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On Going Aground

Like a collision at sea, whether it’s a supertanker in theSuez Canal or a small sailboat on a lake, going aground can ruin your entire day.Although they might not admit it, there are probably no sailors in the world whohave not at one time or another found themselves high and dry on a sandbar ormud bank or a reef or rock. Although it is a common occurrence, it is still terribly embarrassing.

I can’t count the number of times we encountered a situation where thedepth of our hull was deeper that the depth of the water we were sailing in. Our most spectacular grounding came while sailing our yawl Allegory on the Little Bahama Bank. We had been to Walker’s Cay, the northernmost of the Bahamian cays. In those days, Walker’s was a popular destination for deep sea fishermen and was bustling with activity. A few years later it would be demolished by Hurricanes Jean and Frances and abandoned for fourteen years. I understand it is making a comeback these days. The entrance to Walker’s Cay was a serpentine channel through very shallow water, a route marked by only a handful of sticks set far apart and difficult to locate. That’s primarily why few sailboats called.

When we left Walker’s Cay, we picked our way carefully through the shoalsand reefs headed for Double Breasted Cays, a remote area where the clarity of the water was legendary and where we planned to spend a few days snorkeling. Having successfully navigated through a difficult passage, we were feeling cocky. We decided to thread our way into a cluster of coral heads, seeking the perfect anchorage. Then we heard a crunching sound and Allegory came to a stop. We were aground. In the next hour or two, we tried everything to escape, but as the tide went down, the higher on the reef we rose. The only thing we could do was to wait for the tide to come up again.

Late in the afternoon two fishermen came by in their boat. One called out:“Hey, Mon, what you doin’ up on that rock?” We must have been a strange sight, our little boat sitting all by itself, up high in the air. They asked for me to hand them the main halyard, then holding on to the halyard, they revved up their small outboard motor and headed off on a course perpendicular to our boat. The harder they pulled, the harder the halyard pulled on the peak of the mast and the farther Allegory listed toward them until we thought they would spill us sideways into the sea. But then our keel lifted from the rock and we popped up, afloat again. We were so thankful to the fishermen that we gave them $40, almost all we had. Lesson learned? Never think you are so skilled that the sea can’t jump up and bite you.

Another time we went aground could have had more serious consequences.We had been sailing out in the Atlantic, in Allegory, just enjoying a summer day on the sea. My brother, Byron, was aboard, his first time ever on a sailboat. As the day progressed, a dark line of storm clouds began to build on the horizon. It was not of particular concern because we had been aboard Allegory in many storms, in fact, we had sometimes sought out storms to see how the little yawl performed in extreme conditions. But as the wind began to rise, I lowered the main, started the engine and we motor-sailed on under boomed mizzen and engine.

The inlet at St. Augustine is considered a fair-weather inlet only. There areextensive shoals to the north and south of the channel and often breaking waves rise across the inlet when wind opposes the tide. But we had been in and out of the inlet dozens of times and were well aware of the potential dangers.

As we were headed back toward the inlet, the storm hit suddenly and withunexpected force. Everything below decks became a shambles and my wife Betty Sue went below to close up the ports and restore order. Simultaneously, the jib sheet parted and the boom flailed around dangerously. I had to crawl forward and tend to the jib, but who could steer? Only my brother, and he had never been on a sailboat, much less had ever steered one. I noticed a shrimp boat about 100-yards ahead of us, heading for the inlet. “Just follow the shrimp boat!” I shouted, and handed my brother the tiller.

The next few minutes were a blur of motion and rain and thunder and wind.And soon, as I struggled with the jib, I felt that awful sound of the keel sliding over sand. My brother, Byron, had faithfully followed the shrimp boat. But how was he to know the shrimper had gone aground. And we followed him onto the sandbar. Fortunately, summer storms in Florida don’t last very long. And soon we were able to free Allegory from the sand, using a method Betty Sue invented called “the reverse power jump up.” With one person at the throttle powering in reverse at the top of each wave, the rest of us jumped up and down, in unison, on the deck. Little by little, we inched our way free and headed on through the inlet.

The shrimp boat was still aground.

Marshall Riggan has been telling and writing stories for more than half acentury, many that have been made into movies and television productions. His books Sulu Sea and The Last Traveler can be seen at