Tales of adventure, cruising your boat to new and exciting places, meeting new friends and new boaters, these are what make boating what we cruisers have grown to love.  But Lynn and I also enjoy reading about other cruisers' travels and experiences.  We find we learn something new every time a good story is told of new discovery, a new experience on the water, or even a tale of woe.  And these tales of woe can be the most educational.  There are times during cruising when you find yourself experiencing trials and tribulations on the water that may not be pleasant.  Lynn and I wished we had been able to read more about how to handle these situations better before they occurred.  This story is about one of those trials many of us who cruise will face, but may not have all the information necessary to best deal with effectively, and safely recover.  So, when you are cruising along, and all seems right in the world, what should you do when you get 'STUCK ON THE BOTTOM' and no tow boat is available?


     My wife Lynn and I just completed a two year, 15,000 mile cruise, in our 46 foot DeFever trawler, 'Cottonwood'.  This was our first cruise of over 100 miles since we began boating in 1997. We were familiar with the coast of California and trips to the local islands, but not much beyond.  Then we decided, at the age of 55 and 57, to retire and venture far afoot and 'see the sights' while we were able.  What a great adventure it has been.  We purchased a DeFever Pilothouse trawler in 2000 and set it up to venture out on this cruise.  It turned out to be the perfect boat for us, with ocean crossing ability, as well as a maximum draft of 5 feet recommended for cruising the rivers and the Intra-Coastal Waterways of the Great American Circle Route around the eastern part of the U.S.

     We set out from Southern California in mid 2003, sailed from Long Beach, California, up the Pacific coast to San Francisco, then up the Sacramento River to Sacramento.  This was to be our "shakedown" cruise to give us 'river' experience for our extended voyage coming up.  We then ventured back south through Central America on the Pacific side, through the Panama Canal, up through the Caribbean to the Florida Keys, up the East Coast of the U.S. inside the Intra-Coastal Waterway to New York, then up the Hudson river to the Erie Canal and then through to the Great Lakes.  Next we exited the Great Lakes through Chicago and ventured down the rivers; Chicago, Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Tom-Bigbee, to the Gulf of Mexico.  We then headed south through the Gulf Intra-Coastal Waterway to the Okeechobee shortcut and back to the East Coast of Florida.  Before returning home to California we took a trip to the Bahamas and back to Florida, just to put an exclamation mark on our adventure.  It was truly the adventure of a lifetime for us and with little cruising experience before we began, it turned out to not be as scary as many envision, that is, if you prepare properly, and we did.  We took the Coast Guard and other available courses in Safety, Weather, Advanced Coastal Navigation, Diesel Maintenance, got our HAM licenses so we would not be out of contact in far off places in Central America and the Caribbean, and we read every magazine we could find, and many, many books.  We then made sure our boat was in good condition and properly outfitted for this trip.

     But having said this, there is one happenstance that recurred during our trip (15 times) which I'm sure causes us boaters all to shudder, especially when it first happens, running aground.  Lynn and I would have liked to have known more about how to deal with this experience before our adventure began, but we found little on the subject other than, 'it's going to happen', or another of these informative suggestions, 'ya just gotta learn through experience'.  Well, after many times aground, watching and assisting other boaters, and learning and adjusting, we wanted to impart our experiences to other boaters so it doesn't have to be an anxious or disastrous experience.  With a little knowledge and planning, it can be just another adventure in cruising paradise.


     I'm sure those of you with cruising experience, or those who boat on the East Coast of the U.S., have gained an appreciation of the subtleties of running aground and getting off a sand bar.  If you haven't yet experienced that sudden jolt and scare of coming to an abrupt halt, you haven't yet been initiated into the many wondrous experiences of 'Cruising".  Don't scoff, those who are thinking, 'why didn't you just avoid the sand bar?"  If you are using your boat much at all in or around rivers and especially the Intra-Coastal Waterway, or the Gulf Intra-Coastal Waterway, you will eventually get stuck.  We had read this over and over in many boating chronicles before we left and dreaded it happening to us.  But it did and we survived and so did our boat.  But so so many things we did wrong.  

     Those of us who have opted to own an ocean worthy boat, not a coastal cruiser, will have even more problems with this, as we tend to have deeper keels that go with trawler designs, sail boats, and those boats designed to withstand the rigors of rough seas.  This deeper draft into the water will cause us to 'touch bottom' more times than we care to admit.  Yes, sometimes it is because we 'drifted' a little too much from the channel markers, or we 'misread' the channel markers, but these sand bars can also drift from the position where the markers were last set and be in an area where your charts indicate that they shouldn't.  Or, as is the case in Central America and the Caribbean where we ventured, the charts may not exist or just not show enough detail.  That leads one to ask, then how do you avoid running into a sand bar and getting stuck?  Watch your depth finder, right?  Well, yes, you must always be watching your depth finder.  But usually a sharp sided sand bar is already under you when you read it on the depth finder.  Again, my fellow boaters, I must impart some shared wisdom from someone who has just finished this 15,000 mile cruise and repeat, 'It ain't in the cards' to avoid this situation for ever.'  If you continue to boat in these waters, you're going to go aground.  And believe me we tried hard to avoid this with an attitude of, "with enough diligence, we won't experience that".  Yeah, right!  And, if you can get other boaters to be honest, they will confirm this doesn't happen just once, but can be a regular occurrence one must expect and know how to respond.  But listen to our tales and learn a little from our experience 'on the bar' and hopefully we can give some suggestions on how to relax and enjoy, avoid damage to boat and injury to crew, and improve your experiences in recovery from the "sudden stop".  


