February 9, 2015

Crossing oceans in dinghies

ONCE AGAIN someone has complained that my book, Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere, is not helpful. “How can you advocate sailing across an ocean in a Cal 20, for example?” my critic wants to know.

Well, as a matter of fact, every one of the boats in that book has sailed across an ocean, and Cal 20s have done it more than once. Even dinghies, much smaller than anything in my book, have crossed oceans. I wrote about this once before, but it doesn’t seem to have stuck. It was a long time ago; maybe some new blood has come along that was too young to read back then. So, once again, let me spell it out for you.

It’s quite obvious that dinghies and their ilk can’t meet all the qualities necessary to claim seaworthiness for larger vessels, ones that can accommodate people in the shelter of a cabin. But sailing dinghies can indeed provide two of the most important qualities: to stay afloat and to keep their crews alive.

If my critic had done his homework, he’d know that tiny open boats have made remarkable ocean voyages that demonstrate their seaworthiness. I could mention Captain Bligh, for a start, and Webb Chiles, who singlehandedly sailed his open, 17-foot, Drascombe Lugger, Chidiock Tichborne, almost all of the way around the world. And then there was Frank Dye, who sailed his 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy hundreds of miles across the North Sea from Scotland to Iceland, and to Norway.

These sailors provided an element of seaworthiness that their small craft lacked, of course. They were all expert seamen. In fact, when faced with storms at sea, Dye, in his unballasted, centerboard dinghy, would take the mast down, set a sea anchor so that the boat faced into the oncoming seas, and then lie down on the floorboards and go to sleep. “There’s nothing much else to do,” he said. Except pray, perhaps.

In coastal cruising, much of the seaworthiness of a dinghy like the Wayfarer lies in its ability to run for shelter close inshore, to maneuver closely among rocks, and to land on a beach and be pulled up out of harm on inflatable rollers. Larger, less nimble yachts with deep keels would not dare close a shore like that in heavy weather; their only recourse then is to seek deep water offshore, where their seaworthiness will be well tested.

In at least one way, the smaller the sailing dinghy, the more seaworthy it is. That is when the worst happens and the boat capsizes. The smaller the boat, the easier it is for the crew to right her.

The well-found camp-cruising dinghy cannot sink — she has built-in buoyancy. With a sealed mast and boom for flotation, she cannot turn completely turtle, and so the crew can stand on the centerboard to right her. She will also have self-bailers that will draw all the water from the cockpit once she comes upright again and gains way.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that small boats can be seaworthy. They can’t provide all the shelter and comfort of a larger vessel, admittedly, but their closeness to the water provides delicate insights and thrills unknown to those lofty sailors who batter their way through the seas in their seaborne chariots, carefully insulated from both the sea’s danger and its intimate secrets.

Today’s Thought
There are many advantages in sea-voyaging, but security is not one of them.

Sadi (Emerson, English Traits: The Voyage)


“Young lady, wouldn’t your mother be angry if she saw you in that skimpy swimsuit?”

“Yeah, I guess so. It’s hers.”

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



Rik said...

Hi John,
I am reading Ocean Crossing Wayfarer and your Small Boat to Freedom right now. My Pathfinder is ready to teach me more about longer sailing trips. There is only time between now and a crossing of some length. Only issue now is that on my own I would not be able to turn the PF up from turtle. But the mast is filled with foam and I don't intend to do any crossing alone. Thanks for your words.

Jack said...

Nicely said John,
This little ditty came to mind of such "critics" you have to hear from:

Listen to the mustn’ts child,
Listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’t’s,
The Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the don’t have’s,
Then listen close to me.
Anything is possible
Everything can be.
Thank You Shel Silverstein.......

John Vigor said...

Hi Rik:

Lovey little boat your have there, one of my favorite sea-going dinghies. I wouldn't worry too much about capsizing. You'd be surprised how you can right a dinghy with the aid of the waves in a seaway. Just make sure your centerboard sticks out of its case when the boat's upside down, and if you can organize some buoyancy high up under the gunwales, inside or outside, it will help. When you're standing on the board, it also helps if you can lean back with the help of the jib sheet from the opposite side (the submerged side). Another thing: rather than crowding you on the board, your crew might do better to hold the bow so the boat lies dead downwind. That prevents her from flopping right over and capsizing onto the other side as she comes up.

Cheers and happy sailing,

John V.

Zoran G said...

Hi John,
thanks for this post - it might remind at least some people that the boat itself is much smaller part of equation when it comes to crossing oceans.... it is the man at the helm who will make the difference. I myself am looking forward to my soon retirement and some extensive cruising in my 20' Vivacity... and health permitting I will not hesitate at all to set my sails toward Europe. Regards from frozen Canada, Zoran

Anonymous said...

Hello Zoran,

You might want to take a look at
"http://twin-keeler.blogspot.ca/2009/05/vivacity-over-ocean.html". Among other things, the author says:

[T]here are mainly three disadvantages of sailing long ocean passages in a small boat: 1. the smaller the boat, the less wind you can sail in. That means in a gale, the smaller boat has to stop sailing actively and heave-to earlier. 2. the smaller boat cannot carry as much provisions, and 3. the smaller boat sails more slowly, making the passage longer.

[But there are advantages, as follows]: 1. A small boat does often sail dryer, as it tends to float on top of the waves like a cork instead of thrusting itself into them like a bigger boat would…. 2. A smaller boat is more easily handled, there is less load on the rigging and sails and you can manhandle everyting without the use of electric or mechanic devices that can fail. 3. A small boat is more rigid and less prone to damage ... a small fiberglass boat is like an eggshell, its compactness makes it more resistant to impact. Also it is lighter, so the force on impact is less.

Best wishes from another frozen Canadian.

Zoran G said...

Hello my fellow Canadian,
thank you for the link - I was following that blog while it was much more active and I remember that post. My philosophy in regard to sailing was to always sail a boat over which you can have the most control. That does not mean that I did not have often 'attacks' of 'two-footitis' but I must say that I resisted fairly well, more or less :) The cost of owning & maintaining was also very important factor. And the last one - I was always willing to trade some comfort with ease of handling and safety at sea. The smaller boats are often much stronger - relative to their size/weight, more resistant to sudden impacts, and it is much easier to achieve satisfying real-life results when adding buoyancy. Someone once said "Unsinkable boat does not exist" - I do agree, but again you can do a lot with a small boat to keep it floating if worst happen. In my opinion the biggest 'minus' of small boat voyaging is limited space for stores, but if you are single-hander like I am, then Vivacity 20 offers just enough even for trans Atlantic voyage.
Let's hope for the spring to warm us up soon :)