June 27, 2016

Small boat survival at sea

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, however slow, 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 centerboard dinghy.*

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.

* 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

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

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