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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales

                  

DINGHY DANGLING
1990 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

 

Wrestling a capsized dinghy offshore in heavy seas, the boat rolling like a drunken sailor, my mate throwing up, the dog barking and the seas breaking.
That's when the painter snapped.

We slipped Sparrow's moorings by the light of the full moon and sailed from the Portuguese fishermen's harbor of Sines. Dawn was almost a hint in the eastern sky. Our next port of call, Sagres on the Algarve coast, was 60-odd miles south and around the southwestern-most point of mainland Europe, desolate Cabo de San Vicente. Today, with a rising barometer and a fair northwesterly breeze, Sherrie and I looked forward to a pleasant broad reach all the way. Ah, but fair winds alone do not a smooth sail make - a fact that was about to reassert itself in a most distressing and unexpected manner.

 

Close astern waddled Sparrow's faithful tender, Tailfeather, an 8-foot Trinka dinghy. She has one standard feature that I especially like, a self-bailing scupper installed in her bilge that will drain out water that splashes in underway. Thanks to this, wed been able to tow Tailfeather many thousands of miles when cruising coastwise. It's more convenient than lifting her onto the foredeck with a halyard for every little harbor-hop, although that is, of course, standard procedure for offshore passages.

Today's trip was a day sail. So I gave little thought to the dinghy trailing astern other than to pay out a bit more painter as we left the harbor. Boy, was I about to learn something about prudent seamanship!

No sooner did we clear the outer jetty than we discovered the swell. We could hardly ignore it, for Sparrow immediately began the long, exaggerated roll that is the inevitable result of big, quartering seas. Like today's wind, the swell came from the northwest, but this was no local, wind-generated sea. This was a far-ranging ground swell, born of distant gales, way out of proportion to the 12-15 knot breeze that wafted us southward.

I estimated the largest waves, which came in sets of three, to be 12-15 feet high. They weren't threatening. They weren't even breaking. But the crazy motion sent seasick-prone Sherrie to the lee rail in a hurry, and thence below to her bunk. Down there with her was our seafaring, 85-lb. Labrador retriever, Shaolin. When Sherrie feels under the weather like this, Shaolin invariably comes to her aid by licking her face repeatedly. He worries, you see. Anyway, he's warm and fluffy and there's nothing like a little canine comfort when the seas are up.

So I watched the glorious sunrise alone, braced in the cockpit against the ship's roll. Once or twice the dinghy skimmed forward on the face of a wave, nearly catching up with Sparrow's transom. I added another 20' of line to her painter and for the first time wondered if it mightn't have been a good idea to have hauled her up on deck after all.

By now, however, we were miles in the offing. Soon the wind increased to around 20 knots and small, white-capped wavelets began cresting the tops of some of the swells. We were in 50 fathoms 5 miles offshore, broad reaching under just the genoa, paralleling the Portuguese west coast. As the long ocean ground swell felt the tug of the continental shelf below, it grew steep and closed ranks. Through binoculars I witnessed the fury with which the waves pounded the shore. Even out here an occasional wind-bolstered swell would break and tumble over itself, leaving a patch of white foam in its wake.

Letting the windvane steer, I ducked below to see how Sherrie and Shaolin were faring. As long as Sherrie was lying down her discomfort was minimized. Shaolin seemed content just to be close at hand. Then I thought I felt the boat slow down. At the same time, I heard an odd creaking noise on deck, as if a line were coming under great stress.

I hopped up into the cockpit and glanced aft. There, looking like a small, injured whale, was our dinghy dragging upside down behind us. She must have broached to a breaking wave and been rolled over, something that had never happened before. Now the tow was forcing her bow down, creating an enormous drag, a huge sea anchor, which slowed Sparrow to a crawl in spite of the straining headsail.

What to do? It took me several long seconds to even begin devising a plan of action: 1) Stop the boat. 2) Get the dinghy righted. 3) Get her bailed out. OK, go!