     We experienced mostly the touch, touch, stop.  This 'touching' of the bottom is subtle.  But after you get familiar, you can act quickly and power down and reverse and avoid the grounding.  The 'sudden stop' type of going aground happened usually around inlets where the ocean current disturbed the flow of the Intra-Coastal Waterway leaving an area of sand 'pile up'.  These also are not charted as they can change by the hour.  These we avoided, after our first, by watching other larger boats ahead of us and slowing down.  OK, we also experience the 'sudden stop' when the captain misread the markers and found ourselves where we weren't supposed to be.  But hey, I made it 15,000 miles and this only happened twice.  I think that's pretty good.

   So, if (when) you get your boat nosed-in or high centered on a sand bar, here are a few suggestions if you are not too hard aground.  First, determine the bottom type.  If you reverse your engines and you are stuck in mud, you can pull mud into your engine intake and clog the cooling system.  Not good.  If it is not mud, I reverse the engine(s) and see if I can back off.  This did work on many occasions.  Next, I try powering off with "rocking and angling".  You can do this if you have two engines by using one engine then the other in reverse.  This is very effective.  If this does not work, or if you don't have two engines, check the tide.  You may have to wait a while, but if the tide is down, waiting for the tide to rise to lift you off can be the safest tactic.  If the tide is up, waiting obviously will not help.  But if you do wait for a rising tide, it is wise to put out a small kedge anchor, usually out to the side, to keep you from drifting back onto a bar as you lift off and the current pushes the boat.  It is frustrating to wait for a rising tide only to feel your boat reset itself on a bar 10 feet further, and just as the tide is reaching its maximum level!  Now that you have your kedge anchor out, (you may have to use your tender to deploy the kedge), and depending on the size of your boat, pulling at an angle with a deployed kedge anchor could dislodge the boat enough to back off.  Lastly, there is a technique that our boat is too large to be effective, but we have seen others make effective, and that is to have crew move from side to side as they pulled back with their engine. 

    OK, so let's say that none of these techniques have worked, or you have a sail boat with little auxiliary power, and you are stuck 'hard aground'.    You are are now going to have to seek help to get unstuck.  The most obvious action is to call a tow service such as Vessel Assist, BoatUS, Sea Tow, etc.  And these services really are well trained and do a great job.  But sometimes we find ourselves in an area where they are not available.  In these cases you may want to ask for assistance from another boater.  Ahhhhh, now this is where it can get hairy.  Yes, we found that the boating community is generally more than willing to assist.  That's one of the great things about cruising that we found really amazing.  But, alas, few boaters know 'how' to assist and few of us know how to instruct others to assist.  But we have a few suggestions from our experiences, and yes, from our failures. 

     A note is required here.  I am not a legal eagle so I won't get into the proper process of how to ask for assistance, or when a help boat can claim salvage for helping you out.  I have read about this possible scenario and you should check into how to avoid this problem with BoatUS or other knowledgeable source.  I believe we were correct in our situations when asking for assistance if we handed over our sufficiently large lines to a boat willing to help us.  I'm not sure about how many unscrupulous boaters are out there that might take advantage.  But we only encountered those who were truly concerned fellow boaters willing to help as much as they could, without dispensation.


     First and foremost, when you find a boater willing to assist, make sure their boat is large enough in size and power to safely and effectively assist.  What should be obvious to most of us is this; if you have a 25 ton trawler, the person with a dinghy and a 20 HP outboard is not going to do much.  Also, you must remember when you see how well these tow company boats effectively help a boater in distress, they know a whole bunch more than most of us regarding how to assist and how to use what horsepower they have and do it safely.  They also are able to do a lot with a little because of their training.  But for us to avoid problems with a fellow help boat, we found it best that the boater willing to assist be a relatively large vessel in order to give effective, safe assistance.  You may at first think this appears to be backward, but from our experience, it is correct and we will explain more as we continue. The size of the help boat obviously will vary depending on your boat size, so I can't tell you how big that is, only that size is a significant consideration.  And, experience has taught us to consider this as step number one in determining whether to even allow assistance. 

     Let's talk first about the small boat.  The problem with the smaller boat is that they will have to try too hard to move a larger boat, which can lead to jerking, which can impart excessive stress on localized areas of the boat at the lines and cleats.  A steady pull from a large vessel will reach the critical pull required to move your boat without 'over shoot' which can over stress your cleats and boat structures. Again, we found the larger the boat that is assisting, the more effective it was because it didn't result in jerking in order to impart sufficient pull. 

