Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Welp ... That Was Stupid

Rabbit Island Anchorage

I made a terrifically stupid mistake last Wednesday when I had not prepared well enough for all possible contingencies. When I read “The Black Swan” by Nicolas Nassim Talib a few years ago, it was very influential on my thinking. The book is a thick read, packed with analysis and wisdom. Talib consistently applies his ideas to economics in the book but makes it clear that those ideas have wide applicability. The gist of the book is that we don’t evaluate risk from a broad enough perspective. For instance, while some individual component in a system might only have a two percent chance of failure, if that failure would be catastrophic for the system as a whole, then that individual risk is actually not small at all as it relates to the system.

Several of my choices with regard to fitting out Ruth Ann were analyzed from Talib’s perspective. Last week, however, when I decided to continue to tow the dinghy, I had let my guard down and wasn’t looking comprehensively at all the risks. I was frustrated with the weather and wanted to keep moving, but I should have paused. I should have stowed the dinghy on deck, but now I’m getting ahead of my story. 

I don’t usually raise a sail when I’m motoring in tight spaces like on the ICW (Intra Coastal Waterway), but I found myself on a long stretch in the same direction with the wind just off my starboard quarter and I couldn’t resist. Motorsailing in the bright sunshine of one of the hottest days of the year was sweaty but simply rapturous. I would have rather been sailing offshore, but the fluky weather had kept me on the inside, on the ICW. I had to jibe a couple times to keep the sail filled and follow the channel, but I was having fun.

Something had changed with the dinghy. While rowing the week before, my butt got wet a couple times from water splashing up from inside the centerboard well. That had not happened before. Worse yet, as I was now motoring, and motorsailing along, I noticed that a fair amount of water was splashing into the forward half of the dinghy from the well. I was keeping an eye on it .. that is until I discovered that I was in the wrong channel. 

I was having so much fun helping the motor by flying the jib that I wasn’t paying enough attention to my track. I had started following the wrong set of markers. As I looked around just then, I was getting into more open water; which wasn’t right. After checking and rechecking my chartplotter, I realized that I had gotten into the St. Helena Inlet and was headed out toward the Atlantic. My destination had been the Raccoon Island Anchorage which was marked on my chart. Wondering if I would still have time to get there, I had the chartplotter recalculate the route. We had already turned around, but the new route showed that we could go up the Ashepoo River rather than backtracking all the way to my missed turn.


Oars on the thwarts

It was then that I noticed that the dinghy was really quite full of water. The larger swell in the inlet had made the splashing much worse. The dinghy wallowed way below her lines with the waves nearly reaching high enough to fill her from the top. When the dinghy came down a wave, the water in it would slosh to one side which caused it to lean sickeningly close to turning over each time. The oars were loose, as usual, riding on the thwarts which would have been fine for gurgling along on the ICW, but was not great since we’d gotten so close to the ocean. I slowed Ruth Ann to mitigate the dinghy’s motion. We had been steering around a shoal that extended from the southern point of a large island. The Ashepoo River lay just beyond the shoal where I had hoped there might be some protected water where I could slow the boat or anchor to bail out the dinghy.  

Then I heard the clunk. 

Anyone who has ever paddled a canoe or rowed a boat would recognize the ringing tone of the hardwood oars as they banged against the dinghy which was suddenly completely swamped. I watched the oars float away free in the ragged ocean swell as we bobbed in the wide inlet. The dinghy had become like a sea anchor with hundreds of pounds of water in it, creating tons of resistance, and straining against the painter -- its only connection to the boat. 

The dinghy is my car. Without it I could not get to shore from Ruth Ann at anchor. Losing the oars would be like losing the engine of a car. We were not in a good spot. The swell was coming in straight off the Atlantic and rocked us mercilessly. Nevertheless, it was critical that I collect the oars and with the swamped dinghy dragging behind, it was not going to be easy. 

I had been cutting across the shoal in water just deep enough for Ruth Ann and now the fugitive oars were being pushed by the swell into ever more shallow water. My initial pass at the nearest oar failed. I hadn’t gotten quite close enough to reach it with my boat hook. As I turned around to try again, the depth sounder briefly displayed three dashes, not some number of feet below us; meaning nada, zero. My stomach dropped as I realized that I was already brushing the keel along the bottom. 

I turned toward where I thought deeper water would be but had to circle back for the oar. As I got closer and closer, dashes flashed again. I hadn’t felt the bottom, but I knew that we were on the verge of running aground. If we had run aground, amidst the swell coming in from the ocean, there’s no telling how much damage Ruth Ann would have sustained before we could be rescued. The waves would have picked her up and dropped her, again and again; banging her incessantly on the bottom. 

