Intentional Grounding: Grounding a Sailboat for Repairs

Image of grounding a sailboat on the beach for repairs using careening poles

The need to replace Sunshine’s stuffing box (the seal between the propeller shaft and the hull), coupled with our reluctance to give away money and Tom’s guiding principle: Become Utterly Independent, resulted in our pulling off a maneuver that was dubbed “cooler than ice cream.”

 This article is part of a three part series:

Intentional Grounding
Building Custom Careening Poles
How We Replaced Our Stuffing Box

Trends Are Not Our Style

We watched other Boston boaters pull their vessels out of the water in the fall, but we kept on working. Sunshine finally went into the water in December and we planned to head south, away from ice and snow. Technical difficulties intervened, in the form of a faulty stuffing box, and we instead became Boston winter liveaboards – also not a trendy lifestyle – waiting for the thaw so we could pull her out again.

Over the winter, Tom designed and built careening poles, and by mid May, when the weather started to settle, we were all geared up to beach the boat, on purpose, in front of God and everybody.

The Project Plan

I’d only been half paying attention to activities on the other side of my camera lens as Tom studied how to ground a sailboat, and designed and built the legs. With the legs almost ready Tom started educating me in how this whole thing was going to go down.

  1. We needed a windless day.
  2. We needed an early morning high tide to be sure of having plenty of light from the time we left the dock to the time we returned to the dock.
  3. We had to walk the chosen beach, scoping out the flattest area, with the right access and exit characteristics and plan our approach. We even moved the larger rocks out of the way.
  4. The night before we would stage everything. Attach brackets in the correct places, rig the blocks and tackles and support lines, assemble the tools we would need, make lunches and snacks.
  5. At high tide we would motor slowly along the beach to the selected spot, then while I held Sunshine in place, Tom would drop the legs, tighten them with the block and tackle, and secure them.
  6. Then we would make a cup of coffee and lazily wait for the tide to go down far enough to get to work.
  7. Tom would take apart the shaft and old stuffing box, then install the new one. I would act as tool caddy, gofer, snack provider and tide monitor, wipe his sweaty brow, tell him everything was going fine and, when the shaft was finished, install a new zinc.
  8. Job finished, we’d relax in the cockpit with umbrella drinks and peeled grapes while awaiting the return of the tide.

The Weather Variable

We began the wait for a weather window – that forecast of a perfect sunny, dry and windless day – and finally selected a Saturday that looked promising.

We got up early, raring to get started, but found humidity had made the wooden legs swell and they wouldn’t fit through the brackets. Tom, who likes things to fit, had made them on a drier day. He started reworking them, but couldn’t finish before the tide, so the schedule slipped to the next day. Then Sunday we woke to wind, so the whole project had to be postponed.

I was actually quite relieved not to be doing the work over the weekend. The marina was crowded on weekends when everyone came down to their boats to watch the Bruins, who were doing well in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Having a bunch of beer soaked Boston hockey fans who know how to handle boats watching our every move would have been stressful. They don’t hold back their opinions at the best of times, look forward to laughing at your mistakes and never shy away from giving advice. We’d already heard several variations on, “What’s ya problem? Just pay Joey at Town River Marina 500 bucks and he’ll haul you right out.” Much better to do it during the week, when only a couple of the liveaboards would be there to witness. I suspect Tom wanted to do it in front of everybody and get the cred for having major cajones, but also sort of feared the abuse.

Finally, another good looking day was forecast, so we put everything in place and went to bed early, confident that all was under control.

careening poles on deck

Plan vs Reality

We woke in the morning to a 4 knot breeze. Not much, just enough to make maneuvering a challenge, and shaking a potential problem.

The weather forecast for the next ten days only showed increasing winds. We dithered over the decision as long as we could, then Tom decided we had to go for it. With a big gulp, we cast off the dock lines knowing that this would not be a pleasure cruise. This would be a race against time in which everything had to go right. Grounding a sailboat is not to be undertaken lightly. Especially as we were going to open a hole in Sunshine’s hull that had to be sealed again within about four hours, or else.

Our first difficulty was holding the boat over our selected spot with the wind trying to push her on shore. We got close, then ran around like demented chickens trying to get the legs set. But once the legs were down and the water began to recede, Sunshine ended up not quite level. She listed slightly to the water side. Which was marginally better than listing toward shore, because if she fell toward shore the tip of her mast would hit stored boats. The boats would win and we’d need a new mast. At a minimum. Unsure of just how stable this stance was, we carefully walked the center line as much as we could and cringed with each gust that shook the mast and sent a shudder through the hull.

Making the Switch

For the record – propping your home up on toothpicks above a hard, rocky surface is the most stressful thing a person can do without risking jail time. Many times during the day, as I raced around with my hair on fire and the water crept up the beach, I asked myself, “Why the hell do I go along with these schemes?”

But at this point, there was nothing for it but to proceed, with fingers crossed. Tom started in on removing the old stuffing box. Thinking I had lots of time, I started washing a season’s worth of scum off the hull. Before too long I gave that job up and switched to fetching tools and parts.

See more about the technical aspects in How We Replaced Our Stuffing Box.

The Last Minute Glitch


The shaft back in, Tom had to run off to buy new bolts for the coupling. The previous owner’s mechanic had used stainless steel rather than hardened steel and Tom hadn’t realized that until he removed them. While he was gone, I began my next task, installing the zinc anode on the shaft. I had to do it under the potentially tippy boat, before she started to float. The rising tide already covered the shaft, so I waded into the water, which so early in the season, wasn’t all that warm. Then, half way through the process, with the zinc hanging loosely from the shaft, I fumbled the Allen wrench and dropped it into the water.

Aargh. I climbed back aboard, dug through storage and found a dive mask so I could plunge my head in and search the pebbly beach for that vital little piece of metal.

Emerging with the mask, I found that the water came up enough to float the wooden ladder and carry it away. To get down, I did a Tarzan move using a dock line as my jungle vine and gouged up my wrist. But an injury was the least of my worries. The real crisis would be Tom not making it back with the bolts before the boat floated. What would I do then? I couldn’t start the engine until that coupling was securely bolted together. I’d throw down the anchor and hope not to be dragged too close to shore and get grounded again.

Zinc tight and Tom back, we clambered aboard and bolted the coupling together just in time for the big re-float. The we scrambled around taking care of the legs, making sure all the lines were free, and hoping not to drift into nearby boats. I started the engine (with crossed fingers) while Tom watched the seal to make sure everything worked correctly.

The seal held. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, we motored away from the beach and heard clapping and whistling. The hockey fans had arrived for happy hour, and for once we were all cheering for the same side.


Back at the dock, we were met by all our friends and a chorus of “Dude, you have balls.” “Was that covered by your insurance?” and my favorite, “Man, that was cooler than ice cream.”

Once the adrenaline left my system, and I’d downed a couple of celebratory/sedating glasses of wine, I had to agree. That was pretty cool. And Tom planned it all and pulled it off. By golly, he’s a pretty cool guy.

The Future of Intentional Grounding

Am I looking forward to using our careening poles again? Not so much. At least not on a rocky beach. Next time we’ll choose a nice, soft, level sandbar.

Think you want to try intentional grounding? Remember, you probably shouldn’t try this at home. If you do, we’re not responsible for any damages. We didn’t encourage you. To paraphrase our heroes, the MythBusters: “Tom’s a professional, and that keeps us safe.” Your mileage may vary.

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  1. I just purchased a 1984 Freedom 32 it came with a dodger, frame only. No bimini. I’m having trouble finding these missing items and wondered if you may know somewhere to purchase them. Thank you

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