When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

What Should You Do First If Your Boat Runs Aground

No matter how experienced you are out on the water, it can happen to anyone. You can be an absolute pro and still end up running aground.

One minute you can be cruising, enjoying the scenery and the effortless skimming of your boat along the waters, and next you hear a crash, and feel a jolt. 

Grounding is actually the fourth most common type of boating accident in the U.S. It is so much easier to run aground than you might think, most of the time danger buoys can alert us to shallow waters, but not every area has a marker, and you can get stuck on a shoal, reef, or sandbar that has no way of announcing itself. 

So, what should you do when you run aground- in fact, what should you do FIRST? Well, there are many things you should and can do when you run aground, but what you should do first is what will get you out of the situation faster. 

What Should You Do First If Your Boat Runs Aground

The First Thing You Should Do If Your Boat Runs Aground

There are a few things that you should do when you run aground, and these are things you should prioritize. It is so easy for us to start to panic when we run aground, and when we panic, we do not always make the best decisions.

So, the first thing we need to do is calm ourselves and check over the situation.  Checking the situation gives us a chance to gauge how severe the grounding is, and whether we will need help or if we can get out of it ourselves.

First of all, you need to stop the engine and assess the state of your boat. If you have passengers, check on them and see if anyone is hurt. For this reason, it is wise to always have a first aid kit handy for giving any help to injured persons. If anyone is injured on board, call for medical aid immediately. 

Next, you need to find damaged parts, there will likely be compartments and bilges, some leaks or flooding may occur depending on how and where you have grounded. 

If you are grounded on a coastal reef or somewhere with a strong current, call for immediate help. Do note that in places like these things can get much worse real fast, as it is not always possible to tell the changes on the tide, and it can be very hard to recover your vessel without any extra help. 

If you find that no one is injured and the boat has no damages, there are other things you can do straight away. Firstly, stop the tide from pushing the boat further to the ground, you can do this by using the tender to put the anchor deep into the water.

Then observe the movement of the tide, see if it is rising, if so, take it easy and wait for it to splash back on you, and you can return to the water this way. If the tides are falling, you may have to secure things that may fall due to its presence.

Your boat will likely heel over and settle on its hull. You are likely to need help in this instance, as it can take 12 hours on the way to rise and allow you to return. 

Know When And How To Ask For Help

So, if there is an injured individual onboard your vessel, you will need to know to ask for help. Similarly, if your boat has a lot of damage, you will also need assistance with this. 

If your boat has a lot of damage, then it is worth using a radio to reach the nearest vessel for assistance. Hence, the driver who will tow your boat is experienced and knowledgeable. Of course, you could also contact a commercial towing company.

It is always best to entrust the job of towing your boat back to shore to professionals who know what they’re doing. 

Similarly, you can contact the coastguard on the radio, although they are not designated to tow your boat, they should be notified that your boat has run aground and where it has.

Of course, if you also have an injured person on board, letting the coast guard know is also important, especially if the injury is bad. 

If you happen to be stranded in a strong storm, or if your boat is floundering, then the coast guard will need to come and get you and your passengers out of harm’s way.

How To Re-Float Your Boat

Asking for help is something you should do in circumstances with injuries or damages to your vessel. If there are no damages to your vessel and no one is badly hurt, then you can try to make your boat re-float on its own. Do not be afraid to attempt this, while it can seem intimidating, the concept is worse than the truth of it. 

Check Water Depth

Once you have completed all the checks above, and you know the situation your boat is in, the first thing you should do after that is to check the depth of the water. 

If your boat is not stuck in a dire way, you can go ahead and check the water depth where you have run aground. Study the topography of the bottom in this part. A chart and boat hook can help you do this. 

Then a handheld depth finder or a weighted line can allow you to determine the water depth. Finding out how deep the water is here will give you an idea if it is safe to push off and  in which direction you should go if you can do so. 

Think About Tides

Next, consider the tides. One of the things that will give you the best chance of getting your boat out of this sticky situation is to figure out the next tide.

You can figure this out by checking the tide table. Note that it is hard to push off your boat on shallow water in a low tide. The ideal time to put your boat into the water is when there is high water around you anyway, as in this situation it will be impossible for you to end up stuck again when you move your vessel. 


If you have a two engined vessel, you can rock the boat back and forth. The alternative surges of power on the sides can sway you into deeper water. Of course, you could try this with a single engine, as it is the rudder you would need to move to have the same effects. 

If you are grounded at an angle with two engines aboard, then direct each of them to move differently, using one to go forward to the shore and the other to reverse and turn. 

Pushing Off

If your boat is not grounded too far or badly, or if you are on soft ground such as sand, it will be easy enough to push off with an oar or a boat hook. Before you do this, lift the out drive motor if it is in the vessel.

As you continue to push, be cautious of any damages or leaks and if you spot a problem, stop right away. Track your movement and ensure you are not simply putting your boat into shallow water even more. 


If you can reverse your boat, be smart about it. There is a downside to doing this, though. When you use your engine after a boat has run aground it will collect debris which can cause overheating and clogging. 

Although, it can help get you unstuck, and so if pushing fails, and rocking doesn’t work, this can work instead.  If you have passengers onboard, keep them at the stern and keep the bow vacated. 

How To Prevent It From Happening In The Future

It is easier said than done, but you should try your best to avoid running aground. Avoid it by studying navigational charts, and talking to knowledgeable people. Try not to venture off clearly marked channels, and carry charts in the boat, so you know where you are and where to avoid. 

Always stay alert when you are out on the water, as relaxing as it may be, it could end up being the opposite if you lose focus. 

Don’t go overboard and proceed at a reasonable speed, and if in doubt use your depth finder. It is not necessary to take soundings every few minutes, but if you have a depth finder, set it to alert you whenever you are running into shallow waters.

Do not use it to replace your own attention and focus, but it is there to help you and give you a warning. You will not always be able to tell the waters’ depth on your own, and a depth finder and be like your eyes below the surface in this instance.

Lucas Jones