I released the genoa sheet and furled the headsail. Sparrow immediately edged broadside to the seas and, without the steadying effect of the sail, rolled until her rails were nearly dipping port and starboard. My mind was racing, scrambling for more ideas.

I fired up the engine.

I called to Sherrie that I needed a hand on deck. A moment later she appeared in the companionway, grim faced, and I pointed to the cause for my alarm bobbing in the waves close astern. I explained that I intended to get the dinghy alongside, attach a halyard, and lift it enough to turn it right side up. This sounded logical enough, but oh, so much easier said than done.

In the fresh breeze Sparrow was still making some way under bare poles, keeping the dinghy painter taught. It was all I could do to inch Tailfeather closer, hauling for all I was worth and braking the sudden jerks and tugs on the line with fast wraps around a cleat. I did my best to anticipate the rolls and surges, but still lost a foot for every 18" gained. I alternately called out orders and praise to Sherrie, who was manning the helm and throttle, maneuvering Sparrow to keep the dink from demolishing the windvane on the transom. I wondered whether the oars, which I had wedged under the dink's seat, were still there.  And the teak floorboards - what a chore they'd be to replace if they were lost. Well, I'd face that later.

Gradually, painstakingly, Tailfeather came under Sparrow's lee. The hulls repeatedly thumped one another as I fetched the main halyard and fumbled to shackle it to a bight in the painter. A rogue sea slopped over the combing into the cockpit, soaking our feet and sloshing an assortment of lines into a spaghetti-like jumble. The cockpit cushions added to the confusion by sliding off the seats into the well. To clear our working space, I grabbed anything that wasn't where it belonged and tossed it down the companionway hatch onto the cabin sole where the dog was poised, anxiously waiting to be called to action. To his chagrin we left him below.

"OK, Sherrie, you crank on the halyard winch; I'll guide the dinghy and try to get her turned over."  Sherrie acknowledged by moving into position. She didn't look well at all, a distinct green aura to her face and an unnatural tightness to the set of her lips.

Still, she cranked stoically and Tailfeather's bow rose from the sea. Suddenly an oar slipped out from under the dinghy's seat, caught momentarily under the rail, then popped to the surface, drifting quickly away. But there was no time for that now.

The dinghy came farther out of the water and, aided by a timely roll of the ship, spilled out half the water that filled her. I somehow spun her around as Sherrie eased off on the halyard. Tailfeather landed upright in the water and, when I released the halyard shackle, slid back into position aft. Almost as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Or so we thought. We even managed to work Sparrow around under power to where I could snatch the errant oar with a boat hook, yanking it neatly up to within arm's reach. I held it up in triumph. Sherrie threw up.

My mate retired belowdecks to rest and console (and be consoled by) Shaolin while I rolled out the genoa and got us underway again. I was feeling pretty cocky at having so handily resolved a potential disaster; we could ill afford to loose our ship's tender. I was expecting the remainder of the water in the dinghy to self-drain once we got moving and I looked back to observe this process.

But what I saw instead was that the dinghy wasn't towing properly at all. She was sluggish and with so much water still sloshing around, unbalanced. The self-bailing scupper couldn't empty her fast enough. Each swell shoved the skiff awkwardly, twisting her broadside while the pull of the towline dragged her inexorably sideways. Then, to my utter dismay, she plowed into a lumpy sea and submarined beneath the surface. A moment later she rose, inverted again. Shit!

"Sherrie! I'm gonna' need you up here again! Better hurry!" She came, bless her, but it wasn't easy.

"This isn't working," I said. "We're going to have to get the dink out of there completely, haul her up on deck." This announcement evoked little enthusiasm from the crew, but there was clearly no other choice of action if we were to save our dinghy. Sherrie made a quick dash for the lee rail and, finding little left to disgorge, bravely took the helm again to assist in the recovery.

Behind us, the second oar appeared floating a few yards from the capsized dinghy. It was immediately joined by one of the two teak floorboard sections. I instructed Sherrie to turn

Sparrow around so I could recover these, meanwhile pulling with all my might on the straining dinghy painter.

