Updated on August 12, 2016
So the other day, I was enjoying my post-coffee time in the head, when the whole boat slowed down. It wasn’t that gradual, we’re-coming-to-a-lock slowdown—it was violent; the bow dipped way down, and I almost slid off the toilet. It was like the Millennium Falcon coming out of light-speed; clearly something was wrong with our hyperdrive.
Racing up to the cockpit as fast as modestly possible, I expected to find Michu frantically doing…something. Instead, he was just sitting there with an I’m-trying-not-to-swear look on his face. We were hard aground, our keel stuck deep in the muddy bottom of the Erie Canal.
Now, our boat has a deep draft. Officially, the keel sticks down six feet, nine inches below the waterline, but fully loaded down, it’s much more; we just pretend it’s seven feet. We’ve run aground three times so far on this trip: once, getting to a slip just off of the St. Claire River; once, pulling into the wall to tie up in Lockport; and once trying to get fuel on the canal at a gas dock that was too shallow for us. All of these approaches were slow; we were also right next to a pier, so we were able to easily pull ourselves off the bottom. This was not the case here.
After some futile attempts as reversing our way out of the muck with the engine alone, we decided to set a kedge anchor off the stern and throw the rode on an aft winch to grind our way out of trouble.
It didn’t work.
We tried rocking the boat to free the keel (ahem, dinghy sailors), but since the boat weighs about 20,000 pounds, that was a non-starter. Our mast is down, so we couldn’t send someone out on the boom or the spinnaker pole to heel the boat up. Finally, we decided to take the anchor off the stern; row it out to the port side and a little aft; and throw the rode on the capstan for the anchor windlass. Motoring backward and forward, with the kedge anchor pulling us off to port (and deeper water) as we wiggled out of the mud, we were finally able to break free.
What went well:
- We had our secondary anchor ready to go in the stern lazarette.
- We had the dinghy ready to launch off the arch.
- We were able to come up with more than one feasible plan to get ourselves free.
- We were able to stop and assess what we were doing, and make a new plan when needed.
- No one got mad at anyone else.
- We were careful with loaded-up lines and heavy anchors, and no one was injured.
- Winds were calm, and there were no waves; we had all day to work the problem, and really, nothing would have impeded us from spending the night. Time wasn’t an issue.
What didn’t go well:
- Well, we ran aground. That wasn’t so awesome.
- We knew that part of the canal was shallow, and had been warned to hug the north side; even though we were solidly in the channel, we could have been more to the north.
- T got scared down below, and we didn’t notice. We had a post-incident family meeting about letting parents know when a kid is scared.
- We ended up blocking off the whole Canal with our anchor rode. Normally, we would have radioed a warning to other boats, but our hand-held VHF’s don’t have much of a range, so we didn’t think it would be helpful. Fortunately, no one came through.
All told, we spent about an hour and a half getting ourselves free. Somehow, we both had the idea that kedging off would be kind of like trimming a spinnaker; you just kind of pull the line, and the boat moves in the proper direction. Instead, it was more like an Olympic event; the load on the lines was huge, and even then we couldn’t pull ourselves back. Lessons learned all around.