4th time is a charm or how many times can we run aground in one day? This is a blog post I wrote in April of 2008 while on a sailing adventure with my Dad on his boat. We did run aground.

Large black and orange tubes followed the shore of the waterway strung by barrels and marked by buoys with no obvious sign of what they were for until we saw the first barge spewing water and sand. Dredging. The barge had a large sign that said “all traffic” with an arrow pointing left meaning all should go to port which we did. The pipeline continued like a rope put down by small children to follow back home if they got lost. Eventually reports by radio told of boats running aground by a barge; not a good sign. 

I must admit it was entertaining to watch the other sailboats and power boats try to maneuver around the next barge, until it was our turn.

The barge captain repeatedly announced on channel 79 that if you kept your boat as close as possible to his barge and then cut hard right in front of him you would have 12 feet of water. This barge was an intimidating looking obstacle consisting of a large barge, several smaller boats attached and floating with it. On top of the barge was all kinds of equipment and towers to dredge the waterway by sucking up tons and tons of sand. The pipes kept the sand moving way back down to the other barge where the sand could be deposited in a place it would safely not drift back to fill undo all the work that had been done.

A sailboat, a trawler, a large motor yacht and even a small fishing boat soon discovered that there was only 3 to 4 feet of water just to the west of the barge and less to the north of it. All this time the barge sways back and forth on the power of its bellowing diesel engines, hard to port then back to starboard sucking the sand from the bottom with each 25 to 30 foot swing. When a boat would come to pass they would swing hard to the right (starboard) and wait for the smaller vessel to try to pass.

You may wonder, dear reader, how it is that we were there for so long to watch so many other boats run aground? Our sailing vessel, Majestic Dream ran aground on our approach to the barge. We followed their advice and stayed to their left which drove our keel into the mud along the left side of the waterway during an extra low tied. We dropped our anchor out in the channel a ways to keep us from heading further towards the shore and shallow water when the tied would come back in and the wind and current would want to push us further into the shallow water.

We waited several hours, cooked a nice lunch and monitored the chaos in front of us. I took a few videos as boats got stuck and then maneuvered to get off the hard.

Finally it was our turn. The tide was in enough that we were able to float free as we pulled our boat towards our anchor mechanically. Most sailing vessels over 40 feet have an electrical device, called a windlass, that winds the chain in and out. It can be used at times like a winch.

We motored passed the barge, made our turn to the right and prepared to smile and wave in success at the barge tender. We stopped suddenly just in front of the barge as we hit what felt like hump on the bottom of the waterway. Our bow rose up as the keel settled into the mud right in front of the barge. No amount of turning the wheel from left to right would wiggle her free. The noise from the barge was deafening. We could barely hear the radio communication from the barge tender even with the handset pinned to our ear. Very soon is was dark out. 

When darkness comes on the waterway the shore seems to recede with the darkness though it is still an unseen hazard. Red and green nuns and bouys, as the markers strageically placed along the way to guide us are called dissapear. Without a radar system tied into a lap top below decks it is nearly impossible to see the next marker. It is easy to miss a mark when panning with a flashlight. We were looking forward to moving freely again however the darkness would present other dangers. The barge works 24 hours a day so even after dark it is well lit with 2 large halogen “bug eyes” shining out in front of them.

I could not help but wonder why they did not have a better system set up to help maneuvers boats around the barge. The cost to Wilco Dredging must have been significant every time they had to stop dredging and wait for boats to get free. We kept them from dredging for more than one half hour. The barge company is not allowed to help pull anyone free with their small tug. They have incurred too many lawsuits over damage to vessels they have tried to help.

The small tug operates a depth sounder. The two bulky baby faced men operating the small tug looked like twins, or at least brothers with their goatees, ball caps and Carharts in the near dark as they pulled along side our boat to check in with us since radio communication was nearly impossible with all the noise. First they announced that there was 8 ½ feet where they floated just 10 feet to our right. Then 7 ½ then right in front of us 6 feet 1” to 6 feet 3 ‘. We draw almost 6 feet. To our left was only 4 feet of water and 2 feet farther over.

Eventually after many tiring turns to the wheel we moved freely forward steering to the right seeking the 8 foot deep water.

