Two Dinghies

Privateer in San Francisco Harbor
Diane Beeston photo

It began in Turtle Bay, a well-protected and spacious anchorage, a popular stop for small boats traveling along the coast of Baja California. Several sailboats were anchored with us. Most were cruisers on their way south for the season, and the rest were racing boats being ferried north after a recent race to Mazatlan.

My husband, Robert, and I and his teenaged-son, Bob, were finishing our dinner in the cabin of our 53-foot schooner, Privateer, when we heard a thud. Robert flicked crumbs from his beard and went up on deck to investigate. He looked around the surrounding swath of dark water, but saw nothing unusual. Then he heard a garbled voice from astern. Surprised, he walked aft and looked over the edge of the deck to find a hand clamped to the rub-rail two feet below the deck level. The face at the end of the arm looked up and Robert recognized Fred, from the Strega, a boat we had been avoiding since meeting the crew at San Martin Island and discovering how ill-prepared they were for cruising. We had figured they were an accident waiting to happen, and here was Fred, looking pretty much like that accident. Fred’s overturned dinghy was just floating out from under our bumpkin on its way to the south end of the bay leaving Fred hanging on our boat. In sailor’s terms, Fred was “three sheets to the wind”. It must have been a wonderful party.

Bob and I heard Robert laughing and joined him on deck. They grabbed hold of Fred and hauled him aboard, dripping and mumbling but unable to do much for himself. Robert launched Bob in our rubber raft to retrieve Fred’s errant craft. Bob had just come aboard for the trip in San Diego and did not have much sailing or rafting experience. He was willing, but still hadn’t grasped the finer points of rowing a ten-foot Zodiac, which is like rowing a doughnut, difficult to control. He grabbed the oars and splashed in circles until he discovered that one oar was much longer than the other. I watched him discover that the collar on one oar had slipped. After the adjustment, Bob rescued one of Fred’s oars and caught up with the overturned dinghy, still headed south. He tied the Zodiac’s painter to the raft and hauled the dead weight back to the Privateer.

Meanwhile, Fred stood on our deck, dripping and unperturbed. As Bob approached us, Fred glanced toward his dinghy and said in a flat voice, “It floats”. This was true, though it was almost under water. We weren’t certain if he offered the comment as a point of information to help our recovery or if he was surprised that it hadn’t sunk.

Aboard the Privateer

Robert and Bob bailed out Fred’s dinghy. The second oar was still attached by its safety cord, but one oarlock was missing so Fred couldn’t row back to his boat even if he had the wits to do so. Every time he made a move to help, Robert yelled NO! Just stand there, DON’T MOVE! which Fred did, teetering over the lifelines close to falling in again.

When the dinghy was ready, Robert helped Fred over the side and into his tiny craft, oars shipped. Bob got back into our rubber raft to pull him home. Strega’s masthead light was in front of us and slightly to the side opposite the two dinghies. Off they went toward our bow. Fred sat quietly for a moment, and then picked up the one oar that had an oarlock, and slurred “I’ll help,” and tried to row. Having only one operative oar made the dinghy go in circles so we all yelled, “NO. DON’T. Just sit there!” which he did for a moment until he forgot everything.

“I’ll help,” he said again and reached for the oar.

Robert and I walked forward on our deck to keep an eye on Fred, yelling every time he moved to row. In between attempts to help, he sat quietly. Not a shiver passed through him though he was soaked and the night breeze was cool. After a couple of minutes, Bob pulled past our bow, but when he cleared our anchor chain and turned toward the Stregahe neglected to account for the current, which pushed the second dingy and Fred between our anchor chain and the hull of the Privateer.

“I’ll get it” Fred called and stood up and grabbed hold of the thick chain. To my amazement, the dinghy held firm. Fred was able to untangle himself and the dinghy by clinging to the chain for wobbly balance. Once clear, Fred plopped down on his seat with a silly grin on his inebriated face, and shoved off. But he was on the wrong side of the chain.

Finally, both little boats were clear of the chain and Bob rowed off into the night. He managed to return Fred and his dinghy to Strega and discovered the party was still in full swing. No one had even missed him.

When Bob returned, we all agreed Strega was trouble.

