Wednesday, October 4, 2023

A Little Dinghy ...

This is not a curated blog with rainbows, sunshine, and umbrella drinks at the beach. This is real life, honestly portrayed. I really thought that I might never post this story but perhaps someone, somewhere can learn from the mistakes I made. It wasn’t one bad decision but a stretch of inattention and assumptions that got me into a jam. I survived and feel sheepish, but here it is anyway: 

[ and, sorry, it’s a little long ]

Thursday started like one of those days I had dreamed about. I needed to head down to Oriental from Washington, NC where I had spent a few weeks. Washington is a great little town with an awesomely cruiser-friendly Waterfront, but I had volunteered for the Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival happening in Oriental the first weekend of October. There was a volunteer orientation meeting this Saturday. I had spent my last couple nights at the free dock on the Waterfront and Thursday morning I motored out of the ‘lagoon’ just after sunrise to beat the closing of the railroad bridge.  

After motoring through the narrow stretch at the top of the river, I let Ruth Ann drift in the open water as I raised the sails. This was a big step actually. I had set up the sails to be available but I had been making excuses all morning. I didn’t feel well. The rig was a little slack in the cool air. I had left a day later than planned; maybe I was in a hurry. Etc. and Etc.

I laughed at myself knowing how much I would regret it if I continued to motor. So I turned into the wind, and with the engine in forward at idle speed, I raised the main. Then turning away, I raised the jib in the main sail’s shadow and turned off the engine. I knew right away I had finally done the right thing. Ruth Ann leaned into the waves and lifted her skirt to skip along. It was glorious. My lungs felt clearer than they had been in over a week and my stuffy head was gone. We were sailing nearly as fast as I had been motoring anyway. 

We sailed on a beam reach nearly all the way down the Pamlico River. I started the engine again near where the ICW heads down the Goose Creek channel through Hobucken and into the Bay River. It would have been nearly impossible to sail in the narrow channel anyway, so I doused the jib. However, I had a mind to keep sailing once we were through, so I left the main up. The wind was straight behind us and pretty light in the twists and turns of the channel. After a while, I sheeted the main in tight so it could just flop from one side to the other as the wind angle changed behind us.

I had my eye on a couple anchorages where Goose Creek emptied into the Bay River, but once I got there I didn’t like the looks of them. Also, it was still fairly early and I never like to stop with plenty of daylight left. The wind had picked up a bit and I didn’t want to stress my slightly slack rig, so I dropped the main sail and kept motoring. At first, I was just going to cross the river and anchor in a creek on the other side. But once I saw how close that creek was, I decided to continue on into the Neuse River and see if I could get all the way to Oriental. By and by, the route calculator on my chartplotter told me I would arrive just after sunset. I had been to Oriental before but I didn’t want to get all the way under the bridge and into Greens Creek in the dark. It was also very overcast and the moon wouldn’t have been any help either, so I picked a nearer creek as my destination. 

The wind had picked up even more and the seas had grown confused, but I was still feeling confident. I knew where I was headed and I had sailed these waters before. Nevertheless, at that moment, I had briefly thought that maybe I should just turn around and head back to that original creek. Alas … but I didn’t. 

I had imagined that I was just doing some river sailing that day. Down the Pamlico, through Goose Creek, into the Bay River, and then on into the Neuse. I hadn’t really looked at the whole area on a small scale chart but the confluence of the rivers and the Pamlico Sound is actually a huge expanse of open water. Further, my weather app later confirmed that I had dropped into the Sound right at the peak of the wind gusts that afternoon. After dealing with wind 8 to 10 knots with a few gusts to 18 all morning, I had suddenly found myself in winds that were steady at 20 and gusting regularly to 29. 

Now, I must tell you that I was towing my dinghy – again. A day or so of casual river sailing was what I had pictured, but now I was motoring in gusty conditions and fairly large seas. The winds out of the north and northeast were blowing unmolested across 50 miles of open water and, after stirring up the waves, they were blasting me from behind. I thought about turning around again, but turning around by then would have meant bashing into the wind and waves instead of running before them. I was stuck with the choices I had so casually made that morning. 

