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Boating techniques for shallow water

Boating techniques for shallow water

Sailing in shallows means it’s likely that sooner or later you’ll go aground – but if you’ve planned for the eventuality in advance the chances are you’ll either avoid it or be able to refloat yourself, as John Simpson explains

The author’s restored his
boat Blauwe Slenk over
two-and-a-half years –
Then ran aground
This is her first appearance!

I was a child in Leigh-on-Sea (Essex) on the East Coast of Britain.

Here, the tide has dried out and left a mile-long mud slough with a 3-mile creek before the Ray Channel.

Considering this was where I learned to sail, you’d think I’d know better than to run aground in the Solent.

The family were excited about the prospect of taking their old 26ft clinker built wooden boat Blauwe Slenk She was out again two years after her refit, even though she was still very dry on top.

After spending most of the winter moored in a half tide mud berth her underwater planks swelled up nicely.

A gentle sail was rigged from Southampton Water’s mouth after the motor had completed its short journey down the Hamble River.

A clinker built yacht moored on a buoy

John Simpson’s 26ft clinker-built yacht Blauwe Slenk

Then I thought it would be fun to celebrate by taking our boat up Ashlett Creek. This way, we can have a few drinks and get out before the creek dries up with the tide.Blauwe Slenk draws 5ft).

My plan wasn’t totally stupid because it was between high waters, Southampton being one of the few places in the world that has two high waters due to geography.

On Springs the tide only drops 5% over 21⁄2 hours, even coming back in again slightly for the second high water, before it all drops very suddenly in the last 31⁄2 hours.

Southampton is an excellent port for ships of any size.

Having local knowledge was a bonus.

As an instructor at the time I regularly started my five-day day-sailing courses (on spring tides, noon and midnight HW’s) by sailing up this unlit creek in the dark on a flooding tide on a Sunday evening.

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What to Do When You Run Aground

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On the first night of their sailing courses, this gave everyone the opportunity to do three important things: to sail (or to motor) up a drying creek that was not lit, which is usually done in the dark; to learn how you can lean a boat against a brick wall to dry it out; and to get a beer as a reward in the pub.

Then we’d float off again in the morning.

On the last day of an instructor training week we’d even raced three of the four sailing school boats up this creek very early on the tide.

The only requirement was that the boat had to be sailing. The fourth boat attracted too many people to take part, so it motored.

The race involved much running aground on the mud and trying to sail the boat off on a rising tide – putting jibs up backstays, hanging out on booms etc in an effort to break the boats off the mud.

The relaxed guy who ran the school came the closest I’d ever seen him to losing his cool when he suddenly realised we were past second high water and still not at the top of the creek.

He probably had in mind that all four boats would be aground and that students who joined on Friday night would have to wade through the mudflats until they reached the yachts.

So, I’d had plenty of first-hand experience of Ashlett Creek.

Chart of Ashlett Creek

Ashlett Creek. Maxine Heath

It was a typical sailing trip with my wife. Unfortunately, I got stuck. Blauwe About halfway up the creek, you can find a good amount of mud.

Unable to break her off we dried out, with the boat lying down on her side at a typical keel boat angle (40°/50°+) with water pouring in the dry port topsides.

After a very uncomfortable evening as it went dark, with only some water to drink and no food, we finally floated off at about 1 o’clock in the morning.

The leaks required a lot more pumping and we had to limp back up Southampton Water until our mooring. Needless to say, I wasn’t too popular!

The author’s restored his boat Blauwe Slenk over two-and-a-half years – then ran aground on her first outing!

The author’s restored his boat Blauwe Slenk over two-and-a-half years –then ran aground on her first outing!

The only benefit from my own point of view was that we managed, by wading around in the mud, to remove some of the soft sealant I’d put between the underwater planks to fill up the gaps.

This then allowed the boat a full ’take up’ (ie the wood could finish swelling unhindered by sealant).

Wes was 10 when he went on the boat. He did not complain, but grew cold at the end due to the lack of accommodation.

Janet and Wes are still sailing with me? I wonder sometimes. I’m sure they must often wonder how I manage to teach anyone to sail!

Boating in shallow waters teaches us many lessons

If you are going to sail into a shallow place – whether your boat has a lifting, bilge or deep keel – do some forward planning.

This is especially true if you haven’t been to your destination before. Don’t take things too casually like I did.

It is difficult to sail this kind of creek crawling without a motor or oars.

It is possible that the wind does not always blow from a convenient angle in an area where there are many bends.

