Successful Surf Landings with Wheels

The wheel thing with dinghies
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Australian surf rescue volunteers make it look easy, but landing on, and leaving, a surf beach can be a dampening experience

Australian surf rescue volunteers make it look easy, but landing on, and leaving, a surf beach can be a dampening experience

“Ready to take the dink ashore?”

Never had those words invoked as much anxiety as when my husband, Jeff, and I first moved to the Pacific Coast. Why? Because we had exactly zero experience with dinghy surf landings, and the possibility of being flipped upside down along with our two dogs was very real. And who likes to lose face in front of all their new cruising buds?

When Jeff and I had cruised the East Coast, plying the waters from Maine to the Bahamas, taking the dogs ashore for their twice (or thrice!) daily exercise was no big deal. If we weren’t near a marina or in close proximity to a dinghy dock, we were still in a sheltered cove with minimal wave action. It just wasn’t a concern.

However, after we found our dream boat, an Antares 44i catamaran located in Southern California, we decided that Mexico’s Pacific coast would become our new cruising grounds. I also recall seeing a dink with wheels for the first time in Southern California and thinking “what the heck?” This needed further research.

So why do cruisers on Mexico’s Pacific coast need wheels? It’s all about the surf. If you plan to dinghy ashore you must be prepared to haul it beyond the high-tide surf line, and fast! A good set of wheels will circumvent pulled muscles and profanity and also help preserve maintain happy marriages. That said, not all dinghies need wheels. Very lightweight skiffs or inflatables with small motors, for example, can easily be carried out of harm’s way. For the rest of us, though, wheels are a necessity. I also suggest you splurge on the bigger, inflatable wheels that extend beyond the prop for protection and to tackle the soft sand.

And so we were soon the proud owners of a new set of 15-inch wheels, the most popular size in these parts. Now we were ready to go ashore.

wheels06

Or were we?

Approaching the beach soon afterward, we were met by the sound of the distant crash of waves. With apprehension, we eased the dink forward. Prepare yourself, I thought. The breaking surf always looks bigger up close than it did from the mother-ship, and these were full-on assaults! Jeff lowered the wheels, locking them in place. Now what? As we drifted closer, the surf line became hypnotic as gentle waves lifted the dinghy and nudged us toward the torrent. My adrenaline surged with the surf. Time was running out. We had little choice but to gun the engine!

By pure chance, we made it to shore without the waves bashing us to a pulp. From my still relatively dry seat in the bow, I covertly glanced toward shore at our soon-to-be best cruising buddies, hoping we had impressed them with our landing prowess. Unfortunately, at that moment, Neptune reminded us that while we had made it into the shallows, we had not yet left his grasp, and the following wave broke over the transom, dousing the dinghy, the pups and oh yes, my pride.

After the dogs had done their business and we’d recovered from the initial shock, we rolled the dinghy back into the shallow surf. As we did so, it became painfully obvious that returning to El Gato would be no cakewalk. Incoming waves tossed the bow or broke over the nose, soaking the poor pups. Finally, Jeff yelled “let’s go,” started the engine, and after three desperate attempts to climb in from the waist-deep water, I ungracefully slung my body over the side and onto the floor as he gunned the engine and the dink went near vertical before clearing an unexpected cresting wave. Clearly, this was something that was going to take some practice.

It’s easy to haul the tender up onto the beach with the wheels deployed

It’s easy to haul the tender up onto the beach with the wheels deployed

HITTING THE BEACH

Fortunately, practice does, indeed, make perfect, and after many days of tweaking our routine—wheels up, wheels down, who holds the boat and who starts the engine, we finally found our rhythm. The following is our recipe for success:

• Dress to get wet. If you require a change of clothes, put them in a dry-bag along with your phone, money and portable VHF.

• Prepare the boat under the assumption that your dink will flip. This means securing the gas tank, putting valuables in a dry bag and always use your wrist-attached kill switch lanyard.

