Voice of Experience: The Prodigal Dinghy

I watched through stinging spray as my fiberglass dinghy was swamped, turned into a sea anchor, and then quickly snapped its painter as my O’Day 31 surfed down 6-foot seas on Long Island Sound. It probably was unwise to be out on the water that day.
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I watched through stinging spray as my fiberglass dinghy was swamped, turned into a sea anchor, and then quickly snapped its painter as my O’Day 31 surfed down 6-foot seas on Long Island Sound. It probably was unwise to be out on the water that day—certainly it was unwise to be out alone—but Adele B had to be moved from her mooring in Oyster Bay to Huntington Harbor, where she was scheduled to be hauled for the winter. 

I had planned my final sail of the season—with a full crew—for Halloween weekend. But it had rained, so the trip, which would only take a couple of hours, was rescheduled for the following Monday. A friend who had the day off agreed to come along, while another friend said he could pick us up afterward. The forecast was for winds gusting to 30 knots—there were small-craft warnings on the radio—but Adele B and I had weathered similar conditions many times before.

This was before cell phones, and thanks to a communications snafu I failed to connect with my crew on Monday. I decided to proceed on my own, because the other friend could still pick me up after I brought the boat around. Being alone in the gusty conditions, I couldn’t pull Adele B up to the dock in Oyster Bay to put my dinghy back on the shore rack. At the time, towing the 7-foot hard dink to Huntington seemed the only alternative. 

After raising the mainsail, I donned a lifejacket and cast off the mooring lines. It was exhilarating. The boat was sailing at more than 7 knots, and I had the bay all to myself, except for a few oyster dredges. But once I neared the open Sound, the wind began gusting to 41 knots, heeling the boat precariously. And rain—which was not in the forecast—began to fall.

“I want my mommy,” I said out loud, not entirely in jest.

Anticipating that the boat might be overpowered even with one sail, I had brought the main halyard back to a winch so I could lower it from the helm. (The halyards on my boat aren’t led to the cockpit). But when I attempted to drop the sail, it jammed and began flogging violently. Being alone, it was difficult to leave the wheel. But after several sail slides broke off, I knew I had to restrain the sail or I’d lose it.

I locked the wheel to see how the boat would react. Thankfully, it rounded up and drifted sideways without rolling too violently. This allowed me to briefly go forward, yank down the sail, and secure it-—a dangerous maneuver without a harness on, but I hadn’t anticipated having to leave the cockpit. 

With the mainsail under control, I started up Adele B’s engine and turned my attention to the dinghy. It had been doing fine with the wind on the port beam, but when I changed course to head east, the steep breaking waves started to send it surfing into Adele B’s transom. The smart move would have been to cut the dinghy loose and worry about it later. Instead, I tried to pull it aboard, which only led to it filling with water. I watched helplessly as it slipped below the water’s surface and rolled over. The dinghy was now acting as a huge drogue, and I realized the only thing to do was cut it loose. But the enormous strain on its polypropylene painter took care of that problem for me.

I contemplated calling the Coast Guard or a commercial towing service, but realized they would never venture out to rescue a dinghy. I decided to contact the authorities later to alert them to the wayward dinghy and continued on, surfing down the crests of the waves. The boat was under control and my stress level ebbed. I might have even enjoyed myself had I not been fretting about having to buy another dinghy.

Entering Huntington Harbor would have been cause for celebration if I hadn’t still had my hands so full. In an open part of the harbor, I left the helm long enough to set up fenders and dock lines. I got back to the wheel just in time to avoid drifting into a channel buoy. By the time I reached the dock, it was almost dark, and I was shivering from the spray that had splashed down my neck. I felt like I’d been three days at sea instead of just three hours. I was grateful that Adele B and I had come through unscathed, but felt heartsick about the dinghy.

The next day I contacted the Huntington harbormaster’s office and asked the staff to keep an eye out for my dinghy when they were on patrol. They had a better idea. They said since I knew what the dinghy looked like, I should come out with them on patrol and help look for it.

I was convinced the winds, waves and tide must have carried the little boat down the Sound and out into the ocean. But the harbormaster’s staff was convinced it would come ashore not too far from where I lost it. One constable predicted it had drifted into Huntington Bay and would land on a beach where he often found flotsam and other missing items. 

As soon as we got there, I saw the lower half of an overturned dinghy similar to mine poking out of the sand below the high tide line. The harbormasters put me ashore and I ran over and started digging sand away from the side of the boat with my hands. Soon I saw the name Adele B stenciled on the side of the hull and let out a whoop of relief. The boat, now missing its oarlocks and foam flotation blocks, but otherwise suffering only minor scratches, had traveled all of six miles on its solo voyage.

The return of the prodigal dinghy fell into a pattern of instructional close calls in my boating life. Sailing in the fog, I once almost ran up on a reef in Rhode Island because I spent too much time being an extra pair of eyes on deck instead of watching the navigation system in the cabin. Another time I had to dive under the boat on a cold, windy day on Block Island Sound to unwrap a loose jib halyard from the propeller, because I hadn’t switched to a smaller sail before leaving a protected anchorage. Trying to broaden my nautical skills without drifting into recklessness has always been my aim. Sometimes I overshoot the line a bit, and if I’m lucky I only pay the price in broken sail slides, parted tow ropes or deep-sixed oarlocks. 

Hindsight

What I Did Right

I checked the weather forecast before leaving.

I shared my float plan with someone on shore.

I put on a lifejacket before I got to open water.

Once the dinghy swamped and broke free, I did not jeopardize my safety trying to recover it. Instead I concentrated on getting Adele B safely to her destination.

Once I lost the dinghy, I contacted the Coast Guard and local bay constables to alert them that it might be a hazard to navigation.

What I Did Wrong

I should have waited for better weather and for crew. I should also have left the dinghy on the mooring and retrieved it later.

I should have realized before I left that I would have to contend with strong following seas after I exited Oyster Bay and turned east.

I did not rig a jackline and did not have my harness on deck ready to use.

I should never have put up the mainsail, or at least should have reefed it. As much as I wanted to get in one last sail, having to contend with the flogging sail greatly complicated my predicament.

I had never practiced heaving to. Before sailing the boat alone in such conditions, I should also have worked out a self-steering system so I could easily leave the helm.

I should have cast the dinghy loose once I realized it would be problem. I knew trying to haul it aboard would be futile.

Illustration by Steve Sanford; photo by Bill Bleyer

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