The feeling of your boat suddenly running aground is scary and shocking. One minute you’re cruising along, the next minute you feel the boat lurch and stop suddenly as it hits a sandbar, reef or shoreline. What should you do first if your boat runs aground? Stay calm, take stock of the situation, and focus on safety and preventing further damage. Here is a step-by-step guide to dealing with this emergency situation when out on the water.
Check for Injuries
The very first thing you need to do is check for injuries. Running aground can cause people on board to fall or be thrown about the boat. Make sure everyone is accounted for and assess if anyone is hurt. Even if injuries seem minor, they need to be addressed before anything else. Have someone call for emergency medical help right away if needed.
Attend to anyone who is bleeding or seems to have broken bones, sprains or head trauma. Move them carefully to a safe space and bandage wounds if possible. Do a quick check that everyone else seems generally unharmed before moving to the next steps.
Safety must be the priority when a boat runs aground. Make sure the situation has stabilized and no medical emergencies exist before attempting to free the boat.
Check for Leaks
Once everyone is safe, the next priority is checking for leaks. There may be cracks or punctures in the hull caused by the impact of the boat hitting bottom. Scan the outside of the boat carefully looking for signs of damage and breaches. Also check inside for any water streaming in.
A small leak may be manageable, but if water is entering rapidly it is important to act quickly. Water flooding in could not only sink the boat but add stress to the hull that leads to catastrophic cracks and breakage.
Plug any leaks possible and start bailing out water if needed. If flooding seems beyond control, rig pumps and prepare to abandon ship. Safety first means having life preservers, lifeboat or raft ready if the boat shows signs of sinking.
Try to Free the Boat Yourself
If there is no rush of water into the boat, the next step is to try freeing yourself from the obstruction. The first thing is to stop the engine immediately. Advancing throttle not only risks further damage but could propel the boat higher onto the sandbar or rocks where it may list or capsize.
If possible, lift the outdrive unit up out of the water to prevent damage to the prop and gears. Shift passengers and gear weight carefully to the side of the boat opposite the point of impact. If lightly grounded, this redistribution may lift that side enough to slide free.
Use a paddle or boathook to gently push off the obstruction if within reach. Try rocking the boat gently from side to side to break the suction seal of sand or mud. Be cautious not to swing weight violently or you may take on water or dislodge chunks that compromise integrity.
Patience pays off here. Work deliberately with small motions to dislodge rather than revving engines and spinning wheels. Listen and look for shifting sands and raising water lines for moments when floating free may come naturally.
Call for Help If Stuck
If you’ve made all reasonable attempts to free the vessel yourself without success, it is time to call for assistance. Use flares or raise an orange distress flag to signal to other boats that you are grounded and in need of help. Radio the Coast Guard or harbor patrol to give your location and situation and request a tow.
Provide details on vessel type, number of passengers and conditions on board. Be prepared to describe the ocean/river bottom as best possible from what you can see and feel through the hull. This will help them assess rescue options and equipment needed. Monitor radio for updates on timing and any change in conditions.
Do not hesitate to call for help if needed rather than risking further damage or capsizing of the boat. Pay attention to water levels and currents that may be rising and complicate matters. Waiting too long eliminates safe windows for others to approach and secure boats safely.
Monitor for Leaks and Damage
After sounding the alarm, continue to carefully monitor the boat for changes. Check frequently for additional leaks or cracks opening up as the boat shifts under strain. Use pumps actively to keep ahead of incoming water as best you can.
Note any scraping, crunching or snapping noises that may indicate breakage or loosening of parts below the water line. If it sounds like damage is increasing, it’s best to prepare for abandoning ship even if helpers are on the way. No boat or possession is worth a life.
Likewise, observe water levels and conditions around you. If waves or surge start rising, the increased buoyancy and torque could dislodge heavy boats abruptly or break them apart. Shallow sandy bottoms may suck down vessels as the tide recedes too.
Stay alert no matter how stuck you are so you have plenty of margin to evacuate if the boat shows signs of sinking before aid arrives. Keep an eye on weather changes and approaching storms too that could result in you breaking totally free and drifting into further danger. Monitoring all factors keeps you safest.
Running aground damages boats, pride and plans. But by following these steps of safety first for passengers, stopping leaks, attempting gentle self-extraction, calling for aid early and monitoring conditions, you give yourself the best chance of rescue without loss of life or vessel.
Know what to do first if your boat runs aground – getting everyone safely to shore always comes before saving equipment. Avoid panic, take command of the situation and trust that help will arrive to pull you free. Stay calm, stay aboard within reason and know that you will all live to sail another day!