When the bottom jumps up and grabs your boat, what comes next?
Finding a sun-warmed marsh draining into a cut and throwing jigs for summer flounder can be the ticket to success in the skinny waters near Wachapreague, VA, and as we zipped across the water’s surface, I figured there had to be a monster doormat just around the next bend. I kept pushing, farther, until I heard that tell-tale sound of the motor slowing as the prop started slicing mud. In a millisecond two options flashed through my pea-brain: continue running and risk damaging the prop and/or lower unit, or pull back on the throttle and allow the boat to settle into the mud. But said pea could transmit anything to my throttle hand, it was already too late – our speed went from twenty-something to zero in about half a second and we were aground.
Sound familiar? It probably does, especially if you’ve ever fished in a place like the winding creeks of Wachapreague, where 20’ deep water can morph into a mud flat in a matter of inches. But wherever you may fish, most anglers have run aground at one time or another. And unfortunately, running aground can mean a whole lot more than you might realize.
Obviously, after running aground your first task is to get your boat floating again. Hopefully, you know if you have a falling or rising tide. If the tide is rolling in, waiting is the simplest, safest thing to do. Assuming you’re hard aground, you don’t want to wait, and pushing with a pole or paddle won’t be enough to move the boat, your first task is to redistribute weight. Determine what section of the boat is hitting bottom and shift weight accordingly. If the stern of the boat is sitting in the mud, move passengers, and other heavy items towards the bow. Remove any weight you can, by emptying livewells and dumping unneeded ice or water. Rocking the boat from side to side can also be helpful as you attempt to push and pull your boat free. This is one of the best boating tips.
If shifting and cutting weight doesn’t do the trick, you may have to offload some people and/or gear. In most situations, this isn’t a big deal, but before stepping over the side use a pole or paddle to make sure you aren’t grounded on sticky-soft mud. Stepping off and sinking into waist-deep muck might change your mind about waiting for the tide to change.
Kedging is the textbook method of pulling a lightly grounded boat free. Essentially, kedging is throwing your anchor as far as you can, then grabbing the anchor line and attempting to pull the boat. In practice, it’s nearly impossible to throw an anchor far enough to effectively do the job, particularly if it’s outfitted with chain. A better method is to step out of the boat (when possible) and walk the anchor as far as you can, in the direction you want to pull the boat. Instead of just dropping the anchor reach down and dig the flukes in, so they have plenty of bites. Then have one person pull on the anchor line while other crewmembers push on the boat.
What Comes Next in Boating Tips
Other than the obvious problem — you’re being stuck — running aground can have some significant consequences. Let’s say you make it back to deeper water, and get home okay. Now’s the time to flush your motor extensively with freshwater. If you’re lucky, you might be able to wash away all the mud, sand, and grit that your motor’s intake sucked in. Often, though a grounding seems to have no immediate effect, your engine has sucked in some grime. Even though you can’t tell just yet, the water pump impeller may be doomed. Keep a close eye on the tell-tail stream for losses in pressure for the next couple of trips.
Another aftereffect of a grounding can be a damaged or destroying prop. If you feel unusual vibrations shortly after grounding, this is usually the case. Worse yet, you may have trashed the lower unit. You’d have to smash into hard rock at full tilt to sheer a lower unit off. But, the jolt of running into hard bottom, shell, or gravel can damage the gears. Sometimes the lower unit will appear to be fine and operate for several hours, days, or even weeks before suddenly and catastrophically failing. Since this is a distinct possibility, whenever you run hard aground you should document the event. Many insurance companies consider a hard grounding an “incident,” and will cover the damage. To back up your claim ask any passengers aboard to write down a brief version of what happened and date it, so you have evidence to back up your claim.
Aground Preventative Measures
Of course, the best way to avoid the pitfalls of running aground is to not run aground in the first place. When you know you’ll be cutting it close use weight distribution, trim, and/or trim tabs. This helps your boat running as level as possible and minimize draft. Although it takes guts and can worsen the results if you do touch bottom, by running faster most boats draw less water. The worst thing you can do is keep the boat on a slow plane, with the transom sucked down and the bow kissing the sky. The only thing that accomplishes is maximizing draft.
Another good way to prevent hard groundings is to simply go through the shallows at pre-planning speeds. Sure, you’ll still hit bottom, but a slight push or reversing the motor should be all it takes to get back into sufficiently deep water. Common sense would seem to dictate trimming the outdrive all the way up as you putt across shoals, but this leaves no room for error. Instead, keep your motor down by a couple of inches. Then if you do run aground, you’ll have the ability to trim up and back off with room to spare.
Finally, some accessory gear can also help when it comes to grounding. Add a keel guard to prevent fiberglass damage from repeated groundings if your fish the shallows regularly. An electronics upgrade can help, since many of the newer MFDs allow you to constantly update and re-draw your own uber-accurate digital cartography (see Raymarine LightHouse II Release with New Navionics Features, for an example) of the areas you fish. If you run at all in low-light conditions you might consider getting a night-vision scope to better spot markers. FLIR makes cameras that are the industry standard, though a new handheld scope called the SiOnyx Aurora just introduced this spring presents an affordable night-vision option (MSRP is $799). Added bonus: The Aurora is color, not black and white or that eerie green, and it also takes video.
Sionyx caption: The Aurora gets you color night-vision. (Note – that’s the moon, not the sun).
When you do run aground – not if, but when – don’t be too hard on yourself.
It happens to all of us sooner or later. Just remember to be patient, and avoid doing further damage in trying to free the boat. Like we said, often, your best move is to simply wait for the tide to come back in. Unless, of course, you’re fishing in a lake. In that case, you’d be in for a long, long wait.