But I had to try. 

The first oar came alongside again and, that time, I grabbed it. Amazingly, I was able to lift one end high enough to grab it with my other hand. I grinned grimly and turned the boat again; guessing where deeper water might be. The second oar was twenty or thirty feet away and this time I knew just how close I had to get. I jumped from the cockpit to the rail and leaned out over the water, hanging by a shroud, stretching the boat hook as far as I could. The hook dipped into the water just short of the oar on the first lunge, but I lunged again and was just able to grab it. A wave must have bumped us just enough for me to reach the oar. I stashed that oar on the side deck next to the first and climbed back to the helm. I spun Ruth Ann around and hoped that Neptune would let us make it out of the shallows.    

I tried to head directly toward the Ashepoo River and the route out of there, but I was still on the bottom; all dashes again. I turned out toward the ocean, “downhill” on the shoal, and watched as the depth sounder finally began flashing 1.2, then 2.7, and finally steady at 3.5 for a good stretch. Near most of the inlets along the Southeast United States, the Coast Guard marks the channels with buoys which can be moved as the sandbars shift in the tidal currents or from a storm. Thankfully, if we were on the bottom, that bottom was just sand; sifted not packed hard. However, I had never felt us ‘bottom out,’ so it was likely that we had stirred up the sand and the depth sounder had interpreted the excessively cloudy water as solid ground. Either way, we were very close to grave danger. My heart did not slow until I started to see double digit depths below us. And then I was finally able to turn toward the river.

It was one of those oppressively hot days with the moist air so thick that it felt as if I was breathing through a wool scarf. And I needed to drink some water. The oars were aboard but my work was not done. The dinghy still lurched around behind us, completely swamped and if I didn’t bail it soon, it could be lost. 

Once we were in about fifteen feet of water, even though we were still in the swell of the inlet, I dropped the anchor and let out just enough chain to hold us temporarily. I had first tried to get in the dinghy after bringing it alongside, but, full of water, it was extremely unstable. When I started to step aboard, the water sloshed toward my foot and the dinghy wanted to go right over. I decided that the only way to bail effectively was to get in the water next to it.

I pulled the dinghy across Ruth Ann’s stern and tied it from each end. After crawling down the swim ladder, waist deep in the water, I hung on to the ladder and the dinghy with one arm and bailed with the other. I had gotten really tired in the heat, yet I had no choice but to carry on. Once most of the water was out, I managed to climb into the dinghy and bailed the last of the water more quickly. Finally, the dinghy was nearly dry and safe to tow again. It would not have been possible to ship the dinghy in those rolly conditions. I finally got some water to drink and paused for a couple precious minutes to catch my breath. 

After double checking with the recalculated route, I went forward to haul the anchor. I don’t have a windlass, so after all that work retrieving the oars and bailing the dinghy, now I had to pull in the anchor by hand while the ocean swell pushed the boat against the chain. I hauled and hauled; stubborn, slow, and steady to get the anchor raised. 

With the anchor up, Ruth Ann bobbed joyously in the swell and gently turned toward the river with the help of the wind and waves. I secured the anchor chain and walked back to the helm. The engine had been idling and I pushed the lever into forward gear. We were finally free and moving toward our destination again. According to the chartplotter, I could probably get the anchor down before the sun set. 

Firehose Installed


It was not a great idea to travel towing the dinghy but it was especially bad in open water. Leaving the oars loose was just lazy, but I had been getting away with it up to then. The oars would have been fine if I hadn’t left the calm waters of the ICW. When planning to go offshore, I always tie the dinghy down on deck. The next day, I stowed the oars properly and installed the centerboard in order to close off the top of the well. While the dinghy stayed dry, it swayed harshly from right to left as the board caught the flow from one side and then the other, yanking the painter at each turn. After a couple hours, afraid that the painter would chafe through from the repetitive shocks, I pulled into a creek to anchor and try something else. I had some expired office building firehose (really) onboard to use as chafe guard material. I cut a couple pieces the length of the well and stuffed them into the top. It worked great and has been working fine in protected waters. 

As long as I don’t get lost again, I’ll be OK. 

As per usual, I’d rather be lucky than good, but that was pushing it.

Homeward Epilogue

sv Ruth Ann in Beaufort, SC, 12/23 Ruth Ann is the last in a series of boats on which I was attempting to escape. I found her when I found a...