We waived our goodbyes as we went on towards our next peril; the dark channel before us. Since this bend in the waterway has been silting in for several years the markers get moved often to accommodate the moving landscape below the surface.

As we continued on our way it became apparent that the tall palm tree, towering over the rest along the shoreline, was keeping up with us. We were aground again. It was not until after we realized this that we discovered 3 temporary markers to the right of us. We had taken an angle along the waterway that was probably last years channel. We were too far to the left of the current channel. It was now about 10:30 at night. High Tide which would offer another foot of water was not until 12 midnight. After some attemps to break free once again we put our anchor out to keep us closer to the channel should be start moving again. 

Third times a charm. (look up saying – must have been referring to something else). 3 times the captain, my father Don a seasoned sailor, got into the dinghy, moved to the bow, loaded the anchor on board and 50 feet of chain and transported all of this out towards the channel. 3 times I ran the windlass and tried to pull the boat free. It was slow going and often hard to tell if we were actually moving up on it. I said a few Hail Mary’s and believed in the 3rd times a charm promise. Nope. I inquired what the alternative was. We could call Sea Tow. They would come and charge $2.00 a foot plus some other fees and it would be about $750 for a boat this size to be puled 50 feet into the channel. For members you can get about 1 free tow a year but but owners generally save this courtesy for times when there is a true emergency. Running aground in mud is not as dangerous as running aground on the rocks or floating at see with an engine that quit running. As I watched the currents madly swirling the surface water over the shallows behind us I further inquired what happens if we just sit tight? I was told that as the tide went out over the next 6 hours and 20 minutes we would continue to heel over on our side as our keel rested in the mud at an unlovable angle.

We were tired, we were covered in rusty “mud” created by the chain mixing with the mud and water. The bow of the boat was slathered in red mud. The lifelines near the windlass were slimy with it. Each time we had dropped the anchor and retrieved it the mud would come on board as the chain dropped down into its special compartment under the bow. Several times the chain would pile on top of itself and cause a jam at they opening; the windlass would stop working immediately. Being unpracticed at this game I thought I had broken it by trying to get it to keep working not realizing it was jammed. Thankfully it started running again once the chain was cleared away.

I am certain you have deciphered alternatives I have just shared with you which may lead you to suggest that the fourth time’s a charm? Back into the dinghy Don went, followed by the anchor and twice as much chain. I was getting good at feeding it out by this time and hoped that our success might be measured with success.

The dinghy was maneuvered farther out into the channel this time. Once back on board Majestic Dream’s engine was put into forward once again and I started “taking in” the chain hoping we were moving toward the anchor which you will for a while until the final tug releases it.

We were met with success at 12:30 in the morning just as the tied was about to change directions and run back to the ocean. We moved out into the channel and found a spot in 20 feet of water where we could anchor just at the edge, hopefully the fisherman would have had plenty of coffee before venturing out the next morning and not run into us as they day dreamed about the morning’s catch. 

I took the first watch while Don slept, caught up on some computer work, read a little and ate too much chocolate; my reward for all the hard work. He told me, before retiring for a few hours, that the tide would quietly turn the boat 180 degrees in the next hour, the chain might clank against the bow as it tried to catch up.

By this time the water was calm, the wind had gone down and we floated gently back and forth. I watched the lights on shore filter back and forth through the small round portal in the main salon. Surrounded by beautiful hand carved teak as I sat at the captains table and once again “safe” at anchor I waited for this auspicious event. I had never knowingly experienced this changing of the guard. 

All was quiet except for a subtle noise at the stern where I imagined the rudder being pushed by the tide, lowly moaning as it the 50,000 pound boat started to turn in the channel. As the lights on the shore moved I would periodically climb up the companionway stairs and peak outside making sure the channel markers were where I had left them. The moment the boat turned was rather like a moment in a Pirates of the Carribean movie when all is quiet and then something mysterious happens but you are not sure exactly what and then there she is, the Black Pearl appearing out of no where. All we did was change direction in the channel. I made sure we had enough room to stay in the deep water until time for a watch change.

The last thing I heard Don say as I drifted off to sleep was that he hoped there would be no barges coming this way in the morning. Part two coming soon?