Hitting bottom is a possibly in most waterways, but like other common boating mistakes, it can be avoided. So, what is the best way to avoid running aground? Situational awareness is the key, and the number-one thing you need to do is maintain a proper lookout.
No matter how well you keep your eyes peeled, however, there’s still a chance of running aground—but you can do your best to prevent that from happening by following a few basic tips.
5 Factors to Help You Avoid Running Aground
To avoid running aground with your boat, you should be aware of:
- The level of visibility both above the water and through it
- Where other boats are located in the immediate vicinity
- The location(s) of channels and channel markers
- The location(s) of nearby shoals and/or obstructions in the area you plan to go boating
- Your own boat’s stopping distance and quick-maneuvering abilities
Maintaining a Proper Lookout
Maintaining a proper lookout while you operate your boat is critical for a number of safety reasons, first and foremost to make sure you don’t hit anything—and that includes the bottom.
- In some waterways with relatively clear water, you may be able to spot color changes where shoals or shallow weedbeds are present.
- In other waterways where visibility is minimal, you might not be able to identify a visible color change, but you may spot changes in wave patterns.
- And in many areas, whether you can see a shoal or identify its presence via the waves will vary from day to day depending upon the conditions.
Water that was crystal clear yesterday could turn murky and churned tomorrow. So while using your eyes may be the best way to avoid running aground, it’s certainly not the only thing you want to depend on.
Seeing where other boats are going can also help clue you in to areas that you can safely travel without running aground. Different boats have different drafts, so seeing any old boat in a spot doesn’t necessarily mean you can go there, too. But if you’re looking at a boat with an obviously deeper draft—say you’re on a small bowrider and you see a large cruising sailboat, for example—you can be relatively sure that the path they have traveled is safe for you to go down, as well.
How to Avoid Running Aground Using Charts & Chartplotters
Knowledge of the locations for things like channels and channel markers, shoals, or underwater obstructions can be gained by viewing a chart or chartplotter before and as you go boating. Using those charts, be they paper or digital, is a basic part of learning how to navigate a boat. Not only should you be viewing these maps of the watery world as you perform navigational tasks, you should also give them a look prior to a trip (especially if it’s in an unfamiliar waterway) just to familiarize yourself with the “lay of the land,” so to speak.
Keep Your Charts Up to Date
It’s important to note, however, that you can use a chart or chartplotter and still run aground even though the charts say you shouldn’t. This is because sand bars can shift, channels can fill in, and bottom contours are always subject to change. This is especially true after strong storms, particularly where there are sandy or muddy bottoms. That’s why it’s important to make sure your charts are up to date, and regularly update the digital charts in your chartplotter.
Download a Marine Navigation App
It can also be helpful to download a marine navigation app on your phone, as these generally have updated charts in their databases. Some also can display crowd-sourced data layers, to show you where other boaters have discovered inaccuracies in the charts.
Don't Forget About the Tides
If you’re boating in a tidal area remember that you have to take the tides into account, too. The depths you see on a chart are generally “MLW,” which stands for "mean low water." This is basically an average of the depth at low tide for a specific area. An average has to be used, because tides differ from week to week and month to month. Also remember that tidal fluctuations can be affected quite a bit by weather patterns and strong winds.
Taking all of these variables into consideration, it’s easy to understand why following the charts or your chartplotter to stay in sufficiently deep water does not really guarantee that you won’t run around. Rather, it’s one measure, just like the others we’re discussing here, that belongs in your grounding-avoidance toolkit.
Stopping Your Boat to Avoid Running Aground
No matter how alert you are as to your surroundings nor how familiar you have made yourself with the waterway you’re on, a key facet of avoiding running aground is being able to stop or turn your boat away when you do realize that running aground is probable.
To this end, it’s important for you to be familiar with your own boat:
- You need to know how much distance it takes you to stop while moving at different speeds, and how quickly you might be able to maneuver.
- Whenever you believe running aground may be a possibility, slowing down is a good move. Not only will reducing your speed shrink your stopping distance, it’ll also reduce the chance of your boat or propulsion system being damaged if you do hit the bottom.
Finally, remember that just about boater will run aground sooner or later. If you take your boat off to explore new places—which most of us find an exciting and entertaining part of the boating experience—just take your time, study up first, keep an eye on the chartplotter, and always make sure to keep a sharp lookout. Do so, and running aground won’t be a big deal. In fact, it’ll all be part of the adventure of boating.
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