When Anchoring Goes Wrong
Setting the hook, do you ever ask yourself if you feel lucky?
There are three kinds of boaters: Those who have gone aground, those who will go aground, and those who have gone aground but lie about it.
My wife and I and our friends Scott and Dawn (who spent two years on their sailboat in the South Pacific) are on my boat, a 43-foot Ocean Alexander, for a leisurely September cruise in Washington’s San Juan Islands. After three glorious days—including a side trip down to Port Townsend for the Wooden Boat Festival—we’re heading back to our home port of Anacortes and our final night out. The weather forecast calls for southwest winds of 10 to 20 knots, so we circle Decatur Island looking for a snug cove with exposure to the north to anchor in.
We find the perfect little slot but after trying five times to get the anchor to bite into the kelp-covered mud bottom, we give up and head to our next choice. Read Bay is a bit more exposed but provides more room to choose a good spot to anchor.
We drop the anchor a hundred yards from shore in 10 feet of water. Scott convinces me that my usual anchoring technique (3:1 scope, and don’t set the anchor) is entirely inadequate, so to keep the peace I relent. Debbie lets out 60 feet of chain (6:1) and we back down on the anchor to make sure it’s holding. It sets solid and there’s lots of room to swing if the wind changes direction. The four of us jump on paddleboards and paddle around the end of the island for an hour before heading back to the boat. Scott decides to find us some dinner so he dons his scuba gear and goes searching for crab.
Forty-five minutes later he’s back with a bag-full. “I dove on the anchor and it’s set deep in the mud—it would take a tsunami to move it.” Good news since the wind is predicted to build.
We stuff ourselves on crab, pasta, corn, and beers, and even though we’re disappointed that my Captain Ron DVD won’t play, it’s a beautiful evening and finally around 10:00 we head for bed. All is good.
I sit bolt upright in bed. What the hell was that?
Debbie snaps awake. What was that?
I jump out of bed and bound up the stairs into the saloon. It’s pitch black and I can just barely make out Scott who is standing in the saloon in his flannel jammies staring out the window.
What the hell … ?
“I think we’ve moved,” he says. It takes me a few seconds to understand the concept. The wind is howling and an erratic rain is pelting down on the windows. We’re standing in the dark with the only light coming from a few red LEDs on the breaker panel indicating that we still have power. I stare out the window at a house with a string of Christmas lights illuminating a big window just a hundred feet away. Wow … what a weird dream.
“Yeah, look at that tree. I don’t think it was there before.”
I squint into the darkness and can just make out a small tree that is being lashed by the wind, its branches whipping wildly in the menacing night.
“Yeah … and what about that house … wasn’t that farther away … ?”
“Um … I think we dragged.”
I stare out the window. “Holy sh*t. We’re on shore.”
I turn on our weather instruments and it is suddenly quite obvious: The wind has switched from south to north, it is blowing a gale, the temperature has dropped 30 degrees, it is pissing sideways rain, for some unknown reason we are no longer anchored where we started, and the boat is slamming against the shore. I grab my foul weather gear and a big flashlight and head outside.
I shine the light into the darkness and then down over the edge of the rail and into the water. Yes, there is water. It is around a foot deep, and there are two barnacle-covered boulders just breaking the surface.
The side of the boat rises as a surge of wind and waves hits the other side and propels it upward onto the rocks. The wind-driven waves are slamming hard into the windward side of the boat making a thunderous crash.
I look down at the shore and watch in stunned silence as the boat rises up and settles down onto one of the rocks.
“We aren’t anchored?”
Scott and I head to the bow. The anchor chain is slack. I grab it and pull hard, expecting it to grab but nothing happens. As I pull, it slides along the bottom easily and within a minute I stare down at a huge clump of mud and kelp where there should be a 45-pound steel anchor. It’s in there somewhere, I assume, but it is so bound up with clay and seaweed that it couldn’t possibly bite into the ocean bottom.
We scurry back to the middle of the boat and shine our lights all along the beach … which is around 5 feet away. The “beach” is a steep gravel bank studded with large boulders that are embedded into the bottom, their surfaces covered with razor-sharp barnacles. It’s impossible to tell how big they actually are. Scott courageously leaps over the railing and into the water to see if there’s any chance that we can still motor off the beach while I head inside and fire up the generator, just in case.
