The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Lessons Learned the Hard Way . . . Running Aground!

Norm Cooper

Sarah Jean II
Saga 43
July 9th, 2015

Norm shares another valuable lesson learned from running aground in Mexico.  If you put a lot of miles under your keel, it is not a question of if you will run aground but when.  That being said, there are many steps you can take to minimize the likelihood of it happening to you.


We were cruising the coast of Pacific Mexico and had just spent a couple of days in a lovely but shallow bay that was accessed by a narrow channel.  It was a gorgeous morning.  We lifted the anchor and motored slowly down the channel towards the sea, enjoying views of the quaint village with its many colourful buildings illuminated by the early morning sun.  Suddenly the boat shuddered to a stop!  We were aground!  A quick glance at the chartplotter showed we at least 100 feet north of our planned route and the safe track we had laid down when cautiously entering the anchorage just a few days ago.  We jammed the throttle lever down and turned the wheel hard to port.  The engine roared in protest but slowly drove the boat forward, plowing a deep furrow along the muddy bottom as we headed back to the middle of the channel and deep water.  We were lucky to lose northing more than bottom paint during this incident.  It could have been much worse.

Mistake Made

We knew the route to follow and had it loaded into our chartplotter.  We even had a track on the chartplotter to follow.  Yet we ran aground.  Our mistake was simple carelessness, combined with incorrect use of the available navigational tools.  We were both distracted by the scenery as we motored along.  Because we were zoomed out too far we failed to notice we had drifted off our route and the safe track.  Also, because both of us were enjoying the view, neither of us were watching the depth sounder closely enough to notice the changing depth until it was too late.  This was just one incident.  We have had several other close calls, many of them here on the west coast.  Virtually all were avoidable.  Here are some of the lessons we have learned on how to prevent an accidental grounding.

Lessons Learned

Good Planning: Research where you will go, create a route, load it into your chartplotter and then follow that route.  If you change the plan due to wind and current, then update the route you will follow with a similar level of research.   Hazards may exist along the new route.

Chart Accuracy: If sailing in other countries, know the accuracy of your paper and electronic charts.  Use radar overlay, Google Earth and other tools for chart accuracy verification.

Paper Chart Review: Before departure look at paper charts for the best overview of the cruising area and all the potential hazards.  It is easy to miss things by viewing only electronic charts.

Tides & Currents: Always check the tides and currents for the day, particularly as they pertain to shallow passes and the entries to anchorages.  Know what the depth will be when you will pass these areas and have these depths noted down in your logbook for reference.

Make a Safe Route: Load your route into your chartplotter, even if cruising a familiar area.  And don’t save the route.  Delete it when the cruise is over.  This will force you to review the route and refresh your memory each and every time you load it into your chartplotter.  Zoom down to the lowest level so you can see the depths and all the hazards.  We now do this for routes of only a few miles that we have sailed many times before.  Familiarity can breed complacency and carelessness.  Do you really know exactly where all the rocks are along the route?  Maybe you have not looked at that particular chart for years!

Load your route into your chartplotter or navigation program carefully noting all hazards.  Do not leave the anchorage without a plan and a route to follow.

Load your route into your chartplotter or navigation program carefully noting all hazards. Do not leave the anchorage without a plan and a route to follow.

Double Check the Route: Consider loading your route into a second device such as your laptop or iPad.  Sometimes the charts are different and will show different depths or hazards.  Then caution is required.  In BC waters we typically load routes into our Raymarine chartplotter that uses Navionics charts, and into Costal Explorer that uses Canadian Hydrographic raster and vector charts.

Refer to Cruising Guides: If going to a new anchorage, review cruising guides for information about entry, best anchoring locations and local hazards.  Often there will be a warning to keep away from a certain treacherous rock at the harbour entrance that is not so obvious on the chart.

Review cruising guides for information on best anchorage spots and possible hazards in the area.

Review cruising guides for information on best anchorage spots and possible hazards in the area.

Prepare in Advance: Do all your planning the night before departure.  This gives you time to carefully review the charts, load your route into the chartplotter and review the guides.  Do not lift the anchor and head off without a plan and a route to follow unless you are just going for a day sail in English Bay.

Stay on Course: Once underway, follow the route.  Have someone assigned as helmsperson with the task of keeping the boat on course.  Then the others can enjoy the scenery and take photos.

The helmsperson should constantly monitor the boat's position to make sure you are sailing along the planned route.  Radar can be used to verify position and confirm chart accuracy.

The helmsperson should constantly monitor the boat’s position to make sure you are sailing along the planned route. Radar can be used to verify position and confirm chart accuracy.

Use Extra Caution: When entering a narrow or treacherous area be sure to zoom in on your chartplotter so you can more easily tell if you are on course.  Keep your head up for navigational references.  Put someone on the bow to watch for rocks and shallow areas.  Assign another person to watch the depth sounder and call out the depths.  Note if the depths are consistent with your chart information and expectations in your logbook notes.

Use Track Mode: Always keep your chartplotter or laptop navigational program in track mode.  Then when the time comes to exit an anchorage or narrow channel you can follow the track to safe water.  Be sure that the tide and depths are similar to when you entered or take the change into account.

Navigate with Discipline: Finally, be disciplined when it comes to following these basic safe navigating practices.  Plan the route carefully in advance.  When underway the person at the helm must stay focused on the important task of keeping the boat on the safe course you have set.


The grounding incident in Mexico was resolved with a little sandpaper and some bottom paint during our next haul out.  We were very lucky!

Have a Story?

We have all made mistakes and learned valuable lessons the hard way. Do you have a story you want to share with BCA members, so we can learn from your experience? If so, please submit it for publication in this column.  Thanks!

Send us your story with ‘OOPS!’ in the subject line.


  1. Adam McKenzie says:

    Thanks for the story and lessons learned.. Coming from a new boater this is valuable advise that both Nancy and I will look into doing

  2. Jim Bowen says:

    Hi, thanks for sharing your experiences.

    On board Falcon VII we never, and I mean absolutely never, go anywhere without our depth sounder shallow alarm turned on. We usually keep it set to warn us if we enter water shallower than 30 feet, but change that if circumstances warrant. Travelling up the Sacramento River to the city of Sacramento last year, we had it set at 15 feet for the shallower water we were travelling in. The sound of that alarm has snapped us out of complacency a couple of times now.

    Ditto anchor alarm on at night. After witnessing a couple sleep through a parted anchor rode and lose their boat in the surf in a west coast Baja anchorage in Mexico, we will never be without an anchor alarm. We use a free app called Drag Queen.

    I am not suggesting replacing human diligence in favour of technology, but rather adding electronic watchfulness as another layer in our arsenal of self-protective measures.

    Jim Bowen
    S/V Falcon VII
    Victoria, BC

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