Thursday, November 15, 2012

You're Grounded!!

      Prior to starting this trip south I reminded Joe that we should get towing insurance since most of our travel would take place in the ICW. During our last trip it was rare not to pass at least one boat that had gone aground each day. By the time we actually purchased the insurance this year we were in southern Chesapeake Bay. There is nothing comparable in the north that makes having this insurance necessary. It's easy to become complacent. The reason? Boats rarely run aground in New England.

     Fortunately, there are numerous resources available to cruisers for checking the status of ICW water issues, bridge construction status and shoaling. Salty Southeast Cruiser's Net http:/ and Active Captain are two reliable ones. Each day cruisers call in to the Cruiseheimer's Net http:/ on SSB radio to check in and sometimes report announcements regarding areas that should be approached with caution due to shoaling. There are also animated tide charts that can be checked on Navionics. Unfortunately, with all of this technical brilliance even a mid channel reading on a chart plotter doesn't always guarantee good water...

     With this episodic build up by now you've probably formed a hypothesis. Yes, Simple Life went aground, mid channel in the ICW at Breach Inlet, just before the Ben Sawyer Bridge prior to entering Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. In this particular stretch the channel was straight as an arrow but, very narrow with swirling sections of water toward the sides indicating shallows. Unfortunately, the water was a murky, pea soup green and judging depths by sight was virtually impossible. Add fierce currents running 2-4 knots and you've got a serious problem with shifting shoals anywhere in the proximity of an inlet. Just prior to the grounding, I was watching our approach on the iPad. Joe was monitoring the chart plotter and depth sounder. He was reading the soundings out loud. I heard 6.2, 5.9, 4.9...panic! Nowhere to go...felt a bump followed by that sickening soft, smoosh!
It was obvious that we weren't going anywhere anytime soon. We'd had such a great day! We'd even timed our approach perfectly to make the next bridge opening at Ben Sawyer. It wasn't to be. Time to sit back, assess the situation and have lunch.
      We pulled the jib out in the event that we were right on the edge of deeper water. Simple Life didn't budge an inch. Joe decided to call Boat US and a dispatch was underway and would arrive within a half hour. While waiting a few boats cautiously approached from astern. Each called on VHF 16 for advice on which side to pass. We radioed back and said, "Starboard seems to have more water." Another Island Packet passed safely to starboard and indicated 7 feet of water on that side.

    Off in the distance I spotted a red boat with a flashing orange light! The theme from the Lone Ranger was playing in my head. The captain of tow boat pulled his boat nearby to give instructions to Joe who waited on Simple Life's bow. Within minutes we were towed into deeper water which register 6.2 on the depth sounder and we were floating. If we hurried it looked like we might make the next bridge opening and we were only an hour behind our original schedule.

      The bridge opened on the hour, all of the boats passed through and for now water levels seemed to be rising. Momentarily, the Island Packet that had safely negotiated the shoaled channel and had passed by to starboard went hard aground! Their grounding was not the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers though. They mistook a red day marker for the channel leading toward the commercial shipping channel in Charleston harbor. They ran aground in 3 feet of water. Tow Boat US was dispatched and on their way as we headed for our destination that evening. It was certainly a day for groundings as it was an astronomical low tide.
Simple Life at her dock in Charleston Harbor
     At this point I relish the thought of an outside passage. It would be much faster and less worry some. A front has currently stalled offshore bringing high seas and winds. We've been told that the front will affect us until Thanksgiving. This afternoon, a 55 foot Ted Hood design that had been offshore from Norfolk pulled into Charleston Harbor with a torn spinnaker sock and a sail that had become entangled in the prop. The couple aboard said it was a very nasty passage and needed to call a diver to check the entanglement on the prop.
     The moral of the story is; it's prudent to buy towing insurance. We've talked to people who have paid $1,500. this season to be towed out of the mud. When the grounding happens (it will) you'll be very pleased that you dropped that check in the mail to the towing company.