Look closely at your intended route and all possible weather conditions; it has been said.

It wasn’t uncomfortable as much as it was chaotic. Ruth Ann had taken care of me before and I was quite sure she could handle more than I. Rather than holding a steady, straight-line course, I was angling back and forth to keep the waves rolling more comfortably underneath us. Rolling side to side in heavy seas is a prescription for seasickness at least, and possibly some worse disaster. It was then that I noticed that the dinghy was yanking at the painter (the line towing it). The painter squeaked with each pull and made me a little concerned for the chock that the painter ran through at Ruth Ann’s stern. However, it seemed solid as I laid my hand on it. 

It is notoriously hard to judge the size of waves you are sailing in. Those sweeping under us were probably just three to five feet with bigger rogues coming occasionally. Ruth Ann would rise at the stern, shimmy a little at the top, and then wallow back down as her bow rose and the wave passed under her. Then the dinghy painter would squeak as it was pulled taught. The real struggle was the short wave period; how close the waves were together. I had about 45 minutes to the pylon marking the shoal off Piney Point where I could turn in toward the northern shore to get to Broad Creek, my new anchorage for the evening. 

Somewhere just before the marker, I heard a curious noise from the dinghy painter. I knew that sound right away and when I turned to look, Ruth Ann was dragging a stainless steel eyebolt through the water as the dinghy drifted free behind us with a ragged new hole in the bow. Now I was in trouble. 

I have spoken before about the dinghy that I bought. It is a Spindrift 11, a nesting dinghy that rows and sails. I had been looking at building a Spindrift myself when I found this one on Craigslist for about 2/3 what I might have spent on materials alone. Nevertheless, I probably would have built the 9 foot version instead. The 11 is a little big for Ruth Ann but it breaks into two halves that stack together nicely to stow on deck. We are dealing with it. I have also expressed that I would have done a few things differently. The builder was a retired shop teacher and he immediately garnered much of the respect that I have had for shop and industrial arts teachers in my past. That might have been premature. 

My first inkling that things were not as robust or done with the care that I had assumed was, ironically, the eyebolt at the bow. I had bought the dinghy in Fernandina Beach, FL and towed it down to Green Cove Springs; about two days on the water. When I arrived, I discovered that the bow eye had been held with only one nut. As I towed the dinghy and the painter naturally spun during the trip, that one nut had loosened itself about three quarters the way off the bolt. Another day of travel and I would have left the dinghy floating behind me; curious foreshadowing. There are a few other areas that I am keen to reinforce or bring up to my own personal standards. I am just waiting to have the money to do the fixes I have envisioned. One of my main complaints is that I don’t know how closely the builder followed the directions, because I have not seen the assembly instructions. To my eye, there was less fiberglass cloth used than I would have expected. [Note: see below (*)]Nevertheless, I bought the dinghy sight unseen without any guarantees, so it is partially my own fault.  

What I had learned in the waves off Piney Point on Thursday was that there was also no reinforcement behind the eyebolt. It was hard to see when I was adding a locking nut to that bolt under a small deck, but I had assumed that I was looking at a backing block behind the fender washer. I was not. The ragged hole on the bow as the dinghy drifted behind me, showed that there was nothing there except an epoxy fillet where the two ¼” plywood panels met at the bow. I shouldn’t have been towing the dinghy in heavy seas. However, the dinghy was empty and dry, there was no extra weight beyond the ‘stitch-and-glue’ plywood hull itself. I have towed the dinghy for months by that eyebolt, so the hull might have been weakening over time. If the entire hull had been encased in a layer of fiberglass cloth (as I might have expected), I suspect the hull would have been considerably stronger.  