      It is true that a larger boat doing things incorrectly will cause more damage than a small boat doing things incorrectly, but following some guidelines and keeping things in control will avoid doing things 'incorrectly'.  More on that later.  So if you have a choice, choose the largest boat willing to assist.  In our experience, as a rule of thumb, the assist boat should be equal or larger in size to your boat, if at all possible.

    We had a bad experience in Roatan, an island of Honduras.  We were hard aground (on rocks not sand, Uhg!)  and two small fishing boats, probably around 5 tons each, but with lots of horse power, offered assistance.  However, they were not pulling steadily, but using a pull-stop, pull-stop motion, and wound up causing damage to our cleats and hawse pipes trying to pull us free.  Actually, they ripped out two cleats and one hawse hole before I called them off. We had to wait until the next morning when a large commercial fishing boat was available.  They sent over their 1 1/2 inch lines (we almost couldn't get them on around our 12 inch cleats) and with no perception of their effort, slowly eased us off the bottom with no damage at all.  And by the way, they never asked or even waited for a suggestion of payment for this service.  In fact, we never had any request for payment for assistance we received while in Central America.  Hmmmm.  We did however, offer clothes, canned goods, and sometimes money, for any assistance, which was much appreciated.


     After assuring yourself that you have an acceptable size boat that has offered assistance, insure that there are lines available of sufficient size and strength.  We now carry large lines that can be used for getting us free of these situations.  This is something that will again depend on your boat size and weight and you may have to find out from a knowledgeable resource regarding what is right for your boat.  What we can suggest is that dock lines are usually not sufficient unless they are oversized.  Also, they tend to have areas where chafe has occurred which can contribute to their failure.  If you don't have sufficient size lines, the breakage of these lines can impart significant damage to your boat and more important, a snapping line will recoil with tremendous force and can cause great injury to people aboard either boat.  Thankfully, after our first broken (dock) line, we learned quickly, and without any damage to boat or injury to crew.

    Before starting any actual movement of your boat off the bar, take a few precious extra minutes and communicate with your helper boat to make sure you both understand exactly what is to happen and how it is to happen and in what direction the pull should be.  Remember, at this point in time, everyone can be anxious, afraid, concerned, and sometimes sobbing uncontrollably.  Hopefully this isn't the captain.  But when considered in hindsight, this extra time can really be time well spent, because when you think your help boat is going to do one thing, and then he does another, it's too late to yell or call on the radio before the #@$ hits the fan.  Yes, we learned this from experience. 

     We subsequently recorded these items as the most important to discuss; the direction to pull; to agree that they take the slack out of any line verrrry slowly until taught; then increase power to apply pull to the line going to our boat.  Again, try to avoid any forced jerking that may impart stress on the boats as this can cause damage.  Never, ever intentionally have the line jerked or try rocking your boat using the helper boat.  We have seen large pieces of boat forcibly removed and flying in all directions from this action, even when the helper boat was not very large.  In our case, when we were aground, we found it most effective if we power rocked our boat using our engines, while the helping boat put a steady pull on a help line.  This would maneuver our boat to the deeper water with the least problems and least chance of damage to either boat.  In addition, we found it most helpful to make sure we had checked the depth of water around the boat with a lead line, so we knew exactly which direction to move the boat.  Sometimes it is not readily apparent that directly backward away from the direction your boat is pointed may not be the best direction.  Usually this is because the boat has moved due to current or wind since it became stuck.  We found on several occasions that the deepest water was off to the side and had the boat pulled at a slight angle toward the deeper water.

     Next, be sure to instruct all people on board to stay well clear of lines during the pull.  The most dangerous time for crew is if a line breaks.  Even if you think you have large enough lines, we felt it wise not having people standing near a line during pull.  I have seen lines break.  When this happens they act like a bull whip, and there isn't time to get out of the way.

     Finally, communication with the help boat at all times during the pull is vital.  More often than not it may take several tries to find the right angle or direction that will be effective.  And sometimes, in spite of your attempt to effectively communicate what you want to happen, it doesn't.  When it appears not all is going according to plan, you need to be able to say, "STOP.  That's not working.  Let's start over.  Here is what I would like to happen."  This can avoid many problems that you thought were covered in your discussion, but maybe were not understood.


     Here is a list that we made that we post in the pilothouse while we are cruising shallow waters.

 Getting assistance when aground 

  1. Make sure help boat is large enough
  2. Make sure there are strong enough lines for a tow
  3. Take the time to communicate with help boat on what is to happen
  4. Check for water depth around boat and decide on best direction for pull
  5. Keep people away from lines while pull is in progress
  6. Be sure to have help boat ease tension from lines and make a steady pull
  7. Try and rock the stuck boat with on-board engines while pull is on
  8. Be sure communication is constantly available to the help boat
  9. Make sure to thank them profusely for this proffered assistance

     After getting through these learning experiences and establishing these simple guidelines for addressing aground situations, we found our stress level to be greatly reduced and our success was 100% in safely and effectively getting back on course.  We documented these ideas to be useful to those who have not experienced this aspect of boating, or for those who may have had less than acceptable results from a mishap.

    We hope our articles are well received, and "We wish all of you who cruise, fair weather, and may the wind always be at your back.  But we know better, and that's just part of the adventure."

 Les and Lynn Cotton

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