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Sailboats are commonly victims of grounding. Their design is the main reason. Unlike powerboats, sailboats go aground because of their deep keel or rudder. Many of these groundings are avoidable as sail boaters often fail to recognize the reason frequent groundings occur, which is panic.

If a sailor finds himself suddenly in shallow water, he often turns the rudder sharply to one side or the other. If the rudder is turned quickly, it can throw the hull aground. If the rudder were turned slightly or slowly, it might glance off the bottom and avoid a hard grounding. Most sailboat keels can withstand a slight grounding and suffer little or no damage, but the harder the grounding the greater the damage. Keel design, of which there are many, often dictates the amount of damage.

Most sail boaters quickly learn the consequences of shallow water. Many sailboats have depth indicators, but if they are not properly calibrated, they can lead to greater problems. If a depth indicator is installed on any kind of vessel, it needs to be calibrated to match the deepest running part of the boat. This enables it to read the depth of the bottom below the keel or rudder, not just the hull. In a few designs, the depth of the running gear may be an issue.

There are factors to consider when removing a sailboat from grounding. What is the keel design; is it fixed to the hull or a drop centerboard? One design is the sump keel, which has a deep well-like area into which excess water can run. The area where the sump is located can be weaker than the rest of the keel and, if the boat encounters a hard grounding, a hole can occur.

    A keel grounded in rocks often necessitates a diver to evaluate the damage and suggest ways to remove the boat from its grounding. Without a diver’s inspection, attempts to remove it could cause greater damage. The diver will look for bends on the keel or rudder bottom.
    Attempting to heel a sailing vessel by the mast while stuck in rocks, mud or sand can result in the keel separating from the hull. The keel bolts can be pulled right through the hull.

A sailor should always be aware of how he wants his vessel removed from grounding even if he is receiving service from a towing expert. Discuss the expert’s plan; if you don’t like the way he intends to proceed, keep discussing it. If you are offered assistance by a good Sam express gratitude, but make sure you are the decision maker on how the vessel is removed.

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4 Responses to Why Sailboats Go Aground

  1. Capt Fred says:

    A newer keel design, the wing keel presents a major problem when grounded and may require special equipment for removal. Shifting ballast, including crew, should be the first attempt for any grounding.

  2. Capt Fred says:

    A newer and less encountered keel design is the wing keel they can often present a major problem when grounded and may require special equipment to unground. Shifting ballast including crew is usually the first attempt no matter the keel design

  3. Deb says:

    Randy – I don’t think your logic applies to groundings on the west coast of florida. A great deal depends on pending weather conditions and type of keel. A fin keel boat will bounce free with a little encouragement from the wake of other boats and laying her over. A full keel boat you may have to wait for a rising tide or kedge her off. Best advice is don’t go aground. Saying in these parts is that if you have not gone aground then you have not been using your boat.

  4. Good advice on sailboat groundings, Randy. If possible, it’s a good idea to try to heel the boat to get it off quickly (to avoid keel damage); and many times this can be done by pushing the boom out to leeward with the crew leaning on it. Of course, this only works if the wind and current aren’t setting you into even shallower water.

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