(*) CORRECTION: As of 10/18/2023, I have sanded the paint off the hull as a part of a deal to swap dinghies with a fellow boater. There is, in fact, a layer of glass on the  entire outside of the hull. Some wooden trim and the contours of an extra layer of fiberglass tape on the seams gave another impression. The wave action and 5hevpower of Mother Nature were apparently enough to tear the eyebolt out of the bow. 

None of these design and build complaints mattered while I was staring at my dinghy floating free in the confused waves behind me. I had a fair amount of money invested in it – and – the dinghy is my sole method of getting ashore when Ruth Ann is at anchor. I had to retrieve the damn thing!  

I turned the boat around and headed into the waves back toward the dinghy. After grabbing my boat hook, I rounded up toward the smaller boat. Luckily, I had kept another painter tied to the dinghy’s stern. While the waves knocked the two boats together, I was able to hook the line, but now what? The dinghy was not made to travel backward, but the attachment point at the bow was gone.

The dinghy rides fairly high in the water and it didn’t look bad at first. So I tried slowing the boat and dragging the dinghy backward. Unfortunately, the stern is just flat; straight up and down. It soon became obvious that as the dinghy drifted toward the bottom of a wave behind us, water was splashing up over the stern and into the boat. Not a lot of water, but enough that over time it was going to fill up and be swamped.

I circled around to get next to the dinghy again and dropped into neutral. It was a bit like the chasing a puppy or something because I was trying to get next to the dinghy while also dragging it by a line. So I could get close but then it would get pulled behind me again. All the while, we were still in the mix of wind and waves. As I pulled the dinghy in toward me, it was banging on Ruth Ann and colliding with my windvane; a rugged but precision instrument I didn’t want to damage. 

I leaned out over the water and grabbed at the dinghy. If I could get to the bow, there was a hole for a mast in the small foredeck. My plan was to get a line through that mast hole to be able to tow the dinghy forward again. In the waves, the boats danced out of sync. The dinghy started below me at arms length, then flew up in my face, and then fell down and out of my reach, then back to arms length; over and over, up and down. I had to keep the boats from damaging each other while watching that I didn’t get my fingers smashed between them. I pulled at the small boat trying to reach the bow. Then a wave would yank it out of my grasp and send it off in another direction. I couldn’t get to the bow before reaching the end of the painter on its stern, so I let out more of that line. Twice I stood too high on the cockpit bench and nearly got thrown into the water next to the dinghy. I had to stop. Also, Ruth Ann had settled into the waves, beam on, and we were getting rolled violently from side to side. Even properly stowed items down below were getting thrown about. I put the boat back in forward and towed the wallowing dinghy; still backward. 

After a few minutes I was ready to try again. It was all the same struggle and at one point I untied the dinghy and held on to the stern painter with one hand while I hung over the side and tried, one-handed, to shimmy the dinghy close enough for me to thread a line through that hole. First, I had too much slack in the line; then not enough. Another time, I nearly had it but behind me I was kneeling on the line and couldn’t get enough through hole. Then one last time, so close, the line hung free in the hole, but I struggled to grab it. In one final lunge, I let go of the stern line, missed the grab at the new line, and a wave pushed the dinghy free. Now I was back to square one – standing in the cockpit watching my dinghy drift behind me in the waves. I took a deep breath and doubled back.  

I felt like just letting it go. F**k it. I was sore and tired. Then it occurred to me that the Coast Guard or the sheriff would likely find an empty small boat on its own and a search and rescue operation would commence. As desperate as I was, I didn’t want any of that mess. 

After reaching the dinghy again, and grabbing the stern line - again – I looked around to make sure we weren’t drifting onto the shoal or into someone else’s way. There was no one else dumb enough to be out on the water that afternoon. Maybe I could actually just tow it backward after all. I was getting tired and the struggle was using up my daylight. It was already after 6:00 pm and it would take at least forty five minutes to reach the anchorage in Broad Creek. We slogged ahead for a few yards, but I could tell I’d end up losing the dinghy if it filled with water stumbling behind me. I dropped the boat into neutral again. 

