yards later we were over the the shallow spot, and in clear water. The boat accelerated and took off again. Once in the river and anchored securely, and after an incident of Jo-Jo the dolphin lobbing rubbish from the river to our transom, I had a swim to inspect the bottom. I could not find any evidence beyond the rubbing of bottom paint, or the owner clearly not wanting to have me in his line of sight.

Well, him and his wife went ashore, probably to discuss my fate, while I had a decompressing beverage x3 at the closest place to the dock. Luckily, when they came back the topic never came up again. Except that he wasn’t happy that I hadn’t managed to find matching shoes yet. I had been wearing mismatched flotsam flip-flops that I found on the windward shore of West Plana Cay after my good footwear went missing during a stay at Rum Cay. Maybe, I’ll write about that interesting tale in the future.

I was using the Explorer Charts, which are actually quite excellent for the whole Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. But, as you can see, one needs to be careful when abnormal wind and tide state can change the bottom conditions and depths.

More recently, bringing our 40′ schooner to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, I was a little too far to the west side of the channel. Going very slowly, the schooner slid onto a pile of mud or small shoal. I don’t know which, it was too cold to jump in and check. I worked the engine hard to try to get off, even overheating it at one point, but all to no avail. As it was close to evening, I started to plan a little longer term, as in getting my anchor into the dinghy, putting it out to windward, and making it tight with the likeliness of needing to spend the night aground. Maybe I could crank the chain link-by-link and pull her off to deep water, or it might get windy and rock/float the boat and I’d swing to the deeper water and ride to my anchor.

Luckily, and predictably, the bar patrons had gathered in front of the posh yacht club and a pair of generous fellows came out in a dinghy to give me a hand. Looking towards the dinghy of salvation I could see people toasting us in the background. As the dinghy got closer, I was glad to see two sailors who I knew who would be useful. Both were Transport Canada examiners, both Master Mariners, and one of them my employer at the time. However, I had to answer a question first, they were discussing which of the two of them had granted me my Transport Canada 150gt Master’s Certificate, and who of the pair of them bore the responsibility of letting me be in charge of commercial vessels! I reminded them that one of the pair had authorized my paperwork and sea time, the other had marked my examinations and conducted my Orals exam, so it was clearly both their faults! So, yeah, a little embarrassing.

After a little bit of this and that, and getting a bigger boat to pull, we were able to pivot the schooner and pull her off, the only damage being that I covered the bar bill afterwards.

When I get around to it, I’ll write about different ways to get off from being aground, several I’ve tested the effectivity of.

So the next time at the yacht club, when you-know-who is stating as a fact, not bragging, no they would never brag, that they have never been aground, then you can sit smug, knowing that they are either quite inexperienced or full of it.

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