Cockpit of the Privateer

But we were not immune to dinghy problems. Three weeks later we were anchored in Cabo San Lucas. At the head of the bay there was only a narrow shelf shallow enough to set an anchor. Most boats set out a stern anchor so they wouldn’t swing, which allowed more boats to occupy the cramped space. Normally, a boat at anchor swings as the wind changes direction. The dinghy trails along behind, occupying a large circle as the wind shifts. However, with the boat in a position fixed by the two anchors, the boat takes up less space but the wind and current play havoc with the dingy. It swings freely, tied to the stern of the larger boat. If the wind is from the stern, the dinghy will bobs along side the mother boat, bow toward the stern of the larger vessel, banging the hull with every wavelet. Boaters quiet the annoying racket by putting over bumpers and fastening the stern of the dinghy tight in that position. It is unusual to have to do that and easily forgotten, as we discovered.

After a few days at anchor, we were ready to continue our trip up the inside coast of Baja California. We had been using our eight-foot fiberglass dinghy with the tiny Seagull motor for getting ashore and decided to tow it when we left rather than bring it on board for the short trip. The currents and banging that last night were bad and Bob lashed the dinghy tightly against the side so we could sleep.

At dawn we retrieved the stern anchor. With Robert at the wheel, Bob and I started the electric winch to pull up the bow anchor. When the anchor broke free from the bottom, Robert put the motor in gear to get up some steerage way. Bob and I watched the anchor rise and when it was hanging just below the water’s surface, we heard an alarming crunch and crack. We turned around and watched as the bow of the dinghy rose up in the air, still held fast to the side of the Privateer. The pressure of the water from our forward motion on the dinghy’s blunt stern had pushed it down until water spilled in making it a big scoop. We yelled to Robert and raced back to release the lines that held her fast, but the pressure from the forward motion made the lines too tight to untie. Here would have been a place for a sharp knife, which neither Bob nor I still were not carrying in spite of many warnings from Robert.

When the Privateer slowed, the dinghy’s bow settled down again. It was cracked across the middle and half-filled with water and held by the straining ropes. It was a total loss. The oars and gas can were drifting off and we wanted to retrieve the motor, which should have been removed before getting under way had we been thinking. Skinny Bob jumped into the swamped boat, yelped when his added weight caused more water to spill in and leaped out again. Robert and I grabbed the lines to steady it as Bob jumped in again, quickly retrieved the motor and scrambled back aboard.

Then Robert said, “Oar Locks”. They were still on the dinghy, tied to the hull by their safety lines. Aye, aye, Cap’n but Robert wouldn’t let Bob use his knife, as a lesson, I suppose. It was not the time to reason with him or be angry, so Bob sloshed below and got his knife from his cabin.

As Robert attempted unsuccessfully to retrieve the oars and the gas can with a gaff hook, Bob cut the oarlocks free and then released the stern line so the dink would fall behind and drag, bow forward. It was now nearly awash.

The gas can and the oars were drifting away so Robert pointed Privateer out and around Kialoa III to make a pass at them. We approached the gas can and Bob crouched outboard on the rub rail amidships, hanging onto a stanchion. He leaned out and snatched the red can easily. The oar was further off and as he stretched out horizontal to the water, feet braced on the hull, he gritted, “Can you pull me in?” I tried but couldn’t help. With the oar in one hand and a firm grip on the stanchion, but unable to pull himself back to the boat, he slowly and gracefully let his feet slide into the water. I grabbed his oar and he scrambled back aboard using the bumper. One oar to go and I remembered the anchor-still hanging two feet down in the water off our bow. Not very sailorly, putting around the harbor with your anchor overboard, so as we rounded up to snatch the second oar, I snugged it in place.

Few people were awake to watch this magnificent demonstration by the Three Stooges. We were especially grateful that there was no life on the Strega, but we all felt less judgmental toward its crew after our humiliating performance.

We pulled the crumpled dinghy out to sea where the depth was over three hundred feet and cut it loose, expecting it to sink. It didn’t, of course, because the flotation chambers were still intact. Had we remembered the experience with Fred and his overturned dinghy in Turtle Bay, we would have known it would remain afloat, gunnels awash.

Not long after this visit to Cabo San Lucas, a large moorage was dug out of the sand behind the shore so boaters are now saved the anchoring problems. But I wonder how many of today’s sailors, in spite of the fancy toys available, still do stupid things. In our case, none were fatal and they provide points for reflection on our follies and bad judgment.

I wonder if that crumpled dinghy is still floating somewhere in the Pacific. Maybe some seaweed has found it and grown to provide a tiny bit of shelter for wandering fish. It might make up for the guilt I feel now for littering the ocean.