Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | January 15, 2012

Running Aground

N 18° 03.77′   W 63° 05.31′

Simpson Bay Lagoon, Marigot, St. Martin


Like most of the world, we were surprised to see the news headlines about the grounding and sinking of the Costa Concordia. That sparked some lively discussion aboard. How could this luxury cruise ship on a routine voyage with an experienced captain get into such a predicament?

Human error is always a prime suspect. Someone didn’t do their job, got distracted with another problem, didn’t catch a system failure, used poor judgment. The scary part is that no matter how we strive to get things right we are still human and find ourselves making stupid mistakes on occasion.

Running aground at home in a small boat in the shallow sandy bottomed waters around Tampa Bay was not usually a big deal. Rather a minor inconvenience that could be resolved by shifting weight to the bow of the boat. Or by someone jumping into the water and pushing the boat off the offending sandbar. If the tide was rising we could simply wait and float off. The worst case was having to get a tow. We will admit that we were sloppy on occasion and got stuck briefly a few times, but never with any major consequences.

Graduating to the Mar Azul, a heavy vessel with a full keel, and traveling in waters where there are hazards like reefs, coral heads and submerged rocks, running aground is a huge no-no. Electronic charts interfaced with the boat’s GPS position are extremely helpful and make navigation so easy that a small child proficient in video games can steer a course. The charts have been amazingly accurate in the waters we have travelled thus far. We are cautious to continually validate their accuracy by comparing them to our depth soundings and visual observations.

In some locations that have not been fully charted we have had to learn to read water depths by sight, observing for color changes and wave variations that can help identify shallow areas, reefs and coral heads. That can only be done when there is strong sunlight overhead. Traveling across the Caicos Banks, a day long trip through shallow water, we had to watch for possible uncharted coral heads. I found that difficult and nervewracking and on my watches we zigzagged through the Banks avoiding any area that was remotely suspicious. Many anchorages lack chart detail and must likewise be explored using sight, depth soundings and great caution.

Equipment failure that goes undetected can lead to more serious problems. Our autopilot has gone berserk on more than one occasion, abruptly changing course. Usually it is obvious when that happens but may be less so at night and could cause a grounding if not detected in a timely manner. Paying attention at the helm is not hard and is critical, although it is often boring.

Sometimes a passage will involve course changes to avoid land or other obstacles We had such passages while we were hugging the coast of the Dominican Republic trying to stay close to shore to take advantage of the night lee and calmer seas. On those passages crew must pay very close attention and getting distracted or snoozing at the helm while steering a course toward shore could be disastrous.

Failure of engines with insufficient time or place to set an anchor is another scenario that could cause a grounding. We met a captain who lost the sailboat engine on an ocean passage when a large cable got tangled in the propellor. She was able to maneuver under sail until the winds died, and getting around Anguilla and into port in St-Martin was tricky. While a sailboat at least has sails to provide propulsion and steerage, a power vesssel with no engines is helpless. It would be rare but not unheard of that multiple engines would be simultaneously lost.

So we are closely following the Costa story, as we have followed other disasters at sea, to try to learn from those misfortunes.

Crew update:   We are spending some lazy days meeting new friends, doing boat chores, reading and relaxing as we wait out the winter winds. Bob is starting to feel the fever to continue our travels and is planning our next stops. We plan to catch up with friends who are visiting the island in February and then we will look for good weather to move on. Bandit is doing well and her limp is almost gone. Lady has started harassing her again with Bandit reciprocating; their resumed squabbles a sign that the dogs have sensed that Bandit’s recovery is complete.



  1. Watch out for those hidden reefs… and no sleeping at the helm! See you next month…

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