November 7, 2010

Ocean dinghy sailing

IT WAS ALWAYS a source of regret to me that my seagoing sailboats were never big enough to carry a sailing dinghy. I always thought a small wooden dinghy would make an ideal lifeboat if the yacht sank, and I always thought I could sail a small dinghy across an ocean if necessary.

By force of circumstance, we always ended up with a rubber duckie that could be deflated and stowed in a cockpit locker; but the problem with an inflatable dinghy (or an inflatable liferaft for that matter) is that most of them are incapable of sailing anywhere, so you just have to sit there and pray that a ship will come your way and rescue you. Nothing deflates morale quicker. People have been known to die in days because they despaired of ever being rescued, whereas others endured long-lasting hardships simply because they were in charge of their own fate, making progress toward land and therefore generating hope.

Because we never had a small wooden sailing dinghy, I never had to do much thinking about the practical aspects of how you survive storms on the open ocean in a small dinghy. It was only years later that I read Frank Dye’s book about his extraordinary voyages from Scotland to Iceland and Norway in his open, wooden, 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy.[1]

On the passage to Norway, Frank and his male crew survived four capsizes in a Force 9 gale in the frigid Norwegian Sea. But ordinary gales never bothered them. The way they dealt with ordinary gales was this:

— They lowered the mast in its tabernacle until the upper end of the mast rested in a boom crutch a few feet above the transom.

— They fastened a cover from gunwale to gunwale over the mast, enclosing all the open cockpit.

— They streamed a parachute drogue from the bows.

— They lay flat on the floorboards to keep their ballast weight low.

The effect of the cover and the drogue was to keep the boat automatically facing into oncoming waves. In fact, the cover, being higher at the stern than near the bows, acted in the same way as a trysail would on a keelboat.

“Under the cover it was difficult to realize that a gale was blowing outside,” Dye remarks in his book with typical British sang froid. The Wayfarer rode well with a slight snatch as the drogue pulled her over each breaking crest. There was a rattle of spray on the cover and an occasional jump sideways as a cross-sea caught her. And in these conditions Dye and his crew even managed to get some rest.

The Wayfarer is a remarkable boat, of course, stable, fast, responsive, and seaworthy. And Frank Dye was an equally remarkable man.

I am grateful to him, because now that I know how to sail a small dinghy across an ocean if necessary, I fervently hope I never have to.

[1] Ocean Crossing Wayfarer, Second Edition, by Frank and Margaret Dye (Adlard Coles Nautical, London, 2008).

Today’s Thought
Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.
— Billy Graham

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #117
The knots you need. You can do almost everything you need to on a boat with just two knots, one bend and two hitches — five in all. They are the anchor bend, the bowline, the reef knot, the rolling hitch, and the clove hitch.

“Why did they transfer your boy friend from that submarine?”
“He has a habit of sleeping with the window open.”

(Drop by Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


The Armed Canadian said...

What about a dinghy like the Portland Pudgy? It's advertised as a proactive life raft. Neat little boat.

Aaron Headly said...

If I was starting from scratch, I would design a boat that had a cockpit footwell exactly the shape of a small hard dinghy (facing aft).

Oh, and also a small hard dinghy that fit nicely into said footwell.

John Vigor said...

Interesting little boat, the Portland Pudgy. But I never owned a boat over 30 feet, and there's just no space for a Pudgy on a 30-footer.

The cockpit footwell idea is one that needs developing. The major problem for me is that it would make for a much bigger cockpit than I'd like. A 10-foot dinghy would be minimum for two people, and a 10-foot cockpit is too big for safety on a small boat.

John V.

Aaron Headly said...

I don't really want to go too far down this rabbit hole (just daydreaming, all said and done), but it occurs to me that for a storm you could invert the dinghy in the footwell and actually add buoyancy to the stern. (And I was thinking 8 feet.)

Just an idle fancy.

sam said...

"but it occurs to me that for a storm you could invert the dinghy in the footwell and actually add buoyancy to the stern"

That occured to me ealier today as well and googling it led me here. I may well try it with my inflatable