July 13, 2015

Seaworthy small boats

I MENTIONED to a friend that I thought I could sail an 11-foot Mirror dinghy across an ocean if I had to. I mean, if the bigger yacht sank, and I were left with the tender, a Mirror.

You may think me rather boastful, as my friend did, but I have had a lot of experience with Mirrors and I also have a great respect for the seaworthiness of small dinghies in general.

Some time back I helped construct a seaworthiness quiz for Small Craft Advisor magazine. The quiz was designed to give the owners of small sailboats a reasonable idea of how seaworthy various designs might be. And, perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated for them the desirable qualities that add up to seaworthiness in very small craft.

But now and then someone comes along and says: "What were you thinking? How can such small boats be seaworthy?" Well, they say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that’s what most of these someones are equipped with.

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 these someones had done their homework, they’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 the shelter and comfort of a larger vessel, admittedly, but their closeness to the water provides delicate insights and thrills unknown to those lofty someones 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)

“That’s a funny-looking dog you’ve got there.”
“What? I’ll have you know I paid $1,000 for this dog. He’s part terrier and part bull.”
“Which part is bull?”
“The part about the $1,000.”


alpine luddite said...

Don't forget Shackleton's journey in an open boat in Antarctica.

57 degrees North said...

What astonishes me about Shackleton's crossing of the Weddell Sea is actually Frank Worsley's stunning feat of navigation. I can't begin to imagine how he did it...

Anonymous said...

Dear John,

Although I know impressive journeys can be made in a dinghy, personally I would not recommend them for intercontinental transport. The two major advantages you mentioned, staying afloat and keeping the crew alive are correct, but a substantial problem is that these small boats must be looked after constantly. This means, one moment of inattention and the cockpit is filled with water. In stormy circumstances, you’ll never be able to drain the cockpit; therefore your boat won’t sail properly anymore. Sailing a dinghy in heavy weather is very tiresome; I do not think many people can stay concentrated perfectly for more than an hour or so in these circumstances (wet, cold, frightened).
In my experience (never left the North Sea, so don’t take me too seriously) the best you can do is set your storm jib if you have one (otherwise tie a knot in the genua in order to reduce surface), run downwind and hope for better weather!

Kind regards from the Netherlands, Jurriƫn

John Vigor said...


You have provided the theme for my next column. Check in tomorrow.

John V.