What followed was an improbable series of maneuvers and acrobatics as the boat rocked and pitched in the great seas. I heaved on the painter, cursed, stabbed at the oar and floorboards with the boat hook, and hauled some more. Sparrow's deck was a wild place to work and I stubbed, bumped, scraped, chafed and grunted my way about, a mad man on a bucking bronco. 

Then it happened. Suddenly there was no more resistance on the towline. Sparrow shot forward; Tailfeather remained behind, and I landed on my rump. The painter had parted.

OK, OK, let's see. Think! Already Tailfeather was disappearing between the troughs of the big waves.

"All right, Sherrie, bring us around and ease alongside. I'll see if I can catch the bow line with the hook."

She did as I asked, but it was no good. The line was broken off just inches from the dinghy's bow. There wasn't enough of it to pull up. Damn! So much for Plan A.

I knew what I had to do, although I didn't want to. Sherrie watched skeptically as I rummaged in the lazarette, emerging with assorted dock lines and snorkel gear.

"Here's the plan," I said with more confidence than I felt. "I'll just hop in, swim this heavy line over there, tie it to the dinghy's bow, and we'll haul her in with that."

"I don't like it, not one bit!" was Sherrie's only comment.

Well, hell! I didn't either.

Nevertheless, replete with mask, snorkel and flippers, I staggered to the rail. Before I could have second thoughts, I plunged into the chilly Atlantic Ocean. In no time I was at the dinghy, surprised at how gentle the motion was now that I was actually in the water rather than upon it. Because Tailfeather's nose was angled down, I had to dive under to tie on the new towline. When I surfaced a moment later I was just a couple of feet from Sparrow's plunging stern. The stainless steel windvane shaft stabbed dangerously close to my skull. I kicked clear. Back alongside Sparrow I needed only wait for the rail to roll down with the next wave to easily, if gracelessly, belly flop onto the side deck.

Somehow we muscled Tailfeather into Sparrow's lee for the second time. I put a bight in the new towline, attached the staysail halyard, and led the halyard to the powerful, two-speed jib sheet winch in the cockpit where Sherrie, silent but determined, began to crank. I stationed myself forward to guide the skiff.

Ever so slowly Tailfeather rose. This might actually work!  Just then, a particularly big set of swells fell upon us.  Sparrow got to rolling so badly, water slopped over her rails. The dinghy, dangling at the end of her tether, swung wildly out and away from me. I clutched desperately at her with one hand, and grasped a shroud with the other just in time to keep from flipping myself overboard. Sparrow rolled back hard to windward and the dinghy slammed into the ship's side next to me.

"Crank faster!" I shouted to my mate. "Faster!!"

Sherrie redoubled her effort, leaning her whole body into the winch handle. Without breaking her stride, she wretched and threw up and then cranked harder. From belowdecks among the tossed cockpit cushions and debris, Shaolin was barking persistently, upset at being left out of whatever was going on. Again the dinghy flew out to leeward; again it slammed into Sparrow with terrific impact. The second floorboard section flew out and floated away.

Sets of three, I thought.

Sure enough, ZOOM! CRASH! Tailfeather did it again.

God, please don't let the halyard break!

It didn't. There was a momentary lull after the three big ones; the seas eased off. I grabbed the dinghy and wrestled her over the lifelines onto the coach house. Sherrie eased off on the halyard and Tailfeather settled down with uncharacteristic grace. We manhandled her to her customary position on deck and it was done!

But I confess it would have been easier to do in harbor before we left.

My exhausted mate kindly made no allusion to this, but went below to comfort Shaolin and to sleep off the whole episode like a bad dream. I got us moving again, somewhat bruised in body and soul. The rest of the day was smooth sailing.

Incredibly, nothing was broken, neither boats nor bones - a tribute to Lady Luck and the sturdy construction of both Tailfeather and Sparrow. And having eventually recovered all floating oars and floorboards, nothing was lost. Well, an hour or so of sailing time. And maybe just a bit of the captain's self esteem. 

 

 

 

~ End ~

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