We’ve been asked a few times how it happened. How did we hit something with our boat that caused damage significant enough to require a haul-out and repair? Some of the questions came from other boaters, who understand how it happens, but were just curious as to where it happened and looking for information about the area so that they might avoid a grounding themselves. Other questions came from people not as familiar with boats and were trying to understand exactly WHAT went wrong that could cause your boat to hit bottom. Others still, including the person who answered the phone at the insurance company, didn’t even understand what caused the damage, only that we hit SOMETHING. So Laura thought it might be a good blog post to explain how it happened that day.
Before I go on, I should interject a saying I’ve heard about running aground while cruising in a boat. It goes something like, “There are two types of cruisers…those who have run aground and those who are lying about it.” Another one ends with “…those who have already run aground and those who will.” Either way, the point is that it is a common occurrence if you spend enough time cruising. I even heard it referred to as losing your grounding virginity. Do I sound like I’m defending myself already?? Ha!
Anyway, we’ve been traveling on what is called the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which is a series of man-made canals and natural rivers, creeks, inlets, sounds that are tucked in behind the land along the East coast. The AICW runs from Norfolk, VA to Southern Florida and the idea is that you can travel much of the East coast in protected waters and have access to cities and towns, anchorages and marinas, attractions and culture as you travel. It allows you to move as slowly as you like and saves you a lot of the preparation that is required for longer passages offshore. It suits our needs right now as we grow accustomed to cruising life and work to get our processes and crew squared away. The disadvantages of the ICW, however, are that most of it is narrow and shallow. You also have to be incredibly vigilant at the helm because of the amount of boat traffic you will encounter. There are navigation signs to follow very closely, and bridges to pass under, and tides and currents. Honestly, it can get a little hectic, particularly on weekends, and even more particularly on holiday weekends….much like the July 4th weekend when we found ourselves entering the area behind all of the beaches of southern North Carolina.
The ICW has areas known for shoaling, which means that the sediment has shifted around and begun to build up in certain areas, making the water shallower and shallower year after year. Areas that are known to experience lots of shoaling are ocean inlets, places where there is an access to the open ocean from the waterway. Shoaling can be even more dramatic as a result of strong storms in the area, churning up the water, increasing wind and waves. There are two inlets near Ocean Isle Beach, NC and Holden Beach, NC called the Shallotte Inlet and the Lockwood Folly inlet. We slammed into the bottom at the Shallotte Inlet.
I was following the markers traveling north on the ICW, which means keeping the red markers to port (to your left) and the green markers to starboard (to your right). The tide was outgoing as we approached the inlet, which really means that the inlet was an outlet at the time. The tide was dropping and the water was rushing out to sea. That’s a lot of water all making its way out to seathrough one narrow passage. In other words, the water was moving fast. We were loving it of course, because we were riding the current toward the inlet, moving fast without running the engine any harder or using any extra diesel. Better gas mileage. As we began to enter the area of the inlet, I was sure to align the boat between the markers, as I’d already read plenty of information about the regularly shifting bottom in these inlets. It didn’t matter. We slammed into the sand right in the middle of the channel. Laura was standing on the steps when we hit, almost throwing her forward into the cabin. I heard the girls scream down below and start to cry when all of the contents of our cabin fell off the shelf and onto the floor. We hit so hard as a result of our increased speed that it felt like the boat was going to do a front flip, end over end.
When the boat settled into place, I checked to see if anyone was hurt down below. Avery and Leslie were clinging to Laura and whimpering, but unharmed. I went back to the helm and attempted to back off the shoal, turn away from it, even raised a sail and tried to lean to boat over so we might float off of it, but it was clear we were stuck. Our TowBoatUS insurance that I’d purchased back in March now was certainly the best purchase I’d made, as uninsured towing can cost in the thousands, even tens of thousands of dollar range. We hailed TowBoatUS on the radio and they came to our aid in no time and at no additional cost to us. As we were pulled off of the sandbar, I attempted to steer the boat to safety, only to find that the wheel was locked up. Only later, when I had a moment to breathe, would I be able to diagnose the problem as a bent rudder post that probably resulted when we were pulled from the sandbar.
So in the final analysis, was it my fault that we hit bottom even though I was steering directly between the navigational markers? You damn right it was! I am the captain after all, and everything that happens to “All In” is my responsibility. But what could we have done differently? Plenty. For one, go slow. With any uncertainty at all, going slow is always the prudent choice. Reaction time improves, you’ll have extra time to assess the situation, and if something DOES happen, the damage will be minimized or even avoided. Another thing we could have done was to stop and ask local boaters with specific knowledge of the area. Even TowboatUS said that they’d be glad to assist people with navigation questions. As it turns out, at the Shallotte Inlet, you should really hug the red markers on the mainland side of the passage.
So there you have it. Not the story of the entire day of course…hitting the bottom was only the beginning of our day from hell. We battled insane boat traffic and tremendous wakes as a result all day long while at anchor with no steering because of the bent rudder from the grounding. Each wave and wind gust pushing us closer and closer to bashing into the docks on the side of the waterway. The heat beating down. I’d rather forget. But that’s the way it happened and the reason our boat is now hauled out in Southport, NC for repairs, the reason we are now nestled into a mountain condo in Vermont (this ain’t so bad!) and the reason I’ve got all this time for writing a blog post. We hope to be back on board sometime during the week of July 25. Check back for updates!