March 31, 2011

Little fleas and lesser fleas

I DON’T KNOW who Augustus de Morgan was, but every time I think about dinghies for yachts I am reminded of something he wrote:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their back to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.

It’s the little fleas of the yacht world that I think about, the tiny fellers I see outboard motoring up the Inside Passageway to Alaska, towing their lesser fleas behind them.

Big yachts have problems enough with their tenders, but it’s the little ones that really suffer. Any boat of 25 feet or under that cannot be beached is going to have to spend time in anchorages, and the question is: How do we get ashore? Hard dinghy? Nesting? Inflatable? Kayak? Folding boat?

Folding boats need space on the side-deck, and not many small yachts can afford it. Kayaks must be towed, but they flip and fill too easily. Inflatables are safe and reliable, but they tow badly. They stick to the water. And deflating them, stowing them, and re-inflating them again at your destination is a pain in the cockpit – or on the foredeck, or wherever you do it.

Hard dinghies tow well, and are the most barnacle-resistant when you drag them ashore, but they’re usually cranky and heavy. They’re also likely to fill with spray or green water in rough seas, although I have towed one 10-footer hundreds of miles in the open Pacific without problems. The secret was to use a 75-foot painter and to weigh down the stern to prevent her from taking a sheer on the front of swells. Furthermore, we had an understanding, that dinghy and I: if ever she gave me trouble, if ever she started running down and ramming my counter, I would cut her free and leave her to fend for herself. That threat was enough, apparently. I never had to carry it out.

L. Francis Herreshoff listed five features for his “ideal tender.” She would:

► Row easily, light or loaded
► Be light enough to be hoisted aboard easily
► Be stiff enough to get into and out of easily
► Be strong enough not to leak, and able to take some abuse
► Tow steadily, always holding back on her painter and never yawing around.

I firmly believe there is no ideal tender, and the smaller the mother yacht the greater the compromises that have to be made. I once used to tow a 10-foot dinghy behind a 22-foot Santana, and I’m sure it looked quite ludicrously out of proportion. But that was the dinghy I had and that was the sacrifice I made. We all have to come to terms with the dinghy problem somehow, and if some people managed it more elegantly than I did, good luck to them. At least the flea upon my back was a nice big fat one.

Today’s Thought
When eager bites the thirsty flea,
Clouds and rain you sure shall see.
— Inwards, Weather Lore.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #179
Next time you break an oar or a rudder in your dinghy, you’ll be glad for a sculling notch in the transom. The usual size for a yacht tender is 1 7/8 inches wide by 2 1/2 inches deep. It should be egg-shaped, slightly narrower at the top than the bottom, and all edges should be well rounded.

“How did you enjoy the bridge party the other night?”
“It was great — until the cops looked under the bridge”

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

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