RECENTLY I MENTIONED that if I had to, by force of circumstance, I could probably sail a small open dinghy across an ocean to safety. That imprudent statement elicited the following comment from Jurriën, who lives in Holland:
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!
No Jurriën, I wouldn’t recommend dinghies for your everyday intercontinental transport either, but sailing at sea in a dinghy is perhaps not as dangerous a business as you might think.
In the first place, a small dinghy is easy to steer. She’s very light on the helm, and dinghies can usually be well balanced because you can move a pivoting centerboard fore or aft to change the center of lateral resistance. If you were serious about it, and were able to plan in advance, you could get a dinghy to steer herself with twin jibs sheeted back to the tiller, or with a sheet-to-tiller system such as one of those suggested in Lee Woas’s book Self-Steering Without a Wind Vane.
In the second place, decent dinghies do not capsize all that readily. Most of them will heel a long way over before you have to spill wind to let them recover. They have a lot of reserve stability. Yes, they certainly can capsize, but the smaller the dinghy, the easier she is to right from a capsize.
The kind of dinghy I’m thinking of has plenty of built-in buoyancy. The 11-foot Mirror dinghy, for example, has four large flotation tanks. I have seen a Mirror dinghy plowing along nicely through the water, under perfect control, in a gale of wind, with four adults sitting in a cockpit brimming with water after a capsize. They could easily have bailed out that cockpit with a bucket, but they were having too much fun to bother. They sailed her home, right up to the launching ramp, like that with big smiles on their faces.
Frank Dye capsized four times in Force 9 gales in his 16-foot Wayfarer on the way from Scotland to Norway. He had one crewmember, and they managed to right her fairly easily each time. His method of dealing with heavy weather was to hinge the mast down, tie a tarpaulin over it to make a shelter, and lie down on the floorboards to keep the weight low. He unshipped the rudder and let the dinghy lie bows-on to the waves behind a large parachute sea anchor.
That American adventurer Webb Chiles, who singlehandedly sailed his open, 17-foot, Drascombe Lugger, Chidiock Tichborne, almost all of the way around the world, sailed his flooded boat for days on end on one occasion but managed to bail her out eventually when the weather settled down.
The point is, if you have a dinghy with built-in buoyancy, she won’t sink.
Jurriën, I am fairly sure that you, like most of us, are not planning to sail a small dinghy across an ocean any time soon, but for your own interest you might want to read the following books on the subject:
Ø Ocean Crossing Wayfarer, by Frank Dye
Ø The Open Boat: Across the Pacific, by Webb Chiles
Seamanship, in its widest sense, is the whole art of taking a ship from one place to another at sea.
— The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea
“Would you like red wine or white wine, sir?”
“Makes no difference to me, my good fellow. I’m color blind.”
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