How Not to Sail aka Running Your New Boat Aground

by Patrick

Byn has been bugging me to get back to the story, rather than detailing current events, so here you go lover 🙂  Over the last 30 years sailing isn’t something that I’ve talked much about. It’s probably due to the fact that if I ever let myself ruminate on it, I’m pretty sure the urge to just GO would have been overwhelming and I may have done something rather hasty.

Ironic, given our current hastyishness.

(From Byn:  A calendar page to help you define the word, “hastyishness”)


August(ish) 1982


Hmmmm… where did I leave off? Oh yeah. My family had just bought a sailboat and taken a trip down the Illinois waterway and up the Mississippi. The post about learning to sail actually happened before we bought Etesian, so the trip up the Mississippi is where I’ll pick things up chronologically.

Things break on boats. Anyone who owns one will tell you this unequivocally. In our case we got pretty lucky with Etesian on her first outing. There wasn’t one single problem that came up on our way to her home port, which is really exceptional. It’s not like boats break down completely all the time, it’s usually just a little thing here or there. Left untended though, those little things can pile up and lead to something big later if you don’t address them on a constant basis, so owning a boat – particularly a sailboat- is akin to one long boat maintenance project. Good thing I’m a handy sort who enjoys working with his hands, I guess.

Back to Iowa, though. The marina in Burlington, Iowa was to be our home away from home for the next couple of years. I remember the first day that we finally got the mast stepped, the rigging all in place, and went out for an actual sail. It was one of those picture perfect days where the light just seemed to be more vibrant than usual, and the wind a little sweeter. It’s difficult to picture the Mississippi being the setting for a beautiful day due to the fact that visibility in the water is basically zero. There’s a reason she’s often referred to as ‘Old Muddy’. Nevertheless, it is possible to have a beautiful day on the river.

Up to this point the largest boat we had actually sailed was the little racing skiff that we learned to sail in. We had some additional experience in the form of a small Sunfish that a friend of ours let us use, but in terms of vessel size our new boat was way bigger than anything else we’d been on. Just the 3000 pounds of lead ballast in the keel was heavier than a lot of cars.

As we were pulling out of the marina for the first time we quickly learned that buying an ocean-capable boat to use on the Mississippi has it’s challenges. While the channel for barge traffic on the river is continually dredged for a minimum depth of nine feet, the same cannot be said for other parts of the river. Since the current is always flowing, sand and mud banks are constantly in flux and charts of areas outside the main channel are ‘best guess’ at any given time.

We never made it out of the marina.

Turns out that between the time we first arrived at the marina and the time we tried to leave, a good sized chunk of Iowa farmland had clogged up the marina entrance to a mere three feet. Not good when your boat draws four feet of water. I suppose the good thing about muddy river bottoms is that they’re pretty soft, so that when we promptly ran aground it was more of a gentle ‘you shall go no further’ indication than a hull-splitting crash.

Dad was not happy. He had chosen this particular marina because they claimed to regularly dredge out their entrance channel to five feet. Quite the letdown to be so excited for your first real sail on your very own sailboat and then have to get another boat to tow you backwards out of the muck and towards the slip you just left.

Here’s where the boat maintenance I mentioned earlier comes into play. We knew that the shaft seal on the prop shaft needed replacing, but it’s not like it was leaking really bad. Just a slow drip-drip-drip when the motor was engaged. At least it was slow in forward. Reverse was a different story. For whatever reason the way the shaft seal was packed was particularly ineffective when the shaft rotated in that direction.

So when dad threw the transmission into reverse and cranked up the little motor for all it was worth we quickly learned the limits of the pumping capacity of our bilge pump. That is to say, we learned that it was not enough to keep a ruptured shaft seal from sinking your boat.

Luckily we had a manual pump on board (never leave home without one, folks) so while I jumped into the river and swam towards the marina office to get help Dad found himself in the engine compartment pumping for all he was worth.

Soon enough I had people coming our way to help and we were pulled off the mud bar, put into the marina’s boat lift (which we were lucky they had), and out of the water before we sank. One quick repair to the shaft seal, a drop back into the water, and then park the boat back in our slip. Not exactly the day we had planned.

After a good bit of being berated by my Dad, the marina scheduled someone to come out and dredge their entrance channel as well as not charging anything for that month’s slip rental or the haul out to repair the shaft seal.

Moral of the story? Don’t let the small things slide. Also: don’t leave home without a good manual pump as a backup, and having a decent depth finder on board is a really good idea.



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