10 Tips to Keep You Off the Rocks | holisticsailor.com

10 Tips to Keep You Off The Rocks

Two sailboats from our marina are currently on the hard after running into rocks. One boat is expected to be out of the water for 2 1/2 months and the owner has not revealed the estimated cost of the repair. The other boat owner was told yesterday that repairs will take six months at an estimated cost of $60,000 to repair two cracks in the hull that resulted from hitting the rock. The financial impact of hitting rocks is one consequence, but the potential for injury or loss of life from a boat coming to a sudden stop while underway is a more important reason for boaters to take care. In these two examples, luckily no one was hurt.

Knock on wood, we have not hit any rocks, but we have had a few close calls. A sailing instructor I know said that on average boaters usually run aground or hit a rock after they have been boating for seven years because they lose the caution that they had as new boaters and become complacent.

When we experience problems on the water, once safely at anchor or back at the dock, we debrief and come up with strategies to make sure that we don’t repeat our errors. I offer you these 10 tips that hopefully will help keep you and your crew safe and off the rocks.

  1. Read your paper charts. And then read them again. This should be obvious, but many boaters have abandoned paper charts and rely solely on digital chart plotters. In the marine environment, moisture and corrosion have a heyday with electronics. You are in trouble if your electronics start to malfunction and you do not have paper charts on board. Murphy’s Law of boating dictates that your chart plotter will fail when you are relying on it the most. There are many remote stretches on the BC coast and access to a repair shop may not be possible. Every time we make a course change, both of us consult the paper chart in addition to the chart plotter. Paper charts contain tons of information relevant to boaters. To insure that you understand the symbols on your charts, read the Symbols, Abbreviations and Terms book produced by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. This book is free should be on board for easy reference. Download a copy here.
  2. Know the navigational aids for your area. As I get older, my memory is not as reliable as it used to be, so during the long stretch of winter, I  review The Canadian Aids to Navigation System produced by the Canadian Coast Guard. Sailing Directions, produced by Fisheries and Oceans should be on your nav table when underway. It has a handy, pull-out chart on the Canadian Aids to Navigation System as well as other information not provided on paper or electronic charts. Sailing Directions can be purchased from your local chart supplier. Navigational aids mark dangers among other things, but they don’t always mark the centre of the danger. The rocks might lie to the north, south, east or west. You have to be able to recognize the marker and also, check your paper chart to see where the hazard is located.
  3. Never use a navigational aid as a waypoint on your chart plotter. We responded to a mayday call once for a power boat that hit Pringle Rock at 20 knots while the captain was down below having breakfast. He set the autopilot on a course to Pringle Rock; miscalculated how long it would take to get there; and found the rock. The boat was lost.
  4. Kelp is not your friend. If you see kelp, pay immediate attention. Kelp grows in shallow water and is often found around submerged rocks. Kelp gardens are marked on your paper charts. Kelp may have broken off and be free-floating, but it may foul your prop or your engine uptake may suck up debris, so we look out for kelp balls and go around them.
  5. If in doubt about a rock, take evasive action and go around. In our area there is a rock called Zero Rock and another called Little Zero Rock, both which are clearly marked. The markers also mark a stretch of rocks that exist between the two rocks. And although, there is a section where boaters can find safe passage, we go around. Several marine repair shops in our area have made a comfortable living from repairing boats that have met Little Zero Rock. Headlands often have rocks that extend out, so we don’t cut corners – we go around.
  6. Zoom in your chart plotter when coming into an anchorage. When zoomed out, the chart plotter will not reveal features such as shallow areas and rocks. And of course, consult your paper chart.
  7. Sound the circumference on your planned anchoring spot by doing a small circle around where you plan to drop your anchor. You don’t want to pull onto a submerged reef in the middle of the night when the tide drops and the wind shifts. Stuff happens. We have a nifty handheld depth sounder from West Marine that we have used from the dinghy when sounding from the sailboat is not practical.
  8. Know the tides for the day. Write this info down so you know where you are in the tide cycle when you come into an anchorage and look forward to see the tides for the following day. It’s not fun to find yourself sitting high and dry in the middle of the night. I am not a wizard folks, but as the tide drops the submerged rocks are closer to the surface. Tide also affects markers that are attached to the bottom of the ocean floor by a chain. A marker pushed by wind at low tide will not be sitting in the same spot that it does at high tide in no wind, so give it wide berth.
  9. Be prepared to change your plans. Recently we were ready to transit a narrow channel by following a range established by two markers when a heavy fog rolled in obscuring the markers and eliminating visual cues. Although we could have relied on the depth sounder, if it failed midway (remember Murphy?), we’d be in big trouble. There was a lot of oncoming traffic due to it being slack tide. We weighed our options and decided to take the long way around rather than risk equipment failure with no backup system in place.
  10. If you don’t know where you are, stop until you do know. I am pretty sure that I read this in one of Reanne and Don Douglass’ books and it is terrific advice.

Ultimately, it is your responsibility to keep yourself safe and off of the rocks. Educate yourself by taking a course through the local Power and Sail Squadron. If you have been boating for awhile, you will have your own experiences and lessons learned. Please feel free to leave a comment below with your own tips for keeping off the rocks.

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