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What Should You Do First if Your Boat Runs Aground?

Fact checked by William Hart

what should you do first if your boat runs aground

As per US Coast Guard Recreational Boating statistics, almost 500 grounding accidents occurred in 2020, meaning more than one American vessel suffered from running aground each day.

Such accidents are unavoidable, even for the most experienced boaters. So, what should you do first if your boat runs aground?

The rule of thumb is to always check on your passengers first. If a person onboard is seriously injured, you must contact the Coast Guard via a VHF radio or send out SOS signals to nearby vessels.

If no one needs immediate medical attention, you should check for leaks on your boat to anticipate the next step.

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If Your Boat Runs Aground, What Should You Do First?


You’re cruising on pristine water, enjoying the wind and sea air, then suddenly, your boat hits the bottom and stops. Don’t panic and press every button on your vessel, trying to extricate yourself! Doing so might result in further boat damage.

When you run aground, make it your priority to ensure that you and the passengers are safe, and then inspect the vessel for leaks.

1. Check on the passengers

Running aground, especially when you are navigating at high speed, can be life-threatening. So, check on your passengers first. Is anyone severely injured? Did anyone fall overboard?

If the impact caused a guest to fall into the water, quickly bring them back into the vessel. If a guest sustained an injury, see what you can do to help. You can ask for assistance from nearby vessels via your VHF radio if necessary. Also, the first aid kit should always be available on your boat.

Remember that a vessel operator is legally required to assist wounded passengers. As a boater, you probably don’t want to deal with lawsuits and fines or even go to court.

However, if helping others might harm you (e.g., the passenger is caught in a fast flow), you’d want to contact the authority instead immediately.

It should only take one to two minutes to check on everyone.

2. Check for leaks

When you are sure that no one is seriously injured, turn off the engine and proceed to check your vessel. Knowing its condition will dictate whether you should try to reverse to the open water or call for help. You should check for:

  • Gasoline leaks: If the impact damages the fuel compartment, you will smell gasoline in the air. In that case, don’t light a cigarette or turn your engine back on.
  • Hull holes and cracks: You can wade in the water, walk around, and see whether your boat has serious damage if it is or is not taking on water. If water is leaking into the hull, start pumping out your bilges.
  • Rudders and propellers: Don’t forget to check the underwater compartments. You can’t operate your vessel with damaged rudders or propellers.

Ships running aground can lead to irreparable vessel damage. So, if one of the three scenarios mentioned applies to you, stay put. Trying to get back on the open water might cause your boat to sink and even burst in case of gasoline leaks. Instead, use your radio to call for assistance.

If you don’t find any substantial damage, use the following steps to get loose when your inboard/outboard boat runs aground:

  • Step 1: Stop the engine and tilt it slightly upward.
  • Step 2: Move passengers and gear to an area farthest from the impact point.
  • Step 3: Paddle your boat reversely to move away from the stranded area.
  • Step 4: Once your boat can float, recheck the hull to determine that there are no leaks.

What is Running Aground?

A boat runs aground or becomes grounded when it gets stuck at the sea or lake bottom. In other words, the water is too shallow to keep the vessel afloat.

Sometimes, operators intentionally ground their ships for maintenance or cargo landing. But most of the time, it happens as an accident and might cause severe damage to the vessel and people on board.

Running around mishaps happen more frequently than you might think. It’s difficult for the Coast Guard to update danger buoys for all shallow waters, and weathering can cause the seabed to change its structure.

Markers might also shift their positions due to harsh winds, waves, or currents.

What is the Best Way to Avoid Running Aground?


Running aground might occur even to experienced boaters, but there are preparatory steps you can take to avoid it. Follow this guideline to steer clear of all underwater obstructions:

1. Maintain a proper outlook at all time

Similar to when driving on the road, you should maintain great situational awareness when boating on the vast sea, even when there seem to be no obstructions ahead.

Besides looking for signs of buoys and markers, you should stay alert for any sudden change in the watercolor. A shift from dark to light hues often indicates that the water is about to become more shallow.

In addition, waves that repeatedly break in the same area signal the appearance of shoals. If you boat in a tidal water area, always check the tide before heading out. You might cruise smoothly during high tides, then get stranded on a sandbar during low tides.

2. Read the nautical chart before adventuring into unknown waters

Before boating on an unfamiliar water body, always read the nautical chart of that area in advance. The chart will tell you the locations of hazards and shallow waters. If possible, you can talk to local boaters to learn from their experience of the area.

3. Slow down when navigating shallow waters

Running around is much more dangerous when it occurs at high speed. So, whenever you feel the risk of grounding, reduce the speed and navigate the water cautiously.

4. Install a depth finder

If you often cruise shallow water areas, consider installing a depth finder and setting a shallow alarm alert. The device will notify you when the water becomes too shallow for your boat.

What to Do When Your Boat Gets Stranded in Severe Weather?

Running aground is not the only accident that strands your boat. Severe weather conditions, such as storms, heavy rain, or extreme winds can also prevent you from moving back to shore. When your boat is caught in a storm, what should you do?

Most importantly, put on your PFD and make sure all the passengers do the same. Then, close all the windows and latches so water won’t flood the cabin.

You should also slow down the vessel when caught in severe weather and pass waves at a 45-degree angle. When it is safe enough, slowly navigate your boat toward the shore or docking area.


To sum up, always prioritize human lives when a grounding accident happens. Instead of trying to reverse the boat, ensure that you and your passengers are safe first.

We hope our article answered your question of “What should you do first if your boat runs aground?” thoroughly. But if you have any further concerns, don’t hesitate to reach us via the contact page. See you then!

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