• Scout out the best landing area. Often cruising guides will highlight the best landing spots. Search for moorings. Fishermen keep their pangas in the most protected areas. Look ashore for other dinghies or other boats. Survey the shoreline for rocks.

• Now that you’ve selected your “spot,” kill the engine or put it in neutral and lower the wheels. This is also the time to make sure your kill switch lanyard is attached to your wrist. Double check it. Excessive blood is a shark magnet if nothing else!

• Hover at a safe distance from the surf line and study the wave sets.

• Avoid riding in front of a breaking wave. You may get a brief sensation of a fun “surf,” but this will immediately be followed by the “Oh damn!” moment as the boat gybes sideways and you go crashing to the floor out of control. In the event you do find yourself caught by a wave and start surfing, your best defense is to “high-side.” This is the same technique employed by white-water rafting guides and means quickly shifting your weight to the high side of the dinghy to counter the wave’s efforts at first raising and then flipping your boat.

• Pick which set you’ll attempt to follow and announce it to all on-board, throttling up and attempting to ride in just behind the last wave. Now you’re committed! Since waves travel much faster than a dinghy with the wheels down, gun it, at the same time making sure you don’t get ahead of the wave.

• Ride in as far as you can. At this point, I position myself on one side with my feet in the water, side-saddle style. You NEVER want to jump off the bow and risk getting run down. Once the wheels hit the bottom, you’ll come to an abrupt halt. The boat is now in shallow water.

• Once you're in the shallows, kill the engine and jump out, one person on each side. You won’t need to raise the motor. Quickly grab the side handles in preparation for the inevitable following wave that will both shove your dink forward and try to knock you off your feet. Holding fast onto the boat will help protect both you and your dinghy.

• Quickly haul the dink ashore before the next wave set arrives. Usually, we haul from each side. However, if we hit soft sand, I find it best to push from behind while Jeff pulls on the bow handle.

• In particularly rough surf spots or when you’re just unsure of your ability to get ashore, it may be best to not deploy your wheels until you’ve reached land. The reason for this is that with the wheels not deployed, your dinghy will motor much, much faster. With this approach, you should still be able to kill and lift your motor as you near shore, but you will also be able to avoid the most dangerous wave area and more quickly reach the shallows.

Because the wheels keep the propeller clear of the bottom, you can start the motor without fear of damage

Because the wheels keep the propeller clear of the bottom, you can start the motor without fear of damage

LAUNCHING TIME

Launching a dinghy from shore is another skill altogether. There are two schools of thought here: with or without the dinghy wheels. In our case, we find, especially when time is of the essence, that lowering and starting our 15hp outboard is too cumbersome, so we opt to keep the wheels deployed. Either way, prepare to get wet.

• After we position the dogs securely on the floor in the rear of the dinghy, Jeff lifts the bow and walks into the shallows. Once there, he stops, dropping the bow in very shallow water, safe from the surf, and we both study wave sets.

• When you see your break, announce your intention to go. Things start to move fast now! In our case, it’s Jeff’s job to keep moving the boat into deeper waters, keep the nose sufficiently high and pointed into the surf, lifting the bow as necessary, to meet the last of the wave set. This is where he sacrifices his dry clothes—nice hubby!

• With the boat sufficiently deep and now starting to float on the crest of the waves, the person aft can jump in and focus on the motor—again making double-sure the kill switch is engaged.

• Start the motor, shift into forward just as the last wave is lifting the boat and then power forward. As the boat is starting to move, the person in the water at the bow should use the momentum to hop in.

• Safely in the bow, it’s full throttle ahead, although with the wheels still deployed, it’s not a speedy exodus.

• Once you are beyond the breakers, kill the motor or put it in neutral, raise the wheels and congratulate yourselves on a job well done.

I won’t lie. After a year, I still feel the initial dread when it’s time to go ashore in big surf. But with proper preparation, communication and above all, technique, I’m learning to anticipate and even enjoy the adrenaline rush of the surf landing. 

Jules Fredrick and husband Jeff are wintering in the Sea of Cortez on their Antares catamaran, El Gato

February 2019

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