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Voice of Experience: Dinghy Problems on an Offshore Passage

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Ping! It was the tiniest little squeak of a sound, but it was out of place amid the pounding waves and constant groaning of the boat and so rang out like a microwave beep. It was the second ping we had heard that night, and we knew it was another bolt head shearing off onto the cockpit floor. That was the third, and it meant we had to do what we didn’t want to.

We were crossing the Gulf of Mexico for the first time in our newly-acquired Niagara 35 with a new and meager crew of three—Capt. Phillip, Second Mate Mitch and the First-but-Novice Mate, me. I had no sailing experience, this was my very first passage, and we not only had an unfavorable weather forecast, but the absolute worst thing you can have on a boat—a schedule. It was a shakedown cruise with a tight deadline. Seas of 4ft to 6ft and 25-knot winds awaited us as we headed out on our 40-hour offshore passage. While there are a hundred things we could have done differently, not taking the outboard off the dinghy or the dinghy off the davits probably ranked No. 1 and 2 on that list. Suffice it to say, the boat was new to us, we didn’t have a stern rail mount for the outboard, and we relied on some seemingly trustworthy advice rather than our instincts. It seemed a sour cocktail of circumstances as we watched those same davits that had once seemed so solid now sway visibly from starboard to port.

The sea state was just as predicted—it seems only bad weather forecasts are accurate—and the predicted waves were now slamming us broadside on the port beam. There was no way to quarter them and hold our course at the same time. All we could do was grip something and grit our teeth. Each time a wave hit, the dinghy swung to starboard, then accelerated as all 150 pounds of her dove outboard-first to port and slammed with a sickening clang to the davits’ maximum swinging point. Smack, heel, clang, smack, heel, clang—this had been the haunting score of our passage.

Early on we’d tried tying the dinghy off to starboard as best we could with some spare lines, but it is hard to stop 150 free-swinging pounds in those kinds of conditions. It was as if we had a baby elephant strung up back there, and the gulf was trying to knock it off like some kind of carnival game. Mitch really stepped up to the plate, forcing himself to lean over and wrestle the dinghy, when we all knew he was sick as a dog. After the strenuous tie-down job, he sputtered and mumbled his way down below, crashed into the settee and was snoring within minutes. I don’t care what the package said, I will never believe the man took “non-drowsy” Dramamine.

Mitch’s efforts bought us some time, but eight hours and approximately 4,834 broadside waves later we heard the final ping, and the davits no longer clanged. Now they shrieked, like nails on sheet metal. This was it. It was happening. There was no way we could pull the dinghy up onto the deck in that sea state, and we knew that when its 150 pounds hit the water, there was a chance it could pull us hard enough to port that we might be pooped—assuming it didn’t just rip the entire stern rail clean off and leave a gaping hole in the deck in the process. We didn’t want to. We had to. Sometimes you have to cut off a finger to save the hand. One more metallic cry and Capt. Phillip made the call.

“Go wake Mitch,” he said. “We need to get ready to cut her off.”

To Mitch’s credit, he woke without hesitation when I shook him. We fumbled around the galley gathering sharp objects, putting together a little makeshift surgical tray. I couldn’t believe the things that were running through my mind. Scissors? No scissors won’t do. A steak knife? No, too dangerous. Dangerous … The thought was laughable now. Everything we were doing was dangerous. Truth was, the sharper the instrument the better. I chose a hacksaw. Mitch chose a dive knife. We sat with both ready in hand when the davits finally broke completely off the stern rail with a thunderous rip, and the dinghy crashed into the water, outboard first, pulling our port rail under. The dinghy foamed and flailed behind us like a panicked drowning victim, filling the cockpit with the smell of oil and fuel. It was the first time I had thought about the gas.
“Cut if off!” Phillip roared.

Mitch and I started attacking the lines. All of that tying and retying we had done earlier was now working against us. It was also now dark, making it hard to see the lines, much less distinguish them from our own hands and fingers. I had a flashlight clenched in my teeth, but the beam was bouncing and bobbing around with every passing wave. Another problem was distance. Lines that had once been tied to the davits on the stern rail were now dragging in the water. I had Mitch hold a beam on me as I climbed over and hooked one leg on the stern rail to reach the last of them. The dinghy kicked and flailed like a rabid dog on a leash, like she knew we were sacrificing her.

“She needs to go!” Phillip hollered into the wind, his focus still on the helm. The more lines I cut, the more the dinghy made contact with the water and pulled us farther to port. The last line I grabbed felt particularly tough, and when I first struck it with the hacksaw, it sparked. I pulled back, smelling the gas fumes from the outboard motor and stopping purely out of instinct.
“I’m getting sparks!” I shouted to Phillip. It was the first thing I’d said to him since the dinghy hit the water. He looked back at the “line” I was holding and realized it was the wire to the navigation light that had been mounted on the davits. I followed it down and could see the nav light dimly lit, flickering behind the boat. It wasn’t a line. It was an electrical wire, and it sparked.
“Cut it,” Phillip said.

So cut it I did, with clenched teeth and, I’m pretty sure, closed eyes. It sparked, sheared and finally ripped in two. When the hacksaw made it through the final inch of rubber and wire, the dinghy crashed into the water and finally began to pull away from the boat. Mitch and I were just about to lean back and take it in when Phillip’s voice snapped us to.
“Get the lines in,” he thundered and rightfully so. Frayed, mangled lines were trailing from the back of the boat, sinking into the water. Mitch and I started grabbing lines haphazardly, throwing them recklessly into the cockpit in our state of exhaustion. We hit Phillip with several of them, big wet knots flogging him, but he didn’t say a word. He hunkered down, gripped the wheel and steadied the boat while Mitch and I heaved in the last of them.

Afterward, we all fell into a heap in the cockpit, drenched and shaken, but feeling more alive than we had the entire trip. I doubt Mitch was feeling nauseous at that moment. Our bodies were feasting on adrenaline. We sat there, our chests heaving in unison, gathering our thoughts and wondering if what just happened had really happened. Phillip shined a light out into the Gulf as it to confirm our collective inquiry and there it was—the dinghy—about 50 yards away from the boat, lines floating around her like spindly fingers reaching back for us. She was truly out there, detached from the boat and floating away. We had really done it.

Cut her off. The boat breathed a sigh of relief as if she had just finished a 40-mile march and finally set her rucksack down to ease her sweaty, blistered back. Her rolling back and forth was now graceful, soothing almost, and we all finally appreciated how much she had been struggling with the dinghy clinging on her back. We didn’t want to. We had to. Sometimes you need a hacksaw.

What we did wrong:

We left the dinghy—with its outboard—on the davits for an offshore passage. We should have acquired a sternrail mount for the outboard and lashed the dinghy down on the foredeck.

What we did right:

Once we realized the possible consequences, we acted quickly and decisively.

We had all the tools necessary to cut the dinghy free assembled and ready to use.

Annie Dike lives in Pensacola, Florida, and spends most of her time writing, traveling, swearing and sailing. She and her boyfriend cruise their Niagara 35 along the Florida coast and Keys. She is the author of the non-fiction adventure book, Salt of a Sailor.

Illustration by Jan Adkins

September 2015

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