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Windshifts: A Sail to Remember

“Would you like to sail one?” asked Dale Denning one Saturday back in 1980, as Peg and I stood admiring some gorgeous little sailing dinghies sitting by the side of the road.

“Would you like to sail one?” asked Dale Denning one Saturday back in 1980, as Peg and I stood admiring some gorgeous little sailing dinghies sitting by the side of the road. “I’ve got my 10-footer tied up back on Town Creek, and there’s a nice little breeze out there.”

We had come to Oxford, Maryland, that weekend to visit the local minister and his wife, who happened to be my parents. Dad, who had recently come out of retirement when he heard about Oxford’s need for a Methodist pastor, felt almost guilty accepting his salary. The parsonage was perched on the banks of the Tred Avon, one of America’s most beautiful rivers, and was surrounded by one of America’s most appealing small towns. He and Mom loved to spend their summer evenings sitting on the porch watching sailboats return from the Chesapeake. “I don’t think so,” I said, all too aware of the fact that neither Peg nor I knew a tiller from a traveler. “They’re really beautiful little sailboats,” I added. “Did you build them?”

Yes, he had, Mr. Denning told us. A retired mechanical engineer and long-time cruising sailor, he had grown weary of the unstable dinghies he’d owned in the past, so he decided to build his own. Before long, others saw his creation and said they’d like one too. The end result was Dale Denning Inc., an Oxford-based boatbuilding company with one employee and enough Oxford Dinghy orders to keep five people busy.

But Mr. Denning refused to let his work interfere with his cruising. Every fall he and his wife pointed their 52-foot double-ender south toward the Florida Keys, which left only the summer months for boatbuilding. 

Handing me a brochure, Mr. Denning encouraged us to take our time. He was in the middle of laying up a fiberglass hull, he explained, and needed to get back to it. If we had any questions, he’d be in his workshop.

What impressed me most about the Oxford Dinghy, aside from the varnished mahogany seats and trim, was the curved stern and the horseshoe-shaped seat that mirrored it. It didn’t take a sailor to see that this little sailboat was designed and built by a master craftsman.

I lifted my eyes from the brochure and blurted out, “Let’s sail one.”

“What? Are you crazy? You don’t know the first thing about sailing!” Peg blurted back, but to no avail.

Soon afterward, stepping into Mr. Denning’s 10-footer, I momentarily questioned my sanity as well, not to mention Peg’s as she climbed in behind me. After pushing us off toward open water, Mr. Denning, who seemed to sense our apprehension, called out, “She’s very forgiving, so enjoy yourselves.” And with that, he headed back to his workshop.

What followed must have been hilarious to an onlooker, but was pure agony for me. The western end of Town Creek includes a maze of docks to either side of the channel that leads to open water. I knew where I wanted to go, but couldn’t seem to get our little sailboat to go there. Instead the southerly breeze kept blowing us into the creosoted pilings on the far side of the creek. As we pushed our way back into the channel one more time, Peg asked what the lever under the middle seat did. Aha! With one tug on the centerboard lever, off we sailed, zig-zagging our way toward open water. 

The next two hours were ones of absolute joy, punctuated by moments of sheer terror as I made my way up the steep learning curve that is beginning sailing. My first accidental gybe, for example, taught me an important sailing lesson, while several uncomfortable moments in irons taught me the importance of maintaining way while tacking. (Although the biggest lesson of them all remained that first one about the centerboard!) 

After dropping the sail and tying the Oxford Dinghy to her dock, I looked over at Peg and blurted, “Let’s buy one!” This time she said nothing about my soundness of mind. Her smile said everything. We became sailors, sailors who needed a boat.

Thanks, Mr. Denning, for building our Oxford Dinghy. After 32 years she still sails as well as ever…with the centerboard down, that is.

Photo courtesy of Alan Keene

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