Grounded! 5 Tips to Help When You Run Aground

I was once told by an old salt that you can't really claim to have any gunkhole experience until you've run your sailboat aground.  I'm not sure I agree with his statement, but it did force me to think about my course of action if I ever do run aground.

Photo Credit: Jeff Chew / AP
Depending on where you sail, running aground can be the result of several mostly avoidable circumstances.  First and foremost, it is imperative to know the accurate draft of your vessel, even under different crew and cargo situations.  Secondly, you need to know as much as you can about the water you're sailing in.  That means having some combination of a reliable depth sounder, quality charts, local knowledge (tides, currents, etc.), and experience.   However, even the best and most prepared captains can make mistakes.  Running aground can be embarrassing at the least and downright dangerous to boat and crew at the worst.  If you do run aground, remain calm.  Your first priority is to ensure that the crew and vessel are unharmed.  After youre sure the crew is safe, check the bilge to make sure the grounding didnt cause a leak or other damage that may make ungrounding become unsafe.  What follows are 5 methods you can try if you ever find yourself stuck. 

1)  Halyard Heeling: If your keel is stuck in the mud and you need to lessen your draft to get free, using a halyard to heel the boat may help.  Youll need to have the assistance of a second boat for this method.  Have the assisting boat take the shackle end of the halyard and slowly run it out abeam of the stuck sailboat, causing the sailboat to heel over.  Dont forget to cleat off the bitter end of the halyard so it doesnt get run up the mast.  With the sailboat heeled, you then may be able to carefully motor out of trouble.  Be careful to heel the boat slowly, as youll be pulling on the halyard from the top of the mast.  I assisted freeing a boat with this method this past summer and was surprised at how much leverage is gained by pulling with the halyard from the top of the mast. 

2)  Motoring Off: Using the iron sail seems almost instinctive when running aground.  However, its not necessarily always the most effective.  Maybe this is obvious, but try reversing out first before attempting to power through.  But be careful if youve got a wing keel as motoring may actually get you more stuck because the wings act like flukes on an anchor.  Youll also need to be mindful of what youre stuck in or on.  Powering out of sand or mud is one thing, but rocks and reefs can cause serious damage. 
3)  Sailing Off: If you sailed aground, sailing off may not be an option.  However, if you motored aground, consider raising the sails as you may get the boat to heel and reduce draft or free the keel from the bottom.  Be patient with this technique!  You may not get freed as soon as the sails are up, but the variable heeling and small movements from the wind may loosen things over a period time. 

4)  Towing Assistance: Heres another obvious potential solution, but dont try it without forethought.  Both the towboat and the stuck sailboat will need very strong attachment points for towlines.  Youll also need to determine the direction in which to try towing.  Dont forget that if you decide to tow from the stern of the stuck sailboat the rudder may be exposed to damage if theres more shallow water behind the boat.  I highly recommend Boat U.S. towing insurance.  Not only will they assist with soft ungroundings, but theyll also provide jump starts and fuel delivery.  The cost for the service is very minimal but delivers great peace of mind.  

5)  Kedging Off: This method will likely require the use of a dinghy or assist boat.  The principle is very simple: take an anchor out from the stuck vessel, set it, and attempt to pull the stuck vessel towards the anchor.  Remember good anchoring techniques such as deploying plenty of scope (>5:1 if you have room) and using the best anchor type for the situation (e.g., spade for mud, fluke for sand, etc.).  Even if you cant free the grounded vessel by kedging, you may be able to turn or rotate it to a more favorable heading to try another method.

Lastly, if you want to avoid groundings remember what the old salt told me, If you see gulls standing on the water, dont sail there!


  1. Grounding is not a matter of "if" but "when." I don't know anyone in our marina who actually uses their boat who has not run aground.

    The reasons for fairly intelligent skippers running aground seem to run the gambit from navigational errors to mis-marked channels.

    If possible, try to schedule navigation through an area of concern at high or rising tide. The best way to unground a boat is to wait for the tide to lift you off the bottom. Then carefully back out to safe water.

    Another idea to gain lift is to lighten the boat. Crew members, especially the weight challenged ones, can disembark to a dingy.

    You can also pump your water tank dry or to a low safe level. Every gallon of water pumped out represents over 8 pounds of weight removed. Every hundred pounds of ballast removed from a boat can have an affect on the buoyancy of the vessel.

  2. One other thing, it's not always obvious which direction deeper water lies so taking soundings around the boat with a lead line or long boat hook can be helpful.

    1. Excellent advice, Captain! And if taking soundings isn't feasible, I suggest trying to head out the same way you came in. At you know there's deeper water somewhere back in that direction.


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