I turn on our electronics and the screens of the depth sounder and GPS light up. Depth: 0. Zero. No depth. Boat position on the chartplotter: on shore. Very on shore.
I switch to the ‘information’ screen and check the tide. It’s about a foot below high water. In my adrenaline-fueled state I decide it is rising. Scott, back onboard and equally delusional, agrees and we head back outside to make a plan. Debbie and Dawn are standing silently in the saloon trying to make sense of it all.
“Maybe we can start the port motor and it will pull the stern back out,” Scott suggests, more for something to suggest rather than any real chance it would work.
As the boat continues to pitch, we scurry to the stern to assess this first idea. I aim my light into the water and the beam immediately reveals several big boulders just five feet away. Nope, we won’t be backing out of this situation. Back inside, the girls are waiting.
Debbie begins, “Um, we think that the tide is falling, not rising.”
Dawn points to the computer screen, and it indicates that the tide is falling. In fact it will be going down another five feet in the next five hours. The boat will stay fast on the beach, resting on its keel until the ocean retreats enough to remove any semblance of buoyancy and then it will tip over onto the rocks and we all will die. Or at least end up sitting on the beach in the rain.
It takes a moment for this new knowledge to sink in. It’s 1:00 am, the boat is getting smashed on the rocks as we stand here completely unable to do a thing about it, and in all probability the boat will soon be on its side. I go back outside and peer down at the two large rocks just inches away from the chine where the side of the hull meets the bottom. As each wind-driven wave hits the windward side of the boat, the hull rises and bangs down on the closest rock:
As I watch, I see that the actual force of the boat on the rock is not actually as bad as the sound makes it seem. I turn to the others.
“Well,” I announce, “we’re on the beach and we’re not getting off any time soon. The tide will keep going out until around 6:30. At least at this point the wind is keeping us pinned on these rocks so we might not tip over. We might as well try to get some sleep and deal with this in the morning.” I really can’t believe I’m saying this: Well, the boat is on the rocks, let’s go back to bed. But that’s the reality of the situation.
I look out again and see the owner of the house standing on the bank above us. I guess our lights have awakened him. “Not much you can do now,” he yells into the wind. “Tide’s going out. I’ll see you in the morning—don’t worry, you’ll still be here.”
Well isn’t that comforting?
Scott and I take one last look around, surveying the wind and waves slamming into the port side and the rocks that are now out of the water and propped against our hull on the starboard side. The tide is still receding fast—luckily for us—and the violent lurching as the swell picks us up and plops us back on the beach is slowly subsiding. I strain to hear any signs of splintering fiberglass or grinding prop blades. So far so good. Then it’s back to bed.
I lay on my back and try to figure out what more I can do. Nothing. The wind is still whistling around the boat but the movement gradually fades away until I can feel that we are on solid ground. I keep waiting for the boat to suddenly topple onto its side but it doesn’t happen and after an hour or so I actually fade off to sleep.
I wake up around 6:00. I figure out it wasn’t all a bad dream. Debbie is still asleep as I swing out of bed, pull on my fleece and head up into the saloon.
I go to the swim platform and hop down onto solid ground. The first thing I notice is that it is not sand or mud—it’s hard, compact gravel and the keel, rather than having dug into the muck, is sitting smartly right on the surface. It’s just about slack tide and the water is about ten feet out from the keel on the port side.
As I walk around the boat it starts to occur to me how incredibly lucky we were (not counting the fact that we dragged our anchor and ran aground). Five feet behind the stern and 10 feet off the bow are several large boulders that we somehow avoided. On the beach side are three rocks imbedded into the gravel: one is a couple feet from the keel, supporting the hull; one is supporting the edge of the hull; and the third—a nasty boulder with two large horns sticking out—we didn’t touch. With the boat fully supported by the keel, and leaning at a 10-degree angle against the two solid but rounded rocks, it’s as if we had been gently dropped down there by a TraveLift in preparation for bottom paint. The props and rudders are still several inches above the gravel beach and are totally unscathed.
The tide came in and the water returned at 12:55, exactly 12 hours after we went aground. The boat moved, then floated free as the tow boat we had called yanked the line taut and headed away from shore. It was a glorious sunny day as we motored the two hours back to the marina. Unbelievably, the boat emerged completely unscathed. I guess I’ll just chalk it up to going from the type of boater who will go aground to the type who has gone aground. Lucky me.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.