What you’ll need

  •  A large-scale chart or map of the area, whether it’s a tidal creek, inland river, inlet in a lake or coral lagoon.
  • Lead line, or a sounding pole. In Leigh, my hometown, fishing boats had long wooden poles that were painted in two different colours every foot. If you have a small boat, it is possible to paint the boathook handle.
    You’ll note I haven’t mentioned echo sounders: although very useful, they mostly only tell you that you’re aground in very shallow places (unless you happen to have the forward-looking type).
  •  Compass
  • Tide tables.
  • A plotter. (Parallel rule or Breton.
  • Dry wipe board or transparent waterproof board (for chart or pilotage map).
  • An anchor with a rope that is attached to the kedge anchor.
  • A dinghy.
  • When things go wrong, a spade is used to dig a channel in the keel.

Pilotage guide

Next, you can either mark the board with dry wipes or put the chart in the waterproof cover.

Either of these can then be used on deck when it’s wet, like a deck slate.

Do this well before you reach your shallow area or the entrance.

If you are in tidal waters it pays to arrive well before HW even though there’s a risk you could run gently aground.

A diagram showing a pilotage guide to boating in shallow waters

Pilotage guide – Annotations on entering Ashlett Creek transferred from a map to a dry erase board for cockpit use

If the bottom is soft, (sand or mud, gravel, shale etc.), then it should be fine. this shouldn’t matter too much: as the tide floods, the boat will float off.

Rock and coral obviously have to be taken more seriously because of potential damage to the bottom of the boat, but it’s still best to arrive as soon as you calculate you can float over any objects.

Organise your boat’s tasks before you enter the shallows.

When you have enough crew on board, assign one person to steer by rough compass course, another to sound in the bows, and someone else who uses the chart or dry-wipe board, telling the helm where to go.

Travel slowly, at maximum two knots, on the first plotted route of your shallow creek or river.

Plunge into the depths

Use the lead line tied at the end of a long pole, or place a sounding stick on each side of the bow.

Don’t expect the deepest water to run exactly as the chart or map suggests: there’s a good possibility the channel has moved since it was charted.

A diagram showing Techniques for boating in shallow water. Plumb the depths: Use a sounding pole or lead tied to a boathook

Boating techniques for shallow water. Plumb the depths using a lead or sounding rod tied to a hook.

If you are unsure of where the channel is, try to travel on the left- or the right-hand-side to ensure that you can always reach deeper water.

A bend is often characterized by deeper water on the outside, particularly in rivers and tidal areas, because of the scouring action.

When the wind is strong, it’s best to stay to the windward end of the channel to prevent blowing.

You can expect to occasionally run aground, but you should do so gently.

If you ever run aground you should spend a moment sounding the area to see where there is deep water so you know how to get off.

Running aground

If you are on a small boat and run aground, it’s possible to get unstuck if the boat is heaved over by the crew or if the sails are rolled in.

This doesn’t work for bilge keeled boats, however.

If you’re certain of the depth and won’t sink into the mud, even jumping off the boat and pushing her off can work!

If you run hard aground you may have to use the kedge anchor, rowed out by dinghy to the deep water, to pull the boat off, especially if she’s a heavy boat.

Running aground: Methods to try for getting unstuck when boating in shallow water

Techniques for boating on shallow water. How to get out of a snag when you are boating in shallow waters

You can also help by attaching the anchor warps to a winch.

A friend of mine ran aground in a 26ft bilge keeler and couldn’t get her off.

Unfortunately, as bad luck would have had it, the inflatable boat on tow drifted into the gap between the keels. And the yacht then sat on top of it when the tide came in.

a diagram showing Running aground: Methods to try for getting unstuck when boating in shallow water

Techniques for boating on shallow water. How to get out of a snag when you are boating in shallow waters

He said that it was like sitting in jelly.

He was worried about possible damage to his yacht and ended up having to cut the dinghy using a knife that had been taped on the boathook.

Be aware of potential hazards, such as weeds, lines around the propeller and engine overheating caused by sucking something up into the cooling system.

You should also be mindful of junk on the bottom such as mooring blocks, outfall pipes and  shopping trolleys.

It’s worth the effort

It is not for everyone to put a boat on shallow water where it could cause damage.

But it can be great fun, especially if it’s too windy or rough to go out sailing in open water.

It can be worth the effort if you are rewarded with some beautiful wildlife or a tranquil, peaceful location.

You may also like to read Boating in shallow Water: Techniques and Tips.

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