I had been avoiding leaving the cockpit in the confused seas. My harness and tether were below but I hadn’t taken the time to fetch them or put them on. I decided that the only way to attach some line through the hole at the bow was to get the dinghy secured alongside Ruth Ann somehow. I untied the stern line again and walked it forward trying to swing the dinghy well away from my precious windvane. I stepped with one foot out of the cockpit, just far enough that I could run the stern line around a stanchion base. Back in the cockpit, I secured that line to a cleat. The waves were still juggling the two boats up and down. I had leaned out over the water so many times, leaning on my torso to keep both my arms free, that I could feel every notch in my rib cage where I would have a bruise in the morning. My arms and shoulders were aching, but I leaned out of the cockpit again, over the water and into the dinghy, and finally managed to string the line through the hole and grabbed the free end with my other hand. It was almost impossible to think that I had finally done it. 

I tied the new line tight and freed the stern line, coiling it haphazardly, and tossed it into the dinghy as it drifted by on its way behind us – bow first. As we started moving again, the dinghy followed comfortably through the waves as it was meant to, and we were finally doing slightly better than before.

The new line was not pretty. It looped through the mast hole and over the dinghy’s gunwale near the bow and attached to Ruth Ann in two spots like a bridle. I had to watch to make sure that it wasn’t chafing on the little boat’s edge. We managed to sally forth and got “behind” the shoal, but it didn’t make much difference to the waves. On a slightly different compass angle, I had to play the same game running back and forth on a course dictated by the sluicing through the waves rather than where I wanted to head. We were making slow progress, swinging 30 degrees too low and then 30 degrees too high to crab walk our way toward Broad Creek. 

Finally, we got a bit behind the land at Piney Point and I could steer straight at the creek’s entrance. We were rolling a bit but the diminished waves were tolerable. Two fishing boats floated at anchor right at the trailing edge of the shoal, bouncing raggedly up and down but pursuing some valuable catch. I saluted them. If they had been close enough to see, they would have wondered about the dinghy bouncing behind me on strange looking reins. 

We hugged the shore to the east of the creek and came in the lopsided channel. A green marker to port, then a red marker to starboard and then there was peace. We ghosted through flat water for the first time in about three hours. It was then that I checked the weather app and learned that I had slogged through the strongest winds of the day. The weather had moderated but the wind would continue to blow out of the north and northeast, so I tucked Ruth Ann into a small cove near the northern shore of the creek. There were some houses and plenty of woods there to shield us and I dropped the anchor. 

I checked that the dinghy was alright, backed down on the anchor to secure us, and then went below to clean up. All I really wanted was a strong drink, but I didn’t have any booze onboard just then and I needed to clean up. I picked the fallen things up off the floor and re-stowed them. After straightening up the galley, I started to make some supper. I knew I was going to sleep well that night. 

Late the next morning, I bagged the jib and covered the main. I was only two or three hours from Oriental and after getting beaten up the day before I had decided that I would just motor. There were a half dozen sailboats on the river with us that day (Friday) and only two had sails up. It wasn’t as gusty but the wind was up and the day was thickly overcast and gloomy. After reaching Oriental, I snuck past the crowded anchorage, under the bridge, and into Greens Creek where Ruth Ann and I are on our own in a wide and peaceful stretch of water. There is an occasional wake, but most everyone around here is respectful. Even just now as I type, I could hear a powerboat slow as it approached and then speed up again once it had passed us. 

Saturday morning, I attended the volunteer orientation meeting, met some really nice people. The Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival is well organized and completely free. It seems like quite an amazing feat for such a small town; literally population 896. The music is a fairly wide range from traditional Appalachian and Bluegrass to some more modern “Americana,” some gospel, and even some Jazz. I can’t wait to see a band from Brooklyn called “Damn Tall Buildings” that is closing the fest Saturday night. I’ll be here through the weekend before heading down to Beaufort again to start planning my trip south. 

I remain your humble correspondent, learning as I go, and becoming a better sailor one goofy day at a time.  


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